Monday 9 July 2018
We look at the story behind these 20th-century martyrs, standing over the west door of Westminster Abbey
These are the ten 20th-century martyrs, who stand over the west door at Westminster Abbey, London. Home of the royal coronations since 1066, these carved French Richemont limestone sculptures are a very new addition to the Abbey, having only been unveiled in July 1998. They were revealed in the presence of HM The Queen, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The present Abbey building dates right back to the reign of King Henry III in 1245, said to be an ‘architectural masterpiece of the 13th-16th centuries’.
The last phase of building was the completion in 1745 of the West Towers in Portland stone, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Abbey’s Surveyor. Up until the unveiling of the ten statues, the niches over the west door had never been filled – empty since the building was completed and Hawksmoor’s towers were complete. In 1995, after a restoration of the western towers of the Abbey, it was decided that the empty Gothic niches would be filled. The decision was made to fill the niches with 20th-century martyrs.
These chosen martyrs are all well known in history, representing those who died in circumstances of oppression and persecution. Whereas before, Westminster Abbey had been a shrine to English monarchs, writers and other significant figures of the nation, these sculptures were drawn in from every continent and many Christian denominations.
The ten martyrs
We now look to the separate figures: first, we have Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland. He was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Next, is Manche Masemola from South Africa. Masemola was killed in 1928 by her parents at the age of 16, for converting to Christianity. Janani Luwum from Uganda was assassinated in 1977, during the rule of Idi Amin, for being an Anglican Archbishop. We then get to Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Martin Luther King – who is probably the most famous martyr of the group – took religion as the ideological platform to bring about change in the U.S. in the 1960s. Oscar Arnulfo Romero from El Salvador was San Salvador’s Roman Catholic Archbishop, a critic of the military government, who was murdered during a religious service. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for his participation in a Protestant resistance movement. However, it was his work as a spiritual writer, musician and author of fiction and poetry that had been his powerful weapon. A Presbyterian evangelist from Pakistan, Esther John was allegedly killed by a Muslim fanatic in 1960. Next, Lucian Tapiedi, an Anglican from Papua New Guinea, was killed during the Japanese invasion in 1941, and finally, Wang Zhiming, killed in 1972 during the Chinese cultural revolution. These statues were carved by sculptors John Roberts, Neil Simmons, Andrew Tanser and Tim Crawley. The carvings are a symbol for freedom, standing tall at Westminster Abbey.
(PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)