The Alphabet of Giants
G.K. Chesterton on Sacred Architecture
In October of 1925, G.K. Chesterton was invited to address the opening of an exhibit at the gallery of the Royal Architects Society in London. Chesterton’s friend J.C. Squire, who introduced him, said that while Chesterton was not an architect he could at least be considered as a great edifice. Delighted with this description of himself, the three-hundred-pound Chesterton began his speech with the suggestion that all architects should consider dressing up as pieces of architecture, as Shakespeare has a character who plays a wall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The absurdity of the act would illustrate the idea that fashion has no place in architecture. It is the very nature of a fashion that it does not last. The “succession of fashions is in itself a succession of failures. For when men have made really dignified and humane things they have always desired that they should remain; or, at least, that some relic of them should remain.” But fashion is an entirely destructive thing, a negative thing. “It is as if a man were perpetually carving a statue and smashing it as soon as he carved it.” It never achieves its effect. “It is simply instability and discontent.”1 An observer of all things, this was Chesterton: humility and humor mixed with startling insight, an observer who had something profound and provocative to say about whatever he observed. The fact that he had been asked to speak to the Royal Architects Society is an example of the respect he commanded from men of every field. Indeed, in his wide reach he seems to personify a paradox: though he is always in everyone else’s field, he is never out of his own.
University of Cambridge. Photo: Dale Ahlquist.
Chesterton calls architecture “the alphabet of giants . . . the largest system of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men.”2 While most of us have the sneaking suspicion that most art is supposed to mean something, there is an almost universal instinct that of all the arts, architecture especially has something to say, something to proclaim, because, well, it is big. “The size of a building is the most obvious thing to say about it; it is meant to be the most obvious thing to see in it . . . meant to be self-evident, and therefore simple; a colossal commonplace.”3 Yet, in spite of their size, the symbols that are presented by this gigantic art form remain elusive. It is a language that few people can read, symbols few can even see. It is another Chesterton paradox: sometimes a thing is too large to be seen.
If all of architecture cries out with meaning, sacred architecture cries out the loudest. And yet its meaning, which is the meaning about ultimate things, is lost in translation, in fashion, in forgetfulness. It was while walking through someone else’s field—in this case literally—that Chesterton once found a surprising object lesson about the history of sacred architecture and how it relates to all art and all culture. He was near the ruins of an old abbey, some distance from its crumbling walls, when he came upon, half-sunken in the grass, something that looked like the head of a slain dragon. It was a gargoyle. As someone who was always looking to find more meaning rather than less meaning in man’s creative endeavors, Chesterton saw in the goggle-eyed creature a fanciful symbol of the three stages of art that every society seems to go through: growth, zenith, and collapse.
In the first stage, a primitive priest is told by his people “to build a great tower, pointing to the sky in salutation of the Sun-god.”4 So he builds a magnificent temple, decorated with carefully selected gold and gemstones—something that he feels is worthy of the god: well-ordered, perfect, untouchable.
Then pirates attack because they have a certain fondness for gold and jewels. The common people, however, rise up and fend them off. But as a result, they have a different attitude toward the temple because they have a different attitude toward the god. Whereas the former, classical style was perfect and admitted no imperfections, there arose a more romantic style that reflected a Creator who was not so remote. He had come down from the sky, just as the sun descends in a bloody sunset every evening, leading to a glorious resurrection the next day. This was a god who had touched the earth and given it life—full of struggle and energy and sacrifice and beauty and even homeliness, but full of life. The priest, now very old, recognizes the need for a more elaborate and profound architecture to express all these things, and he proclaims, “All the exaggerations are right, if they exaggerate the right thing. Let us point to heaven with tusks and horns and fins and trunks and tails so long as they all point to heaven. The ugly animals praise God as much as the beautiful.”
And under the new inspiration they planned a gorgeous cathedral in the Gothic manner, with all the animals of the earth crawling over it, and all the possible ugly things making up one common beauty, because they all appealed to the god. The columns of the temple were carved like the necks of giraffes; the dome was like an ugly tortoise; and the highest pinnacle was a monkey standing on his head with his tail pointing at the sun. And yet the whole was beautiful, because it was lifted up in one living and religious gesture as a man lifts his hands in prayer.5
“This,” says Chesterton, “was the Gothic, this was romantic, this was Christian art; this was the whole advance of Shakespeare upon Sophocles.”6 But then comes the third stage. Some argument arises. Someone throws a stone at the priest, hitting him on the head, causing him to lose his memory. He looks at all the carved creatures, the “frogs and elephants, monkeys and giraffes, toadstools and sharks, all the ugly things of the universe which he had collected to do honour to God.” But he has forgotten why he had collected them. The original design, the original object has been lost to him. And so he simply piles up the ugly creatures into one heap, and the rich and influential citizens elbow their way past the crowd and applaud and exclaim, “This is real art! This is Realism! This is things as they really are!”7 And that, says Chesterton, “is the only true origin of Realism. Realism is simply Romanticism that has lost its reason. . . . It has lost its reason; that is its reason for existing.”8
The old Greeks summoned godlike things to worship their god. The mediaeval Christians summoned all things to worship theirs, dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen. The modern realists summon all these million creatures to worship their god; and then have no god for them to worship. Paganism was in art a pure beauty; that was the dawn. Christianity was a beauty created by controlling a million monsters of ugliness; and that in my belief was the zenith and the noon. Modern art and science practically mean having the million monsters and being unable to control them; and I will venture to call that the disruption and the decay. The finest lengths of the Elgin marbles consist of splendid horses going to the temple of a virgin. Christianity, with its gargoyles and grotesques, really amounted to saying this: that a donkey could go before all the horses of the world when it was really going to the temple. Romance means a holy donkey going to the temple. Realism means a lost donkey going nowhere.9
These are the three stages of art that Chesterton saw when he looked at the fallen gargoyle staring up at him from the ground: the classical, the romantic, and the realist. The classical is pagan, with an emphasis on form; the romantic is Christian and keeps the form but emphasizes content; and realism, which is the degeneration into secularism, is a reaction against both form and content that ultimately rejects both. Chesterton says that although history shows that the arts of a great people have always gone through these three stages, it does not mean they must always go through them. “The first stage is an impulse which is often accepted; the second is a discovery that is often made; the third is a disaster which is not always avoided. We can refuse any of the stages; but unless we definitely exert our will we generally pass through them.”10 Architecture, especially sacred architecture, is not accidental nor can it be bound by trends and fads. It is an act of the will, which is both its glory and its peril. If it does not rise above everything, especially the ephemeral, it will certainly fall below everything. The church architect, more than any other artist, must obey the two great commandments to love God and to love his neighbor, and if he fails at either, so does the church building fail as a church. Worshippers not only desire, but are entitled to beauty and reverence in their holy places. But they also desire and are entitled to communion with each other. Like the cross, like the commandments, both the vertical and the horizontal must be part of the architectural design. This was best achieved, according to Chesterton, in the Gothic, which he calls “the mysticism that is in man made manifest in stone.”11 He goes even further to press his claim. When Christ’s disciples were trying to rebuke the children who were showing their natural noisiness at a great moment, Christ turned to them and said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Lk 19:40). Chesterton says, “With these words He called up all the wealth of artistic creation that has been founded on this creed. With those words He founded Gothic architecture.”12
Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds. Photo: Dale Ahlquist.
Chesterton praises the Gothic for its exuberance and energy and wild creativity, but at the very same time affirms that the style is still a product of careful design, proportion, and that fruit of the Holy Spirit: self-control (Gal 5:23).
The first Gothic arch was really a thing more original than the first flying-ship. And indeed something of its leap and its uplifting seems to make architecture akin to aviation. Its distant vaulted roof looks like a maze of mathematical patterns as mysterious as the stars; and indeed its balance of fighting gravitations and flying buttresses was a fine calculation in mediaeval mathematics. But it is not bare and metallic like the Eiffel Tower or the Zeppelin. Its stones are hurled at heaven in an arc as by the kick of a catapult. . . .The whole building is also a forest of images and symbols and stories. There are saints bringing their tales from all the towns and countries in Europe. . . . There are a thousand things in the way of fancy and parody and pantomime; but with the wildest creative variety it is not chaotic. From the highest symbol of God tortured in stone and in silence, to the last wild gargoyle flung out into the sky as a devil cast forth with a gesture the whole plan of that uplifted labyrinth shows the mastery of an ordered mind.13
Just as he was sent into a reverie after seeing a gargoyle in the grass, Chesterton had another sort of vision when he once sat looking at the façade of a medieval cathedral, and was suddenly startled by something he saw. There was a row of moving vans in front of the church, and they started moving all at once. It caused an optical illusion which made it appear that it was the church that was actually moving, and the vehicles were standing still. The experience inspired him to compose an article entitled “The Architect of Spears.” Not spires. Spears. Because what he saw in that fleeting instant was the Church on the march.14 Years later, in a rare visitation to his own writings, he reflected on that early essay and his vision of the Church Militant, of stone coming to life, not like a statue, but like a crowd. He envisioned the Church awakening, “not as one thing but as many.” There was something in the way all the various elements of Gothic art “are allowed to cluster almost in confusion, which suggests that if they could speak their voices would mingle in a sort of clamour. In one sense, certainly, in that Christian art, the lion does lie down with the lamb; only the bleating of the lamb might be almost louder than the roaring of the lion.” And yet, again, there is in that medieval architecture an order. “It had its own discipline, because it had its own direction; but it was like the discipline of a great multitude marching to one goal.”15
Side altar at Saint Mary Seminary, Oscott, England. Photo: Dale Ahlquist.
For Chesterton, Gothic architecture represents liberty not only in comparison to classical, pagan architecture, but even to the later revival of classical architecture in Christendom. He does not deny that the Renaissance was a renewal or even a liberation, but while it may have freed art, it did not free artists. “With the rationalistic movement the mystical democracy of the mediaeval guilds decayed, and gave place to capitalism and all the inhuman problems of our own time.”16 Thus, says Chesterton, we can no longer build a Gothic abbey, though we can still build a Roman aqueduct. Pagan engineering resembles modern engineering not only because it is scientific, but because the labor is servile. “You could build a Roman aqueduct and improve on a Roman aqueduct with scientific appliances. But you cannot build a Gothic Cathedral with servile labour. People who want to work in that way must put up with the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.”17 Even though there are certain things that can be done better by machinery, the danger is that machinery replaces craftsmanship and artistry. And it produces things that nobody wants. “Machinery is being used to produce ornament that nobody ever looked at and architecture that nobody wants to look at.”18 Though the medieval model should stand for liberty, Chesterton foresees that it will come to stand for law, and there will be a reaction against it because it represents moral order. But moral order does not mean rigidity and legalism. It simply means sanity. When the divine order is rejected, it will be replaced with a man-made order, a purely rational order. And Chesterton predicts that the error of purely rational architecture will lead to an opposite error: “a school of irrational architecture.” He says prophetically, “I fancy that the futurist taste in the arts will in the case of architecture be not only towering but toppling; in short, top-heavy. It will not only be Egyptian rather than Greek; and cease to be classic in the attempt to be colossal. It will not only pass from Rome to Babylon. It will pass from Babylon to Babel. The only fault in the structure of the Tower of Babel was that it fell down.”19
Though the Gothic vaults soar to heaven, they are not top-heavy. And they are full of light. For the other great gift from the Gothic is the glory of stained glass.
The visible clue to the Middle Ages is colour. The mediaeval man could paint before he could draw. In the almost startling inspiration which we call stained glass, he discovered something that is almost more coloured than colour; something that bears the same relation to mere colour that golden flame does to golden sand. He did not, like other artists, try in his pictures to paint the sun; he made the sun paint his pictures. He mixed the aboriginal light with the paints upon his palette.20
Elijah, Founder of the Carmelite Order, depicted in the Carmelite Monastery of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. Photo: Dale Ahlquist. Chesterton laments that the art of stained-glass is being lost. It is a purely Christian art form. Just as the east and west are literally the difference of night and day, so is Western faith different from Eastern agnosticism, and Christian stained glass different from Oriental fireworks. “The Christian windows are solid and human, made of heavy lead, of hearty and characteristic colours; but behind them is the light. The colours of the fireworks are as festive and as varied; but behind them is the darkness. . . .The rockets of ruby and sapphire fade away slowly upon the dome of hollowness and darkness. But the kings and saints in the old Gothic windows, dusky and opaque in this hour of midnight, still contain all their power of full flamboyance, and await the rising of the sun.”21
The stained glass is part of the breathtaking beauty of the Gothic. There is a connection between beauty and joy. Chesterton says, “Wherever there are happy men they will build beautiful things.”22 The gargoyles crawling on the exterior may be ugly, but they are smiling. Chesterton points out, they smile “because they are Christian.”23 The ugliness of the gargoyle is not evil. It is comic.
The Gothic craftsmanship is full of comedies and tragedies of common life, and especially of common lives connected with the erection and use of the church. It is full of carvings of masons climbing up ladders or falling off ladders. It is full of pictures of priests, not only depicted in the act of preaching, but caricatured in the act of practising the very opposite of what they preached.24
Grotesque at Canterbury Cathedral. Photo: fanshare.com/carlin779.
Chesterton says that men do not produce such art in order to become joyful. They are joyful, and so they produce such art. “Men do not dance in order to be happy. They dance because they are happy. . . . Art is not the mother, but the child of beauty.”25 Contrast the styles found in the Gothic and the Modern: lovely versus unlovely. Beauty has been sacrificed to utility. It is spelled out in the alphabet of giants. Chesterton says of modern architecture: “Its practical dwelling must not be beautiful.”26
Downside Abbey Church in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset, dedicated to Saint Gregory the Great. Begun 1882 by architects Dunn and Hansom, continued by Thomas Garner, and completed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1925. Photo: Dale Ahlquist.
The work of the architect, as of any artist, is a reflection of his conception of the universe. And as, Chesterton says, “A man’s conception of existence is the only important thing. Upon this depends whether he will paint a gorgeous picture or a sad one. Upon this also depends whether he will paint a sad picture or merely jump over London Bridge.”27 What makes the large symbols of the practical, rationalist, realistic modern architect so difficult to read is not that they are too large, but that they no longer mean anything. Whether ordered or disordered, the loss of significance and the loss of sanity have led to self-destruction, which is not very practical at all, especially when giving people a place to pray.