Our Exhibitions Assistant, Shaun McAlister, is responsible for curating some of the cathedral’s ever- changing exhibitions within Open Treasure. Shaun’s role involves having a wide knowledge of the cathedral’s extensive archives, and very occasionally his research leads him to the discovery of long forgotten objects. That’s what happened when Shaun found himself researching the cathedral’s current exhibition, Restoration, Redesign and Renovation. In this blog post, Shaun details his recent and rather timely discovery of a real hidden cathedral treasure, The Last Supper statue. As we prepare to mark Maundy Thursday today, we thought it was the perfect time to share this story with you.
While researching the Restoration, Redesign, Renovation exhibition for Open Treasure I found myself looking at a lithograph of the interior of the Cathedral. You can see a high resolution version here: http://iiif.durham.ac.uk/index.html?manifest=https://iiif.durham.ac.uk/manifests/other/pip/pip-1144.json. This lithograph was produced by Owen Carter and E.T. Dolby in 1853, it shows part of the choir stalls, the Neville Screen and the Rose Window. But do you notice something unusual?
My eye was caught by some small white highlights behind the altar. Zooming in showed a very recognisable shape. The Last Supper. Well that was new information to me! What was it? And more importantly, did we still have it?
As with almost all my hunts for information, I turned first to the cathedral archive where I was able to uncover an actual photograph of it in-situ! The photograph (shown below) forms part of a series of 68 photographs taken between c.1860-c.1920 which made putting an exact date on it impossible. A little more digging revealed it had been installed sometime in 1850. Made of Caen limestone it came in three parts and cost £50.
So, I now knew it was a carved sculpture, but not much more than that. So, where to look next?
The cathedral inventory records every historically important object and building feature on site. Would it be listed there? Lucky for me, my search proved fruitful, and more excitingly, it was listed with a location… however, a location I’d never been to before.
Have you ever looked up when you’re in the cathedral and noticed the enclosed walkway that runs almost the full length of each side of the building? This is the Triforium. You’ve probably seen part of it before, as it was used as a filming location for the Forbidden Corridor in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This, for once, wasn’t the part of the Triforium I was interested in.
In the left hand corner of the north crossing there is a door. Behind this door, is a staircase that takes you to the upper levels. Having sought permission to explore (a privilege not enjoyed by many, owing to strict health and safety procedures for accessing the upper levels), I noticed that about half way up, there was another door leading out to a ledge that runs under one of the cathedral’s impressive stained glass windows. Walking along this corridor, not only gives you a different view of the cathedral but brings you to one of the narrowest staircases I have ever seen. Picture those moving fun house staircases and you’re close to an idea of how narrow it is. Each step can fit about a quarter of my size 11 foot on it at a time.
Having never been in the Triforium before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s actually much bigger than I thought, and you never get close to the edge which was my biggest fear. In this first section there isn’t actually much to see. That large bundle of rope on the floor is used to help raise the Christmas tree every year, but there was still no sign of the Last Supper yet.
Rounding the first corner, I finally see it! Two very dirty, very dusty parts of the statue placed back to back. Each about a metre wide, these sections show the Apostles seated at the table. Close examination shows hairline cracks (though these could also be spider webs) on almost all the figures, along with the more obvious chips which reveal the original brilliant white colour.
The final piece of the puzzle has been given its own alcove, around yet another corner. The central figure of Christ is remarkably intact, the most obvious damage is to his left hand thumb though there is also damage to his nose.
Mystery solved! But what to do with the sculpture now I’ve made this discovery? For now, nothing. It will take a lot of time, effort and money to safely move and restore it to a condition suitable for display. But, we must celebrate the small victories, and simply knowing it exists opens up a plethora of possibilities for this once forgotten gem.
We hope you enjoyed hearing about Shaun’s discovery of The Last Supper statue, as much as we did. Join with us online as we celebrate Holy Week and mark Maundy Thursday, the day that we commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, with two special digital services.
Thursday 9 April at 11:00 AM: The clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Durham gather online with the Bishop of Durham to renew their vows and witness the blessing of the oils of baptism, healing, and the Holy Spirit. This service will be broadcast live on the cathedral’s Facebook page. Watch with or without an account at www.facebook.com/durhamcathedral.
Thursday 9 April at 7:30 PM: Durham Cathedral remembers the day of Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. Join the Dean of Durham, the Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett in the cathedral’s intimate Chapel of the Holy Cross. This service will be broadcast live on the cathedral’s Facebook page. Watch with or without an account at www.facebook.com/durhamcathedral.
One thought on “A HIDDEN EASTER TREASURE: DISCOVERING THE LAST SUPPER STATUE”
About 15 years ago Neil Milburn took me up into the north Quire triforium and showed me the carving of the Last Supper. It was covered by an old cloth and very dirty. Subsequently, I asked several people about it including the former Dean and nobody could tell me anything about it. I took pictures which I use in a presentation. When Open Treasures was opened I mentioned it to the head of collections and she said it wasn’t in the inventory and she would need to look.
Malcolm Wilkinson – Senior Steward and Guide