Project Canterbury

Reminiscences of a Parish Priest.
by Archibald Campbell Knowles

New York: Morehouse, 1935.


TURNING NOW from reminiscences of persons and places, perhaps my recollections of certain studies and ventures in other fields may be interesting. These, begun at first as mere recreations, culminated in the building of Saint Alban's Church.

It was quite early in my life that I began to take up the study of the Arts in the line of Ecclesiastical Architecture. I found it to be of absorbing interest, for every noted Church building was associated with persons, places and events which made history and romance. Of course my studies were superficial. I did not follow out to any extent the scientific or technical part. I had but a smattering of understanding of the structural side, and but hazy notions of the laws and calculations of "thrusts," "strains," "weights," "balances" and the like. My "hobby" was only in the artistic and symbolic aspect. As I have seen many of the greatest Cathedrals and Churches of Europe and have made quite a large collection of books and photographs, perhaps I may venture modestly to say that I have not only a real appreciation but also some little understanding of Church Art and Church building. It is one thing to study architecture in books. It is quite another thing to see it in concrete form. It is still something else to understand the religious and symbolic meaning of that which one sees. My fortune has been to combine the three, not in a technical and professional way as an architect, which, of course I am not, but in a practical and religious way, trying to understand and teach those great truths and thoughts as they appear expressed in Church Art and Architecture.

In my architectural quest, I have met quite a few architects, artists and craftsmen, and have always prized my delightful association with them. That my even superficial knowledge made a favourable impression is shown in the building of my Parish Church, wherein Mr. George T. Pearson and Mr. Percy Ash, successive architects of the various parts, drew the plans entirely according to my wishes and suggestions. This was also the case with the stained glass windows where every subject was chosen by me, and the Rood-Screen and other carved work in the Church, where Mr. Barber worked in collaboration with me, my part being not to evolve anything original but largely to make selection from the great achievements of the past and to show how they could be adapted and blended in the building of Saint Alban's.

And I remember quite a number of times when my friends amongst the artists and craftsmen very kindly sought my opinion. Two instances come to my mind, in these cases the questions involved being really scriptural or traditional. One was that of a stained glass window to be installed by a brother Priest in his Parish Church. The head of the stained glass firm was a foreign artist of considerable repute. The Priest wished the window treated in a way which was not only inartistic but untraditional, and the stained glass firm objected. Without being told anything about the controversy, I was asked if I would meet them and express my opinion of the proposed window. I fear that my good clerical friend was quite chagrined when my criticism confirmed all that the stained glass firm had said, but he was broad-minded enough to be convinced. The other instance was when Mr. Barber asked me to look at a drawing for a Rood-Screen. He asked me whether it was right to have the Blessed Virgin and Saint John kneeling on either side of the Cross. Of course, it was not, either scripturally or traditionally. In this case, however, the Priest and donor refused to be persuaded of their mistake. The Rood-Screen was installed, and then the Rector published an explanation that Saint Mary and Saint John were being represented kneeling in adoration after Our Lord had died! It does not speak well of the Reverend Father's knowledge of Scripture, which says that "there stood by the Cross" Mary and the others, and where we are told that Saint John took the Blessed Virgin away after the "third word from the Cross."

In England, I think that the Clergy know a good deal about both Art and Architecture. It may be because all around them are such wonderful examples. In America, however, I have been amazed at how little many Priests, perhaps otherwise both learned and cultivated, understand. And while it is true we can boast of some very great architects thoroughly conversant with ecclesiastical work, there are many persons in the profession who are never at their best in Church designing and building. My explanation is that they are largely lacking the religious feeling. I do not believe that an unbelieving, irreligious or unspiritual man can properly design a Church, for consciously or unconsciously, one has to be animated by that spirit which guided the great builders and craftsmen of old: to work for the Glory of God.

My wanderings abroad and my books at home have shown me glorious Cathedrals, beautiful Parish Churches and lovely ruined Abbeys. The more I have seen and the older I grow the more confirmed I am in the conclusion, which I think was Dr. Cram's, that all things considered, Notre Dame in Paris is perhaps the most notable Gothic Cathedral in the world.

In the little sketch that follows are some very simple little notes, most short and superficial, relating to Architecture in general and Gothic in particular. I put this forth not that it tells or teaches very much, but rather that it marks a few turning points in the study of this fascinating art, which might lead some of my clerical brethren to seek the books which more fully treat the subject.

It can hardly be disputed by those who have seen the Cathedrals abroad that church building reached its highest expression in the wonderful thirteenth century. Then we find real religion inspiring real genius, to bring into visible being true art, in stone, wood and metal, in form and colour, the spirit expressing itself in material things, in the terms of religious beauty. Here Clerics, Churchmen, Architects and Artisans were animated by a common impulse to give of their best to God and to make the House of God "a thing of beauty" and "a joy forever," because it showed forth, spoke of, and symbolized God and His Glory and the longing of the soul for God. Perhaps French Decorated Gothic reached most nearly to the ideal for which men strove!

Like Christian Art and Music, Church Architecture is a thing of growth and development, varying with the characteristics of every age and suiting the conditions of every country. In a way, it is the expression of life, each age making its contribution until finally real inspiration ends in the finding of an ideal. This, many persons think, was realized in mediaeval times in Gothic Architecture, when religious aspiration and artistic purity seem to have found their highest expression.

The Church at the beginning, in the age of persecution, was not concerned with Art and Architecture. Necessity made Cellars and Upper Rooms, and later the Catacombs, places of worship, where, however, they often seemed to have had the proper ceremonial accompaniment of Vestments, Lights, Incense and Music.

When persecution ceased, many of the old Roman Halls came to be used as Churches. The basic characteristics of these have largely been followed even to the present day in the Places of Worship of the Eastern Church. These are sometimes spoken of as "Byzantine." A most notable example of this general style is the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice. In the West this developed into what has been called the "Romanesque": in France and England often referred to as "Norman," in Italy as "Lombard." These buildings were known as Basilicas, generally bare and plain on the outside, but frequently gorgeously decorated on the inside in colour and mosaic.

The Romanesque will ever be impressive. Cathedrals in this style showed stupendous size and strength. They speak of power, but often are as suggestive of Castle as of Church. They had a grandeur all their own, often heightened by their situation. The finest examples are probably found in Germany and England, although the types are often different. Those wonderful Cathedrals of Speyer, Mainz, Bamberg or Durham once seen can never be forgotten. Yet those mighty buildings will never charm as does the Gothic! Perhaps one might say that the Romanesque speaks of the power of God, the Gothic of the Beauty of God. Gothic Architecture may be described as symbolic of the aspiration of the soul after God. It seems to embody the sacramental idea, "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The soaring heights, the long-drawn aisles, the fretted vaults speak of mystery and mysticism, the soul worshipping God. The Gothic is often called "The Pointed Style." Perhaps that is its best name. Its origin is interesting, whether regarded as a kind of revelation or mere chance. One may see it suggested in the arched branches of the forest trees. Or trace it to the accident of two round arches being seen at such an angle that a pointed arch is formed at the place of contact. Whatever the origin, as in the development of the Romanesque, it changed the whole plan of building, involving as it did new problems of stress and strain, weight and thrust, as the Gothic architect in his ambition to excel, aspired to still greater heights while at the same time seeking a greater delicacy of treatment. There was constant change and development, and consequently Gothic work showed many periods with wide divergence in different lands. Yet the distinguishing characteristics were the same: the pointed arch, greater height, less wall space, larger windows, greater elaboration of detail and a more profuse decoration. Towers came to be surmounted or supplemented by Spires. The inside walls were carried higher and higher with vaults ever more lofty. The stone spaces between windows became less and less, in order to give opportunity for more light and to fill in the openings with beautiful tracery and lovely glass. And to support these soaring vaults and lightened walls, recourse was had to what are called "flying buttresses" on the exterior, at first built for safety and later having a great decorative value in themselves. Then there was the cruciform feature where Nave, Transepts and Chancel Apse contributed their part in conveying this mediaeval air of mystery. Recall but a moment such great Cathedrals as Amiens, Notre Dame, or Cologne, and one must surely see the great loveliness of Gothic, so grandly beautiful and so beautifully grand. An interesting feature in many places was the slight variation from the straight line in the Choir, said to symbolize Our Lord's head inclining on the Cross.

The styles called the "Renaissance" and the "Classical" are closely allied. The latter was copied, modified, adapted and often combined with other styles in the ages that followed the highest development of Gothic. No one can gainsay the stately splendour and beauty of a "Classical" or "Renaissance" building. As a Church the Classical makes a magnificent setting. It makes a great "Function" a most impressive sight. It accommodates vast crowds. And if- there is a Dome, there is a glory about that soaring vault. Yet the splendour is of this world. There is little to suggest the world beyond. Saint Peter's, Rome, as seen from the Pincian Gardens, Saint Paul's, London, as glimpsed from the vistas of crowded streets, are unspeakably impressive and have a beauty all their own, but in the last analysis, they lack that spiritual something that lifts the soul on wings towards God! They do not compare with the more delicate, the more spiritual loveliness of the Gothic Church, with its spires, its pinnacles, its arched roofs and lofty vaults, all alive as it were in the atmosphere of religion.

Look at the Cathedrals of France! Look further to those beautiful Gothic Churches in Austria and Germany. Take some, almost haphazard: Notre Dame or La Sainte Chapelle, Paris, Saint Stephen's, Vienna, the Cathedrals of Freiburg or Ratisbon, the Liebfrauenkirche at Treves, the old Cistercian Abbey of Holy Cross, Mayer-ling, the old Churches of Nuremburg, the ivy-clad ruins of Tintern, or the splendid Cathedral of Cologne--could anything be more exquisitely beautiful or more inspiringly grand than these lovely bits of Gothic! Truly in each one the soul must say: "Surely this is the House of God."

What does Gothic mean but the attempt to show in Architecture the aspirations of the Soul 1 It is symbolic of this yearning. Utility gives way to beauty, but the beauty is that which speaks of religion. The Holy Catholic Church is teaching in stone. The building becomes expressive of the Faith. The columned aisles, the soaring vaults, the lofty arches, the painted windows, the carven traceries, the lights and the shadows, how they reveal and yet veil, adding a mystery and a mysticism that seems to speak of the Faith itself where the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen form the Catholic Religion.

And the various craftsmen of the Middle Ages caught this spirit. They were not given, as today, plans and designs to follow. They were simply given a space to carve, a surface to cut according to their own ideas and conceptions. Being children of the Church, schooled in the Catholic Faith, they expressed their religion in their work. The result was stone or wood almost endowed with life as the craftsmen made them show forth scenes and events, figures and symbols of Bible Teaching, Church Lore, and Christian Tradition.

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