diamond geezer

 Friday, June 23, 2023

St Bart's is celebrating its 900th birthday this year.

One of Henry I's courtiers founded the place after making a pilgrimage to Rome, falling sick and pledging to start a hospital if he recovered. St Bartholomew then appeared in a vision and told him to build it "in the suburb of Smithfield" so he did, and 900 years later his church still does Evensong and his hospital still tends to the sick.

St Bartholomew The Great

St Bart's is the oldest parish church in the City of London, having had the good fortune to be built beyond the burnline of the Great Fire of London. In scale it's less a church and more half a cathedral, the nave having been lost after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Sir John Betjeman considered it to have the finest Norman interior in the capital, and for many years lived in a flat just across the street. The interior appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love and Avengers Age of Ultron because maintaining very old buildings requires significant income. And although it used to charge an entrance fee they've scrapped that and you can now swan in for free, or of course come for a service if you want to experience it properly.

Once you've ducked under the organ (or nipped round the sides) expect the architecture to impress, not least the age and the height. The heart of the interior is The Quire, which is where any congregation now sits, with a couple of brief transepts bolted onto either side. Look left to see the founder's tomb, look down to admire chequered tiles and look up see the Oriel Window through which the prior once looked down to check his monks were on task. At the rear is the Lady Chapel which has a double claim to fame, one of which is that Benjamin Franklin worked there as a typesetter when it doubled up as a print shop and the other is that it's the site of the Virgin Mary's only acknowledged Visitation in the capital. She supposedly appeared in front of a canon to encourage everyone to worship harder, and you could choose to believe this or you could muse upon the institutionalised gullibility of medieval society.

A lot of the most interesting stuff is dotted around the outer walls. The elaborately decorated tomb of two Tudor puritans. The banner of the Worshipful Company of Butchers and the Royal Charter of Incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers. The sole window with stained glass, which couldn't be described as a stained glass window. The 600 year-old font in which William Hogarth was baptised. A lot of semi-challenging works of art, including a saint whose peeled-off skin hangs over his arm and a blurry glimpse of Jesus's penis. And a sidedoor off to the Cloister, although that was closed for building works during my visit and all I could hear through it was someone singing along to Cyndi Lauper on commercial radio.

You've missed the actual 900th birthday because that was 25th March, but better late than never.

St Bartholomew The Less

If there's a Great then yes there's also going to be a Less. It's mainly tower and chapel so Less in size, and fundamentally early 15th century so Fewer in years. For most of its life it was an independent parish church but in 2015 got merged with its Greater neighbour and they now share services, with a Family Communion being held here every Sunday and a Hospital Eucharist every Tuesday. A poke inside won't detain you long, but the octagonal Gothic interior is a welcome contrast to its perpendicular Norman neighbour.

St Bart's Hospital Museum

Not the Pathology Museum because that's only for medical students, but the public-facing museum in the North Wing which opened in 1997. It's free so just rock up (but not weekends, not Mondays, not before 10 and not after 4). Ask nicely and you can watch the short introductory film in which a beaming monk praises the founder, then set off round the display cases and discover the history of medicine on this site. There wasn't any in 1123, this being more a place for rest and spiritual comfort, and even when doctors started to outnumber religious folk it was more like your local GP practice than somewhere which undertook operations. Arguably St Bart's' greatest contribution to medicine came in 1628 when Physician-in-Charge William Harvey published the first theories on blood circulation, and today the hospital is at the forefront of cardiac care.

Halfway round the displays there's a door to pop out of and blimey wow won't you look at that, it's an entire staircase painted by William Hogarth. He lived locally and kindly offered to decorate the walls for free, a three year task during which time he painted two huge biblical scenes. They're damned impressive, and also roped-off because this part of the hospital is still used for archival storage so you might see a student or a researcher passing by. Upstairs is the Great Hall which is off-limits except on special tours and which is also in desperate need of repair with restoration works starting soon. And that means the museum needs to close in September - this because its chief fire exit is being closed - so if you want to visit you need to get here by the end of August or wait until early 2025.

St Bartholomew's Hospital

Ideally you don't want to find yourself here but rest assured you'll get excellent care if you do.

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