The chapel is filled with a host of intricate naval details. Interpretation assistant Matilde Martinetti unearths some of these details and their artistic meaning.

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, constructed by Thomas Ripley to the design of Sir Christopher Wren, was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be built. The naval veterans who lived there, known as Greenwich Pensioners, worshipped in the Chapel on daily basis. The original Chapel burned down in a disastrous fire in 1779, leaving only a shell, and it was redecorated in the ‘Greek Revival’ style under the direction of the Surveyor of the Hospital, James Stuart, known as ‘Athenian’ because he was an authority on ancient Greek architecture and design. He brought together a team of highly skilled master craftsmen, many of whom had been working on Somerset House.

The Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College

The Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College

The perfection of even the smallest and hidden element in the Chapel enhances that sense of wonder that captures any visitor walking through its doors. A closer look at the Chapel reveals an encyclopaedia of decorative techniques used in late 1700s. Every detail is carefully considered, including crabs – and there are crabs in the Chapel indeed! This blog will explore some of the Chapel's marvellous, hidden details, focusing on the Governor’s pews, where the journey of the discovery of the crabs starts.

The Governor's pew in the Chapel

In the galleries, at their centre, two imposing pew boxes dominate the space. Made from oak and mahogany, they were executed by the Carpenter and Joiner James Arrow and carved by Richard Lawrence in the 1780s. Their position and their intricate decoration characterize the seats of the Governors of (then) the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Carved headboards are one of their striking elements. Right at their centre stands the Naval Crown – a circlet with the sails of ships on top. There, in the enclosed space of the Naval Crown's bottom, tiny and almost unnoticed crabs are finely carved alternately to shells - both of them smaller than a fingernail.

Crabs and shells decorate the naval crown

The Naval Crown is a recurrent element on site and appears in slightly different variations. Above the galleries doors, for example, it is encircled in a wreath of laurel (symbol of triumph and victory), while two tridents (the three-sponged spear, symbol of command of the sea) stand at its sides. No crabs here though! It reappears again outside, on the top of the lanterns, on the gates and - not to be missed, of course! - on the Royal Hospital for Seamen's Coat of Arms.

Gilded lanterns at the Old Royal Naval College bearing the Naval Crown

Returning to the Chapel pew, and moving slightly down, a wreath of laurel is positioned below the Crown, which in turn is held by two winged figures. Their bodies terminates in intricate and looped foliage-tails, merging in a festoon. Here, in the recesses of the leaves, incredibly small and detailed acorns emerge - another recurring motif, reappearing, for instance, on the circles over the galleries doors, where they take a bigger space.

Acorns emerge from beautifully carved leaves

From crabs to acorns, and from acorns to dolphins. Moving from the headboards to the side of the pew boxes, a fascinating handrail enriches the seats and take the shape of an animal with a round head, stretched and wide mouth, looped tail, leafy fins. The Ledge of Work (1785) states: "Dolphin and very rich foliage in mahogany cut thro' & carved on both sides to the Elbow of the Governor and Lieut. Governor's Pews." This detail was inspired by representations of dolphins in classical art.  

A rather dubious, but intricately-carved dolphin overlooks the Chapel

The pew boxes reveal a carefully planned orchestration of elements, a microcosm in themselves. Each decorative component links to the surrounding space, the macrocosm-Chapel. The conversation between micro and macro is endless, and the use of these multiple languages can leave the viewer speechless.

Especially when a crab, unnoticed, slips into the scene. 

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