Delve Deeper - High Altar & John Piper Tapestry

In the early 1960s the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Walter Hussey, and Chapter considered that the Sanctuary and High Altar looked rather drab and gloomy. 

As a consequence, behind the High Altar, the reredos of painted wood dating from 1910 was removed and there were many discussions as to what should replace it. Hussey thought that there should be some strong colour in this area, perhaps a painting, and asked Henry Moore to suggest a suitable artist; Moore suggested John Piper (1903-1992). 

After much deliberation, Piper considered that a tapestry occupying the whole area behind the altar would be best, even though he had never designed a tapestry before. Preliminary ideas and sketches were discussed by Dean and Chapter, and Piper worked closely with skilled French weavers to ensure that everything was perfect. John Piper is recorded as saying that the Chichester tapestry was “in some ways the most frightening commission” he had ever received.

Installed in 1966, the Piper Tapestry consists of seven panels each 1 metre wide and 5 metres high and was woven by Pinton Freres at Felletin near Aubusson in France, where a few years earlier the Sutherland tapestry for Coventry Cathedral had been made. The tapestry covers the sixteenth century oak reredos from the bishopric of Robert Sherborne, (1508-1536), the oak gothic canopies can be seen just above the tapestry. 

The subject of the tapestry is the Holy Trinity which is represented by the central green triangle as a symbol of indivisibility. God the Father – the Light of the World – is represented by the white disc of the sun. God the Son is represented by the purple tau cross [Greek letter T], and the Holy Spirit is represented by the feathered flame. Piper uses the tau cross for authenticity because only Roman citizens were crucified on a ‘traditional’ cross and Jesus was not a Roman citizen.

The ancient Greeks thought that the world and the universe were created form four elements, Earth, Air Fire and Water. These are depicted above the images of the Trinity form left to right.