UA1-WA:P1-p3 Visit to a Victorian Gothic church

Report on a visit to St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney

st_marys_01In one sense St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was completed in 2000, when building of the front towers’ spires was finished. However the design of the spires, and of the cathedral as a whole, is Victorian Gothic as planned in the 1860s by architect William Wilkinson Wardell.

The cathedral’s site was granted to the church in 1820 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and it is close to Hyde Park Barracks (see my previous report, 11-May-2013).  Building of the original church progressed slowly, the first mass being celebrated in 1833.

Pier from original cathedral, near entrance to the current crypt

Column of the original cathedral, near the entrance to the current crypt

Additional works included an 1843 bell-tower and an 1844 chapter house, both designed by Augustus Pugin. Pugin also designed extensions to the cathedral, with work commencing in 1851. However in 1865 fire destroyed most of the complex, with only the chapter house and a single pillar of the original cathedral still standing today.

Archbishop Polding commissioned Wardell to design a new cathedral, writing “I leave all to you and your own inspiration in the matter. I will not even say that your conception shall be restricted to the Gothic style of any particular period.” (1) This is slightly ambiguous, but I take it that any design was acceptable – with the assumption it would be a variant of Gothic.

plan.xcfstmarysplanOn the left is a rough floor plan of the cathedral, based on observation and counted steps on my visit. There is a strong emphasis on the longitudinal axis – the cathedral is 107 metres long, the nave including aisles 24.3 metres wide. Site considerations combined with the intended size of the building led to orienting the cathedral with the main altar (the liturgical east) to the north. The cathedral is basically a cruciform shape.st_marys_cross-sectionA cross-section shows the high nave supported by flying buttresses, the lower aisles, and an indication of the width provided by the transcepts, baptistry and what I believe could be described as axial chapels.

plan.xcfstmaryszoneplanThe plan on the left highlights the various areas of the cathedral. The chapels are up a step, have low railings and in some cases different floor treatment, but are not actually screened from the main body of the cathedral. The sanctuary is raised a few steps and is screened at the sides with a reredos at the back. I am not sure what to call the section at the south (liturgical west) which includes the two side towers. From my reading “narthex” seems the most appropriate, although a more elaborate version on a Romanesque church would be “westwork”. Inside the cathedral it is largely hidden by a large organ loft.

headsThe cathedral was built of dressed Sydney sandstone with extensive carved detailing. Construction of the cathedral was in stages, as finances allowed. The foundation stone was set in 1868 and the northern end was opened and dedicated in 1882. The central tower was completed in 1900, while the nave was opened in 1928. The spires of the front towers were built 1998 – 2000.

Effects of this sequence can be detected both internally and externally. The image at the right is a compilation of some of the many carved heads around the windows – and one of the many uncarved blocks. All the blank blocks I saw were towards the rear of the cathedral. The head on the bottom left is from high on the south-east tower and and is quite different in style to the other heads (all from the north-west wall).
st_marys_03The differences are more dramatic on the three doors at the southern end. st_marys_04
The surrounds of the left door are richly carved with great variation in the detail. The surrounds of the door on the right are molded but not carved.
st_marys_05Most fascinating are the central doors – I presume in terms of ceremony the most important doors of the building. The surrounds are largely uncarved, although the beginnings of work can be seen on two of the column capitals.


North wall – detail


North wall

The northern (liturgical east) wall shows many of the features that would be seen in an original Gothic church. There are pointed arches, elaborately carved finials, blind arcades, statues and stained glass.
st_marys_18Elsewhere in the building are elements that would be less familiar to a medieval stonemason, such as carvings of some of our local fauna and even more the steel framework of the new spires.

stmarystitch1Photography is not permitted inside the cathedral, so I have only my rough sketches to give a sense of the interior. A series of compound piers run the length of the nave and sanctuary. Each includes eight engaged shafts. A total of six of the shafts support the arcade, the seventh continues up to the ceiling of the nave and the last supports the ceiling of the aisle. While the capitals are doric and the engaged shafts quite plain, fluting on the arches and additional moulding creates a clean but rich effect.
A triforium-gallery adds to the play of light and shadow. Amber glass in the clerestory windows provides only subdued lighting – very effectively supplemented by modern directional electric lighting and many candles.

An impact of the staged building effort can be seen in the ceiling treatments in the cathedral.
The ceiling of the chancel is vaulted in timber, with eight compartments in each bay.
ceiling2The aisles are rib-vaulted in stone. A nice detail is the lines carved in the stone which echo those of the timber vaulting.

st_marys_07However the nave roof uses hammer-beams. These vary depending on the support point (engaged shaft or above clerestory window) and are carved providing visual links to some of the window tracery. While attractive I suspect that this construction method was chosen with an eye to speed and cost in the building effort.

There are elaborately carved altars in the chapels, including many designed by Wardell. There is a tomb commemorating those lost in wars, but no other free-standing statuary or memorials outside of the chapels and sanctuary. This provides a very open, uncluttered and contemplative space.

st_marys_08I was able to take one “internal” photograph while observing cathedral requests. This was taken from outside the transept on the eastern side, looking across to the rose window on the western side and the organ below. Stained glass in the cathedral includes images based on the early history of Catholicism in Australia and other local themes in addition to stories of saints and from the bible.

st_marys_14There is a crypt below the nave and here the fall of the land has become a positive. On the western (city) side of the cathedral there are just a few stairs up to the entry. On the east side, seen here, there is space for easy external access to the crypt. There are also stone internal stairs at the back of the church.

st_marys_11st_marys_12Photography is permitted in this area, so I am able to show the huge structure underpinning the cathedral. Rather than the compound pier upstairs, here there is a system of central pier and detached columns. The relatively low ceiling is rib vaulted. I couldn’t determine the building material – it certainly did not look like raw or dressed sandstone.

st_marys_13A significant feature of the crypt is the terrazzo mosaic floor. Completed in 1961 by Melocco Brothers, the design forms a Celtic cross with a series of medallions of the Days of Creation. The crypt is a sanctuary, holding the remains of Archbishops and pioneering priests. It is also used for weddings and other services.

Flying buttresses and many more finials

Flying buttresses and many more finials

The history of the building of St Mary’s cathedral is closely linked to the history of Catholics in Australia. When I visited it clearly played an active part in the spiritual life of many Sydney-siders, with a well-attended lunchtime service (which I thought was well paced to meet limited time availability). The various chapels provide spaces in a variety of sizes for different usage. It is also a popular tourist attraction, and the cathedral authorities have responded with physical changes (particularly an entry vestibule at the western door), signage and discreet staff, allowing visitors to enjoy the building while minimising any impact on worshippers. Technology has been introduced (lighting and sound the most obvious) to enhance the experience. There is an active conservation effort. Work also continues to “complete” still more of Wardell’s original design, a recent example being the commissioning and installation of statues in the reredos (2).

st_marys_10Preparing this report has been a fascinating shift of perspective for me. Coming from a bellringing family, from my earliest years I have spent many hours in the Cathedral (dad was Captain and Ringing Master for many years), but much of it I had never noticed before. This photo is from ground level below the transept on the eastern side. There are 111 stone spiral steps up that turret, and the red arrow shows where the next photo was taken.

st_marys_09This is me (with a goofy expression unfortunately) and a ringing friend with that same turret behind us. We’re on a wooden walkway across the base of the roof, about to go up some more steps to the ringing chamber in the central tower. So you can now see that the roof is slate!

Additional images: There are some wonderful historic images of the Cathedral, including a drawing by Wardell (including the spires!), the remains of the earlier Pugin-designed church after the fire, one that shows the proximity of the Hyde Park Barracks and one of building work in the 1920’s (pre spires) – all available on the State Library website at

(1) Polding, John Bede (10 October 1865) Letter to William Wardell. Cited in St Mary’s Cathedral [n.d.] About Us [online] Available from [Accessed 8 June 2013]

(2) Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese (5 March 2013) 16 Magnificent New Statues Installed in Cathedral Reredos [online] Available from [Accessed 7 June 2013]


Curl, J.S. (2006) Oxford dictionary of architecture and landscape architecture (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dunn, M. (2008) ‘St Mary’s Cathedral’, Dictionary of Sydney [online]. Available from [Accessed 10 June 2013]

Heritage Council of New South Wales (2008) St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral and Chapter House,/em> [online] Available from [Accessed 10 June 2013]

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

St Mary’s Cathedral [n.d.] About Us [online] Available from [Accessed 8 June 2013]

St Mary’s Cathedral (2012) Crypt of St Mary’s Sydney: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

Stalley, R. 1999) Early Medieval Architecture Oxford: Oxford University Press

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Visit to a Victorian Gothic church
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project three: Religious art.
Topic: Visit to a Gothic church

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