This is the second part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16. Part one is here.

To see how the Tractarians thought we could learn to see again, let us now make a trip to Oxford and to Keble College. Those who contemplated a memorial to Keble after his death in 1866 wanted to fund a new college that would be “accessible to the sons of parents whose incomes are too narrow for the scale of expenditure at present prevailing among the junior members of the University of Oxford.”[19] By imposing strict limits on student expenditure, forbidding large debts, and insisting on a common breakfast and dinner, the founders wished to emphasize that theirs was a commitment to forming a spirit of simplicity and discipline for the service of the Church. This was reflected in social ministry that the college encouraged. Oxford House was founded in East London to give Keble men opportunity to “take part in the social and religious work of the Church …, [to] learn something of the life of the poor.”[20]

The foundation stone of the chapel was laid on St. Mark’s Day, 25 April 1873 (marking Keble’s birthday).[21] William Butterfield’s design in multi-coloured brick and stone seemed new, bold, and even shocking in Oxford. At the same time, Butterfield was reaching back to the medieval brick architecture of Italy and Germany.[22]

The interior of Keble Chapel looks less unusual when you see it alongside the Church of St. Francis at Assisi. One of Butterfield’s biographers, Paul Thompson, argues that the chapel “was a deliberate assault not upon the senses, but on the puritan spirit which starved them. It was an assertion of Catholicism in Protestant England, of luxury in the age” of Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious school board superintendent of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, the archetype of the person dedicated to cold facts and numbers.[23]


Butterfield may have been suggesting the capacity of brick and stone to share in the riotous praise of the whole created order: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise him and magnify him forever.” It was not to everyone’s taste. One critic called it “a holy zebra of collegiate dimensions”; another said it was “a hideous building, vividly suggestive of a workhouse or a county lunatic asylum.”[24] Butterfield was not abashed. “Why should the Devil have all the best colours? Why should the agnostic geologist have all the best marbles?”[25]

The design of the chapel’s interior is also significant. The nave and the chancel are the same length, the large chancel emphasizing among other things the importance of the sacramental life centred on the altar.

Leaving aside the stained glass and other features of the interior decoration, I would like to focus on the mosaics.[26] Butterfield stated that his intention was “to represent in order, the successive dealings of God with His Church, Patriarchal, Jewish and Christian, as comprehensively as the space and circumstances will allow, and somewhat after the manner of the Christian Year.”[27]

The great mosaic over the west door vividly pictures the Last Judgment. Here we see Butterfield recovering an image that was discredited by controversy over an understanding of purgatory and images more generally.

The most controversial mosaic in the chapel turned out to be that on the opposite end of the chapel, of the Son of Man from Revelation 1, with the sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth. See the seven stars in the Son of Man’s right hand, symbolizing the “angel” or bishops/ministers of the churches, and the seven lampstands symbolizing the churches addressed in the Book of Revelation.

The warden of the college (E.S. Talbot), as well as H.P. Liddon, Pusey’s biographer and another key supporter, as well as Pusey, all let Butterfield know that they would have preferred a representation of the crucifixion. They wanted an image to inspire impressionable young men to penitence, the via purgativa. The image of the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth might be a cause of offence to undergraduates who “are more ready to see what is at all ludicrous than to care excessively for reverence.”[28] Those opposed eventually acquiesced in Butterfield’s decision to use this image as “an assurance of [Christ] being a living Presence in the midst of His Church on earth.”[29] Nonetheless, the disagreement gave rise to an interesting correspondence. One of Butterfield’s supporters, the Tractarian vicar of Wantage, William Butler, pointed to a key ingredient in his scheme, in a letter to Butterfield:

I am very glad that you have brought out the Old Testament in your Mosaics. There is nothing which floors the Rationalist part like the mystical interpretation of the Old Testament. Stanley [referring to the Dean of Westminster, formerly Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in Oxford] and his followers want to deal with it like simply history ….[30] Of course, if you rob the OT of its mystical meaning, you have nothing left but a series of historical anecdotes, a fitting subject for the “verifying faculty.”[31]

For the “Rationalist,” the Old Testament needed to be studied primarily according to the tools of historical-critical study that were coming to increasing prominence. Old Testament prophecies might be used to prove the veracity of the system of which they are a part, but whether any passage could serve as a prophecy of Christ must be rigorously tested. This is not at all the approach that Pusey adopted, and that the mosaics of Keble College chapel embody. For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is “one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,” and, more specifically, “of the One whose presence is stored up within it.”[32] Christ is to be mystically discerned in the histories, ceremonies, characters, sayings, and even in the apparently incidental details of the biblical narrative. “In the view of the ancient Church,” Pusey wrote, “no event recorded in Holy Scripture stands insulated and alone. All have bearings every way. … But, chiefly, they all bear, she was persuaded, in some way upon Him, the Sun and centre of the system, our Incarnate LORD; and so again, the events of His history gleam with His own effulgence upon His body, the Church.”[33]

This principle is the one embodied in the mosaics of Keble College chapel.[34]

In the imagery of Noah, the ark is constructed to look like a Church set high on a hill. The dove hovers between ark and the rainbow. In the dove we see an emblem of the Holy Spirit who moved on the face of the waters of the Creation, and who moves still on the waters of the new creation in Christian baptism. The animals that enter the ark depict the different peoples and nations who find a home in the Church.

Below Noah, we see the story of Abraham: a small image shows Melchizedek, priest and king, offering the bread and wine, “emblematic of the spiritual food of the Christian, the body and blood of Christ.” This was a favourite image of both the Tractarians and the Church Fathers, and one that had fallen out of fashion with those whom Butler called “Rationalists.”

One image gives prominence to the sacrifice of Abraham. This presentation, with the ram caught in the bushes below Isaac, depicts the ram that God provides, and emphasizes the way in which Isaac serves as a revelation of the sacrifice of Christ.

The story of Joseph has a particular prominence in stained glass and mosaics of medieval churches and cathedrals. For patristic and medieval commentators, Joseph’s life offered a rich revelation and foreshadowing of the life of Christ.

We see him dreaming of the sheaves picturing his brothers bowing before him, or the sun and moon and stars making obeisance to him. In the early Church especially, the way in which Joseph’s brothers mocked his dreams was a type of the mocking that Christ endured in Matthew 27: “He saved others; himself he cannot save. Where are his claims now? If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.”

We see Joseph being sold for the price of a slave. The brothers receive a sack of gold as Judas will one day receive another sack from the Pharisees. Joseph’s weeping anticipates Christ’s Passion.

Joseph is raised from the tomb that he shared with robbers and murderers to the right hand of power, according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, to reveal himself to his brothers. Like the risen Christ, he will save the people who rejected him, and feed them with the food that gives life.

Next to him, Moses strikes the rock of Christ with the wooden staff emblematic of the wood of the cross, and the spear, which pierced Christ’s side. And out of the rock that is Christ flowed, first, water in Egypt, and the blood and water of the great sacraments on the cross.

The mosaics of the chapel embody and communicate a sacramental interpretation of the OT. In the scheme of the Keble Chapel, the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar is perceived and looked for by those who have first learned to perceive the real presence of Christ in the Scriptures of the OT. In the same way that the reality of the sacrament is not available in ordinary circumstances apart from the sacrament, so for the leaders of the Oxford Movement the type was a necessary part of the revelation of Christ. One cannot empty OT rites, people, and sayings of this reality without losing something of Christ, without becoming blind to the spiritual benefits or realities of the kingdom that are communicated through them. The loss of a mystical or sacramental approach to the OT leads to the loss of substance and reality that Pusey lamented. To put this another way, this way of reading gives a content to the lofty claims about being a partaker of Christ. The histories of the OT are not just fulfilled in Christ; they are realized in different ways in the life of the Church and in the soul. Without this content, “deification” can seem like an empty abstraction.

For Newman, Keble, and Pusey, learning to recognize Christ present in and through the stories of the OT was a sanctifying discipline. The approach helped to form a sacramental sensibility. It gave content to spiritual promises that could otherwise seem abstract or elusive. This mystical reading of the OT is part of the “deifying discipline” that Keble described in his Pentecost sermon. It is a way of reading that not only furnishes the mind but shapes the affections.[35] Pusey taught this with a surprising example: what was Cain’s first sin?

Before we move on to consider the significance of this approach, I have included an image of Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World.”[36] Butterfield had refused to allow it a place in the chapel, saying it would “be put down in Oxford Guide books and visited by American and such like folk in throngs.” And these throngs of Americans would lead people to mistake the chapel for “a mere gallery.” Due to Butterfield’s objections, “The Light of the World” was at first given a home in the Keble library. It is now in a side chapel that was built in 1892 as memorial to Liddon.

This essay concludes on December 6.


[19] The college opened in June 1870, with 30 undergraduates.

[20] Geoffrey Rowell “‘Training in Simple and Religious Habits’: Keble and its First Warden” in The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2, p. 189. M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[21] It was completed in 1876. The benefactor, William Gibbs, hoped that the chapel would be the means of “upholding and spreading the true Principles of the Church of England as professed by moderate and yet thoroughly Catholic Churchmen as much opposed on the one hand to extreme view of Doctrine and Ritual, as on the other to those of the very Low Church.” See Rowell, “‘Training in Simple and Religious Habits’: Keble and its First Warden,” p 186.

[22] He offered something new, distinctively modern and English gothic.

[23] Paul Thompson, William Butterfield (Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 229. Keble College Chapel was a “red rag in a moral as much as a visual sense.”

[24] In Rowell, “Training in Simple’ p 187.

[25] Review of William Butterfield by Paul Thompson, J. Mordaunt Crook, The English Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 350 (Jan. 1974), pp. 131-33.

[26] I would not want to argue that the mosaics are stylistically of the highest standard. Butterfield said that he was inspired by the mosaics of St. Mark’s in Venice. With regard to style and form this is difficult to see, but with regard to content, and prominence given to them, the influence of San Marco is more plausible.

[27] As a plaque at the back of Keble chapel still records.

[28] E.S. Talbot in “Correspondence concerning the Mosaics in the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, during the year 1873” (Privately printed by W. Butterfield, 1893).

[29] “I am he that liveth and was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore, and have the keys.” Cf. his choice to model the mosaic on Albrecht Durer’s woodcut.

[30] in the spirit of that detestable book which ‘Three Friends’ Rugby masters, put out upon the psalms, utterly ignoring their true meaning and force, and treating them as one might treat the odes of Pindar.

[31] The Rev. W.J. Butler to Butterfield, 8 Jan 1873. “Correspondence concerning the Mosaics in the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, during the year 1873” (Privately printed by W. Butterfield, 1893), pp. 23–24.

[32] Pusey, Lectures on Types and Prophecy, p 8

[33] E.B. Pusey (1842), “Scriptural Views of Holy Baptism,” No. 67, Tracts for the Times, ii, Part II, 4th edn. ( J.G.F. and J. Rivington), page 272.

[34] The mosaic panels in the nave tell the stories of Noah, Joseph, Abraham, and Moses, and the stained-glass windows on either side, the 12 Minor Prophets.

[35] It teaches us to perceive and love the spiritual in and through the historical. Indeed, in this approach we come to see that these two belong together: outward sign and the inward grace, in the sacraments, in the Bible, and in the created order.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. George Westhaver is the Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, and a fellow of St. Cross College.

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