The Salviati Mosaics in Exeter College Chapel

November 29, 2016


“He [Salviati] had the soul of an artist and the wonders that filled his eyes in Venice each day took possession of his thoughts :he witnessed the decadence of the arts of glassmaking and mosaic , and was filled the noble desire to bring them back to life”


Pictured are the stunning reredos mosaics in Exeter College Chapel. They were made on the Venetian island of Murano in the workshop of Compagnia Venezia Murano Instrumental, founded  by Antonio Salviati (1816-1890), and still in business today.


A lawyer by profession, Salviati, like Ruskin, was concerned with the disrepair and neglect of Venice and its artistic heritage, and became involved in restoration work on the mosaics of Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral.


This interest in mosaics led to a greater involvement with glass and glassmaking, in particular the continuing decline of glassmaking on the island of Murano, once the epicentre of exquisite glass production in Europe and now an economic backwater.




In 1859, Salviati established the first of several businesses, and in partnership with Lorenzo Radi, a highly skilled craftsman, successfully adapted traditional glass working skills to those of mass production. 


Such an approach allowed exquisitely crafted works that had previously been accessible only to the very rich, now more generally affordable, and the purchase and collection of colourful glass ornaments and tableware became widely fashionable and would sell in their thousands.


Left - The Palazzo Salviati shop in Venice today



However, it was his factory's technical brilliance in the craft of enamelled mosaics, using ‘smalti’ - opaque glass tiles originally developed in the 4th Century CE, in recreating the iconography of Venice and Byzantium that really caught the Victorian public and ecclesiastical imagination.  An imagination already primed by a heady mix of Ruskin, the Gothic Revival, and an Anglican Church in the throes of a profound  theological crisis! 


Indeed it's been argued that it was the particular synergy created between the Anglo Catholic Oxford Movement, started in Oxford in the 1830s, and an emergent Gothic Revivalism, which played a crucial role in promoting Salviati's extraordinary success.     


In England alone, Salviati mosaics adorn the High Altar of Westminster Abbey, along with hundreds of churches and chapels. On a more secular, if not regal note,  they also adorn the Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria's robbing room in the Houses of Parliament, Birmingham Library, London department stores, and much else besides. In fact the list is still being added to. 


Exeter Chapel


Salviati's most famous collaboration with Scott was undoubtedly  the Venetian mosaics (all 1,200 sq feet of them) which decorate his Albert Memorial (completed 1875)


However If you want to get a real appreciation of why Salviati’s religious mosaics struck such an ecclesiastical chord, the interior of the Chapel (1853-59) - Scott’s Gothic Revivalist homage to French architecture, inspired by the Parisian medieval jewel of La Sainte-Chappelle (1248) - provides a perfect setting in which to do so.


Given the synergy mentioned earlier,  perhaps its should come as no surprise that the driving force behind the demolition of the old chapel and the construction of  such a homage, were a number of radicalised Fellows. In fact, like much of the University at the time, Exeter was a known hot bed of extremist Anglo-Catholicism.       

So the Chapel provides a wonderful narrative of those radical beliefs and aesthetics, crafted in wood, stone, wrought iron and stained glass, with Salviati's mosaics forming its dazzling centrepiece. 



The Mosaics


The mosaics offer the viewer a superbly crafted reinterpretation of the artistic simplicity and religious purity of the early Christian Church by way of Byzantium and Venice. A Christian Church that Anglo Catholicism, along with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, so the Movement believed,  formed one of its three true branches. Such themes echoed in the two Byzantine Icons set on the west wall by the Chapel's porch, facing the altar, and the very Catholic nature of the mosaics' iconography and symbolism.


Christ is thus Pantocrator, the almighty deity of the early church, ever present, all powerful, stern and inscrutable. In His left-hand, He holds the World, signifying the universality (Catholicism) of His Anglican Apostolic Church. Above Him a single star shines; above each pair of Angels, three stars shine: thus symbolising the mystery of a triple godhead in one.  On His right-hand, between Matthew and Mark, the Lamb of God carrying the emblem of England, the Cross of St George, its redemptive eucharistic sacrifice echoed on the left by the Pelican, placed between Luke and John.


The Pelican, its young destroyed by serpents, is feeding them one her own blood and are now reborn:  a medieval metaphor of the destruction of man by the Serpent, and his redemptive salvation by the blood sacrifice of Christ.


Above Lamb and Pelican, the cross, sponge, spear and blood of that sacrifice and redemption.


All in all, a masterpiece of Anglo Catholic and Victorian sensibilities! Enjoy.


If you want to visit Exeter Chapel with Tours of Oxford then contact us at Or call +44 (0)7891 631291


Next time: The Morris/Burn Jones tapestry.




To find out more about Salviati go to



All pictures, except, with thanks: 

Salviati portrait

Salviati Piazzo  - worlfgang moroder:



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