As London recovered from the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral and to rebuild or refurbish fifty-one churches. The altarpiece shown here is in the Temple Church. The style is ostensibly austere, formal, didactic: on this central panel are the Ten Commandments; on the side-panels, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
There was, in Wren’s day, an intense interest in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 CE and never rebuilt. It had, in the grandest architecture, replicated the layout and roles of the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) created by Moses in the wilderness to house the Ark of the Covenant wherever he pitched camp (Exodus 25–31).
As Hebrews reminds us (9:3–4), the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. There King Solomon had placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ark’s lid was the Mercy-Seat, God’s throne—or the footstool of God’s throne—on earth. At each end of the Ark was a carved cherub. The Holy of Holies itself was decorated with carvings of trees and fruits to mimic the loveliness of Paradise, where God had once walked with humankind (Genesis 3:8).
And Wren’s altarpiece? Here in the centre is the altar or Lord’s Table, the Mercy-Seat of the New Covenant. Above it are the two round-topped panels of the Ten Commandments. Above them in turn are two tiny cherubs’ heads. On each side is a carved frieze of fruits and flowers. Wren has created a version, pared down and open to view, of the Holy of Holies.
I celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday in the Temple Church. We are clearly the heirs here of the great Western tradition, its classical forms and three-membered altarpieces. (Such triptychs in Roman Catholic Churches are painted; Wren replaced images with more suitably Protestant words.) But we are the heirs too of a still more ancient setting for worship. I stand before the altar here as the High Priest stood in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, in the Holy of Holies—before the throne of God.