Ronald Emett Church Furniture

Featured project: Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel

One of the great treasures of Romsey Abbey is a Saxon Rood (Crucifix) which is carved on a stone tablet set into the Norman stonework of St Anne's Chapel. It occupies a central position in the apse, immediately behind the altar. (See end of page for more details of the Rood)

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Saxon Rood

In 2013, I was asked by the Vicar of Romsey, The Revd Tim Sledge, to prepare a scheme for furnishing the sanctuary of St Anne's Chapel, the better to display the Saxon Rood. For more than a century this precious object had been surrounded by 'a rather battered parclose screen' with a section crudely cut out in order to frame the Rood.

Clearing away the old screen-work and the immensely heavy stone altar revealed a delightful space, the shape of which was to be crucial to the design of the new altar.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - General view

My brief was to design and make a new altar, with candleholders and bookrest, a credence table, a stool and a pair of aumbry doors, all hand-made in English Oak. In addition a concealed 'fender' was fixed to the wall below the Rood to protect it, and eventually to carry some appropriate illumination.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Altar and Rood Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Fender

I like to use some gentle symbolism in church furniture where appropriate; this new altar provided just such an opportunity.

From the front, the substantially thick top is seen to taper out to a feather edge, the underside rising in a gesture of 'offering up'.

Supported by two curved legs following the shape of the apse, the top of the altar is close to a semicircle in shape, reaching out towards the congregation. The oak boards of the top are tapered and radiating outwards from a central 'boss' of burr oak. This to me suggests the sharing and distribution of Holy Communion.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Altar (from above)

The Credence Table and Clergy Stool, as accompanying pieces standing either in the sanctuary or just below the steps, are simply and solidly made.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Credence Table and Clergy Stool

Behind the new aumbry doors is a locked wall safe containing the reserved sacrament. The wooden doors are held closed by magnetic catches. The cross section of each of the hand-made doors is slightly curved to follow the curve of the wall. There are no hinges other than what you see, because each door is effectively a giant wooden hinge.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Aumbry doors (closed) Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Aumbry doors (open)

The new furniture was installed, and dedicated by the Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Frost, Bishop of Southampton, in October 2015.

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel - Candle and bookrest
"Everyone I have spoken to about your absolutely beautiful altar and furniture for St Anne's chapel has been bowled over by your graceful, sympathetic and glorious craftsmanship. You have transformed the chapel into the spiritual heart of the Abbey"
J.A. - Romsey

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire - St Anne's Chapel: The Rood

The Saxon Rood, one of two which we are very fortunate to possess, was originally in the Saxon nunsí church which preceded the present Norman building. They were clearly considered important enough to be transferred into the Norman church which was built from 1120. This smaller Rood was very possibly a gift from King Edgar when he re-founded the nunnery c.967 - it has been dated to this period stylistically and it is well known that the King gave a rather similar cross to the Old Minster in Winchester. Romsey Abbey was a royal foundation with members of the royal family and aristocracy among the nuns, so this seems probable. The Rood was originally encrusted with jewels - now long gone, though lead plugs remain in the eyes of one of the angels, showing where some of the jewels were fixed.

The imagery is fascinating and very unusual. The figure of Christ reigns triumphantly from the cross, a typical Saxon posture and not writhing in agony as seen in later crucifixes. The figures of St Mary and St John stand beside the cross and the soldiers with the sponge of vinegar and the spear are present. What is unusual is that the wood of the cross is springing to new life, with shoots emerging from the sides: this is the tree of life, not a tree of death.

Notes kindly provided by Liz Hallett