Transcendent Beauty and Poetry – A Blog about Churches
I want to make it clear from the start that this is about church buildings. I keep away from politics or religion (or football!) in my blogs. My title quotation comes from a Nineteenth Century British historian and journalist called Goldwin Smith. [If you surname is Smith there is a lot to be said for having an unusual Christian name.]
‘Everyone who has a heart, however ignorant of architecture he may be,
feels the transcendent beauty and poetry of the mediaeval churches.’
I love visiting churches just to look at the buildings. I will do a sort of pastiche of all the churches I have visited in a vague architectural order. This will be a cosmopolitan mixture with some churches from abroad and some that call themselves cathedrals or abbeys or priories or whatever…
The standards for church architecture have been virtually unchanged for centuries in the UK and throughout Christendom – at least for Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. The building is shaped as a Latin cross aligned from East to West (for archaic reasons which depended on the idea that Jerusalem was in the East.)
The main part of the building, corresponding to the lower part of the vertical line of the cross is the nave with a central aisle and rows of pews, perhaps with other aisles to the side. I’m talking about the traditional standard. Most churches seem to have abandoned pews now. Wikipedia says that the central aisle is called the nave but we still talk of a women being led down the aisle as metaphor for a wedding.
The transept crosses the nave and separates the area used by the congregation from the chancel where the service is conducted by the priest. In the transept are a pulpit (used by the priest to deliver his sermon) generally to the left and a lectern (holding a large Bible for readings – known as lessons) to the right. The altar lies at the far end beyond the chancel and choir stalls often come between the transept and chancel. (What we call the altar is now also known as the Communion Table or the Lord’s Table to reflect the fact that is not used for animal sacrifices.)
[I have to admit that there are exceptions to my generalization about left and right for the pulpit and lectern. I may be wrong.]
Somewhere, often destroying the symmetry of the design, there may be a Chapel, like a small church within a church, used for private individual prayers. It may be called the Lady Chapel with reference to the Virgin Mary and large cathedrals will have many chapels in the building.
I will start with a collection of views of the outside. It’s a mixture of old and new, large and small, English and foreign, magnificent and simple. Not all of them fit into the general description given above.
From mediaeval time churches and cathedrals have been built on the top of hills. To make them even more prominent they generally had spires or towers. Bells were often put in these towers so that the church could be seen and heard from afar.
As a tiny diversion let’s look at doors. Normally there is an impressive door or pair of doors forming the main central ceremonial entrance at the top of the aisle. There is also a much smaller entrance at the side and the main doors are rarely used – perhaps only for weddings and funerals.
If you look round the inside or outside of a church or cathedral you may also see some very old wooden doors. They look as if they may guard some secret passages.
Nave and Ceiling
The most resplendent view inside the church building is often looking down the main nave towards the far altar. The buildings are always high and may have magnificent ceilings.
Church architecture has always been limited by the technology of its time and from early centuries this was little more than walls of large stone bricks with timber to support the roof. They were dark buildings and they made the most of limited window space by using pieces of stained glass held together by lead. Not all churches could afford the coloured glass to make these expensive windows. They are like coloured mosaics showing pictures to illustrate biblical characters and stories – although they are generally very difficult to read or understand.
Font, Pulpit and Lectern
The font, usually near to the entrance at the back, needs to hold a small quantity of water for baptisms (known more generally as christenings.) It’s generally made of wood and relatively unassuming.
The pulpit, also generally wood, is much more impressive. It’s an elevated structure with its own steps for the priest. This makes the priest more visible and easier to hear but I suspect it also adds to his symbolic authority making the sermon something appear as if it is delivered from above.
The lectern may be a simple wooden structure but it is often a large brass or gilt statue of an eagle. I don’t think the eagle has any religious significance. It makes a convenient shape to hold a large open book.
The last picture shows a movable lectern in front of a pulpit, both on the right!
Until about sixty years ago the only version of the Bible was the Authorized Version known as the King James Bible. Many churches still have a big old Bible left open on the lectern. The actual readings are now probably from a more modern version using a smaller book on top of the old Bible!
Choir and Chancel
Where there are choir stalls they make the altar more distant from the congregation. In large churches and cathedrals you may see another altar in the transept in front of the choir.
Cathedrals are managed by the Dean and Chapter (not the Bishop) and historically each member of the Chapter House had his own stall behind the choir. These rows of elaborately carved stalls may be the most impressive parts of the building.
The Altar lies in the Sanctuary area at the far end. It is the most holy area accessible only to the priest and his assistants. The communion rail in front of it clearly delineates the limits for the congregation.
The organist is normally hidden away with his complex set of keyboards and stops but the pipes that make the sounds are so large that they are ornately displayed.
You will find many plaques in churches on the walls and many old gravestones on the floors. I have just picked three of my favourites – the Ten Commandments; the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and an unusual list!
Finally I have to note that many of our old church buildings are no longer used as churches. They make convenient auction houses and restaurants.
I have had too many church pictures but that’s all.