The beautiful Chapel of St Peter & St Paul was rebuilt in 1779 by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart following a dreadful fire that gutted the original building designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
With its richly decorated ceiling, naval themes displayed throughout, and exceptional altarpiece painted by the Raphael of America, Benjamin West, it is clear why the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College is considered to be one of the finest 18th-century interiors in existence.
The Chapel is open daily between 10am and 5pm and is an active place of worship with regular services and lunchtime recitals, as well as hosting special events, concerts and weddings.
This wonderful piece of craftsmanship is almost certainly responsible for the superb acoustics of the space.
It was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth in a neo-classical design of squares and octagons. The intricate central ornaments were carved, rather than cast in moulds. It is plastered in light blue and cream following a Wedgewood-inspired colour scheme.
The Samuel Green organ
The organ at the west end of the Chapel is a fine example of the work of Samuel Green (1740-96), the leading organ builder of his day.
It was completed at a cost of £1,000 in 1798 and is probably the largest instrument built by Green still in its original position. It has three manuals and the pipework, which is noted for its purity of tone and rich mixture stops, is still in use.
The handsome and delicately carved Spanish mahogany case, designed by William Newton, cost a further £500.
The Altarpiece and Pulpit
The influence of the artist, Benjamin West, can be seen all over the Chapel, particularly in the huge altarpiece. Its story is taken from an account in the Acts of the Apostles.
We see St Paul shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The islanders have helpfully lit a fire to dry out any survivors, and a snake, driven from the woodpile by the heat, has fastened itself onto Paul’s hand.
Miraculously he is able to cast it into the flames. The worshipping Pensioners would have understood this image. Not only is West painting about the rescue and protection of seafaring men but also about divine intervention and the threat of Satan.
This is one of West’s most ambitious paintings. It is also the only one of his large canvases to remain in the place for which it was intended, sitting in a carved and gilded frame by Richard Lawrence.