A Guide to St Michael’s

After the fire in 1993, one of the big changes in the rebuilding of the church was the provision of a new main entrance in the west end (1). Sir Ninian Comper obviously intended the north door, with its two storey porch and fine granite steps to be the main entrance, and indeed it was used as such for some time.  But today steps are seen as an obstacle, and north winds off the sea were all too often blowing straight into the church, so that door is now used only as an emergency exit.  One advantage of the new arrangement is that the visitor sees the sweep of the church from west to east as Comper intended, with the magnificent rood screen dominating the church, so it is here that we will begin our tour.

Diagram of St Michael's

Diagram of St Michael's

The last bay of the nave is now screened off as a narthex (2), the technical term for the antechamber to a nave. After passing through the outer lobby, to the visitor’s right is a meeting room; on the left St Gabriel’s chapel (3), used for week-day services. Access to this chapel is by the steps at the north-west corner of the church, and the chapel is often open when the rest of the church is closed.  In this chapel is a memorial to Dr Hutton (see The First St Michael’s).

The first impression of the present church is one of light and colour. The rebuilt church is lighter than the old, partly because the dark oak wainscoting and floor of the former church were badly damaged in the fire and replaced in the one case by plaster and in the other by a light oak floor, and also because the new glass in the plain windows lets in more light.  Furthermore, while the old church had pews to seat 800, there are now only pews for 200, and folding chairs provide for occasions when more seating is required. This also contributes to a feeling of space and light. The curious might like to know that there are 40,000 oak blocks in the floor, which, by coincidence, is the same number as there are slates on the roof.

The sacrifice of Christ on the cross stands at the heart of the Christian Faith, so rightly Comper’s great rood (from an old English word for “cross”) dominates the church.  The figures you now see are partly restored from Comper’s original, and partly new work; it is impossible to tell which is which unless one has been told. When the restored rood was erected there was some comment on how bright the gilding and colouring was. It had been forgotten that before the fire the rood had been overlain by eighty years of dust and discolouring. It looks now as it did in 1911.  The figures are our Lord on the Cross, with his Mother on his right and St John on the left (Gospel of John, chapter 19, verse 26). Below is St Michael slaying the dragon, the symbol of evil (Revelation, chapter 12, verse 7), and on either side is a Cherub, a symbol of the majesty and holiness of God (Ezekiel, chapter 1, verses 5-25). Plates on the floor in front of the screen say in whose memory the various parts were given.

Before the rood screen stands the Nave altar (4), a new feature of the church, where the principal Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays and Festivals. The frontal, inspired by the rainbow, a symbol of hope and new beginning (Genesis, chapter 9, verses 12-16), was designed and made by Sue Rescorla of St Columb Major, and was the gift of a former vicar and his wife on the occasion of their marriage. If you now look back towards the west end you can see a large collage (6) hanging above the narthex. This colourful artwork was made by the children of Newquay Tretherras School in the 1980s and it incorporates details showing many aspects of Newquay and Cornish life.

Passing through the screen, you enter the Chancel (5), floored in granite and with a more decorative ceiling than the Nave. Here the choir sings, and their stalls (or seats) are to right and left of you.  Before you is the High Altar (7), with Comper’s magnificent panel frontal, which was preserved from the fire because it happened to have a thick cloth frontal in front of it on that day.  The panel represents Christ in glory surrounded by the four Evangelists (the writers of the four gospels), and the angels.  The window (8) behind the High Altar portrays our Lord and the four Archangels – Raphael, the healer, Michael, the warrior, Gabriel, the messenger, and Uriel, the bearer of light.

To the right of the High Altar is the Lady Chapel (10) – not a chapel for ladies, as sometimes thought! – but dedicated in honour of our Lady, the Mother of Jesus. The lamp which burns here continually reminds us that the Blessed Sacrament is kept here so that Holy Communion may be given to the sick at any hour for the day or night.  This chapel is specially suitable for private prayer, and you are asked to respect its sanctity and also the privacy of any who are using it for that purpose.

A plaque on the wall of this chapel records that the local branch of the Royal Air Force Association gave some of the fittings in memory of their fallen comrades; on another plaque are the names of the men of the parish who died in the First World War. You will also a white cross on the floor. This commemorates a sad event soon after the consecration of the original church. The register of the church records its thus:

The window (9) in the east wall of the chapel contains scenes from the Christmas story. The two main scenes are the Archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she will have a son (Luke, chapter 1, verse 26) and Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1, verse 39). The scenes below are (i) Joseph’s dream in which he is told that Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew chapter 1, verse 20); (ii) the shepherds worshipping the infant Christ (Luke 2, verse 15); (iii) the Wise Men presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2, verse 11); and (iv) the risen Lord appearing to his Mother.

This window and the window behind the High Altar were designed by Sir Ninian Comper, and the keen-eyed will be able to find his “trademark” – a strawberry plant- in the bottom right-hand corner of each window.

The other windows in the Lady Chapel depict the appearing of the Archangel Gabriel (11a) to Zaccharias, the father of St John the Baptist, in the temple (Luke, chapter 1, verse 11), and the Presentation of our Lord (11b) in the temple by Joseph and Mary (Luke 2, verse 22). The only other stained glass in the church – by the south – shows Jesus when twelve years old debating with the teachers of Law (11c) in the temple (Luke 2, verse 46). Nearby is the font (12), which is the original font from the first St Michael’s.

See also the History of St Michael’s.

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