Opus Sectile – Jewels of the Aisles
St Mary Magdalene has three large panels inlaid into the walls in the north and south aisles; bright with colour and shimmering gold. They are made in opus sectile (‘cut work’ in Latin); a Roman technique that found favour with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century.
Cut and Paste: Unlike mosaic which is made of pieces of stone or glass of similar size assembled to make patterns and pictures, opus sectile is made of larger pieces often cut out to the shape of the objects they represent. This technique is often used in stained glass. It was the stained glass company of James Powell and Sons of London which produced ours. The pieces are ceramic made from flint glass contaminated with clay, ground to a powder and baked, then painted.
Seeing Angels: Our church’s chief patron at this time was a wealthy Canon, the Rev. John Godber. Having run out of windows to fill with Kempe stained glass, he moved on to the walls. For the first opus sectile panel commissioned from James Powell and Sons in 1897, Godber stayed with his favourite theme of angels; here playing musical instruments.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1898: It didn’t take long for John Godber to return to James Powell’s and place a second order. They were costing him £70 each (approx £8,000 in 2015). This is a scene from the parable told in Luke’s Gospel of a wayward son having spent his whole inheritance returning to ask his father’s forgiveness. The panel’s golden background shines brightly on a sunny day.
Guardian Angels: The final panel wasn’t installed until 1905. John Godber died the following year. But he left behind three angels above the South Porch to watch over visitors to the church. The inscription reads ‘He shall give His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways’.