Saint Wilfrid’s design for the church in Ripon was inspired by his travels across the continent to Rome where he saw magnificent churches with ‘catacombs’ below, elaborate underground burial chambers.
Wilfrid brought stonemasons and craftsmen from overseas to help build the impressive church here, with its columns and side aisles, at a time when most buildings were made of wood. The crypt was one of the most important and sacred spaces in the church as it held holy relics. These were precious items linked to saints, like Saint Peter – one of Jesus’ closest friends – to whom Wilfrid dedicated the church at Ripon.
The crypt was designed so that it would be a powerful experience for pilgrims and help to strengthen their faith. The passageways and central chamber would be lit by candlelight which would light up the luxurious wall decorations in gold, silver and purple. The pilgrim would go underground, to the place of burial, and then up into the awe-inspiring church above, a journey which symbolised Jesus’ death and the hope of his Resurrection.
It is amazing to think that the Crypt is still a place of prayer, pilgrimage and inspiration some 1350 years after Wilfrid first laid the foundations of faith in this place.
Reflection: This beautiful crypt brings us very close to St Wilfrid and to the heart of Anglo-Saxon spirituality. Imagine what it must has felt like to visit this candle-lit crypt 1300 years ago and to experience the intensity of its holiness. Perhaps, feeling as it they were present in the Holy Sepulchre, they prayed in words similar to those of the Anglo-Saxon priest Aelfric:
O almighty God, who caused you dear Son, our Saviour Christ, to assume human form and submit to being hanged on the cross, grant that we may benefit from the example of His endurance and participate in his true resurrection. Amen.