An Offering of Beauty

Saint Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, and Stylistic Catholicity

by Evan McWilliams, appearing in Volume 17

The history of architecture is, on the whole, a history of revivals and imitations. Each epoch has admired past principles and reworked older ideas. Long before any concept of conscious stylistic revival, the early Christians looked to pagan art for inspiration and, centuries later, as Christianity matured, Romanesque architects reused the vocabulary of ancient Rome in their own way, just as the Romans had appropriated the architecture and art of Greece. History attests to the validity of stylistic spoliation as an expression of identity.

With the recent reaction against modernist design, which appeared in the Roman Church in the 1930s and culminated in the reordering of hundreds of churches after the Second Vatican Council, comes a strong drive to imitate the past in an academic manner. This new desire for purity of form is laudable as a temporarily successful answer to the problem of designing for the contemporary age. However, as was the case with all conscious revivals, there exists the danger of stylistic dogmatism and, with it, the danger of creating dull churches—academic exercises rather than living buildings. To advocate designing in only one style or to look on one age as the height of Christian art runs the risk of creating yet another passing revival. The pendulum swing of changing fashion will once again sweep away the work of diligent, concerned men and replace it with mediocrity. Let history bear witness—it has happened before.

This constant stylistic flux can be prevented, or slowed, by one idea: Catholicity. The key to creating a lasting revival of good, solid Christian architecture and Christian art in all its forms is to explore and embrace all that the past has presented to us as beautiful and profitable. The late Gothic revivalist Sir Ninian Comper lights the way in his church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, England. In it, liturgically minded planning and beauty drawn from centuries of Christian experience combine to create a building that reflects not only the glory of worship but the timeless nature of the Church Catholic.

Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England. Photo: Rev. Kenneth Crawford, Vicar

Begun in 1906 and gradually constructed over several decades, Saint Mary the Virgin has been called “one of the most beautiful churches the twentieth century has produced.” Even Nikolaus Pevsner, who often criticized Comper’s work, observed that “it glistens and reveals and conceals to one’s heart’s delight.” It is easy to lavish praise on the building for its beauty, but if that is all we do, we have missed Comper’s point and, with it, the point of all church architecture. Churches do not exist as monuments to the glory of the Church or even to the glory of God; churches exist to provide a place in which Heaven and earth can meet together. The purpose of a church is to provide a place where the liturgy may be performed through which we enter the courts of Heaven with the saints and all who have gone before us in Christ. In worship, the Christian community on earth enters consciously into the stream of redemptive history bringing our prayers and praises into the very throne room of the Most High, where is assembled the great multitude, which no man can number. This knowledge is what makes Comper’s Saint Mary the Virgin so wonderful; it is a place for leitourgia, our public service to God.

The nave ceiling is a series of fan vaults with pendants. Photo: Rev. Kenneth Crawford, Vicar

While it is undoubtedly the decorations that first grip the visitor’s imagination, it soon becomes apparent that Comper’s ideas went far beyond collecting various motifs and combining them in novel ways. The sequence of spaces, the arrangement of screens and galleries, and the overriding sense of purpose in the design makes it clear that Saint Mary the Virgin is a functional building above all else. For Comper, the liturgy was always the primary concern. In his 1947 pamphlet Of the Atmosphere of a Church, he emphasized two points: first, that the church’s purpose is to house an altar; and secondly, that it must “move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.” His first point informs the implementation of the second. All thought about church building revolves around beauty; form [31] and function are inextricably linked and beauty is itself inherently functional, not something added later to a purpose-built object. Beauty is part of purpose: “The plan, the ‘layout’, of the church must first be in accord with the requirements of the liturgy and the particular needs of those who worship within it, and the imagery must express the balanced measure of the Faith; and for guidance in both we must look to tradition. There is no need to apologise for doing so in architecture, any more than in music, unless we need apologise for the guidance of tradition in the interpretation of the New Testament and the creeds of the Church.”

The nave ceiling is a series of fan vaults with pendants. Photo: Rev. Kenneth Crawford, Vicar

Looking to Saint Mary the Virgin with Comper’s ideas in mind, we find the example for future building within the Roman Church and within any congregation of Christians who would be consistent in their claim to the faith once delivered to the saints. The building is perfectly suited to the proper performance of Christian liturgy in the form of the Mass as well as other liturgies that are derived from it. Saint Mary’s is as much suited to worship according to the Book of Common Prayer as it is to the Tridentine Rite.

Photo: Author

The building is entered through a western tower and, had the intended bell-ringers’ platform been constructed, the opening out of the nave would have been even more dramatic than it is today. Still, motion is impeded slightly by a large font with tall canopy; once passed, the expansion of space from the entrance toward the east end is remarkable. The aisled nave stretches forward, an arcade of fluted columns supporting a low clerestory. The glass is all clear but for the east windows, which shimmer in the distance, beyond a gilded and painted rood screen, like some jeweled vision. Overhead, great pendants hang down from a fan vault covered with bosses like carved snowflakes. The rood screen projects far into the nave and the entire sanctuary is surrounded by screens, some painted and gilded wood, others of iron crested with angels and shields and sacred monograms. The altar stands beneath a gilded ciborium placed just before the east window and there is a statue of Our Lady beneath a canopy to the north. The spaciousness of the sanctuary is notable; there are returned stalls for clergy; above, the screen provides a place for a small choir. Beyond the north aisle lies the Jesus Chancel edged by parclose screens and having a roof of carved and painted angels. And, beyond the south aisle, the little chapel of Saint John the Evangelist provides a more intimate space now used for daily offices.

Photo: Author

The multiplicity of spaces for the performance of liturgy on various scales shows that Comper was concerned with fitting the building to the needs of a full congregation and the private individual. In this way the design is highly relational. The luxurious amount of space allotted to the sanctuary gives the high altar dignity and allows the Mass to breathe and the aisles are suited to the largest processions. Saint Mary the Virgin could be used effectively on the highest of holy days ornamented with the most elaborate of ceremonial as well as ordinary days where ceremonial is limited. There is no waste in the church, however, for its decoration shows great [32] consideration for reflecting the multiple dimensions of devotion. Comper viewed the Church as Catholic in the best sense: as universal, traversing boundaries of space and, most importantly, time.

This Catholicity applied specifically to architectural style is what engenders enjoyment of Comper’s masterpiece. There are few who would enter and immediately perceive the thoroughness of its planning, but many would note the atmosphere created through light, proportion, and painted and gilded decoration. In Of the Atmosphere of a Church, Comper argued that Christian tradition was accretive as the Church crossed new boundaries of nationality and cultural context. The Church, in order to be truly Catholic, must absorb all good things from all times and places and make these her own. Comper admitted that “the religion of Christ knows no moment of perfection here on earth” yet urged that it “retain all perfections to which man has attained and reject all imperfections of barbaric or evil days.”

In this spirit, the nave columns, while drawn from English precedent seen at Northleach and Chipping Campden, have Greek entasis. Their capitals are decorated with entwined vines that terminate in lilies in the nave and Tudor roses in the Jesus Chancel. Iron screens, inspired by Spanish rejas at cathedrals such as Seville, edge the sanctuary, while the quire is surrounded by Tuscan columns set atop Renaissance paneling. The pulpit, set outside the sanctuary, is Jacobean. The remainder of the church’s screens are Gothic in style; those of the Jesus Chancel being particularly fine examples in the manner of G. F. Bodley. The ciborium above the high altar is, in conception, early Christian but is composed of a unique type of Corinthian column possessing praying angels on each of their four faces. All down the sides of the columns are painted garlands of flowers.

The wealth of motifs is astonishing. It should not be surprising, however, for Comper was keen to convey a sense of heritage informed by a uniquely Christian view of time and of the world: time in which the Church, within the world but not of it, steadily attained greater perfections even as the world itself writhed in the grip of sin. “A church built with hands,’ said Comper, ‘is the outward expression here on earth of that spiritual Church built of living stones, the Bride of Christ, Urbs Beata Jerusalem, which stretches back to the foundation of the world and onwards to all eternity. With her Lord she lays claim to the whole of His Creation and to every philosophy and creed and work of man which his Holy Spirit has inspired. And so the temple here on earth, in different lands and in different shapes, in the East and in the West, has developed or added to itself fresh forms of beauty and … has never broken with the past: it has never renounced its claim to continuity.”

Continuity is what made the churches of the past so marvelous. They were all glorious within, filled with the offerings of faithful hearts. They were Catholic, representing the Church in her many robes of beauty. It is not for us to recreate the social environment that made these wonders possible; we cannot repristinate the past. We can, however, focus our own hearts on those worthy things which are above and strive to bring them ever closer to us and ourselves closer to the perfections of Christ. Saint Mary the Virgin is not just an ideal space for liturgy, not merely a beautiful building; it is [33] an example of a manner of thinking to which we must attain. Comper’s masterpiece confronts us in our selfishness and our attachment to the dust of the earth. To give ourselves fully to God in worship means more than offering our thoughts and emotions; it means offering our abilities and our actions. Leitourgia means giving time and effort to worship. Our Lord deserves nothing less than our collective best; He deserves our finest poetry in liturgical texts, the best music we can bring to ornament each holy day, the most beautiful architecture, sculpture, and painting. If we take our Christianity seriously, we will look to the Church of the past for guidance.

Catholicity is easy to dream up when the budget is unlimited and the craftsmen readily available, yet even Saint Mary’s, which was a result of the generosity of three very wealthy sisters, remains incomplete. Comper’s original plans for the building had to be revised and downsized and, though still a masterpiece, it is not as he intended. How then is the ordinary parish to take hold of stylistic Catholicity and make it a reality?

The answer lies with Comper and a host of other sensible architects from various periods who, despite their more spectacular achievements, were not out of tune with simpler expressions of beauty. “A lesson might be taken from the simplest of our medieval churches,” wrote Comper, “whose fabrics were little more than a barn … but which became glorious by beautiful workmanship within.” Beauty need not mean extravagance. This is the first step toward recovering the spirit that compelled men to create Chartres, Gloucester, and Segovia. They were able to build these wondrous temples because they were not limited by the belief that every work had to be complete at its inception. Their offering of such beauty came from humility to realize that what they strove to build was greater than themselves, and so they joined their offerings together, slowly rearing the spires and filling windows with sparkling glass. The cathedral enshrines the simple man with simple dreams, a longing to be part of some great host gathered before God’s throne of splendor. The average parish may begin with a small, simple structure, but over time it may grow and become filled with beautiful work showing forth the devotion of generations.

The first step is to build a solid, well-proportioned structure in continuity with one of the old styles, be it Romanesque, Gothic or some variety of classical. It must not be modernist for modernism is jealous by nature and brooks no rivals. Attempts at correcting churches built in this style have been largely awkward and unsuccessful. The only essential in this first step is that the beginning be of quality, designed by someone steeped in the past, who has absorbed its principles and can intuitively create harmonious geometry.

It may seem outrageous at this juncture to consider in detail the various options for designing a functional church, but Comper’s ideal of Catholicity allows for such variety of design that I would be remiss not to share some possibilities. The Mass and the various liturgies derived from it by the Protestant Reformers possess the same fundamental requirements for their proper celebration. Though Comper himself might not see it as the logical conclusion of his thoughts, stylistic Catholicity generates a climate in which the intelligent architect can design a church for a Roman congregation that will function perfectly for an Anglican one. With some slight modifications, a design produced with the Mass in mind will clothe the communion of Lutherans or Presbyterians in majesty.

Comper’s work at Saint Mary’s brought the altar toward the people [34] and, though the placement of the altar so as to be surrounded by worshippers was effected at his little church of Saint Philip, Cosham, he was careful never to allow it to become common in its appearance or undignified in its setting. Whether spatially very close to the people or not, it is best that the altar be freestanding, allowing both ad orientem and versus populum celebration in a dignified and orderly fashion. If the church is designed to accommodate the most complex liturgies it will naturally be suited to the less complex. If Pope Benedict XVI has been interpreted correctly, the current trend lies toward the Tridentine Rite. Churches of the Roman school would do well to provide for coming changes while maintaining their current manner with proper decorum. A benefit to freestanding altars, aside from their inherent dignity if designed after Comper’s principles, is their ecumenism. It could only be a good thing if the Church’s elder and younger daughters were more comfortable in each others’ places of worship.

The ornate metalwork of the ciborium and high altar iron screens with painted rejas surround the sanctuary. Photos: Rev. Kenneth Crawford, Vicar

The sanctuary ought to be spacious, affording the ministers breadth of action. The sanctuary at Saint Mary’s is wide in comparison with its depth, and the quire is set one step lower than the nave floor, making the secondary ministers less of a distraction from the movements at the high altar. This is an unusual but successful arrangement, because it permits the altar to retain visual supremacy. Also successful is the placement of singers in galleries above the chancel. The music can be heard but the singers need not distract the other worshippers by their movement. The nineteenth-century trend of collegiate style seating for singers may be followed in some cases, and this plan often adds a tremendous sense of dignity to the liturgy. However it is generally best that this arrangement be used only in larger churches where the chancel can be quite deep. In this case the altar remains distant from the people and, though this need not mean that the congregation feel isolated from the ministration of the priests at the altar, it is perhaps a less ideal plan than one that places the choir elsewhere. In smaller churches, placing the choir in a rear balcony is a more effective use of space as well as fostering an increased feeling of grandeur in the sanctuary. Larger churches might follow the balcony model or the Spanish custom of placing the choir at floor level toward the rear of the nave, separated from the congregation by a screened enclosure.

Next to the altar, the font is the other liturgical center that must be considered. At Saint Mary’s, Comper placed the font at the west end, one bay forward from the tower. This arrangement was common during the nineteenth century and is a reasonable placement both practically and symbolically. Just as the rite of baptism marks the entrance of the baptized into the life of the Church, so the placement of the font at the entrance of the church reminds the churchgoers of their membership in the community at every service. From a purely practical standpoint, placing the font at the west end allows the entire congregation to view the baptism ceremony. If private baptism is desired, the placement of the font in an unencumbered space at the entrance of the church allows for large baptismal parties to participate comfortably.

The pulpit too must be dignified. At Saint Mary’s, Comper designed a pulpit that, though significant and attractive, does not detract from the central unity of the building around the altar. Allowing for only one focus is wise; too many visual centers in a church creates disharmony. The elevation of the pulpit above floor level is significant for, when the minister speaks to the congregation, he has the duty of speaking to them the unencumbered Word of God. This high office must be reflected in the placement of the Word over the people, symbolically calling them to remember their place as both subjects and children of the Lord.

Having posited the ideal, it is necessary to address one of the central criticisms raised in relation to the implementation of stylistic Catholicity. [35] The most common, and most easily rebutted, is that churches of the kind described are expensive and money should be spent on service to the poor or foreign missions. The great American architect Ralph Adams Cram observed that good proportions cost no more than bad ones and what makes a church beautiful is its consistency and effects of light and color. Comper would undoubtedly agree; Saint Mary the Virgin is not a particularly complex building in terms of its basic structure or plan. It is essentially a series of rectangular volumes massed together in a traditional fashion and pierced through with openings in the form of arches. When distilled into simple geometries, the vast majority of churches through history are uncomplicated forms. Their ornament often causes them to appear complicated, but, with the exception of some of the more adventurous Baroque examples, churches have remained rectangular in shape with the occasional circle or triangle coming into play. It may offend the architect brought up with modern ideas of individual genius, but the reality is that good design has nothing to do with genius and everything to do with careful observance of the past and the studied combination of straightforward geometric forms. Let questions of expense be put to rest and let not false humility eat away at the Church’s central function—the worship of Almighty God in space, in time, in a given place.

Ornament has the potential to be expensive. This is largely due to a lack of talented craftspeople and the codification of the architectural establishment that has worked to eliminate the artist and craftsman. Still, there is a resurgence of artists today whose works are beginning to equal those of earlier generations. It is no easy task to reconstruct a discipline so thoroughly corrupted by modern thinking, but there is the hope of a future renaissance of Christian art to equal the Renaissances of the twelfth century in Rome and the fourteenth century in Florence. Their works may be costly, but it is their calling to offer in the service of the Most High the gifts He has bestowed upon them. Let us not prevent them from exercising their gifts by parsimony and a false sense of superiority.

Photo: Rev. Kenneth Crawford, Vicar

The most deep-rooted problem faced today in the realm of the church-building arts concerns the philosophy of novelty that has taken over. It is often felt that every church must be an entirely unique product. It is the hubris of architects trained to believe that the only way to be progressive is to be futuristic that has brought about this thinking. Comper encountered this sort of thinking and overcame it in his many wonderful works. In response to those who claimed that architecture should reflect its time he replied, “Is there such a supremacy of goodness, beauty and truth in the present age as to mark it as distinct from the past, and demand that we invent a new expression of it?” Comper may not have fully understood the implications of his thoughts but it is clear that his belief in lack of originality is what made his churches so original. This has been the case for centuries; through designing with the past in mind, churches have been built that are of their time but remain within the stream of a growing, developing tradition and are always suited to the performance of the liturgy no matter its varied form. Originality is a result of designing with a view to the past. If an architect says, “I’m only doing what has been done before; I’m using old bits and pieces,” his heart at least is right. If he says, “Look and see, I have made something new, a unique product of this age,” he is not to be trusted with the design of the house of God. If his designs are, as Peter Anson called Saint Mary the Virgin, “brilliant pastiche” they are worthy of construction.

Saint Mary the Virgin is a truly Catholic building, taking beauty from many places and times, drawing together disparate strands of human thought and work, uniting them all in a glorious tapestry. Like the Mother Church that bore her, she stands as a memorial to a living faith, a tradition, sometimes dulled but never broken, that stretches back into the misty beginning of the earth when Adam and Eve first walked in the garden in their innocency. With the imago Dei impressed upon us, we must go forward in that tradition, bearing our best and highest gifts to our Lord and King. Comper and innumerable others call us forward.