Many Victorian churches reflect their architects' belief in the Real Presence, says Anthony Symondson sJ
Piety Proclaimed: An Introduction to Places of Worship in Victorian England by James Stevens Curl, Historical Publications £16.95
If you live in a city or a suburb you will be surrounded by Victorian churches. If you live in the country few medieval or later churches survived unrestored or unadapted by the Victorians. The majority of British Catholic churches, cathedrals, monasteries, convents and seminaries are Victorian or Edwardian, and the same applies to Ireland.
Victorian stained glass beats relentlessly from traceried window, Victorian brass gleams in half-life, Victorian mosaics and marbles decorate altar and pulpit, Victorian frescoes and diaper patterns enliven wall and roof, Victorian tiles enrich the sanctuary floor, Victorian textiles and embroidery can still be found in vestry and sacristy, Victorian stone and woodcarving decorate arcade and stall, Victorian altar plate glitters with jewels, Victorian benches offer little comfort, except in Protestant churches where they are cushioned. You cannot escape the Victorians: their roots are deep and long.
Yet, seen through the distorting lens of the mid and late 20th century, few ages are more remote from ours; and the worship that Victorian churches were built to enshrine is becoming a distant memory or is entirely unknown to a later generation. The young are not as enthusiastic about church-crawling as their grandparents, and part of this might be because they don't know how churches once worked and cannot easily identify with them. We are inhibited from studying them because few now understand their raison d'être. The theological and liturgical context of historic church architecture is no longer part of our mental furniture.
The majority of books on the subject assume that the reader will have an understanding of the context and function. Because this can no longer be assumed, Piety Proclaimed is a useful and necessary book. Without an understanding of denominational difference, liturgical purpose, iconography, and the doctrinal principles that underlie them, churches will remain obscure.
Although making no great pretensions to originality, James Stevens Curl synthesises recent work in this field, competently summarises a crowded period, and gives it popular, if sometimes combative, application for the general reader. He also provides a valuable service in toppling sacred cows of historical interpretation by treating the late-Gothic Revival with as much seriousness as the mid-Victorian and recognises its value as the flowering and culmination of the rebirth. Curl takes Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral (1906-80) as seriously as Butterfield's All Saints, Margaret Street, St Marylebone (184959). A restoration of balance has long been needed and this is strengthened by magnificent colour plates by Martin Charles and well-chosen illustrations that show churches in their original integrity.
The Victorian era, despite uncertainty following Darwin and the problem of the urban unchurched, was the last age of faith and church-building on these islands. The national Church was reviving under the influence of the Oxford Movement. The Catholic Church was entering its Second Spring following Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Noncomfonnity flourished in town and country and built more chapels than Anglican churches. The Industrial Revolution expanded the populations of towns and created a need for new places of worship for all denominations. In the 1850s Britain was at the height of its imperial and economic supremacy as an industrial nation. The strength of religious conviction, allied with wealth, not only put Britain in the vanguard of architectural advance in Europe through the Gothic Revival but introduced a period of distinction as forceful as the work of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor in the 18th century.
The impassioned polemics of Pugin went hand in hand with the arguments of the Cambridge Camden Society, and without him their campaign of medievalist restoration would not have gone very far. Pugin built Decorated Gothic churches for the celebration of Mass at a time when the meaning and value of the sacraments were reviving in the national Church. Unless we understand the primacy of the Eucharist and belief in the Real Presence shared by so many Victorian church architects and their clients, the majority of Victorian churches do not make sense. Churches moved from being preaching houses to shrines of the sacraments.
Sir George Gilbert Scott, inflamed by Pugin's writings, was the most prolific church architect of his generation and brought his principles into the mainstream. The next generation followed the experiments of Butterfield and, led by Street, lighted upon North Italian Gothic, while Burges and Brooks discovered the French 13th century. Brick was used for the town. stone for the country; the decorative possibilities of constructional polychromy flowed into majestic height, tall clerestories and the continuous wall surface. Evangelicals used rogue architects like Lamb and Bassett Keeling whose forced attempts at "vigour" and "go" were soon condemned as illiterate vulgarity. Catholics after Pugin embraced Continental Gothic and Nonconformists veered between neo-Classicism and a surprising use of Gothic that roused the indignation of Catholics and High Churchmen alike.
Then came the reaction in the beauty, sensitivity and refinement of English late-Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic that marked the sublime work of George Gilbert Scott Junior, Bodley, Garner, Sedding, Bentley, Pearson, their pupils Comper, Temple Moore and Tapper, that brought the Gothic Revival to a triumphant climax.
Workmanship had attained the highest standards and in the truly modern Gothic of Liverpool Cathedral, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott took the Gothic Revival beyond creative historicism and developed an architecture that was conspicuously new in spirit.
The flame still burns brightly in the completion of Dykes Bower's great tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, executed by Hugh Mathew and Warwick Pethers, which rises as we speak.