St. Giles’ Catholic Church (1841-1846), designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Located in Cheadle, Staffordshire, England.
After the Houses of Parliament in London burned down in 1834, King William IV announced a “general competition” to solicit proposals for its reconstruction. The competition stipulated that the designs be either Gothic or Elizabethan, but implicitly not classical—that is, not based on the Greek, Roman, or Italian models which at the time were the overwhelming inspiration for grand civic commissions (and many churches as well).
The Gothic style, besides being popular with the public, was thought by the committee in charge of the competition to be more natural or indigenous to England than any from the ancient world, and so better suited for a building meant to be a memorial to British history. And there was also, perhaps, the political apprehension that classical architecture was too evocative of the massive constructions of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with which England had been only lately at war (the irony being that it was in France that the Gothic style itself had originated, albeit centuries earlier).
From almost 100 entries, the committee chose the design submitted by Charles Barry, who ordinarily favored the Italian school, and his young assistant, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, then only 26. Their design was something of a compromise: a classically symmetrical structure with a lengthy frontage on the Thames, but Gothic in appearance, or, as Pugin remarked ruefully, “Tudor details on a classic body.”
An Architect’s Damascus
Pugin, born in 1812, was, despite the antiquity of his given name, the foremost advocate of Gothic revival architecture in England, and a fierce defender of all things medieval and Catholic. His father, a noted draughtsman who had employed his still-teenaged son to make drawings for a series of volumes on Gothic architecture, was nominally Protestant, but his pious mother had brought him regularly to Anglican and Presbyterian services, where the young Pugin was early turned against Catholicism. But as he deepened his study and love of medieval art and learned more of the religion that had produced it, he discovered that “the service I had been accustomed to attend and admire was but a cold and heartless remnant of past glories, and that those prayers which in my ignorance I had ascribed to reforming piety, were in reality only scraps plucked from the solemn and perfect offices of the ancient Church.” His disaffection led him in 1834 (the year of the fire, and just five years after the Emancipation Act), at age 22, to be received into the Catholic Church.
In his brief but concentrated life—he married three times in 12 years (all his wives died, having borne him eight children) before his death at 40—Pugin revitalized Gothic architecture across England and furthered its diffusion around the world, from the United States to Australia.
Devastation and Vile Repair
In several written works, including Contrasts, composed in 1836 with the unsparing vigor of the recent convert, and its sequel, True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, he advocated Gothic as the only style worthy for Christian service, and inveighed against the debased architecture that had overrun England, in consequence, he held, of unwholesome fascination with the ancient pagan world and the disastrous “change of religion” unleashed in the 15th century.
For Pugin, being pro-Gothic was virtually synonymous with being anti-classic and anti-Protestant. As he describes in Contrasts, the losses to English faith and architecture wrought by the predations of Henry VIII, “who neither respected sanctity or art,” and “that female demon, Elizabeth,” were ruinous. Their work was abetted by the Puritan Reformers, who remorselessly erased every vestige of “popish superstition” from the surviving English churches, with the result that what had once been a country where “architecture had attained a most extraordinary degree of excellence” was filled in Pugin’s day with the melancholy remains of “three centuries of mingled devastation, neglect, and vile repair.”
Those great medieval edifices had been
erected for the most solemn rites of Christian worship, when the term Christian had but one signification throughout the world; when the glory of the house of God formed an important consideration with mankind, when men were zealous for religion, liberal in their gifts, and devoted to her cause; they were erected ere heresy had destroyed faith, schism had put an end to unity, and avarice had instigated the plunder of that wealth that had been consecrated to the service of the church. When these feelings entered in, the spell was broken, the architecture itself fell with the religion to which it owed its birth, and was succeeded by a mixed and base style devoid of science or elegance, which was rapidly followed by others, till at length, regulated by no system, devoid of unity, but made to suit the ideas and means of each sect as they sprung up, buildings for religious worship present as great incongruities, varieties, and extravagances, as the sects and ideas which have emanated from the new religion which first wrought this great change. (Contrasts, 3)
Together with his love for the medieval church, Pugin founded his commitment to the Gothic style on specific aesthetic principles. Chief among these was his belief that “the great test of architectural beauty is the fitness of the design to the purpose for which it is intended”—in modern terms, form should follow function. Religious structures, having the highest function, should inspire the noblest forms, and Gothic architecture, being inspired by the faith of the Catholic Church, perforce surpasses any and all “temples of the pagan nations” or non-Catholic sects. As a practical matter, Pugin taught that buildings should incorporate only those features necessary for “convenience, construction, or propriety.” Consequently, “all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.”
St. Giles’, Cheadle (halfway between Birmingham and Manchester) was commissioned in 1840 by Pugin’s enthusiastic Catholic patron, John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The church was intended to be a grand manifesto of Pugin’s ideas, a recreation of “an English parish church of the time of Edward I.” He designed everything from the floor tiles to the 200-foot spire, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of medieval furnishings and artisanal traditions. He called it his “perfect Cheadle, my consolation in all my afflictions.”
A Vehicle for Beauty
Pugin’s enthusiasm for Gothic forms is striking, considering that the classical tradition of architecture boasts an almost unbroken 2500-year reign over European architecture. Its features inform virtually every major architectural movement from the early Christian and Byzantine periods through to the neoclassical school of Pugin’s day and continue in some strands of modern and contemporary architecture. Nonetheless, the classical style fails in Pugin’s aesthetic system because it uselessly imitates, in stone, forms that developed naturally from the wooden materials used by the earliest Greek builders and because it disguises the means of its construction for effect. It is, in other words, unimaginative and dishonest—besides being pagan in origin.
Christian architecture demands nobler methods and inspirations. “The severity of Christian . . . architecture is utterly opposed to all deception,” Pugin wrote. It must not borrow its ideas from “heathen rites,” nor seek “decorations from the idolatrous emblems of a strange people.” Nor should it conceal its construction, but instead render “the useful a vehicle for the beautiful.” This principle caused Pugin to anathematize even painting or plastering over surfaces, or daubing them with gilt and faux finishes to lend them false magnificence. Let honest brick and stone be honest brick and stone, nothing more or less—though, as is abundantly evident at St. Giles’, he was not above extensive “beautification” for the glory of God, especially when the work was carried out by skilled craftsmen, not soulless machines.
The multiplicity of detail at St. Giles’ and other Gothic churches—abhorrent to classicists, for whom simplicity was the ideal—aims for the magnificence appropriate to its divine purpose. The heaven-aspiring arches and spires, the windows with their sublime coloration, the trefoils, carvings, and every other part made the body of the church an entire symbol of Catholic doctrine. But each element nevertheless answered very real functional and structural needs. Spires, for example, are not arbitrary symbolic embellishments: Their vertical extension adds mass to supporting pillars and buttresses, compressing and strengthening them.
Principle, Not Style
For Pugin and his followers, it was indisputable that art should elevate the character of its beholders, that it should be no mere passive mirror of its times, but an agent for moral improvement. The revived Christian architecture would restore not only good taste but the whole moral and social fiber of England. It would grant dignity to workers by showcasing the fruits of their noble labor. And, as it had done for him, it would help win souls to the Roman Church.
The neoclassicists had similarly moralizing views about art, aligned with what they were pleased to view as progressive and enlightened rationalism based on ancient Greco-Roman virtues. These they levelled against the conservative, obscurantist religiosity and romantic sentiment they saw in the revivalists: Anti-Catholic sentiments played the same role with them as did anti-Protestantism for some on the other side. One English neoclassicist famously dismissed Gothic churches as “congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use, or beauty.”
Both camps can be accused of founding an aesthetic on wistful nostalgia, but Pugin insisted that he did not aspire merely “to revive a facsimile of the works or style of any particular . . . period, but [rather] the devotion, majesty, and repose of Christian art. . . . It is not a style, but a principle.” He railed against ignorant or clumsy imitations of Gothic work, even criticizing his own early efforts and the “mutilations” perpetrated by a sometimes unappreciative Catholic clergy in the name of renovation. Ultimately, Pugin and the revivalists succeeded in creating an exquisitely pure and exacting Gothic style that never actually existed in the Middle Ages. St. Giles’ was Pugin’s blueprint for the continued development of Christian architecture, submitted as if the unhappy events of the intervening centuries had never occurred. But more than that, it stood as a spectacular reality in 19th-century England, a ravishing assertion that vital Catholicism still flourished in a land that had sought its extinction.
Gothic or Greek?
Does Gothic architecture then “belong” to Catholicism? Is it the best and only ecclesiastical architecture? Pugin makes a strong case—perhaps too strong, an aesthetic variety of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It is no secret that St. Peter’s Basilica is very much not constructed along Gothic lines, yet it is surely a splendid structure, as are any number of churches built according to other canons. (Pugin, ever true to his ideals, having visited Rome wrote that he “did not despair of St. Peter’s being rebuilt in a better style,” and that the city itself was “a miserable place, quite disgusting and depressing.”)
The Gothic Revival is easily linked to the wider Oxford Movement that saw Cardinal Newman (who disliked Pugin’s “unself-governed” and “bigoted” personality) and other sympathetic Anglicans enter the Church of Rome. But high-church Anglicans in general were enthusiastic supporters of the revival, as were continental Lutherans of similar temperament. And in the United States, a significant number of even low-church Protestant congregations endorsed a generic Gothic style as an ecumenical statement, a visible sign of hoped-for Christian unity. Here, and around the world, despite continuing reservations among the more reformed branches of Protestantism, the Gothic style again achieved a kind of universality.
Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain denied that any particular style of art is “Christian,” arguing that wherever art “has known a certain degree of grandeur and purity, it is already Christian.” Pugin himself seems to admit that the Christian principle in architecture should not be tied to any particular form. Should praise for the Gothic imply condemnation of the Greek? The two are great rivals in architectural history, to be sure; in their way, they reflect the civil war between the spirit and the intellect. Yet Greek art expresses ideas of perfection, beauty, truth, etc. that are wholly compatible with Catholic teaching. If St. Thomas could reconcile Greek philosophy with Catholicism, why should it be impossible or inadvisable to do the same with Greek architecture? And, if we are not prepared to hold Gothic architecture accountable for the sins of Christianity, should we reject the classical for the sins of paganism or “enlightened” atheism?
A historian of the Gothic Revival, Charles Eastlake, predicted that “to the end of time men will probably be divided in opinion as to whether the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral represents the more exalted phase of architectural taste.” Yet to the end of time, they will coexist.
A Style for the Ages
But for all that, it remains that some styles are probably better adapted to Christian service, and that others are only “ordained” uneasily or unwillingly. Some are no doubt best avoided altogether. A proof that Christian principles (and common sense) may still animate at least some architects is that mercifully few churches are built in the form of Egyptian pyramids, which are monuments to the dead, not the living. Yet even they represent divine timelessness and the rationality of the Logos.
It is not hard to imagine what Pugin would have to say about present-day church architecture. His dream for a new Gothic Age has not been realized—though the revival continues, fitfully: Witness the (Episcopalian) National Cathedral in Washington. But in view of much of what passes for Christian architecture these days, Gothic may still be the best hope. And if it seems odd to advocate a style that is hundreds of years old, it is no less odd to advocate one that is thousands of years old.
Christian unity is something we must pray for, but we are under no imperative to seek aesthetic unity. Nevertheless, might some future Pugin attempt an architectural reconciliation? Purists might forever protest, but imagine a church with a classic foundation and a Gothic superstructure. This would exactly parallel how Virgil escorted Dante to the doorstep of heaven, whereafter Beatrice took him in hand, or how unaided reason takes us to the knowledge of a deity, but only faith can proclaim him Lord.
But no matter what lies ahead, Gothic has long since proved itself “classic.”