Chester Cathedral Altar, Dais, Choir Stalls & Clergy Chairs

Chester Cathedral

Chester Cathedral’s new liturgical furniture was first used during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Service on 2nd June. Later the same day, the altar was blessed by Bishop Mark Tanner. This was the culmination of a creative, fruitful and enjoyable collaboration over several years. Our brief was to create a set of nave furnishings that are unique to Chester, its cathedral, its historical evolution and its connection to the city in which it plays such a central role.

Barry Ingram, Chairman of the Friends of Chester Cathedral, spoke about the new furniture just after its first use for Sunday Eucharist on 5 June, noting that although it was in 1997 that the Friends had financed the cathedral’s new paved floor and a ‘temporary’ arrangement of liturgical furniture, it had taken another 25 years to replace that temporary arrangement ‘with something more befitting’. He added the donors were absolutely thrilled by this ‘beautiful ensemble’ and ‘stunning arrangement of altar, dais, iconostasis, choir stalls and associated furniture designed by Luke Hughes’.


clergy chairs
choir stalls


Luke Hughes and Company had been selected for the development of the new liturgical furniture after a design competition in 2018. There followed a period of close consultation with the Dean (Tim Stratford), Precentor (Jeremy Dissek) and Canon Missioner (Jane Brooke), other members of the chapter, the Director of Music (Philip Rushforth), the vergers and the rest of the cathedral administrative team. All had an input in making the project a success - a truly collaborative process.

The designs had sufficiently evolved during 2019 that it was possible to assemble full-size mock-ups in February 2020. The pandemic restrictions then forced the project to go on hold for eighteen months but was revived in the summer of 2021.

The detailed designs and choice of materials evolved by also working closely with the cathedral architect, Tony Barton of Donald Insall Associates and the sculptor, Stephen Broadbent.

A little history

Chester Cathedral now rests on what may have been the site of Christian worship since Roman times. The current building fabric dates between 10th and early 16th century, when the building had been a former Benedictine abbey church dedicated to St Werburgh. After 1541, it was rededicated to the Virgin Mary and became the seat of the Bishop of Chester. The building was heavily restored by Gilbert Scott in the 1870s and has 20th century interventions by George Pace.

Architecturally, the building has a lop-sided plan, with a massive South transept (almost as prominent as the nave itself) and a 19th century screen obscuring the vista through to the choir and High Altar. An unusual feature, at least among English cathedrals, is that the nave floor is nine steps lower than the West Door. Historically, that West door has remained more or less permanently closed, presenting a forbidding barrier to potential visitors. One of the Chapter’s aims was to make the building feel more accessible and connected to the adjacent streetscape, making a feature of this view down into the nave from the street  inviting viewers to peer through a new ‘Pilgrim Porch’ (designed by the sculptor Stephen Broadbent), featuring etched glass doors so that, even at night or when the building is closed, the interior can now still be appreciated; when it is open, people are encouraged to enter. The hope is that today’s curious visitors might become tomorrow’s pilgrims.



The furniture

Symbolically, nave altars are problematic, since their presence sets up a tension with the High Altar as the focus for the Eucharist in an area of the church that is associated more with secular rather than sacred space. One of the challenges at Chester was how to manage that tension and still represent the metaphorical Christian journey from baptism (through the position of the font), the liturgy of the Word, the Eucharist and the hereafter.

However, most of the time when it is not in use, the new nave altar is desired not to be a conventional altar at all but to serve predominantly as an emphasis on the liturgy of the Word. The idea evolved that the altar could perhaps double up as an iconostasis for those times when the building is at rest (which is for most days of the week) on which could be placed a suitably dignified stand for mounting either an icon (representing one of the Evangelists) or a copy of the Bible. The final design for the altar has fold-out ‘wings’ which are only opened for use as a holy table for Eucharist on Sundays. In this way, the tension occasioned by having two altars on the main processional route from West to East is minimised.

The shape of the altar plinth has a deliberate classical form, a nod to the city’s Roman origins in the reign of Vespasian in 79AD. The predominant colours of the plinth are Marian blue and gold. In religious paintings, Mary is traditionally portrayed in blue, a tradition that can trace its origin to the Byzantine Empire, from circa 500AD, where blue was associated with the colours of the Empress, as can still be seen in basilicas and tombs in Ravenna. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, blue pigment was derived from lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan which was then considered to be of greater value than gold. When painters were commissioned, patrons were expected to purchase any gold or lapis lazuli to be used in the painting. Hence it was seen to be an expression of devotion and glorification to swathe the Virgin in gowns of blue. Gold has more obvious connotations with high value. Apart from the fact that it does not tarnish, it has the great advantage of reflecting and accentuating available light. The dentil detail around the top of the altar gives accent to the shape on which the gold leaf can be applied but also disguises the slots into which the bearers for the side wings are mounted.


Blue and gold happen to be the colours in the coat of arms of the City of Chester. They are also the dominant colours in the magnificent All Saints’ West window by W T Carter Shapland (1961) which is most striking when illuminated by afternoon and early evening sunlight. The same blue is used in the patination of the bronze surround to the new Pilgrim Porch, thus carrying the theme through the building.

The other materials for both altar furniture and clergy chairs are walnut (as a suitable contrast to set off the gold) and a boxwood inlay, with gold leaf highlights on the plinth. The decoration of the boxwood and herring-bone inlays reflect the patterns in George Pace’s ceiling canopy in the tower. Notches on the lower stretcher of the iconostasis enable it to be easy for arms to pass through - much easier to handle that way, as well as adding visual interest.

Choir furniture includes the choir stalls and seats - which are made in European oak. Their front frames carry red coloured panels (which match the choir’s robes) and a decorative pattern that is also derived from tower ceiling panels. The patterns in the oak cladding to the dais reflect some of Gilbert Scott’s paving arrangement in the choir and lend some visual connection with the more sacred areas in the cathedral. These arrangements tie the whole ensemble more closely to the interior architecture of the building, reduces the clutter, harmonises many of the disparate design elements and greatly facilitates the management of the building.

altar furniture

Some practical issues

One of the constraints is the presence of some 17th century stalls (modified by Pace in the 1960s) on each side of the nave and, although there is a plan to move these at some stage, this creates a pinch point for setting out the nave for regular services. An aim was to make the whole ensemble capable of being rearranged for a variety of other secular events, such as concerts, degree ceremonies, flower festivals or civic and county processions. Flexibility, ease of management and storage were fundamental to the design criteria. All the sections of the dais are capable of being simply unclipped, wheeled away or repositioned elsewhere in the nave. No tools, no lifting. The Dean and Luke Hughes managed this on the first afternoon in less than twenty minutes.

The choir are seated on stacking pews that can be moved stored on mobile dollys and the choir desks have their own purpose-made low-slung trolleys. Other items on the wish-list include floor-mounted processional candle-stands, altar candle-sticks, a portable lectern and additional choir music desks.


liturgical furniture


To see more about Chester Cathedral please visit 

Photography © Tim Imrie

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