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Chapel History

The chapel has been the focal point for Christian worship since before St John’s came into existence.  It was originally consecrated in 1530 as the chapel of St Bernard’s college, the Cistercian house of study in Oxford, and re-dedicated to John the Baptist in 1557.

The chapel as you see it today is largely the result of the re-ordering by Edward Blore in 1843, with subsequent alterations by Sir Edward Maufe in the 1930s.  The chequer board floor is supposed to date back to the Restoration period, but most other features are nineteenth century: the altar rails that William Laud installed were removed the parish church in Northmoor just west of Oxford, where they may still be seen, and the remains of the seventeenth century screen are in Painswick House in Gloucestershire.  Behind the altar is a wooden reredos by Charles Kempe made in 1892; Kempe also designed the east window, with figures including Sir Thomas White and Henry Chichele, founder of St Bernard’s college.

At the re-ordering, the majority of the monuments were placed in the small Baylie chapel to the north of the altar.  These include the monument to William Paddy, the physician to James I, surrounded by the snakes of Asclepius; a black urn containing the heart of the antiquary Richard Rawlinson; and a marble relief of the baptism of Jesus which commemorates president William Holmes and his wife Sarah, a great benefactor to the college, one part of whose generosity provides the annual scholars’ dinner on Shrove Tuesday.  

William Laud endowed the college richly during and after his presidency, and the fine pre-Reformation ecclesiastical vestments that he gave are displayed every term.  Laud’s friendship with Orlando Gibbons led to the composition of ‘This is the record of John’ for the choir of St John’s, and this superb setting of a text from the first chapter of John’s gospel is sung regularly in chapel: after centuries of neglect, it is now recognised as one of the supreme English anthems.

Laud also gave the college its first pipe organ to enhance the chapel music-making which was particularly close to the founder’s intentions: White left instructions for services to be sung by a choir of men and boys, and, though there was much disruption, including the removal of the original organ in 1651, St John’s continued to have a boys’ choir until the end of the 1960s.  In 2008, a new and exceptional instrument was created for the chapel by Bernard Aubertin, who also built the small chamber organ at the end of the choir stalls.  

The eagle lectern was carved by Snetzler in 1773, and the silver candlesticks date from 1720; the altar cross of 1945 commemorates the three hundredth anniversary of Archbishop Laud’s execution. 

Whilst not a great deal remains of the original chapel, it houses significant pieces of contemporary art.  To the right of the altar is a small triptych of the life of John the Baptist by local artist Nicholas Mynheer, whilst in the Baylie chapel is a modern Coptic icon of the baptism of Jesus made in Egypt.  In the main body of the chapel are two windows by the acclaimed stained glass artist Ervin Bossanyi, donated by his son Jo, depicting scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi.

Contact details

St John's College
St. Giles, Oxford OX1 3JP
Work Tel: 01865 277300
Fax: 01865 277435
University of Oxford