No Beautiful Style Should Be Excluded

by Sir J. Ninian Comper, appearing in Volume 39

The Doyen of Fécamp Abbey, in Normandy, years ago said to me of his church that it “prays of itself.” It was a beautiful way of expressing what we mean when we say that a church has an atmosphere.

The interior of Fécamp Abbey Church. Photo:

Kipling, to whom I quoted this, wrote me one of his inspired extravagances in a private letter in which he said what should be done to architects who “restore” Cathedrals in order that “we should be saved scraped and cleaned bones,” and added “There are very few churches which ‘pray of themselves’ when stripped out.” Since then the work of the cleaner and scraper has advanced in strides, and added to it is the violence of startling inorganic colour, which we see after the repainting of old wall frescoes, isolated arch mouldings, gilded bosses or other carving, or where an old shield has been picked out in garish tinctures—new patches on old garments.

The atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice. It once was so amongst ourselves and still is so in France even when the building may not be of arresting beauty. I have been rebuked for talking to the organist about his music within one of the doors of Dijon Cathedral, and I remember being told by the Vicar at Hughenden the year Disraeli died that if anyone spoke to him in the church he would take him out into the porch before he answered. Surely here today with all our new materialistic organizations we have lost something of the sense of what a church is.

“My Father’s house is a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.” It is a most stern saying; and as then, so now, it is commercialism that is at the bottom of these activities (“greed and careerism” as a modern writer has put it), though it may be disguised in such fine words that the users of them may not be conscious of it. “The tables of the money changers”—have they not literally invaded some of our cathedrals?

And even when the money changers are not there, are we not reminded of the tables in visible shape in too many churches in England, both Anglican and Roman, for the sale of tracts of (often controversial) propaganda? Seldom are the books on these tables the Holy Gospels which I have seen in beautiful form at the west end of the Cathedral at Rheims.

But party propaganda and the sale of the Gospels (and even the preaching of the Gospel) is not the purpose of a church: for what is a church? It is a building which enshrines the altar of him who dwelleth not in temples made with hands and who yet has made there his covenanted presence on earth.

It is the center of worship in every community of men who recognize Christ as the Pantokrator, the almighty, the ruler and creator of all things; at its altar is pleaded the daily sacrifice in complete union with the Church Triumphant in heaven, of which he is the one and only head, the high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech.

There is then no such thing as a Protestant church. A church is of its very nature Catholic, embracing all things.  There are Protestant Meeting Houses for preaching, and for praying, and for hymn-singing in common, and they are not to be despised; but if they are more than a plain room, they have become a meaningless imitation of that from which of set purpose they broke away.

A church built with hands, as we are reminded at every consecration and dedication feast, is the outward expression here on earth of that spiritual Church built of living stone, 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, though it has suffered from iconoclasts and destroyers both within and without, and perhaps nowhere more than in this land, it has never broken with the past: it has never renounced its claim to continuity.

To enter therefore a Christian church is to enter none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. It is to leave all strife, all disputes of the manner of Church government and doctrine outside—“Thou shalt keep them secretly in thy tabernacle from the strife of tongues”—and to enter here on earth into the unity of the Church Triumphant in heaven. It cannot be otherwise, since he himself, who is the temple of it, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, is there also. Such a conception of a church, however faintly realized, must put to shame the quarrels of Catholic Christians, who profess the same creeds but set up Church against Church.

It must, moreover, reduce to folly those terms of “self-expression” and “the expression of the age,” used to cover what is merely such incapacity and ugliness as every age has in turn rejected. Is an artist, the instrument of the creator Spirit, to express himself in building the temple of Christ? 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? The purpose of a church is not to express the age in which it was built or the individuality of its designer. Its purpose is to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land. This would seem to be the creator’s purpose towards man in giving him the beauty of nature, and it should be the purpose of all art.

In art man partakes in this purpose of his maker and objectively he brings the best of all that he has given him to create of beauty (in liturgy, poetry, music, ceremonial, architecture, sculpture and painting) to be the expression of his worship. For mankind in the mass the neglect of beauty spells the hardness and narrowness either of a puritan or of a materialist; though the saint and the mystic may pass directly, without the aid of external beauty of art, and even of nature, to God himself.

The note of a church should be, not that of novelty, but of eternity. Like the liturgy celebrated within it, the measure of its greatness will be the measure in which it succeeds in eliminating time and producing the atmosphere of the heavenly worship. This is the characteristic of the earliest art of the Church, in liturgy in architecture and in plastic decoration, and it is the tradition of all subsequent ages.

The Church took over what is eternal in the Jewish and Greek temples, adapting and perfecting it to her use, developing and adding to it in unbroken sequence, and evolving new forms, some which came to stay and some which needed correction. For the religion of Christ knows no moment of perfection here on earth although it retains all perfections to which man has attained and rejects all imperfections of barbaric or evil days.

It should have no use for the incapacities and crudities of primitive society in the invitation of which some take refuge today, this is rather a time to look to the rock whence we are hewn, respondere natalibus. While we cling to every loveliest form that man’s work has produced just as we cling to every loveliest flower of nature, we must again make the architecture of our churches in complete harmony with the liturgy, as Rome has done so notably of late for its music.

And yet again, just as no moment is perfect, so no reform is perfect, for it will always go a little too far. The admission of later music and a stringed orchestra for the ordinary of the Mass at Barcelona on Easter Day, 1935, in addition to the unaccompanied plainsong and contrapuntal music, was no contradiction of the new ruling. For is there not room in the kingdom of eternity here for all manner of music that it has entered into the heart of man to conceive as existing there?

And so it should be with architecture, the other handmaid of liturgy. No beautiful style should be excluded. But 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 apologize for doing so in architecture, any more than in music, unless we need apologize for the guidance of tradition in the interpretation of the New Testament and the creeds of the Church. There are those who do so apologize, and for them tradition in the arts has naturally no appeal. They are consistent; since modernism in art is the natural expression of modernism in doctrine, and it is quite true they are both the expression of the age, but of one side of it only.

Rome has condemned modernist doctrine but has not yet condemned its expression in art. The attraction of the modernistic is still too strong. It is flattering to think that, like the ages of faith, this age can produce a new style of architecture.

But the real strength of the appeal of the modernistic lies not, I think, in any claim which it may sometimes make to beauty but rather in a supposed antagonism between the arts of beauty and, as a correspondent expresses it, “the masterful and pervading influence of science. What is out of place in pure and applied science” (and beauty is assumed to be out of place in it), “seems an intrusion on all serious work whatever today. What is wrong is the breach with tradition which no one would have ventured upon but for the overwhelming appearance, awesome power, and obvious superiority of science to all else, applied as it is now to every side of human life. Science was a very big thing in the nineteenth century, but tradition could still hold its own. Today everything is puny compared with science, and science is everywhere.”

Really there is no antagonism. The trouble is simply that art, which in its great days was scientific, has today ceased to be so, and one of the require-ments for its recovery is that it should become scientific again and thereby be in harmony with the best spirit of the age. The man who sets to work to design an aeroplane or a motor car has no self-conscious strivings to express himself or his age, like the pathetic architects and artists of today.

His one business is to make it go and, if possible, to go one better, and he would not be so mad as to think he could do this without knowing the tradition of all that went before. Moreover, if he fails, there is no question of his failure; he cannot hide it by fine words and theories. Let us apply this to architecture and have an end of humbug.

After all, deep in the human heart is the sense of beauty and when a man sees it he will respond unless his eye is hypnotized by words. And so, first of all, the mists and fogs of theory and fashion must be cleared away. Science is not the enemy: rather it is to science we must go.

And do we want originality? I quote Dr. Inge: “What we call originality is generally the power to see old things in a new light—it is the reading of some open secret, as we know it to be in the natural sciences.” And the correspondent whom I have quoted before sums up: “What passes for originality today is at its best no more difficult to accomplish and is less original than what a man does who not only has studied the past, but bears the past within him when he is at work on some quite modern need.”

Knowledge of tradition is the first requisite for the creation of an atmosphere in a church and I should like in illustration of what is said above to touch upon some of its main details.

In the fourth century we find fully established, so as to postulate an earlier origin, the “layout” of the plan of a church which is suited to the needs of today in a way in which the medieval plan, to which we in England still adhere amidst all vagaries of styles, is not suited, developed as it was for monastic use.

The main feature of the early plan is the position of the altar, one might say, in the midst of the worshippers, and not separated from them by any choir but only by a very open screen, or merely by low cancelli. This may be seen in the unaltered plan of the ruins of the North African churches, and, most worthy of note, a return to it in principle may be seen in Spain from the end of the fifteenth century onwards. For there, while keeping the medieval arrangement of the altar against a great solid screen, they put the choir westwards leaving space for the body of the worshippers between it and the altar.

And inseparable from the primitive plan of the open altar is the ciborium over it. It has survived in Italy, Dalmatia, and in other Mediterranean countries unto this day. It survived also the advent of Gothic architecture, until the high reredos was introduced and the altar was set against a wall or solid screen, when the ciborium was, so to speak, taken to pieces.

Its canopy was always kept in one form or another, and sometimes also, its isolated columns with the curtains between them; sometimes the curtains were hung on projecting wands without the columns.

There is, however, no need to be historically shocked by the restoration of a ciborium in its original form to a Gothic church. A metal ciborium of the thirteenth century may still be seen over the high altar at Girona in Spain, and later examples exist over side altars elsewhere. The ciborium above the high altar, with the tabernacle hanging against it, is assumed in the Magdalen Pontifical (ascribed to Canterbury and the second half of the twelfth century), and it was restored by Henry VII to Westminster in his new Lady Chapel.

A late classical form of ciborium was designed by Wren for Saint Paul’s, and in the early eighteenth century another was set up in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. An early form was revived by Pearson in Victorian times at Peterborough and Perth Cathedrals, and there are better modern revivals by J. D. Sedding in two parish churches in London.

Trinity College Chapel at the University of Cambridge. Photo: Eufrasio

At the present moment I am engaged on a richer version of the Cosham ciborium for the Cathedral choir I am adding to the eighteenth-century Gothic Saint Andrew’s, Aberdeen; and another, more classical in form, is part of the accepted plans which I have made for the cathedral enlargement of the Georgian All Saints, Derby.

It is worth mention that in strict ecclesiastical language a ciborium and a baldacchino are not the same thing. This is noted by Dr. Rinaldo Pilkington, a chaplain of the Cathedral of Florence, in La Chiesa e ii suo arredemanto (Turin, 1936). The canopy is called a baldacchino when made only of woven stuff (because the richest stuffs came from Baghdad, which is Baldaccho in Italian), and is either suspended or, as sometimes, combined with a dossal.

It is in fact this which was condemned by the Saint Barnabas, Pimlico Judgment, and not the ciborium. It is the permanence of the ciborium through the ever-changing forms of architecture that I would indicate. Indeed the origin of the ciborium is pre-Christian. It is possible that it stood over the great image of Diana at Ephesus as it is shown in a recent model of 1932; and quite certainly it is covered by the “Ornaments” of the English Church in 1548.

The choir of the Chapel of the Resurrection at PUsey House, Oxford, with a ciborium and altar designed by Sir Ninian Comper. Photo: Lew, OP

Against the ceiling of the ciborium was the suspended tabernacle. We have documentary evidence of it in the sixth century, if we have not yet found inescapable proof of its being earlier. Thus the altar and the abiding covenanted presence were the center of the church; and the center of its imagery was, not the rood, but the great figure of the Majestas, i.e., of our Lord enthroned, above the altar. This we can still see in perfection in mosaics of Sicily of the twelfth century.

The distinctively medieval conception of the altar and the rood loft is indeed beautiful if adequately treated, in the setting of an exquisite Gothic building and its wealth of painted glass. None would grudge an individual preference for it and freedom to attain it for who so can. But the old way of concentration upon the altar itself by the ciborium would seem the better way.

Nothing has ever so combined magnificence with simplicity—nothing so separates the altar from everything else in the building and gives it such prominence that we see at once that it was to contain this that the church was built. And if we realize this, may it not be that we have something new to do today, as Spain had in the early sixteenth century, but in a manner of our own?

Why not adapt the great tradition of our glorious east windows to the service of the figure of our Lord enthroned in larger scale than life and dominating the church and still, it may be, appearing above the rood over a screen, but with the altar beneath a ciborium and the east window, perhaps at the length of a Lady Chapel, behind it, and the worshippers brought all round it?

Why not combine once again, as has been done before, but in a new way, the Greek and the Gothic? Such in fact has been my own development from Saint Cyprian’s, Marylebone, through Saint Mary’s, Wellingborough, and the (unfinished) All Saints Sisters’ Chapel, near Saint Albans, to the simpler church of Saint Philip, Cosham, at Portsmouth.

Saint Cyprian in Clarence Gate, London, by Sir Ninian Comper. Photo:
Saint Cyprian in Clarence Gate, London, by Sir Ninian Comper. Photo:

It has been allowed to none, I believe, to record the exact appearance of the Parthenon when Iktinos and Phidias had finished their work but we know it was built for and dominated by the great image of the virgin Athene within it, which cost more than the whole building.

We know too that when the Parthenon, still in its pristine beauty and robbed only of its great image, became indeed the temple of the Virgin—“Our Lady of Athens”—the place of the image was taken by a ciborium over the Christian altar. And so the highest achievement man had ever reached in architecture was predestined and ready for its perfect use.

Christianity made it her own and saved it from death. She brought the life of revealed religion into that which was the ultimate human perfection and which without that life could have gone no further. Rome added her material engineering to it, but could create nothing higher.

It was left for Christianity to absorb the best of Greece and Rome, and, again borrowing the pointed arch from the East (as Greece before her had done), to soar with it into heights unknown before, 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.