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A holy revolution

With hundreds of churches built, rebuilt, or restored in the nineteenth century, they can be found nearly everywhere today. Out of thousands of possible choices, below are five characteristic specimens — four small churches and one large synagogue — that explain Victorian belief.

St Matthew’s Otterbourne, Hampshire, UK

Just south of Winchester, just north of Southampton, and just east of the M3 motorway, Otterbourne is a place people drive through or, more likely, past. Its church – small, bluish-bricked, and (if we’re honest) a little unprepossessing from the outside – is probably circumvented too. But step inside and you’ll find a revolution underway.

As originally constructed in the 1830s, the building looked back to the old, Georgian conception of church architecture. It was, to all intents and purposes, a preaching box: a space which maximized the power of the human voice and minimized any sense of mystery. Built to accommodate 400 worshippers, it was filled with box pews and galleries and designed, above all, to ensure that everyone could hear the sermon delivered from a high pulpit.

But St Matthew’s also contained some signs of how things were changing. It was Gothic. It was shaped like a cross. And it was going to be transformed from the 1840s onwards, as it was ornamented, its windows were filled with stained glass, statues were acquired, the pews and galleries removed, and the importance of the altar was heightened.

Saltaire United Reformed Church, Yorkshire, UK

Travel north to the model village of Saltaire, just outside Bradford, and you’ll find another sort of Victorian church: not Anglican, but what was known as Non-Conformist — a Congregationalist chapel built by the businessman and philanthropist Titus Salt in the 1850s.

Now, this neo-classical chapel is still a preaching-box: an auditorium for preaching and singing. All eyes are turned to face the organ and the platform at one end. But it also speaks of how ideas about architecture were changing even for pious Protestants. The lavishness or the ornamentation and the quality of the workmanship don’t just reflect the growing wealth and power of Non-Conformity (though they do that too). They also show just how much the Victorians began to take sight as well as hearing into consideration when they designed religious buildings. The fact that this was a structure intended to reform its inhabitants as well as house them is equally significant. No longer mere receptacles, churches were increasingly seen as active agents in their own right.

St Peter’s Hornblotton, Somerset, UK

Back down south in Somerset, the little church of Hornblotton takes some finding. Set at the end of a succession of single-track roads, you have to know what you’re looking for. Once there, however, and safely parked in the shade of a tree, you can’t help but fall in love with the place. Outside, it’s all golden stone and pantiles. Inside, it’s like a little jewel. Built by the arts and crafts architect T. G. Jackson in the early 1870s, St Peter’s is an almost unique survival of a process known as sgraffito work: the carving of layers of plaster to reveal beautiful, brightly-coloured patterns.

These patterns and pictures are not merely alluring. They all tell us about the way in which church buildings were reimagined by Victorians. They came to see them as a vehicle of communication: a sort of theological text in their own right. Using pictures and texts, paintings and stained glass, flowers and fabrics they hoped to convey ideas as well as house worshippers. At Hornblotton, the profusion of images and Biblical quotations is almost overwhelming: converting a piece of architecture into a myriad of messages.

St Peter’s parish church, Hornblotton by ChurchCrawler. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Prince’s Road Synagogue, Liverpool, UK

Come to Liverpool and we’ll see that it wasn’t only Christian architecture that was reshaped by these developments. A fashionable synagogue for fashionable people in a fashionable street, it was built at the same time as Hornblotton church in yet another style: a fusion of Gothic and Moorish influences, intended to domesticate an ‘oriental’ religion.

Inside, you’ll encounter a dazzling array of ornament. Although it’s obviously set up as a synagogue, its stained glass, florid columns, and rich marble pulpit are more than suggestive of a church. In part this reflected the desire of an immigrant community for assimilation. In part, it reflected the tremendous wealth of generous benefactors. But above all, this gorgeous building is a symbol of how far-reaching this revolution in religious architecture actually was. By the 1870s sacred space was understood as vibrant, visual, communicative, and uplifting whether you were Christian or not.

St Thomas and St Denis, Berkeley County, SC, USA

And these changes weren’t confined to England, or even to the British Empire. Drive north east out of North Charleston, South Carolina, and you may find – if you can see it through the trees – a tiny church which beautifully illustrates the themes we’ve been exploring. Known as the “White Church” or the “Brick Church”, it was built in 1819 to replace an older edifice which had burnt to the ground. It is a compact, chaste, mildly neo-classical structure whose history shows that the nineteenth-century revolution in sacred space was so all-encompassing that we no longer even notice it.

As originally constructed, the church perfectly illustrated all the principles of eighteenth-century design. Here was a plain, brick-built, stucco-coated box in which to preach. Worshippers entered though a formal doorway set in the centre of the south wall. Once inside and seated, they sat facing north: all eyes (and, more importantly) all ears trained on the pulpit. In the nineteenth century, however, the church was radically reoriented. The south door was blocked up, the pulpit relocated, the pews rebuilt. All eyes were now focused on the altar to the east. Without the money to engage in all the additions – the stained-glass, the ornaments, furnishings, pictures, and other elaborations – which transformed so many other churches, it is only partially converted. But its reorientation, its new focus on the visual rather than the aural elements of worship, speaks volumes.

Featured image credit: All Saints Church Margaret Street, London by Diliff. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Raymond George Davies

    How nice it is to see such an article in the ‘news’. It raises your hopes for the World in which we live.

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