Gothic Revival/Oxford Movement/Tractarianism
As I have suggested in my post about the church of St. Cyprian designed by Ninian Comper, we forget that things did not just stay the same after the Reformation and the establishment of England as a Protestant country. Churches did not suddenly become Protestant churches, they did not abandon all Catholic practices and liturgies overnight. By way of an analogy, as scholars have recently recognised, the legendary Florentine Renaissance did not flower like its symbol – the lily of Florence in one dramatic day. Or even one exceptional flowering. Rather than an abrupt break from what was with a quick acceleration thereafter, was a slow unfolding over time. The arts, the art, the writings were not just confined to Florence and all of this tentatively emerged and fused with previous cultures, ways and artistic styles. And so it was with the Reformation, seen as one of our most embattled revolutions (after perhaps the Civil War) which then calmed down. If we look at the churches around us today, they are not through and through pure and Protestant or indeed purely Protestant. Their antecedent language and feel is Catholic, then both Catholic and Protestant and even a bit of paganism. How easily we forget this.
And striking it is that the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement which brought about a revival of the Catholic tradition is like a little revolution that time and history has forgotten. The absence of historical documentation, let alone whether it is accurate or not is also about forgetfulness. But also about the usefulness of the unseen. So it is that the Catholic Revival or the Oxford Movement, or in precise artistic or architectural terms – the Gothic Revival is cast as an unexpected blip in the history of the English church. But it should be recognised as more than that, as it gives us clues and hints as to what was.
However since the demise of much Catholic decoration and adornment at the two Iconoclastic reforms – the first by the ego supreme, stout-legged Henry VIII (b. 1491-1547) and then by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) at the time of the Civil War – although not always intentionally, we have lost much of our original church fabric history. For example the effacement of statues and altars and the white-washing of wonderful medieval wall paintings. As a result we might over-look that our churches looked far more Catholic than they do today. So what we see tells only half the story. The Gothic Revival plays an important part in the narrative of church design, if nothing else. For despite the Revival’s churches being nineteenth and early twentieth century, they give us a taste of medieval English Catholic church design.
What we discern is the reforming zeal and investment to reforming decline. Or the pendulum between one thing and the other.
The Oxford Movement really began in the 1830s – a group of theologians and philosophers from Oxford University who wanted the church of England to be a ‘proper church’ again. This declaration followed the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) which set up some opposition to Anglicanism. The movement found its way through the written word and used language to agitate, writing 100 tracts (hence the word Tractarians). And there was movement back to the Catholic church. So churches needed to look Catholic again. Churches needed to be decorated as a Catholic would have known it. And churches were to have colour and feeling in them again. The medieval past was a source of not only theological but creative interest and inspiration during the nineteenth century: the Pre-Raphaelites and their paintings of medieval legends and mythical figures such as Lancelot and Arthur are the best known exponents of this appeal.
As I intimated above though, all things Catholic in designs and styles had never really gone away, as all churches are a product of many building periods and types. For example Sir Christopher Wren had actually used the Gothic style in St. Mary Aldermary. And Strawberry Hill built by Walpole in the eighteenth century is a medieval encyclopaedia, as if the man had been dreaming and drinking it. Ian Nairn, the outrageous, but humorous commentator on London’s architecture said of St. Mary Aldermary, “Wren treated Gothic as though it were a cantankerous old aunt: with affectionate disrespect”. Yet it is Gothic with its pointed arches and windows.
Let the sublime, the dazzle, the glory, the transcendence of medieval and Catholic spirituality come back. But what we will never know is how much of this reflected a wistful romanticism on the part of the revivalists. After all they were not using archaeology in their return to what they thought was old. For now our Gothic Revival churches give us the clearest indication of some missing part of our Catholic heritage.
Augustus Pugin, who I have already written about in my entry on Ramsgate churches wrote to a friend in 1833 to thank him for an enormous cheddar cheese, ‘which although not strictly Gothic in its present shape may be daily rendered more so by cutting it into four, which will make it quatrefoil’, (quatrefoil – the four leaved shape used profusely in Gothic art).
Gothic Revival churches:
All Saints Margaret Street, London
St. Cyprian, near Baker Street
St. Mary Magdalene, Munster Square
St. Giles, Camberwell
Church of the Annunciation, Bryanston Street