Designed by Nicholas Stone, master mason to Charles I and paid for by the chaplain to William Laud, then Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University, this highly flamboyant porch dating to 1637 ranks as one of Stone’s most ambitious works.
Heavily baroque in style and highly ornate, massive Solomonic (or barley sugar twist) columns support a curly pediment framing a shell niche with a statue of the Virgin and Child set beneath a gothic fan vault.
The first known examples of this column design date to the 4th Century CE, when a number were given to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome by the first Christian Emperor Constantine.
Legend has it that the columns came from one of King Solomon’s Temples in Jerusalem (hence their name), their shape inspired by the twisted oak tree from which the first Arc of the Covenant was made, mentioned in Joshua 24:26.
The most famous, and monumental, use of the Solomonic column is in Bellini’s Baldacchino, supporting the canopy above the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica, and completed just four years prior to Stone’s design for St Mary’s (note Constantine’s original columns centre right in the picture).
(Pompey in the Temple of Jerusalem,
by Jean Fouquet 1470) Wikipedia
The use of such blatantly ‘Romanist’ symbolism was a very public proclamation of the ‘high church’ religious and regal ambitions of Laud and King Charles, and duly enraged Puritan opinion. Such was its public notoriety, the porch was used as evidence in Laud’s treason trial, with witnesses declaring it a ‘scandalous statue’ and a place where ‘one bow[s] and another pray[s]’.
Laud was eventually found guilty and beheaded on Tower Hill on 10th January 1645, a date still commemorated as a Holy Day by the Church of England. Laud is buried beneath the chapel of his old Oxford College, St John’s.
(Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica) Wikipedia