Project Canterbury

The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments
with an Introductory Essay, Notes, and Illustrations

By John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb.

Leeds: T.W. Green, 1843.

Chapter I.

THE study of Church Architecture has within the last few years become so general, and a love for it so widely diffused, that whereas, in a former generation it was a task to excite either, in the present it is rather an object to direct both. An age of church-building, such as this, ought to produce good architects, not only from the great encouragement given to their professional efforts, but from the increasing appreciation of the principles and powers of their art. And yet it cannot be denied, however we may account for the fact, that (at least among those for whom we write, the members of our own communion,) no architect has as yet arisen, who appears destined to be the reviver of Christian art. It is not that the rules of the science have not been studied, that the examples bequeathed to us have not been imitated, that the details are not understood. We have (though they are but few) modern buildings of the most perfect proportions, of the most faultless details, and reared with lavish expence. It is that there is an undefined--perhaps almost undefinable-- difference between a true "old church," and the most perfect of modern temples. In the former, at least till late in the Perpendicular era, we feel that, however strange the proportions, or extraordinary the details, the effect is church-like. In the latter, we may not be able to blame; but from a certain feeling of unsatisfactoriness, we cannot praise.

The solution of the problem,--What is it that causes this difference? has been often attempted, sometimes with partial, but never with complete, success. That most commonly given is the following:--The effect of association in old buildings,--the mellowing power of time,--the evident antiquity of surrounding objects,--the natural beauties of foliage, moss, and ivy, that require centuries to reach perfection;--as on the other hand, the bareness, the newness, nay even the sharpness and vigour of new work; these, it is said, are sufficient to stamp a different character on each. There is doubtless something in this; but that it is not the whole cause is evident from the fact, that give a modern church all the above mentioned advantages on paper, and an experienced eye will soon detect it to be modern.

Those writers who, as Grose, Milner, and Carter, lived before the details of Christian art were understood, seem to have placed its perfection in a thorough knowledge of these: experience has proved them wrong. Others, as Mr. Petit, have made a kind of ideal picturesque; and, having exalted the phantasm into an idol, have fallen down and worshipped it. [See the Review of his work in the Ecclesiologist, vol. i. pp. 91-105.] Others, again, have sought for an explanation of the difficulty in mathematical contrivance and mechanical ingenuity; and the result has been little more than the discovery of curious eave-drains, and wonderful cast-iron roof-work. Lastly, Mr. Pugin (cum talis sis, utinam noster esses!) has placed the thing required in Reality. That is, to quote his own words, in making these the two great rules of design:--"1. That there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety: 2. That all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of a building." [Pugin's True Principles, p. 1.] And we may add, as a corollary, still quoting the same writer: "The smallest detail should HAVE A MEANING or serve a purpose: the construction itself should vary with the material employed: and the designs should be adapted to the material in which they are to be executed." Still, most true and most important as are these remarks, we must insist on one more axiom, otherwise Christian art will but mock us, and not shew us wherein its great strength lieth.

A Catholick architect must be a Catholick in heart. Simple knowledge will no more enable a man to build up GOD'S material, than His spiritual, temples. In ancient times, the finest buildings were designed by the holiest Bishops. Wykeham, and Poore will occur to every Churchman. And we have every reason to believe, from GOD'S Word, from Catholick consent, and even from philosophical principles, that such must always be the case.

Holy Scripture, in mentioning the selection of Bezaleel and Aholiab, as architects of the Tabernacle, expressly asserts them to have been filled "with the SPIRIT OF GOD in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold and in silver and in brass, and in cutting of stones to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship." And this indeed is only a part of the blessing of the pure in heart: they see GOD, the Fountain of Beauty, even in this life; as they shall see Him, the Fountain of Holiness, in the next. From Catholick consent we may learn the same truth. Why else was Ecclesiastical Architecture made a part of the profession of Clerks, than because it was considered that the purity and holiness of that profession fitted them best for so great a work? [Compare the general drift of the Address to Paulinus. Eusebius. H.E.X. 4.]

Nay, we have remarkable proofs that feeling without knowledge will do more than knowledge without feeling. There are instances of buildings--Lisbon Cathedral and S. Peter's College Chapel, Cambridge, are cases in point--which, with Debased or Italian details, have nevertheless Christian effect. And we have several similar cases, more paticularly in the way of towers.

Now, allowing the respectability which attaches itself to the profession of a modern architect, and the high character of many in that profession, none would assert that they, as a body, make it a matter of devotion and prayer; that they work for the Church alone, regardless of themselves; that they build in faith, and to the glory of GOD.

In truth, architecture has become too much a profession: it is made the means of gaining a livelihood, and is viewed as a path to honourable distinction, instead of being the study of the devout ecclesiastick, who matures his noble conceptions with the advantage of that profound meditation only attainable in the contemplative life; who, without thought of recompense or fame, has no end in view but the raising a temple, worthy of its high end, and emblematical of the faith which is to be maintained within its walls. It is clear that modern architects are in a very different position from their predecessors, with respect to these advantages. We are not prepared to say that none but monks ought to design churches, or that it is impossible for a professional architect to build with the devotion and faith of an earlier time. But we do protest against the merely business-like spirit of the modern profession, and demand from them a more elevated and directly religious habit of mind. We surely ought to look at least for Church-membership from one who ventures to design a church. There cannot be a more painful idea than that a separatist should be allowed to build a House of GOD, when he himself knows nothing of the ritual and worship of the Church from which he has strayed; to prepare both Font and Altar, when perchance he knows nothing of either Sacrament but that he has always despised them. Or, again, to think that any Churchman should allow himself to build a conventicle, and even sometimes to prostitute the speaking architecture of the Church to the service of Her bitterest enemies! What idea can such a person have formed of the reality of Church architecture? Conceive a Churchman designing a triple window, admitted emblem of the MOST HOLY TRINITY, for a congregation of Socinians! We wish to vindicate the dignity of this noble science against the treason of its own professors. If architecture is anything more than a mere trade; if it is indeed a liberal, intellectual art, a true branch of poesy; let us prize its reality and meaning and truthfulness, and at least not expose ourselves by giving to two contraries one and the same material expression.

It is objected that architects have a right to the same professional conscience that is claimed, for instance, by a barrister. To which we can only reply, that it must be a strange morality which will justify a pleader in violating truth; and how much worse for an architect to violate truth in things immediately connected with the House and worship of GOD! It may be asked, Do we mean to imply then that a Church architect ought never to undertake any secular building? Perhaps, as things are, we cannot expect so much as this now: but we can never believe that the man who engages to design union-houses, or prisons, or assembly-rooms, and gives the dregs of his time to church-building; is likely to produce a good church, or, in short, can expect to be filled from above with the Spirit of Wisdom. The Church architect must, we are persuaded, make very great sacrifices: he must forego all lucrative undertakings, if they may not be carried through upon those principles which he believes necessary for every good building; and particularly if the end to be answered, or the wants to be provided for, are in themselves unjustifiable or mischievous. Even in church-building itself, he must see many an unworthy rival preferred to him, who will condescend to pander to the whims and comfort of a Church-committee, will suit his design to any standard of ritualism which may be suggested by his own ignorance, or others' private judgement, who will consent to defile a building meant for GOD'S worship with pues and galleries and prayer-pulpits and commodious vestries. But hard as the trial may be, a Church architect must submit to it, rather than recede from the principles which he knows to be the very foundation of his art. We would go further even, and deny the possibility of any architect's success in all the different styles of Pointed architecture, not to mention the orders of Greece and Rome, Vitruvian, Palladian, Cinque Cento, Wrennian, nay even Chinese, Swiss, Hindoo, and Egyptian, at once. We have not even now exhausted the list of styles in which a modern architect is supposed to be able to design. It is even more absurd than if every modern painter were expected, and should profess, to paint equally well in the styles of Perugino, Francia, Raphael, Holbein, Claude, the Poussins, Salvator Rosa, Correggio, Van Eyck, Teniers, Rubens, Murillo, Reynolds, West, Gainsborough, Overbeck, and Copley Fielding all at once! An architect ought indeed to be acquainted, and the more the better, with all styles of building: but if architecture, as we said before, is a branch of poesy, if the poet's mind is to have any individuality, he must design in one style, and one style only. For the Anglican architect, it will be necessary to know enough of the earlier styles to be able to restore the deeply interesting churches, which they have left us as precious heirlooms; enough of the Debased styles, to take warning from their decline: but for his own style, he should choose the glorious architecture of the fourteenth century; and, just as no man has more than one handwriting, so in this one language alone will he express his architectural ideas.

We cannot leave this topick without referring to what the Cambridge Camden Society has said with respect to architectural competition. [See Ecclesiologist, vol. i., pp. 69, 85.] It is a fact that at this time many competing designs are manufactured in an architect's office, by some of his clerks, as if by machinery: if a given plan is chosen, the architect is summoned, and sees his (!) design for the first time, when he is introduced to the smiling committee-men. It is another fact that there is at this time in London a small body of persons, with no other qualification than that of having been draughtsmen in an architect's office, who get up a set of competing designs for any aspirant who chooses to give them a few instructions, and to pay them for their trouble. How much it is to be wished that there were some examination of an architect's qualifications, before he should be allowed to assume the name! It seems strange that the more able members of the profession do not themselves feel some esprit de corps, and do not at least endeavour to claim for their art its full dignity and importance. We fear however that very few, as yet, take that religious view of their profession, which we have shewn to be seemly, even if not essential. If, however, we succeed in proving that religion enters very largely into the principles of Church architecture, a religious ethos, we repeat, is essential to a Church architect. At all events, in an investigation into the differences between ancient and modern Church architecture, the contrast between the ancient and modern builders could not be overlooked: and it is not too much to hope that some, at least, may be struck by the fact, that the deeply religious habits of the builders of old, the Hours, the cloister, the discipline, the obedience, resulted in their matchless works; while the worldliness, vanity, dissipation, and patronage of our own architects issue in unvarying and hopeless failure.

We said that there were philosophical reasons for the belief that we must have architects,--before we can have buildings,--like those of old. If it be true that an esoterick signification, or, as we shall call it, Sacramentality, ran through all the arrangements and details of Christian architecture, emblematical of Christian discipline, and suggested by Christian devotion; then must the discipline have been practised, and the devotion felt, before a Christian Temple can be reared. That this esoterick meaning, or symbolism, does exist, we are flow to endeavour to prove.

[It may be proper to distinguish between five terms, too generally vaguely employed in common, and which we shall often have occasion to use: we mean, allegorical, symbolical, typical, figurative, and sacramental.

["Allegory employs fictitious things and personages to shadow out the truth: Symbolism uses real personages and real actions [and real things] as symbols of the truth:" British Critic, No. lxv. p. 121. Sacramentality is symbolism applied to the truth kat' exchoen, the teaching of the Church, by the hands of the teacher: a Type is a symbol intended from the first: a Figure is a symbol not discovered till after the thing figurative has had a being.]

We assert, then, that Sacramentality is that characteristick which so strikingly distinguishes ancient ecclesiastical architecture from our own. By this word we mean to convey the idea that, by the outward and visible form, is signified something inward and spiritual: that the material fabrick symbolizes, embodies, figures, represents, expresses, answers to, some abstract meaning. Consequently, unless this ideal be itself true, or be rightly understood, he who seeks to build a Christian church may embody a false or incomplete or mistaken ideal, but will not develope the true one. Hence, while the Parthenon, or a conventicle, or a modern church, may be conceived to have, on the one hand, so much truthfulness, as to symbolize respectively the graceful, but pagan, worship of Athene,--the private judgement of the dissenter,--and the warped or ill-understood or puritanized religious ethos of the modern Churchman; and, on the other hand, to have so much reality as to carry out most satisfactorily Mr. Pugin's canons; yet, inasmuch as in neither case was the builder's ideal the true one, so in neither case is his architecture in any way adapted to, or an embodiment of, the ideal of the Church. Reality, then, is not of itself sufficient. What can be more real than a pyramid, yet what less Christian? It must be Christian reality, the true expression of a true ideal, which makes Catholick architecture what it is. This Christian reality, we would call SACRAMENTALITY; investing that symbolical truthfulness, which it has in common with every true expressson, with a greater force and holiness, both from the greater purity of the perfect truth which it embodies, and from the association which this name will give it with those adorable and consummate examples of the same principle, infinitely more developed, and infinitely more holy in the spiritual grace which they signify and convey,--the Blessed Sacraments of the Church.

The modern writers who have treated on Symbolism seem to have taken respectively very partial views of the subject. Mr. Pugin does not seem in his books to recognize the particular principle which we have enunciated. We have shewn that his law about Reality is true so far as it goes, but that it does not go far enough. He himself, for example, is now contemplating a work on the reality of domestick, as before of ecclesiastical, architecture. Now, nothing can be more true, nothing more useful, than this. Yet even he does not seem to have discerned that as contact with the Church endues with a new sanctity, and elevates every form and every principle of art: so in a peculiar sense the sacred end to which Church architecture is subservient, elevates and sanctifies that reality which must be a condition of its goodness in common with all good architecture; in short, raises this principle of Reality into one of Sacramentality. We should be sorry to assert that Mr. Pugin does not feel this, though we are not aware that he has expressed it in his writings: but in his most lasting writings, his churches namely, it is clear that the principle, if not intentionally even, and if only incompletely, has not been without a great influence on that master mind. Yet even in these we could point to details, arid in some of his earlier works to something more than details, which shew that there is something wanting; that in the bold expedients and fearless licence which his genius has led him to employ, he has occasionally gone wrong; not from the fact of his departure from strict precedent, and his vindication of a certain architectural freedom, but because in these escapements from authority, he has not invariably kept in view the principle now advocated. However the author of the "True Principles" might point to his churches, to prove that a reverent and religious mind, employed in administering to the material wants of the Church, (even though that reverence be misapplied, and that Church in a schismatical position,) cannot fail to succeed, at least in some degree, in stamping upon his work the impress of his own faith and zeal, and in making it, at least to some extent, a living developement and expression of the true ideal.

Mr. Poole, the author of the "Appropriate character of Church Architecture," would appear to believe the symbolism of details rather than any general principle. He was the first, we think, to reassert that the octagonal form of Fonts was figurative of Regeneration. In the latter edition of his Book he has adopted several of the symbolical interpretations advanced by the writers of the Cambridge Camden Society.

Mr. Lewis, in his illustrations of Kilpeck Church, (in an appendix to which he has printed a translation of some part of the Rationale of our Author) has given a treatise on symbolism generally, and has applied his principles to the explanation of the plan and details of that particular church. His book excited some attention at the time of publication, and was met by considerable ridicule in many quarters. To this we think it was fairly open, since the author did not seem to have grasped the true view of the subject. He appears to believe that, from the very first, all Church architecture was intentionally symbolical. Now this is an unlikely supposition, inasmuch as till Church architecture was fully developed, we do not think that its real significancy was understood to its full extent by those who used it. That it was, in its imperfect state, symbolical, we should be the last to deny; but it seems more in accordance with probability, and more in analogy with the progress of other arts, to believe that at first certain given wants induced and compelled certain adaptations to those wants: which then did symbolize the wants themselves; and which afterwards became intentionally symbolical. Now such a view as this will explain satisfactorily how a Christian church might be progressively developed from a Basilican model. Mr. Hope, in his essay on Architecture, carries us back to the very earliest expedient likely to be adopted by a savage to protect him from weather, and from this derives every subsequent expansion of the art. Which may be true, and probably is true, so far at least as this: that, however first acquired, the elementary knowledge of any method of building would be, like all other knowledge, continually receiving additions and improvements, till from the first bower of branches sprang the Parthenon, and from that again Cologne or Westminster. But then it is clearly necessary to show some moral reason for so strange a developement, so complete a change of form and style. Now the theory that the ethos of Catholick architects working upon the materials made to hand, namely, the ancient orders of pagan architecture and (say) the Basilican plan, gradually impressed itself upon these unpromising elements, and progressively developed from them a transcript of that ethos in Christian architecture, is intelligible at least, and presents no such difficulty as Mr. Lewis's supposition that ancient architects, (he does not say when, or how long--but take Kilpeck church and say Norman architects,) designed intentionally on symbolical principles. We want in this case to be informed when the change took place, from what period architects began to symbolize intentionally, at what time they forgot the traditions of church-building, which they must have had, and commenced to carry new principles into practice. Nor, on this supposition, do we see why there should have been any progressive developement, why the Basilican and Debased-Pagan trammels were not cast away at once; nor why, if the ideal of the Norman architect was true and perfect (that is if he were a true Catholick,) its expression should not hare been so too: nor why any Norman symbolism, thus originated, should ever have been discarded (as it has been in later styles) instead of remaining an integral and essential part of the material expression of the Church's mind. Now our view appears to be open to no such objection. On the one hand there are given materials to work upon, and on the other a given spirit which is to mould and inform the mass. The contest goes on: mind gradually subdues matter, until in the complete developement of Christian architecture we see the projection of the mind of the Church. It is quite in analogy with the history and nature of the Church, and with the workings of GOD'S providence with respect to it, that there should be this gradual expansion and developement of truth. We foresee the objection that will be raised against fixing on any period as that of the full ripeness of Christian art, and are prepared for many sneers at our advocacy of the perfection of the Edwardian architecture. But we are assured that, if there is any truth (not to say in what is advanced in this essay, but) in what has ever been proposed by any who have appreciated the genius of Pointed Architecture--to confine ourselves to our own subject--no other period can be chosen at which all conditions of beauty, of detail, of general effect, of truthfulness, of reality are so fully answered as in this. And from this spring two important considerations. Firstly, the decline of Christian art--which may be traced from this very period, if architecture be tried by any of the conditions which have been laid down--was confessedly coincident with, and (if what we have said is true) was really symbolical of, those corruptions, which ended in the great rending of the Latin Church; the effects of, and penalties for, which remain to this day in full operation in the whole of Western Christendom. Secondly, the Decorated style may be indeed the finest developement of Christian architecture which the world has yet seen; but it does not follow that it is the greatest perfection which shall ever be arrived at. No: we too look forward, if it may be, to the time when even a new style of Church architecture shall be given us, so glorious and beautiful and true, that Cologne will sink into a fine example of a Transitional period, when the zeal and faith and love of the reunited Church shall find their just expression in the sacramental forms of Catholick art.

But besides the above objection to Mr. Lewis's theory we may mention the arbitrary way in which he determines on things which are to be symbolized, and then violently endeavours to find their expected types. This is quite at variance with the practice of any sober symbolist; and more especially (as we shall hereafter have occasion to point out) with that of Durandus. This forced sort of symbolism naturally leads to a disregard of precedent and authority: and accordingly we remember to have heard of a design by this gentleman for the arrangement of a Chancel which professed to symbolize certain facts and doctrines; but which, whatever might be the ingenuity of the symbolism, was no less opposed to the constant rule of arrangement in ancient churches, than it was practically absurd and inconvenient for the purpose which it was meant to answer. Indeed, while Mr. Lewis insists strongly on the symbolizing of facts, he does not succeed in grasping any general principle, any more than he sees the difficulty there is in the way of our receiving his supposition of an intention to symbolize from the first. No architect ever sat down with an analyzed scheme of doctrines which he resolved to embody in his future building: in this, as in any other department of poesy, the result is harmonious, significant, and complete, and may be resolved into its elements, though these elements might never have been laid by the poet as the foundation upon which to raise his superstructure. That were like De La Harpe's theory that an epick poet should first determine on his moral, and then draw out such a plan for his poem as may enable him to illustrate that moral.

[It is with pain that we have spoken of Mr. Lewis at all, because every Ecclesiologist owes him a debt for his great boldness in turning the publick attention to the subject of symbolism. Yet we believe that a prejudice has been excited by him against that subject which it will be hard to get over: for we are constrained to say, that greater absurdities were never printed than some which have appeared in his book. His explanations of the West end of Kilpeck church,--his cool assumption when any bracket appears more puzzling than usual that it is of later work, and therefore not explainable,--his random perversions of Scripture--his puerile conceits about the door,--deserve this criticism. This same south door he extols as a perfect mine of Ecclesiastical information, while he confesses himself unable to explain the symbols wrought on the two orders of the arch,--that is, about two thirds of the whole! It is strange too, that in his restoration of the church, he should have forgotten all about the bells,--and have violated a fundamental canon of symbolism, by terminating his western gable in a plain Cross.]

The writers of the Cambridge Camden Society have carried out the system more fully and consistently than any others. It has evidently grown upon them, during the process of their enquiries: yet in their earliest publications, we trace, though more obscurely, the same thing. Their Few Words to Church Builders acknowledged the principle to a far greater length; and the Ecclesiologist has always acted upon it, even when not expressly referring to it. As a necessary consequence, they were the first who dwelt on the absolute necessity of a distinct and spacious Chancel; the first who recommended, and where they could, insisted on, the re-introduction of the Rood-screen; and the first to condemn the use of western triplets. The position and shape of the Font, the necessity of orientation, and some few details, they have, but only in common with others, urged.

The Oxford Architectural Society have never recognised any given principles: and in consequence Littlemore is proposed by them as a model,--a church either without, or else all, Chancel; and either way a solecism.

As might have been expected from a separatist Rickman, in his treatise, gives not a single line to the principle for which we contend. Mr. Bloxam, in his excellent little work, though often referring to it,--more especially in the later editions which have appeared since the labours of the Cambridge Camden Society,--yet hardly gives it that prominence which we might have expected from one, who possesses so just an idea of mediaeval arrangements and art.

Among the chief opposers of the system we may mention Mr. Coddington of Ware, who sees perfection in the clumsiness of Basilican arrangements, and schism in the developed art of the middle ages. This writer, as it has been observed in the Ecclesiologist, contends for two things:--1. That one great object of Romanism was to abolish the distinction between the clergy and laity: 2. That another great object of the same Church, acting by its monks, (or, as he calls them, schismatical communities,) was to exalt the clergy unduly above the laity. The former assertion he does not attempt to prove: the latter he supports by pointing to the arrangement of the Rood-screen, which, therefore, like the French Ambonoclasts, he wishes to pull down both in Cathedrals and churches.

This brief review of the principal writers who have treated on the Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, concludes our first chapter. In it we have endeavoured to point out an acknowledged desideratum; to shew what suppositions have been advanced on the subject; to set forth wherein, and for what reason, they fail of being satisfactory; to enunciate the principle of Sacramentality as essential for the full appreciation and successful imitation of ancient Church architecture; and finally, in referring to the works of some later symbolists, to shew why their hypotheses are incomplete or untenable. We have also brought under review the glaring contrasts between the methods of life of an ancient and modern architect; and, if we may so say, between the machinery of designing and the habit of mind in the two cases. We shall now proceed to examine those arguments which may lead us to suspect that some such principle as Sacramentality really exists.

Project Canterbury