Friday, December 01, 2006

"A Glimpse of Heaven"

New book rolling out on the heritage of Catholic architecture... in the UK:
A Glimpse of Heaven, by Christopher Martin, is being published by English Heritage as part of its campaign to save Britain's historic places of worship, many of which are in a serious state of disrepair.

Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said it was time Catholic buildings were recognised. "As a group, they have been largely overlooked by architectural historians who have sometimes drawn unfair and inappropriate comparisons with Anglican places of worship," Dr Thurley said....

The research for A Glimpse of Heaven uncovered an astonishing diversity of styles from the chapels of Catholic aristocrats, to Gothic masterpieces by artists such as A W N Pugin, Classical basilicas and even Arts and Crafts and Modern churches.

Their history reflects that of the Catholic Church in Britain from the Reformation, when Catholic worship became illegal for two centuries, through to the 1791 Catholic Relief Act to Catholic emancipation in 1832.
Another fine idea for the US inbox.

Oh, and Martin has a piece in tomorrow's edition of The Tablet.
One autumn evening my wife and I drove westward from Manchester to go and look at All Saints Friary, Barton-upon-Irwell - a church for which much had been claimed. It is Grade-I listed. We travelled through a flat world of trading and industrial estates. We passed the gleaming, glamorous modernity of Manchester United's ground at Old Trafford and the vast Trafford Park Shopping Centre. Just beyond, isolated and melancholy, was All Saints Friary. It is one of the most lavish and important churches designed by Edward Pugin (1834-75), son of the great A.W.N. Pugin. Edward had a generous budget and there is polychromatic brickwork, a fabulously tiled floor, a superb altar and reredos (E.E. Geflowski of Liverpool ... probably). In a painting on the sanctuary wall, the architect stands proudly before his maker and beside his patron, local grandee Sir Humphrey de Trafford.

A few years ago the church was almost derelict. There was a drive led by English Heritage, a surviving de Trafford and the parish to restore and rebuild the church - a hugely expensive project that involved a totally new roof and a rebuilt bell cote. All Saints Friary was saved. Now it is in danger again. The dry rot returned. At the time of writing, the chancel and the chantry chapel are screened off as dangerous.

One thing I learned was that the great Catholic architectural heritage is not, of course, all Victorian. The book took us to eighteenth-century churches and chapels erected when intolerance of Catholic worship weakened. What is surprising is how magnificent under the circumstances the Classical chapels then built by grand Catholic families like the Welds at Lulworth and the Arundells at Wardour were: glorious expressions of freedom after two centuries of concealment....

By the end of the nineteenth century the possibilities offered by Gothic seemed to have been exhausted. The most important Catholic commission of the century was given to John Francis Bentley. His new cathedral at Westminster would be Byzantine in style, inspired by Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.

Much later, in the twentieth century, the commissioners of Catholic churches embraced architecture's Modern Movement. These buildings were unlike anything seen before. They accommodated the new liturgy and the new emphasis on a central altar. Many developed serious structural problems as well as inspiring aesthetic debate. Churches such as those at Leyland in Lancashire and Woodthorpe, near Nottingham; new cathedrals such as Liverpool and Clifton, in Bristol; new monasteries such as Worth, West Sussex, were built in variations of the Modernist style which became as much a matter of faith to its adherents as Gothic had been to its followers. There was at the same time a rigorous re-ordering of existing churches, much regretted by some of the laity and clergy I talked to. They felt that traditional ways of expressing spiritual aspirations through architecture, furnishings and decoration had been recklessly abandoned. It is ironic that the last important Catholic building to be erected in England - Brentwood Cathedral in Essex - was designed in a meticulous classical style by Quinlan Terry, its leading adherent today.

The morale and dedication of the clergy I visited was often movingly impressive but their numbers and their congregations are in decline. So are their budgets. What is to be done with the churches that they have in their care? Many superb Victorian churches are coming up for their first major overhaul. Fine buildings have developed leaking roofs, dry rot and damp. The quinquennial report on Westminster Cathedral written two years ago identified £3 million of works that it regarded as urgent. The cathedral has no endowments.