A Dim Religious Light: The Atmosphere of a Church

by Sir J. Ninian Comper, appearing in Volume 41

The tabernacle, designed by Ninian Comper, is suspended above the altar at All Saints, Margaret Street. Photo: wikimedia.org/John Salmon

In the first section of this essay, published in Issue 39, Comper writes that “the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice.” An Anglo-Catholic (part of the Catholic-leaning wing of the Church of England), he described the church as “a building which enshrines the altar of him who dwelleth not in temples made with hands. … To enter therefore a Christian church is to enter none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.”

   The church building must both serve the liturgy and be beautiful. “The note of a church should be, not that of novelty, but of eternity.” That included originality, the originality of those who know the tradition thoroughly and “the particular needs” of those who will worship within the church.

   Christianity absorbed “the best of Greece and Rome …  though not without some losses. But henceforth architecture could never be final, never at rest, though in every finest achievement giving rest to the human soul and so partaking of the divine.”

   Therefore, in designing churches, “no beautiful style should be excluded.”

Comper begins this section by rejecting the idea of a “conflict between English and Roman use.” He illustrates this with the example of “ornaments” and the number of candles on the altar (both omitted here), and the use of a a hanging pyx (English) or a tabernacle (Roman).

If we follow what lies behind both [uses], no ecclesiastical authority will quarrel with us, and no Catholic authority will wish to make us all of one pattern. That is reserved for ecclesiastical fashion which has created church furnishers and architects who will set up what they call “English altars” alike in every ancient cathedral and parish church and in the most modernist of new buildings, quite independently of suitability of position and surroundings.

Chapel altar of Santa Chiara, Florence, reconstructed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Photo: wikimedia.org/Sailko

Our need is to break away from fashions, whether the modernist fashion of the moment or the persistent medievalism which survives them all; and, if it be possible, without the tragic consequence of creating another fashion. …

The “hanging pyx” of English inventories is spoken of as if it were different from the “tabernacle” as now prescribed by Rome. … The only difference is its position permanently upon the altar and not above it. … The suspended tabernacle is not out of order in the Roman Church, but special permission must be obtained for it where it has not been continually in use, as it has been in certain places in France. I have been told of a definite case in which it is hoped to obtain leave to introduce it in the Roman Communion in England.

The monks of Solesme resumed its use when they returned to France. Unfortunately, their whole high altar is of ugly modernistic design, but the use is admirable. They told me that they reserved only for the sick; and, in the beautiful old transept chapels at Mass, we noticed that communion was given from the paten and that, as afterwards explained to us, the serving monk collected the wafers at the offertory from intending communicants in a small silver pyx. I cannot refrain from mentioning the beautiful cut of their full chasubles like those of the finest old effigies.

The tabernacle at the high altar was used also for benediction and we saw it descend and ascend by an electrical arrangement such as I had made at All Saints, Margaret Street. The practical and important point about the “suspension” is that it enables the tabernacle, while it is in the central position of honor and separated from the actual table of the altar at which the holy sacrifice is offered, to be reached without the need of climbing up to it.

This must have been unavoidable in the case of the beautiful Renaissance examples of aumbries high up in the altar screens of Portugal and Italy. An example may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in the reconstructed chapel from the church of Santa Chiara, Florence. Nor was it always an aumbry in the reredos, or wall.

The tabernacle of Saint Mary Major in Rome lifted high above the Papal altar by great bronze angels is a case in point. The position of the tabernacle high up above the altar, and more particularly if it is suspended, does moreover suggest its immaterial nature, let down as it were from heaven, as Saint John describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem.

The tabernacle of Saint Mary Major is lifted above the altar in the basilica's Sistine Chapel, evoking the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven. Photo: wikimedia.org/Mister No

The Atmosphere

No observance of rules even in these most important details on which I have touched can in itself produce an atmosphere. Color plays a large part in that, and lighting still more. It is in Spain that this can best be learnt, and our nearest approach to it is King’s Chapel in Cambridge. Alone perhaps of any ancient English church, King’s has preserved its atmosphere; and it is because of these two things, which there are one, viz., color and lighting.

To give a point to my meaning, perhaps the telling of my own experience is pardonable and unavoidable. I had worked all day in a church decorating in gold and color and felt a deep despair, when suddenly, with the evening light, what before had seemed so hopeless became beautiful.

This happened so often that I began to think (and then my later visits to Spain brought it home to me, completing my understanding of Milton’s lines): “storied windows richly delight, shedding a dim religious light”—not the darkness of a Saint Barnabas, Pimlico, before the whole church was ruthlessly “improved”—from which it was almost pardonable to revolt, nor the darkness of some of the altered and “restored” Spanish churches like León, nor yet of Chartres—but literally “a dim religious light,” like the light of early morning or of the evening when the Lord God walks in the garden. It may have its shafts from the rising or setting sun breaking through the trees, but not the even all-over glare of midday.

Apply this lesson from nature to a church, and it will be seen why decoration cannot look well in a strong and evenly distributed light. When the painted glass of our churches was smashed and the gold and color of their altars and screens destroyed, the substituted clear glass and the plain oak and marble monuments, with slight touches of heraldic color, had an effect of simple beauty not inharmonious with the Book of Common Prayer in its severest interpretation.

The church indeed had an atmosphere, but it was largely that of the outside and still beautiful world of trees and buildings seen through its windows; and moreover curtains shaded the too full blaze of the sun.

But directly the return is made to richly decorated altars and screens, all is out of gear, and it becomes of first importance that the light should be qualified.

Of King’s Chapel it may be said that there is not one pane of perfectly clear transparent glass and this is what largely accounts for its atmosphere. No frosted or artificially made glass will do, nor a dead even stippling but, failing painted glass, some uneven stippling is required to give the effect of the qualified light of painted glass as nearly as possible, or curtains of canvas-color should be drawn across the windows.

At Toledo curtains are sometimes drawn across the painted windows. Occasionally in the South, as at Siena and Valencia, windows have translucent alabaster slabs which transmit the softest light; and sometimes in Italy a window here and there will let in a shaft of light with telling effect.

St. Peter's Basilica lit with thousands of candles. Photo: wikimedia.org/Lothar Wolleh

Managing Light

How great is the effect of the management of light in creating an atmosphere, I have seen most vividly illustrated in Saint Peter’s, Rome, at a canonization, before electric light was substituted for candles.

All the windows were veiled except one or two which let in a shaft of sunlight across the thousands of burning tapers. Also the exaggeratedly huge details of the architecture were veiled by crimson hangings, and the result was that the whole church looked its vast scale, which under ordinary conditions it fails to do.

King’s Chapel is as much favored by night as by day, for it is still lighted only by candles, the authorities having tried and rejected electric lighting. Indeed electric lighting is one of the greatest of problems.

The appeal which I have made to nature will probably rule out every proposal which the electrician will make, who is too often called in without instructed guidance. His great aim is to create precisely those conditions of lighting which are not suitable to a church and which have the power of destroying the whole atmosphere of even the most beautiful buildings, as may too often be seen.

Flood lighting, I think, of any kind may at once be dismissed. Rarely, and with all the care and skill of the best stage-lighting, a concealed lamp may be used to throw a light on one side only, just as a shaft of sunlight can come from only one point. For the power of electric light is comparable with sunlight and not with candle light; though in the only beautiful use of it that I have seen, which was in Barcelona Cathedral in 1935, the lamps at the ends of tall tapers in the chandeliers were of such low power that in the subdued light of the church they were indistinguishable from the wax tapers.

Clearly the secret is to have many lights of as low power as possible and not to hide them. But at present for the purposes of reading it seems impossible to get lamps of sufficiently low power to avoid some skillful and unnoticeable shading to prevent dazzling.

Frosted lamps or shades should never be allowed, because of their conspicuousness in the daytime, but an efficient and quite narrow shade can be devised for the ordinary low power lamps, and pendants are still the best method of artificial lighting.

The Chapel of Saint Sebastian by Ninian Comper in Downside Abbey Church. Bright colors are used at the altar, while the surrounding architecture is a neutral stone color. Photo: flickr.com/FrLawrenceLewOP

Enhancing Color

And as to color itself, it is essential that it should subserve and enhance the proportion and main lines of a church. That is just what the restoration of early medieval paintings on the walls of our English churches does not do. They were lime-washed over even in later medieval times, and the present fashion of bringing them again into prominence is the greatest mistake.

They are easily, it is true, lime-washed over once more, but their real interest, which is antiquarian, is destroyed by the repainting which more or less accompanies their disclosure. Some are not without beauty of drawing, and for that reason also it destroys their value to retouch them. This was an axiom until these recent times which seem incapable of holding fast that which has been proved.

Still more fatal in their effect are the violent patches of strong color and gilding which destroy the rhythm of the architecture.

How color can be rightly used on the vaults and walls of the building itself can now be seen best in unrestored churches in Italy and Spain, but particularly in Spain where, as formerly in England, color is mostly in the glass, corresponding to the mosaics of the South, and in the altars and screens, and often hardly at all in the fabric of the building.

This is characteristic of those churches which are most conspicuous for the richness and beauty of their coloring.

The fabric is generally left a uniform tone of French grey so that the lines of architecture have their full value, undistracted, as now so often in England, by the jointing of differently colored stones and plaster, or by one part of the building being scraped or newly lime-washed, while the rest remains, admittedly not as it originally was, but as time has weathered it. And what can more destroy the architectural atmosphere than such patchwork?

One Mind and Tradition

Finally, it has to be remembered that an atmosphere cannot be produced by a number of people working either independently of each other or in committee. It must be the product of one mind so steeped in tradition as a second nature that, as we have seen above, he can receive the inspiration to apply it to the needs which he has to meet, bringing forth from his treasures, like the householder in the parable, “things new and old.”

Let not people be beguiled by the pleasant doctrine which has been preached to them in recent times, that there are certain things which the priest himself or a committee can undertake independently of the one controlling mind: things such as frontals and vestments, or the most difficult and important questions of heating, lighting, and cleaning, on which the whole atmosphere of the church may depend. Very rarely the controlling mind might be the priest himself or some other layman, but practically it is impossible for even the most gifted amateur to control all that is included in the architecture of a church, and probably the more he knows the more insistent he will be to seek out and be guided by one individual whom he has found not by reputation but by seeing the works which he has already produced.

In the Memorabilia (ii, vi, 6), Xenophon makes Socrates say: “What test do we apply to a sculptor? We don’t judge by what he says, but we look at his statues, and if we see that the works he has already produced are beautiful, we feel confident that his future works will be as good.” Today the priest and the architect are so pressed by “forms to fill up” and by every kind of activity external to their own proper work, that it is almost impossible for them to find the time essential for doing it.

Looking back on the days in which this was not the case, it seems to me that they produced better fruit in both priest and architect. Certainly the work of the architect (and it cannot be less for the priest) demands all his time for study and for the exercise of his skill with undivided attention. He should be one who is called by name as Bezaleel was called, not from among the priests but out of the tribe of Judah, “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.” If such are rare, it should be the first care of the Church to create the demand for them and not, as now, to suppress it.

But the first care now is to make money and avoid sacrifice with the forlorn hope that in this way the people can be won. Old churches are pulled down that the money got for their sites may build new ones, and the objectives of the new ones are cheapness and pretentiousness.

It is the pretentiousness of these modernistic churches which is unforgivable. Their architecture expresses the self-satisfaction which has produced them. They display the names of the architects who designed them and the bishops who blessed them. There is no shame that in an age so wealthy the house of God should be so poor.

Granted the crying need, created by the development of housing estates, for four walls within which to worship and the lack of self-sacrifice to provide a worthy building, a lesson might be taken from the simplest of our medieval churches whose fabrics were little more than a barn—hardly so fine a barn as barns then were—but which became glorious by beautiful workmanship within. To so low and plain a fabric a worthy altar has only to be added and the white-washed barn will have an atmosphere of prayer and love instead of being reminiscent of the cinema and its impersonal efficiency.