Duffy's Irish Catholic Magazine/Volume 1/March 1847/Ecclesiastical Architecture

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Ecclesiastical Architecture.


Part I.

Amongst the various gratifying signs of our age, as indicative of a return to the Faith and practices of ancient times, the present movement on the Continent and in England in favour of the revival of the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the middle ages, is most conspicuous. In the mind of the mere antiquary or virtuoso, who is accustomed to examine works of art by ideas of abstract beauty, and to whom the portico of Erectheium is as interesting as the west front of Well's Cathedral, or the Dome of Cologne, this aspect of affairs can produce feelings little comparable to those by which the Catholic churchman is affected. The latter looks upon mediæval art as the offspring and production of the Christian church, inseparably connected, so far as the genuine existence of the arts themselves is concerned, with the rites and institutions of religion, and illustrative of, while it is glorified by their influence; and he consequently hails all just appreciation of the beauties of Christian art in its true light, as an indication of a return to the principles by which they were produced. The former endeavours to analyze it by some indefinite and unsatisfactory notions of abstract beauty, to the utter exclusion of the divine idea whence it emanated. For a century or more, the influence of this artistic dilettantism had prevailed, with results by no means commensurate with the labours and energy expended on the pursuit. And so it would have been till our own time, had not a portion of the spirit of the olden times been brought back to aid the enquiry. Men of learning and industry had expended much time and immense labour in the examination of the remains of art of the middle ages, and in giving to the world the result of their exertions. Historical accounts, dates and correct delineations were abundant, but no hope was ever expressed of the possibility of a revival of the works that had formed the subject of their studies. They were esteemed as monuments of the past, precious in the illustration of the history and social progress of mankind, but the idea of their revival would be considered a Utopian project. A wonderful change has come over the spirit of the times, and, within the short space of a dozen years, an almost total revolution of opinion has been wrought. To imitate, and even rival those glorious works of olden times, is now deemed no impossibility or vain speculation. The true use of many things, formerly mistaken for the reverse of what they really were, has been pointed out; and old churches and other ecclesiastical edifices are now examined with a direct and practical view towards their own preservation, or their imitation in new structures of a similar nature. Already has this glorious spirit sprung into full life and energy on the Continent. England has caught the flame, but Ireland as yet looks on with comparative indifference. By the exertions of one man,[1] the spirit of restoration of mediæval art has been nearly completely established amongst the Catholics of England, and churches have been built, or are in progress of erection, which, if not equal in magnitude to ancient works, yet in true Catholic feeling and treatment are worthy of the ages of faith. Nor is the enthusiasm confined to Catholics alone. The most learned and pious members of the Protestant church, anxious to establish their claims to true descent from the ancient glorious church of England, and influenced by a portion of Catholic spirit, seem determined upon rivaling the Catholics themselves in this respect. Many of their new churches, and restoration of old ones, attest the sincerity of their feelings, and the great success of their earnest labours, notwithstanding the many difficulties they have to contend against. When will this spirit warm the hearts of Irishmen? Looking at the present state of things, we are tempted to entertain some misgivings on the subject; but when we reflect on the genius and liberality of our countrymen, we receive high hope that a return to ancient customs and usages will yet be hailed with enthusiastic delight. An example, in confirmation of this opinion, is happily within our reach. The new church of St. John, at the Blackrock, is the first effort towards a revival of a church of the ancient type, within the boundaries of Dublin or its vicinity; and, although miserably defective in numerous important particulars, which we may take occasion to point out at some future time, we are well aware that the beauties which it does possess are duly appreciated.

To aid in disseminating a taste for the revival of Christian art in Ireland, to point out its beauties and perfections, and to afford instructions and advice to those about to raise temples in honour of the Living God, would be a task most grateful to our feelings, and most suitable to the pages of a Magazine devoted to the interests of the Catholic Church, and of Irishmen. The spirit of Catholicity is nowhere more active than in this country, and we are unwilling to see the externals of our religion neglected, while the means of improvement are easily attainable. On the present occasion, we mean to take a general and suggestive view of the subject, which in itself is one of great magnitude, and involves many details and accessories. In future numbers we shall continue our observations, though at present we propose no definite plan of arrangement. We shall review books, bearing immediately or collaterally upon the subject, notice new churches and other ecclesiastical edifices, and works of art in connexion with them, and labour to show their merits or defects. In all cases our observations shall be guided by Catholic principles, and the examples of antiquity; and while censuring defects, we hope to exercise a Christian charitableness—our design being rather to suggest the means of improvement than to exercise a severe criticism. In cases where pictorial illustrations of ecclesiastical edifices, ancient or modern, worthy of being held up as examples for imitation, are attainable, they shall be freely furnished. By these, and other exertions conducted in the same spirit, we hope to materially aid in removing from Ireland the shameful reproach, “That there is no country in Europe in which the externals of religion are more neglected.”

In all ages and nations, the highest efforts of architecture, as of other arts, were devoted to the serivce of the national religions, and becoming as it were instinct with the feelings and principles of the respective systems, were symbols of their doctrines and disciplines, as clear and intelligible to the initiated as the writing and tradtions which contained the dogmas of their creeds. Influences of climate and of custom were also visible in these works, so that each country possessed a species of art peculiarly its own; reflecting the religious belief, political institutions, and popular usages of its inhabitants. The architecture of the Egyptians was totally unlike that of the Greeks; and the art of Greece, although the source whence the Romans drew their inspiration, was so modified in the transition, to suit it to the requirements of the great Empire, as to become a distinct style. Then, under the influence of Christianity, and of the political institutions which succeeded the breaking up of the Roman Empire, was gradually developed a style of art unlike all its predecessors, and breathing more strongly than even the rich and fantastic poetry of the times—the truly Christian, romantic, and we might add, chivalrous spirit of its age. This was Christian art.

There have been three great eras in the history of Christian art. The first, extending from the cessation of the persecutions of the early Christians by the Roman Emperors to the twelfth century; the second, from that period to the sixteenth century; and the third, thence to our own times. The subdivisions, of course, comprehend many varieties which are beyond our province to discuss in this place. The first was characterized by the adaptations of the forms of classic art, to the requirements and spirit of the church, still forming in itself a production both unique and original, whose “prototype was undeniably Pagan, though its developement, as far as it went, was essentially Christian.” The earliest churches, after the conversion of Constantine the Great, were the basilicæ or courts of justice which the Emperor placed at the disposal of the Christians. They also formed the type of the new churches, but with such alterations as rendered them more appropriate to their use, and more expressive in their decorations. “The form of these basilicæ,” says Bishop Milner, “being oblong, and surrounded by porticos or aisles raised upon columns, with galleries very frequently over them, was found very suitable both to the majesty and the uses of religion. Little more was necessary, for the latter purpose, than to shut up the porticos exteriorly with walls and doors, to cover in the open area in the middle with a roof, where wanting, and to place an altar near the upper end, opposite to the bishop's throne, and an ambo or pulpit somewhere about the middle of the nave.” Hence, the churches of that period retained the name of basilicæ, by which appellation some of the churches in Rome are known to this day. Under various names of Byzantine, Romanesque, Saxon, Norman, &c., this style and its several varieties extended over the entire of Christendom. In every country it developed itself differently, but preserved its general and important features, showing the source whence it sprung, and the Catholic unity and brotherhood of Christian art.

It cannot be supposed that in the early ages of Christianity, while the Irish Church was carrying through the exertions of her indefatigable missionaries the light of the Gospel to European nations, at home the affairs of religion were neglected, and that temples suitable to the pure faith and practices of those simple times, did not arise. Did such a supposition now exist in any sceptical mind, there are remains of churches in many parts of our Island, bearing internal evidence of so remote a date as the sixth or seventh century, where documentary evidences, in confirmation of the fact, have been accumulated sufficient to remove or confute the errorneous impression. The churches at Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, and Fore, are amongst the number. We hope our nationality will not carry us beyond the boundaries of strict truth; and we therefore do not claim for our country that which manifestly she never possessed, these grand developments of ecclesiastical art, which have been the pride and shame of other countries. Their pride in that spirit, pure and unworldly, which raised them to glorify religion, and their shame in that insanity and sensualism which in latter times dilapitated them, or still worse, disgraced them by the presence of works of anti-Christian art. Yet we must confess our belief, that the remains of ecclesiastical art in Ireland are most interesting and instructive to the architectural student, and demonstrate that in this respect our ancestors were not insufficient to the demands of their age. St. Cormac's Chapel, at Cashel, completed in the commencement of the twelfth century, will, as far as ecclesiastical propriety and artistic treatment are involved, bear a comparison with any similar building in Europe of the same extent, of that era. The check which the development of architecture in Ireland received in the latter part of the twelfth century, preventing its progression with art in the remainder of Europe, is too easily traced to its true cause, and is a subject too painful to dwell upon here. Notwithstanding the interruption, Churches and Monasteries were erected throughout the land, in the prevailing styles of the times; and many of their ruins to this day are examples worthy of imitation; and, even in their desolate condition, demonstrate how superior they must have been to corresponding structures of our times.

We may here mention, that the great future of the first epoch was the semicircular arch, as distinguishing it from that of the succeeding styles, for which reason some writers have suggested the appellation of circular style to the former, and pointed to the latter, which has been opprobriously designated Gothic.

The second epoch is marked by a development of art which, doubtlessly, grew out of its predecessor, “properly called the pointed style; being one of the greatest efforts of human genius that has been witnessed in the course of ages,”[2] and which contains the finest examples of Christian art which have yet been obtained. It was characteristic of its glorious times, when ecclesiastical institutions were, of necessity, for the social relations of mankind, and the preservation of their political liberties, so intimately connected with all state establishments, that the philosophic historian is sometimes puzzled in discriminating their respective spheres. It was fated merely to touch upon perfection, and then, as if withered by some untimely blight, to rapidly decline to the third era, when the enthusiasm for the revival of the Pagan arts and literature, joined with the influence of the Reformation's devastating principles, caused its total neglect, but fortunately, not its destruction. For happily, after a lapse of three woful centuries, the spirit of ancient times is reappearing, and we need only refer to the completion of Cologne Cathedral, and the zeal with which it is carried forward, as a proof that Christian art was not dead during that long space of time, but in a slumber, from which, perhaps, in our generation, it may completely arise, and adapting itself, with that plasticity peculiarly its genius, to the necessities of the age, exhibit more glorious developments that the world has yet seen.

“The wisest reform,” says Lord Bacon, “is renewal,” and those who hope to advance, must travel backwards 'till they reach the true starting point for future development, which is none other than that at which art began to decline. We must arrive at a knowledge, not only of the principles which guided, but of the motives which influenced the artists of the middle ages. And having obtained this much knowledge, the inferiority of modern works will be no marvel to us. Information of this kind is only attainable by a careful study, not only of the works of the middle ages, but by a loving obedience to the spirit which dictated them. This spirit is the genius of the Catholic Church, beyond whose influence all experiences teaches us that it is impossible to produce works of highest art. Examiniations of the works themselves cannot suffice, for they will only show us the surface of things. To penetrate to the moving spirit, we must study the lives of the great and good men who produced those glorious works of old, and labour to imitate their example in more respects than in their arts. We will, by this means, learn that it was not for worldly emolument or individual glory these men laboured, but for the honour of God's sanctuary, and the propagation of his religion. They did not even esteem their works so much as beautiful productions of highest art—as vehicles of instruction on the sublimest points of Christian revelation. “Everything in the Church,” says Durandus, bishop of Mende, in the twelfth century, “is full of divine signification and mystery. Everything in its abounds with eclestial sweets, when one knows how to look at it—when one knows how to draw honey from the hardest stone, and the oil from the hardest flint.” The great poet of the middle ages, Dante, says:—

“————— from things sensible alone ye learn
That which, digested rightly, after turns
To intellectual.”

A modern poet has called pointed architecture “the petrification of the Christian religion.” Did our space permit, we might multiply quotations from the fathers and schoolmen, as well as from the more recent divines of the Catholic Church, all tending to the same effect—the demonstration that Christian art was a symbolical language, expressive of the doctrines and discipline of the Christian Church. In our own times, a learned ecclesiastic, unhappily not in communion with the Catholic Church, but who, in his writings, exhibits many traits of true Catholic spirit, speaks as follows—“I proceed, then, to show that ecclesiastical architecture is a language; that it has always, and not at mere accomodation without splendour; or even at splendour without a spirit and a meaning. That from the first it was rational: that it had a soul and a sense which it laboured to embody and convey to the beholder. And while we are thus proving that ecclesiastical architecture was a language which expressed something, we shall also find that, from the very first, the things which it expressed were appropriate, that it was characteristic in its intellectural expressions; that its character was theological, doctrinal, Catholic, exclusive; aiming not only at accomodating a congregation, but at elevating their devotions and informing their mindes; attaching them to the Spiritual Church, of which the earthly building is the symbol, and leading them onwards to that heavenly Jerusalem of which the material fabric is, as it were, the vestibuile. Hence, a Christian Church always embodied some of the mysteries of the Christian religion, as the mystery of the Trinity;—always shadowed forth some part of the ecclesiastical polity, as the division of the church into clergy and laity;—always conveyed some instruction on religion and morals, as for instance, in the texts of Holy Scripture, or certain moral lessons written on the walls;—and always pre-supposed a Catholic worship, that is, a worship separate from error, and from the perversions of all sectaries.”

Symbolism appears, then, to be the great principle and object of mediæval art, and all those elements of beauty, which have been ascribed by modern writers on art, as the characteristics of pointed architecture, have been produced by it. Symbolism, fitness, and, we may add, expression, as arising from both, are the true causes of all artistic effect in architecture; and inasmuch as works of art deviate from these principles, in the same proportion do they depart from excellence; and inasmuch as we are ignorant of them, in the same ratio are we incapable of understanding or of appreciating the works which are based on them.

Some Catholics, whose idea of a Church is limited to the semi-Protestant opinion, of its being merely a place set apart in which the faithful are to pray and receive instruction, will be surprised at the notion of the material fabric being an exposition of the spiritual Church, and will scarcely understand that “A Gothic Cathedral does, as it were, and scarce by a metaphor, praise God. It is not merely a place wherein, but with which the Church worships the Almighty. Its vast and complex unity, its simple melody, so to speak, and its full and intricate harmony, is a noble hymn of praise, continually ascending to the Most High, and carrying up with it the chorus of accordant hearts.” And indeed we must confess, that we are not astonished at this sort of incredulity, for it is impossible that churches of modern erection, could convey any symbolical expression, when they were designed and erected without any regard to such significancy. But, we regret that the error has extended itself so widely, and sunk so deeply into the minds of even of many well educated persons, that they consider material symbolism, rather in the light of an exercise for the mind of the curious enquirer or antiquary, than as a language at any time capable of being popularly intelligible. How fallacious this opinion is, may be easily understood by a reference to those remains of Catholic symbolism which are yet preserved. Who does not know the spiritual meaning of every article of the priest's vestments, or of the altar stone and its five crosses, or of the lights used during the office of Tenebræ in Holy week, or, in fact, of the numerous ceremonies (which are symbols) in the administration of the sacraments, and in all the offices of the Catholic Church? “It should be observed, moreover,” says a learned and pious writer,[3] “that the spirit of the middle ages was peculiarly favourable to this method, so that the symbols adopted in the ritual of the Church, must have then possessed extraordinary charms in the estimation of all ranks of society. No object, or occasion, seemed too triffling to furnish matter for the exercise of their disposition to view things in the light of symbols. Ives of Chartres, receiving a comb as a present from his dear friend, Gerard, in reply to him, interprets it as a emblem which can teach him the duties of his episcopal office. The laity evince the same inclination; men that were not all tongue, but deeds and truth, would thus in the common intercourse of life, in dumb significance proclaim their thoughts, and, as Shakspeare witnesseth in the Temple Garden, give, in the plucking of a red rose, or a white, an answer to the summons of Plantagenet. Dom Claude de Vert, a learned Benedictine, in his work upon the ceremonies of the Church, offered a simple and natural explanation of most of them. Longuet, Archbishop of Sens, published a reply, and assigned to them a wholly symbolical origin. Both of these views, no doubt, were just. As Duns Scotus remarks of the sacred Scriptures, the divine offices of the Catholic Church, have a literal, and a spiritual or mystic sense; which last in three-fold division, was either allegorical, tropological, or anagogical, referring either to what was to be believed, performed, or hoped, and sometimes one sign or word, like that of the cross, or the name of Jerusalem comprised all—a literal sense, signifying an event, or a city; a tropological, denoting trust and sanctity; an allegorical denoting the Church militant; and an anagogical, signifying the triumphant Church. No one who loves to study the doctrine of perception, in reference to the beauties of poetry and art, can be insensible to the care evinced by the Church, to press into her service, everything which can bring unity into a visible form; and, indeed, the great charm and might of poetry over human life, is never more fully felt, than when it employs consecrated figures and symbols to express the mystery of our existance in the world of wishes, and the ideas of anticipation which console it. That the symbolic sense was intended in the ceremonies of faith, is proved from the ancient fathers.”

“But, it was not in words alone,” continues the same author, “that the enigmatical expression of the Church was conveyed. Her ceremonies also were high symbols, demonstrating things of which the mystic sense, and invisible truth, are known by divine illumination to the angelic spirits. Philosophers and poets will find no works more rich in profound and beautiful thoughts, than those which are designed to develope, and explain the ecclesiastical symbols, written during the middle ages, by such men as Hugo, and Richard of St. Victor, Durandus, Durante, Remy of Auxene, Horore St. Autun, St. Bruno of Aste, Martne, and many others.

  1. Mr. A. W. Pugin.
  2. Bishop Milner.
  3. Mr. Kenelm Digby.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.