Tag Archives: Churches

Why are some churches locked?

Confined recently to Lancashire, I have been exploring the remaining medieval parishes in the local area I haven’t visited. It can come as a surprise, to those lucky enough to live in East Anglia or Wiltshire, that in some areas, it is not the norm for churches to be open. Or even seemingly any way to get inside without attending a service? It particularly annoys me when a church proudly declares it has received Heritage Lottery Fund money for a big repair, but yet there is not so much a phone number for a churchwarden displayed. Why should an essentially private building get public money?

I do believe that the ideal position of all Anglican churches is that they are open to all during the day. So for a church to be locked, there has to be some factors that exist that cause this not to be true. It is a misconception that the attitudes of vicars cause a church to be open or shut. Priests are really only in control of the services and ministry in the parish. They are usually members of the Parochial Church Council, and while they may certain extra rights of veto, but they do not in any sense control how the building is run. The custodians of the building are the elected churchwardens (usually two in a parish). But ultimately, of course, the owner of the building is the diocese, and anything that happens requires a faculty from them – even if the building is not nationally listed (and any medieval church is at least Grade II listed by default).

Here is what I think what cause churches to be locked, from the most reasonable to the less so.

1. Reaction to manifest problems


If these were medieval cock ‘n’ balls they’d be listed

People can get up to terrible things in public buildings. And you will hear stories about how people have urinated in church pews, vandalised the altar, broken statues, stolen money or pulled up brasses. And of course, if there is an active threat to a building, why would you not protect it? But such attacks are exceptionally rare. I have been in hundreds of churches, and I have never had to report any vandalism that seems to have occurred recently (except perhaps some things a congregation has done to their own church which I suspect they haven’t got a faculty for). It can be harrowing for a congregation to have their church violated, but it is a shame to finally take it away from the public due to a one-off event.


Brent Eleigh church had its unique 14thc high altarpiece wall painting damaged in 2016 by a mentally-ill man. The church, however, remains open as it was before the incident.

Christian churches in modern Britain are lucky that they (currently, at least) have no systemic prejudice against them, unlike Mosques or Synagogues, which can have vile campaigns against them from hate groups. If there are repeated attacks on a church, they are the acts of individuals, not a mindset. However, if a church is being targeted, it would be foolhardy to let those individuals continue and not take protective measures. But once the culprits are caught, normal opening can be resumed. But some churches seem surprisingly pessimistic about humanity, not to mention vindictive.

2. Reaction to perceived risk

A suburban church at the centre of a housing estate where even the grounds are padlocked

So this leads us to the next point. Risk. Things that are happening is one thing. Things that might happen is another. But risk must be managed. A church in a rural village, that has congregation visiting throughout the day, many events, houses nearby, has almost no risk, beyond the “crazy person” scenario. An isolated rural church, with no fittings of monetary value, has a slightly higher risk. A suburban church, which the churchwardens and priest do not live near, and bored children running about is another matter. One in a city centre, is another entirely.

Of course, perhaps the largest active threat to churches, is the theft of roof lead. Of course, this does not need access to the interior – indeed, it actually helps the thieves if they are sure the church is locked and there’s no one inside before they get up there and steal the roof. All risks however, must be managed accordingly.

3. Low level of resources

However, with all the good will in the world, some churches do not have the resources available to manage these risks. They may not be able to afford security cameras or motion-detector alarms for the sanctuary. They may not have PCC members who live near enough the church to be able to open and close it every day. Of course, this factor can always be solved by campaigning, raising interest, and fundraising, but then that leads us to the next point…

4. Low level of interest

Who would ever want to go in here anyway

Quite frankly, to overcome problems in opening churches, there has to be a desire. And some PCCs simply do not have it. Well, obviously, they can’t open the church because they live next village over and go to work. I don’t know who lives in the Old Rectory, they probably aren’t interested in looking after the key. Goodness know who runs the pub now, never go there.

5. Protectionism


Barbed wire a good addition to any crenellated parapet

This then slips over to last point, and the most extreme. For a village, a parish church is an important asset. What is an English village without its little church? It helps house prices if your village has a church that at least plays lip service on Sundays. Great for the village to have weddings, too. So you treat it like an asset, and lock it up tight. You don’t want ramblers coming in with their muddy boots. Kids knocking over the Easter flowers.

The most extreme level of this is with Evangelical churches, who have the money for security, but keep the church locked as a statement that God is everywhere, and the church is just a meeting hall. This is certainly not true of all churches with a lower-church, charismatic leaning (as sometimes the level of worship is set by the priest, and as I say, priests often have little to do with the opening status of churches), but ones where the entire PCC share this mindset can be the hardest of all to get into.


This just made me sad tbh

So which of these points is the most important to combat in getting more churches to open their doors? I think it’s 2 and 4, as 1 and 5, as the most extreme, are rarer. The thing is that “perceived risk” is often overestimated. Usually the worst churches for opening are in what are now satellite villages around big, formerly industrial cities, such as Liverpool. There’s a prejudice against people from “the town” who might come into “their village” and cause trouble. How do you combat this? Well, it’s point 4. Gently moan at them. Tell them people do want to visit the church.

And it’s to their benefit, in the long term anyway. If people who live in urban areas – that is, most people in England – think Anglican churches are locked, unwelcoming, private clubs, the hostility against the established church from the general public is only going to increase, and with it, available funds diminish. Yes, there will always be problems with that great mass we know as “the general public”, but if you can’t find tolerance and forgiveness in a church, where can you?


Trouble at t’ church – around Blackburn

St Luke, Blackburn Blackburn – a hilly Lancashire mill town with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside – is a nice place to get out of, residents seem to agree. But just as I liked to visit the dingier bits of London looking at their churches armed with a Pevsner Guide, it seemed a good place for my first Sunday excursion of architectural exploration by motor car. But perhaps residents are a bit hard on it. It’s been sliced up by roads and nothing whatsoever medieval left, but has a great deal of interest. Of course I just looked at the churches, but there’s mills, municipal munificence, and modern malapropisms (like this bloody thing which looms over the town like the OCP building in Robocop’s Detroit) to be savoured too.



St Silas, Blackburn

St Silas, BlackburnI drove there for the 10:30 service at St Silas, a church of 1894 that, with its striking profile from the road, cannot fail to make an impression on the passer-by. It’s by Lancaster firm Paley & Austin, a firm which Pevsner had much affection for, although his account of St Silas in 1969 is rather grumpy and succinct, judged to have “none of their spatial ingenuity”. Indeed, the inside is basically two great arcades with a chancel at one end and a tower at the other, but still with a great honesty throughout, just like a top-whack medieval building. The way the chancel arch for instance, is slipped in almost non-nonchalantly: as if it’s grown up between the piers.

The Holy Communion was dignified and enjoyable, and everybody very friendly, I’m just glad the fill-in organist arrived since everyone seemed to think I might be doing it. I left my car here and ventured into Blackburn for more traditional foot-based urban reconnaissance.


St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn

I was quite fortunate to get into St Luke, for which I had a magnificent preamble down a hill and past the gas works. Judging by the brackets around the description of the interior, even the Pevsner revisers didn’t get in here. Inside it’s a bit lumpy, with a great honking barrel roof with dinky pretend aisles. These are currently all piled-up with chairs, as all the pews have recently been removed, leading to a ramshackle feel like a church hall. The star attraction here are the magnificent windows in the north transept by Heaton, Butler and Bayne for the War Memorial Chapel. Startling to think that even in 1919 they were still making glass of this quality, and of some rather obscure Old Testament scenes. Moses held aloft by Aaron and Hur, anyone?

St Mark, Blackburn

St Mark, Buncer Lane – a like a temple to Hades built out of Duplo

St Luke was until recently a joint parish with St Mark, by scholar-architect Edmund Sharpe in 1836-8. Rather than in his Dec Gothic Style for which he was later known, it’s in the then still in-vogue Neo-Norman, but remarkably primitive-looking. Pevsner reviser Clare Hartwell writes that it is “almost Soanian in simplicity”. The tower has a rather menacing, pagan look to it, and it seemed as if the very sky turned to lead as I approached it.

I heard that this church had recently become redundant, and was to be handed over to a non-denominational Christian group. This is somewhat surprising, as I thought this was something the Church of England stopped doing in the ’80s. Despite the obvious attraction of a church staying in the Church, many of these independent Churches – unlike Wetherspoons – simply have no idea how to look after a historic building, and they can get into a horrific state. It looks like it could survive a thunderbolt from Zeus, but is St Mark tough enough to survive a happy-clappy congregation?

St Phillip, Blackburn

The orphaned tower of St Phillip and some colourful paraphenalia

It would be a shame to lose such an unusual church as St Mark, but for many other churches in Blackburn, one has to accept that just because the Victorians built it, doesn’t mean it must stay forever. The large Asian population means that by the late twentieth century Blackburn had a surfeit of buildings with Christian altars at the end, and many churches have been demolished. A few orphaned spires remain. Many others, such as St Peter’s in the centre, have all but disappeared without trace.


Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Cathedral Gothick nave, stodgy transepts and concrete crown

This situation makes it all the more peculiar that Blackburn a diocesan centre for the CoE, with a thoroughly Anglican Cathedral, what with all its concessions, bodge-jobs, but undeniable charm. The medieval church was demolished and replaced in the 1820s with a surprisingly pleasing bit of pre-Victorian Gothic Revival. In the 1930s the east end was demolished for a protracted campaign to construct cathedral-scale transepts and east end, in late Gothic Revival so conventional it borders on pastiche. In a surge of modern ambition (or realisation they couldn’t afford the projected tower), the crossing was finished by a concrete corona in the 1960s, which decayed so badly it had to be replaced in the late ’90s.

Blackburn Cathedral

The high altar (dressed in red for martyr saint St George)

This woeful set of mishaps does not mean that Blackburn Cathedral is an embarassment. The plaster-vaulted nave with its pretty decoration provides a fine entrance to the eventual experience of the crossing with its abstract stained glass, with the altar directly underneath. Rather than succumb to the fallacy of the 360-degree priest, the east end is fenced off by screening, to create an ambulatory and eastern chapel. This does leave the transepts as feeling rather pointless, with nothing much in them except from the misericords from Whalley Abbey.

Blackburn Cathedral

John Hayward incised glass screen and stained glass in eastern chapel of Blackburn Cathedral

The 1960s furnishings at Blackburn Cathedral were entirely ignored by Pevsner, which is a shame, as they are by John Hayward, shortly after his initial success with paintings at London Fields but before he went into stained glass full-time. His spikey high altar baldachin does look like something from Hellraiser, but hey, that’s cool with me, and his decoration of the eastern chapel, is nicely minimalist and well-judged.

When I visited Blackburn Cathedral in the afternoon, there was a service for the Royal Society of St George, which basically seemed like the excuse for the mayor’s wife to wear a hat, but we all got to sing Jerusalem so what’s wrong with that? At least we could celebrate the horrific multiple martyrdoms of George with a delicious cake.


Holy Trinity, Blackburn

Holy Trinity, Blackburn – You’ll need more than Faith, Hope and Charity to get in ‘ere, lad.

The last two churches I went to look at in Blackburn overlook it from a hill to the north. One is a clearly-oversized bland Late Victorian hulk Roman Catholic Church of St Alban, the other the rather important Holy Trinity, 1837-46. Also by Lancastrian Edmund Sharpe this gives a whole other side to him from his primeval building-block terror we saw above at St Mark. It’s an amazingly pure bit of fourteenth-century architectural scholarship, more of a model than a real church. It’s been redundant since the 1980s, but is kept by the Churches Conservation Trust. However, unlike most CCT buildings, which have a friendly keyholder, here, as someone from the Cathedral advised me, first you need to know where the key is, then you need to do some serious grovelling to actually prove you should be able to go in. Not a very happy prospect.

St Cuthbert, Darwen


St Cuthbert, Darwen

Interior of St Cuthbert, Darwen

The last church I got in was after a quick drive south, towards the hills, to St Cuthbert, Darwen. Always nice to bookend the day with Paley & Austin, this was built in 1875. The saddle-back tower of 1907-8 with an inappropriate clock by a borough engineer is a bit daft, and the whole thing looks from the outside as if it’s going to plow off into the street. “Sound and serious, nothing more”, says Pevsner, obviously satisfied but at a loss for words. Indeed, it’s a lovely atmospheric building, honest in every degree, but not much to say about the interior, except that it works in a thoroughly modern Gothic manner. The best thing is the 1908 window in the north aisle by Shrigley and Hunt, that shows St Cuthbert with his attribute of an otter at his feet. To show the Edwardians weren’t above a bit of animal whimsy, he’s wearing a mitre.

St Cuthbert, Darwen

Thanks I love otters in hats

The Director’s Cut – Flickr Box Set

Six crazy Victorian church-builders

If there was one thing the Victorians were crazy about, it was building churches. Not just in number, to cater for rapidly expanding suburbs and mill towns, but in their embracing of a fantastical and rich medieval style. Here are six architects I think are set apart from the rest by their polemic ire, prodigious achievements, marvellous ambition and questionable aesthetics.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

The frontispiece for Pugin's An Apolgy for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. Which is ironic, because this is not an apology, but more "CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERFUCKERS"

The frontispiece for Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.
Which is ironic, because this image is less of an apology, but more “CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERF…

The daddy of all crazy Victorian Gothic architects is without doubt the man who has a plethora of names to match his sheer lunacy. A.W.N. Pugin rose to fame through his polemical pamphlet Contrasts, which illustrated his belief that society could be fixed up by making everything pointy. Architects had been reviving Gothic (or as Pugin preferred, “True Christian architecture”) forms for some time, but arguably Pugin was the first to reunite medieval architectural forms with their religious context. A church should not just look Gothic, but it should be Gothic: the furnishings should be Gothic, the vestments should be Gothic and ultimately the people would be Gothic. Pugin even believed a door-hinge should aspire to the grand Gothic scheme.

Cheadle polychrome

Pugin with wallpaper at his magnum opus St Giles, Cheadle (1841-6)… Image by Lawrence OP


The problem is, because he tended to see Gothic as this systematic solution to society’s ills, his churches tend to conform to a very regularised plan, basically just two arcades with a roof on top. He was most talented at enlivening flat surfaces with his seemingly inexhaustible capacity at creating patterns. Sadly, his work on the Palace of Westminster sent him spiralling towards an early grave, the familiar mix of overwork, insanity, and syphilis.

Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich

… and embarrassingly naked at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich, 1851 by W.W. Wardle with more than a little help from A.W.N. Pugin.

Apparently, he also swore like a sailor. I would have liked to see a clergyman’s face when the architect effed and blinded at a workman for doing something like putting up the wallpaper in the Lady Chapel upside down.

Sir George Gilbert Scott

G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.

G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.

Harrow school chapel

Harrow School chapel, 1854-7 Roomy, indeed

Scott is an absolute titan in Victorian architecture. He was as crazily industrious as Pugin, but also had the good sense not to contract syphilis, so had an incredible career restoring nearly all of England’s cathedrals. His knowledge of Gothic architecture was equalled by his skill in engineering, and he formed an admirable restraint in his restoration as time went on, that would eventually lead into modern conservation ethics.

It is somewhat surprising then, that a bit like Pugin, his new churches are so boring. He’s so eager to be proper that his buildings commit that cardinal Victorian sin of seeming like heartless pastiches of the medieval. His prowess with cathedrals means he often got the commissions for the big new churches in cities, but rarely did his imagination rise to the scale of demanded by the amount of pews. If you think I am being a bit mean on him, well, I do think St. Pancras station is the most marvellous building in London.

John Loughborough Pearson

St Augustine, Kilburn. Chancel.

St Augustine, Kilburn. Internal buttresses = more vaults

St Michael, Croydon. A fifty-three foot high vault in South London

Not all Victorian architects’ attempts at getting medieval resulted in half-baked imitations by any means. Some could actually be as subtle and creative as the era they aspired to. Probably the best candidate for the most authentic Victorian Goth was J. L. Pearson. His St. Augustine, Kilburn, in north London, is one of those rare churches that stands out as a statement of pure architecture. Why is it such a powerful building? Everything! There are no gimmicks or simple quotes of his favourite buildings, but instead a single thought process working towards a cohesive whole. He also loved stone vaulted ceilings, as found in great cathedrals, using them as much as possible. I think he would have put a vault over the church outhouses given half a chance.
Pearson’s output only appears effortlessly sensible, the ambition of his buildings sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries, and he is a bona-fide genius of Victorian architecture. This is why he got the honour of designing the only Anglican cathedral built in Victorian times, at Truro in Cornwall. He must have felt pretty smug about that.

William Butterfield

Boom All Saints, Margaret Street

All Saints, Margaret Street, 1850-9

The neo-Gothic Rugby Butterfield School Chapel

Rugby school chapel, 1875 Photo by Dr Hilary Rhodes

Then of course we have the Victorians who didn’t give a babewyn’s about being authentically medieval, but wanted to use Gothic forms towards a whole new style. The king of this was Billy Butterfield, about as subtle as a monster truck. His churches are almost infantile in their gaudy colours, big shapes and simple patterns. Butterfield wants the church to be an explosion of colour that would hospitalise a visiting Presbyterian, most famously All Saints, Margaret Street, just off Oxford Street in London.Unlike Pugin and his wallpaper, his colour comes from the building material itself, meaning his exteriors, such as Rugby school chapel could be as loud as a raucous recital of “Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer” by the school’s choir.

Butterfield’s reputation suffered immensely in the twentieth century, John Summerson amounting “his love of ugliness” to “purposeful sadism”. Indeed, he may have got a bit carried away in his restoration of some medieval churches, that with their tell-tale polychromatic tiling can only be described as being BUTTERFIELDED. It seems in everyday life he was a very shy retiring fellow who only expressed his true feelings in his work, a Schubert of architecture. Although he didn’t die of syphilis.

Edward Buckton Lamb

St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864 Where do you even start with this

St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864
Where do you even start with this

Everybody loves E. Buckton Lamb! Lamb is part of a motley gang of architects popularly dubbed the “loveable rogues”, the churches of which make Butterfield look like a conservative pedant. If Butterfield’s churches look like he’s stuck a foot pump in them and inflated everything to crazy proportions, Lamb’s churches look like he did that until they burst, and then he had to stitch them back together again like a desperate taxidermist.  His buildings seem the product of such a maniac that one wonders if he hadn’t been an architect he would have been off doing something much more unsavoury like murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. He mixes forms and genres without regard for their original context. This brought him much tutting from that great legislator of Anglican architectural taste, The Ecclesiologist magazine. Check out this:

Christ Church, West Hartlepool

IT’S ALIIIIVE!! Christ Church, West Hartlepool, 1854. Photo by John Lord.

Christ Church, West Hartlepool, recently erected, by Mr. E . B. Lamb, is one of those uncouth and grotesque combinations of incongruous architectural tours de force, which it requires the inartistic and withal presumptuous mind of Mr. Lamb to conceive. Such a mass of absurdities, as the apse with the eastern triplet, the horrific chimney, the octagonal central tourelle, the beacon turret with its “wide-awake” capping, and the out-corbelled battering termination of the west tower, can, we should imagine, be hardly equalled elsewhere.

Ouch. In many ways, his willful craziness is not unlike current streams of postmodernism in architecture, striving to be noticed by being a bit zany. Not that I am saying any current practitioners of postmodernism are likely to start going around butchering women in East London if they lose their jobs. It’s just that novelty for its own sake is not likely to endear one to the ages like some of his contemporaries.

William Burges

Burges dressed as medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s

Burges dressed as a medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s

Unlike most of the people I’ve discussed, Burges was actually a bit barmy, at least after he started on the laudanum. He had the good fortune to get to know the Marquess of Bute, literally the richest man in the world, which lead to a number of horrifically over-the-top churches for toffs with more money than sense.

Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby

Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby, 1871. Photo by Peter Mattock.

Although more stylistically congruous than Lamb, with a taste for the Early English of c.1200-1280 he has absolutely no sense of restraint when he had the cash at his disposal. A building like Christ the Consoler, Skelton (N. Yorkshire) is not much bigger than an ordinary parish church, but has enough sculptural ideas to cover a cathedral. He also really likes rose windows to the point of cramming them in the most inappropriate places, like his new east end for the medieval nave of Waltham Abbey in Essex. Most Victorian architects couldn’t even dream of being as crassly bonkers as Billy Burges. At least not with a good dose of opium.

A blagger’s guide to stained glass

HarrowWhat is a church without stained glass windows? They’re such a ubiquitous feature that a lot of people can take them for granted and coo “ooh, isn’t it all beautiful”. But not all stained glass is created equal. Some of it is stunningly beautiful, and some is… not.

Here’s my entirely partisan rundown of what to and what not to get excited about in the windows of churches.

ooh let me get my field binoculars out because you have a bit of…: ACTUAL MEDIEVAL GLASS

Warlingham, Surrey

This is in Warlingham, just south of Croydon. Make sure you look at this FIRST because it’s all broken and clearly old


Deerhurst (Gloucestershire)… isn’t she lovely…

Most important thing to know: basically, there’s no such thing as bad medieval glass, because with so little left of the stuff it’s your solemn duty to pretend to be excited even it’s a tiny broken bit of canopy or a badly painted face. As snobby as it seems, it’s kind of true. The craft behind medieval glass always assured it had a jewel-like quality that is very difficult indeed to replicate.

When light shines through medieval glass, it does not project the picture on to the floor like a magic lantern. It refracts through the uneven surface, and it is this effect that makes medieval glass so valuable. My favourite example of this is the relatively small early-fourteenth-century figure of St. Catherine in Deerhurst (Gloucestershire). She is rather out-of-place, marooned in a great sea of later medieval fragments, but cannot fail to capture the passing gaze of any visitor.

Chichester Cathedral

West window of Chichester Cathedral, 1848. Looks like someone just hit the jackpot on an ecclesiastical fruit machine

Better get your sunglasses on for: WILLIAM “BOILED SWEETS” WAILES

When people started building pointy Gothic churches again in the early nineteenth century, there was a new demand for glass that looked medieval. Problem is, for the past hundred years or so the only coloured glass in English churches was enamelled, where you paint colour straight on to the glass – cheating! Real stained glass has the colour fired directly into the material, the only way to paint two colours on it is when you fire silver nitrate to “stain” part of the glass yellow (hence the term stained glass), or the more complicated technique of “flashing”. The first major firm to try to recreate proper jigsaw-puzzle-like glass was that of William Wailes. The problem is that his glass is mass-produced sheet glass (I said sheet), which has none of those all-important imperfections. Consequently, it leads to a horribly even quality that makes them look as lurid as a row of jars in a candy shop. Similarly it’s initially enticing but rather quickly makes you feel quite ill.

St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield

1850s glass at St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield, attributed to early Heaton, Butler and Bayne

That’s actually rather special, you know…: EARLY “PRE-RAPHAELITE” STYLE GLASS

William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862

William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862

In the 1850s there was a striving to try to recreate glass with medieval quality. Possibly too much emphasis is placed on William Morris, who worked with the fine artists Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, when actually a lot of the early trail-blazing was done by John Clayton, Alfred Bell, Clement Heaton, James Butler, Robert Bayne, Nathaniel Lavers, Francis Barraud and Nathaniel Westlake, names that are now only familiar to churchcrawlers from the firms they subsequently went on to found. These men wanted their glass to be worthy for the medieval churches they restored rather than inadequate pastiche. It still often has quite a lurid hue, but the designs are unlike Wailes’s stiff figures and full of life, and the uneven thickness, bubbles and imperfections go toward that Holy Grail of getting medieval on your glass.

St Saviour, Walthamstow

Heaton, Butler and Bayne, the Transfiguration, 1887 St Saviour, Walthamstow


St Paul, Brentford

East window of 1882 in St Paul, Brentford, Hounslow

Good high Victorian: HEATON, BUTLER AND BAYNE
So into the 1870s, 80s and 90s, when probably more glass was made in England than any time since the Middle Ages. There are a lot of firms to choose from who have their own distinct styles, but my favourite are Heaton, Butler and Bayne. They weren’t shy of mixing styles of Renaissance and Gothic, and bold colourful designs, while keeping away from the violent colours of the 1830s and 40s. They often sign their work, so keep an eye out for what I think is their consistently high level of work glazing England’s churches. My favourite glazing by them is the west lancets of 1877 in St. Saviour’s Walthamstow, so much in fact I’ve been using as my WordPress header for the past year and half I’ve had the blog. It’s so gloriously proto-art nouveau: hopeful and jewel-like: positively a stained-glass attitude on life. It’s amazing to think how much money was spent by Victorian parishioners and rectors just on bringing that little bit of colour into people’s Sundays. Now churches struggle to fix the roof or get a new toilet.

Erith, St John

No someone hasn’t sneezed, it’s a Kempe window of 1905

Nice tracery, shame about the: KEMPE

Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they've just eaten a lemon

Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they’ve just eaten a lemon

As any medievalist will no doubt enthusiastically tell you, a lot of nineteenth-century glass is difficult to get excited about. C. E. Kempe is exemplary of this. High Anglican Victorian clergymen loved Kempe’s work, but I’ve never met anyone else who does. His windows are conservative, but most of all they’re EVERYWHERE. I think if you just left a church alone in the nineteenth century that Kempe glass would just grow between the window mullions like rising damp or bat droppings. I will admit there is some good quality stuff, but he has such a low quality threshold some of it frankly is just hideous. Even the better ones seem are united by awkwardly pinched faces, and most of all, a distinct griminess that makes them look as if they’ve gone mouldy. That’s not a good aesthetic.

(For the sake of balance here are the Kempe Society and the Kempe Trust who I wish all the best in their endeavours)

Bit soppy but the colours are nice: 20th CENTURY ARTS AND CRAFTS

St John the Divine, Richmond

Christopher Whall, detail of S chapel window, 1908, at St John the Divine, Richmond

Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill

Joseph E. Nuttgens, c.1920 window in porch Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill

So while Kempe went on into the 1930s pumping out the same old nonsense, at the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts movement legacy inspired many to go back to basics, firing glass with distinctly rough surfaces and experimenting with new techniques. Some names to look out for are Christopher Whall (whose glazing in Holy Trinity Sloane Square I feel beats out the famous Morris and co. east window), M. E. Aldrich Rope and J.E. Nuttgens. It often still has an awkward lingering Victorian sentiment in the face of continental modernity, but it actually looks like glass and is shiny and nice which I hope you are learning is the most important thing about church windows.

Comper, Orders of Angels, 1933. All Saints, Carshalton

Well no one would claim it as his best work: COMPER
A rival aesthetic to this was that of Ninian Comper. Comper was a hugely popular church architect and designer who is best known for his work in the early twentieth century, particularly his magnificent rood screens. But I’m not talking about that here. I’m having a go at his glass. Generally I don’t think Comper liked stained glass all that much. All his stuff is very non-committal, usually just blue and white, and lingering yellow stain. And the stuff itself is lifeless, flat and thin. I think even the biggest Comperholic would say you do not visit one of his churches for the windows. I think he just wanted to let more light in so you could see his massive shiny reredoses.

Modern stuff can be good: JOHN HAYWARD

St Mark, Prince Albert Road, St Mark window detail

Red flashing taken to new heights with the bloody body of St Mark in St Mark, Regent Park, 1966

St Michael Paternoster Royal

St Michael Paternoster Royal, The City of London, 1968

After the War, it became the thing to eschew colour for a brighter church interior, and stained glass lost out, becoming less confident, clearer, and well, less like stained glass. One artist who went against this in the 1960s was John Hayward. His magnum opus is no doubt St Michael Paternoster Royal in the City. In the centre is the church’s patron saint beating down the devil, of which the rich hues and thick textures in the glass work with the subject towards an explosive Armageddon of colour and light. These spectacular windows are one of central London’s modern hidden treasures. If you live or work in the City, and haven’t seen them (which I bet is true), go see them, please.

augh no my eyes make it stop: HUGH BLOODY EASTON

East window, St Dunstan, Stepney

East window, 1949, St Dunstan, Stepney

Crayford, St Paulinus

East window, 1953, at St Paulinus, Crayford

Okay, finally, the nadir, Hugh Easton. His glass best represents the post-war problem of putting floating figures into a sea of clear glass, and also lazily ignoring the shape of the window and tracery in the design. But more alarmingly Mr Easton also brings a rather bizarre eroticism into Anglicanism which would have given any Edwardian parson a brain haemorrhage. See his east window at Stepney, where a bare-chested young Christ flexes his abs permanently at the congregation. Put them away, Jesus. And then the east window at Crayford of the four archangels, my Lord. I wish no damage upon this window, but I wonder if it would be happier if you put some flashing lights behind it and installed it in the basement of a Soho nightclub. How this guy got so much work in Westminster Abbey of all places I’ll never know.

Why churches?

Bishopstone, Wiltshire

The lumbering splendor of Bishopstone (Wiltshire)

I’m doing a doctorate on English parish churches. The problem is with waving this about in public is that, let’s be honest, churches aren’t terribly cool. They’re not like particle accelerators. What should our churches be for? Should they be purely for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and allegedly dwindling Church of England congregations? Or should they be turned into secular museums? Or is there a middle way? I like to think that there is.



The Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire). A rare survival of fourteenth-century sculpture at its height

The Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire). A rare survival of fourteenth-century sculpture at its height

It might seem clichéd to preach a spiel about the sense of wonder around of a site that has been the focal point of a community for hundreds of years, but that’s only because it’s true. It makes churches invaluable for our culture, and it is why people loaded them with amazing art. Sure, it was often with a degree of self-interest: towering tombs of medieval lords, private pews of Georgian families, and Victorian memorial stained glass, but then no act can be entirely selfless. We can now appreciate the opportunity that disposable income gave artists to create works of inspiring and beautiful craft. I don’t think anyone would disagree, certainly for the Middle Ages, that some of our finest works of art can be found in churches, and are worthy of protection and preservation.

St Bartholomew the Great - Maundy Thursday

Elevation of the Host on Maundy Thursday at St Bartholomew the Great in London, the choir of a former twelfth-century priory

But there’s a thorny, often unspoken problem that exists even between people who are actually interested in these buildings: what goes on in them. However, I think that the tradition of performance is just delicate and worthy of preservation as material art. Religious ritual has the potential to move your senses, especially in a space built especially to accommodate it. Just like you can get a lot out of watching a guy pretend to be a Danish prince who does nothing about his dead dad for three hours, I think there’s also a great deal anyone can obtain from the universal message that you are not the most important entity in the Universe, yet there’s no one around you who is better or worse than you either.

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Soaring pointed Gothic arches at Grantham, Lincolnshire

Basically, I think that churches, even ones built relatively recently, embody history, art and ritual in ways that an institution like a museum cannot. They’re not just built for these things, but around them. They grew out of them, it’s what they’re all about. Something that exemplifies this idea is the Gothic style itself. There are Gothic buildings that aren’t churches, and churches that aren’t Gothic. But the style was first forged and popularised in them, and unavoidably accompanies them in the popular imagination. The key element of the Gothic, the pointed arch, acknowledges something beyond the rational circle, outside the initial boundaries of our understanding. It’s a style that appeals to contemplation, imagination and sensual excitement. This is what churches, as places, visual repositories and theatres, should aspire to be.

Die Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung (The Cologne thirteen churches challenge)

My trusty guide for the day

My trusty guide for the day

Recently I piggy-backed another Courtauld trip, this time to Aachen, to try and get a bit of experience with German churches, and a day in Cologne. Cologne is famous for its twelve Romanesque churches, of which is it especially proud from its massive post-war restoration that returned all them to their former glory despite significant damage (we’re talking tower and vault collapses here) in  nearly every one. And then of course, there is the Cathedral. Could I do the lot in 24 hours (including pesky sleep?).

I did no research whatsoever on the churches, except where they were (quite important) and when they were open, as I wanted the experience to be full of surprises. What follows is a brief account, light on the dates and analysis of building breaks, to try to distill each church to a one favourite stand-out feature or we’ll be here all day. Onward!


Arriving in Cologne was quite an unforgettable experience. Cologne CathedralLittle did I know, searching for internet access so I could have my phone magically point me in the direction of my hotel, that the Dom was right outside of the south exit of the station, a looming critical mass of distilled Gothic through the plate glass facade. This was not a moment to think “oh, hey, there’s the Cathedral, now, let me put a fake email address into this network log-in screen…”. No, Cologne Cathedral is something of such sublime proportions that it immediately shatters any such worldly concerns such as foreign wi-fi signals. The west facade is nearly entirely nineteenth century, but finished from now almost relic-like “Plan F”, which showed the original design. And what in reproduction, can seem like two facades clumsily stacked on top of each other, appears in true experience as the apotheosis of the Gothic system, and quite frankly, initially, utterly bloody terrifying to the point of inducing vertigo. Eventually it beckoned me to enter in. I cried a bit. It’s enough to evangelise you that Gothic is not a style. It is the Law.


#1 But, alas, most of my time was going to be concerned with Romanesque, which, as a responsible art historian, I should tell you was not a style where people were working out how to do Gothic but a creative force in its own right. The Northern-most church, on the way to my hotel, is St. Kunibert, on the other side of the railway station. As my first of the Romanesque churches it was not a disappointment. It really sets the scale for the monumental churches all over the city – a dominating “westwerk” block with two towers at one end and a raised choir at the other end with a semi-circular apse.
St. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, Cologne
The incredible thing for me is that this church was built entirely in the thirteenth century. Even in England Romanesque was totally old hat by this time. This church was especially badly gutted in the war, but the simple polychrome of red and blue the restoration has instated on the columns, ribs and arches sets off marvellously against the pale grey stone.


#2. Also on the first evening I managed to see Groß St. Martin, as this seemed to be open til 7:30pm everyday.
Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne
This is another enormous church with a tower with four flanking turrets that dominates the skyline after the Dom (sadly all rebuilt as the crossing caved in from a direct hit). Unlike St. Kunibert the fabric has much more of the patina of time about it, and there’s certainly a lot less in the way of altarpieces and statues. But what was most memorable about this church is the reason it’s open so late: it is staffed by a Monastic order and has a Mass every day. The nuns’ plainchant was captivating and there was a wonderful serenity to the whole thing. As nearly every service I’ve seen in a building like this, it was not able to approach the scale of the ancient church, and merely taking place in it. However in its modest quality it felt like watching a very distant shadow of the medieval liturgy, like the underdrawing of a faded fresco.


#3. The next day I set off south to work my way up through the remaining ten Romanesque churches. Upon seeing St. Georg open I dived inside. A much stumpier building than so far, with a westwerk like Mecca in a dunce’s hat.
St. Georg, Cologne St. Georg, Cologne  St. Georg, Cologne
Quite an interesting church archaeologically for modifications (check out that added vault on the nave elevation…) and changes of plan, but I won’t bore you with my tedious pictures of such things. The most memorable thing here is the crucifix in the westwerk, a so-called gabelkreuz, where not just Christ but the cross is twisted into a Y-shaped expressionist agony.


#4. So down to St. Severin, the southern-most church, a commanding spire making it easy to find and the only one with a Gothic nave.
St Severin, Cologne  St Severin, Cologne St Severin, Cologne
This pointy fourteenth-century nave was certainly the most memorable bit, even it was a bit workman-like, but it had some quite unusual Renaissance tombs with alabaster reliefs. Oh, and another fourteenth-century gabelkreuz!


#5. St. Panteleon was next, which is important for having really early Romanesque in the mighty westwerk.
St Pantaleon, Cologne St Pantaleon, Cologne  St Pantaleon, Cologne
However, what made me make an noise of audible delight was the choir screen, documented 1502-14, but in full-on Florid Gothic: a veritable fugue of intersecting nodding ogees and fantastic pinnacles. Oh daddy.


#6. Over to St. Maria Lyskirchen, the smallest of the churches, which largely escaped Bomber Harris et al, and so still has its strange Baroque balcony in the nave.
St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne
It also means it keeps its utterly extraordinary series of paintings – the earliest the Adoration on the counter-facade, mid-thirteenth century in the main vessel, and later, towards 1300 in the two choir chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Catherine.


#7. Back to the massive Romanesque with St. Maria im Kapitol, here the nave never had its vault rebuilt after the war so has the bare springers. There was some setting up of a light show behind the Renaissance screen, and I wasn’t sure whether it was off-limits, so took it as a covert operation. As Alec Clifton-Taylor says, the good thing about Romanesque is how easy it is to hide behind the piers (but “One has to be so particular in Perpendicular”).
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol
But this church is full of extraordinary things. Romanesque Madonna, prehistoric “bones of St. Mary”, the original carved wooden doors, another gabelkreuz… but I am going to choose the late Gothic Hardenrath chapel, consecrated 1466. It has a singing gallery off the south transept leading into a tiny intimate space crowded with art. Sadly the wall paintings were largely detached in the war, but it is still an impressive space. Even more so when you realise the gate is unlocked when you’ve been taking pictures through it for five minutes.
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol


#8. I dive over to St. Aposteln. In practically any other town this would be looking at Cathedral status, but here it’s just another Romanesque mammoth with two towers flanking the choir like oriental sentinels.
St Aposteln, Cologne  St Aposteln, Cologne   St Aposteln, Cologne

Not too much inside, they were setting up a concert when I arrived so mainly could only see the westwerk, but a zoom lens and tripod got me the choir and nave. The full set of fourteenth-century apostles set into the modern high altar were by far the stand-out of the furnishings.

#9. Now, St. Cecilia is a different sort of church. It’s not much more what you would expect out of a Romanesque parish church, nothing fancy.
Cäcilienkirche, CologneCäcilienkirche, CologneP1860983
However, it is now home to the Schnütgen Museum, and packed full of medieval sculpture. Now, the main museum foyer had a “no photo” sign in so I actually only took pictures sparingly and covertly at first, until I noticed other visitors not getting told off (this how you roll as an art historian – interesting because this fellow Cologne church crusader got slapped down). It’s cheating and I should probably just talk about the wall paintings or something that is actually part of the original church, but I was totally absorbed by the altarpiece of St. Ursula that was displayed on the site of the high altar. The goldsmiths work and inlaid enamelling is twelfth century, but the current figures were painted in the late fourteenth century. The best of both worlds, culminating in a vision of the next! (I didn’t really take many pictures of the collections and also haven’t uploaded them to Flickr as it’s a nightmare to tag museum photos)

#10. At this point I went back in the Cathedral. Access had been rather disappointing earlier: although it’s open from 6am the whole east end is roped off for much of the early morning for confessions only. So this means you don’t get a chance to enjoy it without it being filled with buggies and people with T-shirts with writing on, a shame, really, and a bit baffling. All I could really do in the morning was go to Mass in the Lady Chapel and look at Stephan Lochner’s altarpiece from the Town Hall (which ain’t so bad).

Cologne CathedralCologne CathedralCologne Cathedral

Even later in the day all the ambulatory chapels are gated off so the extraordinary tombs, like this fourteenth-century bishop lying on a castle, are not easy to see, and you can’t use a tripod so have to shoot everything except the stained glass on grainy high ISO anyway. All in all a visit is very restrictive compared to an English Cathedral. Also, unless you want to see a bunch of post-Reformation shiny plate (always a frustrating experience for a medieval art historian: which of the shiny things are old enough for me to care about??), the Treasury is not worth a visit and is badly laid out. All that’s really interesting are the original sculptures of the medieval south porch of the facade.

#11. So, we’re nearly finished now! St. Andreas is right next to the Cathedral, and is distinguished by its tall Gothic choir, with mouchette wheels in the tracery.
St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne
Wall paintings in here, too, but rather suspiciously over-painted. I enjoyed the St Christopher statue attributed to stone carver Tilman van der Burch, whose sculpture was all over Cologne around 1500. Unlike his version in the Cathedral, in which the giant’s face is seized by the pain of exhaustion, here he seems to be looking up to check on the Christ child in a quite charming way.


#12. St Gereon is really the most extraordinary of the churches, as its thirteenth-century nave is a centrally-planned polygon. Not only this, but it uses Gothic motifs in the elevation.
St Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, Cologne
The architecture really is the most stunning thing about the church, and despite the church being staffed, the high choir is roped off. After initially taking tripod pictures, one of the attendants, looking very concerned, asked me not to, I assume, for health and safety reasons while there’s a group in wandering about. He then followed me covertly into the crypt where he caught me crouching down using it unextended and then threw me out. It’s a serious job preventing people taking long exposure images in low-light conditions!


#13. And finally St. Ursula. A good church to leave til last as it’s utterly fascinating. Unusually for the churches, the Gothic choir was open to visitors, with only the extreme east and the sanctuary roped off, partly to allow people to admire the famous cycle of paintings about Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, martyred near Cologne.
St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

The grave of Ursula and her ever-multipying band of Virgins was quite the coup for Cologne, as it means they were never short on relics. Reliquary busts of the ladies are all over the city, here they populate every arch of the triforium gallery. But undoubtedly the most remarkable thing in the church is the 17th-century Goldene Kammer. It has dozens of the reliquary busts, but also, in the classic gruesome Baroque directness, thousands of bones arranged into prayers in the spandrels of the vault. It was also interesting to watch a pair of conservators working on restoring the original colour scheme.

St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

So that was it. Quick look in the Cathedral again and then into the train station where no misadventure befell my trip back to Brussels whatsoever. I would actually recommend anyone else who has a few days in Cologne to take up the Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung, as it is perfectly manageable in one day, as I had to leave relatively early but also spent around an hour and a half in the Schnütgen. Some of the churches are staffed and you have to avoid the periods where a few (St. Aposteln, St. Gereon, St Ursula, St Kunibert) close around lunchtime, and of course the dreaded Monday when everything interesting for tourists across continental Europe is shut. Many of the churches were open before their advertised times and are simply left open without attendants, and it really is a marvellous thing that they are so accessible. A lot of English towns (like Leicester!) could learn from the effort Cologne has made to bring their churches together as historic and holy monuments, and make the most of an opportunity to see such a variety of architecture and art in one place.

There’s a lot of pages on the Twelve Churches if you search Google, but very useful for full list of opening times of the Cologne churches, is this site in German.

Here’s the full Flickr set which is probably a bit below my usual standards for comprehensiveness of fittings since, well, there was a lot to take pictures of!

Perambulating Picardy: A Gothic pilgrimage round north-east France

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Each year, the Courtauld Institute has a joint meeting with Lille and Leuven Universities, and this time it was the turn of the French to host, and I was invited along. In between two days of papers which managed to provoke some interesting discussions and sharing of ideas,  we visited the new Louvre outpost at Lens, and then Arras to view some Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts. It was a rewarding few days, but really for me it was an excellent opportunity to get under the channel and do a trip round the area to actually see some Gothic architecture in the place where it all began. Four nights, five cathedral towns: Rheims, Soissons, Laon, Noyon and Amiens…



Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

So from Lille I took an evening train via Charlesville-Meziers (where, in my hour’s change over, I found a C15 Flamboyant church in the dark, the lights were on but no one was home) to Rheims. I found the Cathedral in the early morning light and watched it slowly emerge in its pointy splendor. The coronation church of the French monarchy, this early thirteenth-century Cathedral is the birthplace of bar tracery, where the window heads are subdivided into skeletal shapes, leading to a whole new concept of surface ornament. Indeed, my interest in Gothic is often a little obsessed with linear forms, and it is the sheer scale of Rheims Cathedral and everything about it that impresses. The experience of these forms, and subsequently, the spaces they create, at their actual size that is a vital part of their meaning, and why it is borderline preposterous to write anything about these buildings without having been in them.

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

It’s a little harrowing however how little of Rheims is left. The roof was burnt off when the Cathedral got caught up in the First World War, and the gargoyles choked with the resulting lead vomit one of the most shocking things in the Palace of Tau next door. Yet also, many of the exterior sculptures are gradually being replaced with facsimiles, and removed from their original context into the museum they seem like idolatrous pagan  giants, including the quite incredible and massive scene of the Coronation of the Virgin from over the central portal of the facade. Once again, it is the size that it is incommunicable outside of experience.

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Rheims Cathedral is largely the result of one campaign, unlike most English Cathedrals. Much more of a puzzle along the lines I am used to back home is the Abbey of Saint Remi not far south of the centre. This is a Romanesque church remodelled into pointed, with a pure Early Gothic twelfth-century chevet of the kind of Saint Germain-des-Pres and St. Martin des Champs in Paris. Opened by an elderly gentleman with a cane at ten to seven, I spent a most rewarding hour or so investigating its pier forms to see how they came to a solution for renovating this church.

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

Even more obscure was the parish church of St. Jacques, which I only learnt about from perusing the guidebooks in the Cathedral shop. Asking for, and following directions in French, I was rewarded with my schoolboy linguistics with a three-storey Gothic nave, a late-Gothic Flamboyant apse and two chapels in a bizarre Renaissance-Gothic hybrid. It was kept open by two welcoming ladies, which as I would find, to be a rather unusual arrangement for parish churches. (Since this doesn’t seem as well documented as other buildings I visited, I’ve uploaded my photos from here)




Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Next up was Soissons. The plan was to catch a bus to Braine for its Premonstratensian Abbey church, but the bus never materialised, despite numerous enquiries. If anyone know if ligne 560 to Soissons exists, I would be intrigued to learn where I went wrong! So it was a longer way round to Soissons by rail, and arrival at my rather grim highway-side hotel was rather late and I held a bit of a grudge against Soissons subsequently. The town is dominated by the facade of Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, the rest pulled down at the revolution as it was too much to maintain, but the sculpture and ornament is well preserved.

The south transept at Soissons

The C12 south transept at Soissons

The Cathedral is a high Gothic unity, the generation of the purity (or, depending on your taste, boredom) of Chartres. The only major disruption to this is the somewhat disconcerting apsed and aisled south transept preserved from an earlier building. A very weird feeling, as it seems to provide a climax worthy of an east end, but diminished by a chapel jutting out at an angle. I did find a pointed niche at its entrance that may have been a sedile, although the floor level would need to be higher. I sat in it anyway.

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

After a quick peruse of the exterior of the Abbey of Saint-Leger, with uncusped circles in the tracery (a favourite obscure thirteenth-century motif of mine), I felt I had to forgo visiting the museums at these abbeys which did not open til the afternoon and escape Soissons early for Laon.



Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon was probably the most spectacular town on my trip, on top of an immense plateau with the Early Gothic rose of the Cathedral transept beaming north. Of course, the train does not get up there, so it was probably a bad idea when I wandered off to a hideous C19 Neo-Romanesque building and missed out on the funicular railway. The Cathedral is a largely twelfth-century building with a clean, cool atmosphere. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the original round east end was extended into a most unFrench flat termination after 1200, the only indication being the change of the triforium capitals from fussy Early Gothic to simple crockets. The Cathedral was also souped up with a Rayonnant remodelling in the transept and the ever-common buttress chapels inserted along its length, which I of course pedantically investigated for piscina and potential seating arrangements.

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

Disappointing was the fact that the exceedingly interesting-looking church of St. Martin at the other end of town was locked up. I even asked at the library next door when it reopened after lunch, but apparently it was only open at 17:30 – presumably for Saturday vigil mass. A strange state of affairs considering the large amount of tourist groups visiting the Cathedral.

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

There was other stuff to see in Laon. The Hotel Dieu, the hospital formerly in front of the Cathedral and now occupied by the tourist office is worth a look, as is the museum, which has a twelfth-century round-naved Templar Church in its grounds, and a nice collection including the wing of an altarpiece from the Cathedral.


St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (new town)

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (down the hill in the new town). Romanesque facade.

I also found a Romanesque church on the way back down to the hill, but, as usual, not so much as service times outside. Even if you are feeling particularly lingual, adventurous and cheeky abroad, without so much as a priest’s door to knock on, it’s difficult to know where to start getting into a church like this!





Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

After the diminishing returns on my hotel rooms since Lille, Noyon was a relief, as I was staying in the budget wing of a relatively posh hotel. Noyon is fairly out-of-the-way and its Cathedral not of the same fame as Rheims or Chartres, but a very important building. Begun 1148, it is perhaps our first extant, unmodified approximation of what the premiere Gothic monument of St-Denis, Paris looked like before it was remodelled in the thirteenth-century. It is a precious survival of Gothic in its most primitive form, when walls were first opened to light and a new concept of shaping space started to emerge. After the over-restored facades of Rheims and Laon, the authenticity of Noyon stands out: there is a large amount of fragmentary polychrome surviving in the church, and the thirteenth-century portals are shocking since nearly every single piece of figural sculpture has been carefully obliterated, leaving only silhouettes and foliage.

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

It was also nice to attend Mass at Noyon, in the Chapter House on Saturday night, and for 10:30 High Mass on Sunday morning. Technically Noyon is no longer a Cathedral and only a parish church, so it was no surprise it was all conducted by one Priest with lots of young servers, but had plenty of incense, some nice hymns (“Debout resplendis” was a delight) and a large and reverent congregation. Yet it still felt like a distant echo of what used to go on in the choir behind and the tremendous chapels such as the C16 Flamboyant buttress chapel by the architect Charles de Hangest, if the patronage of the liturgy was even a tiny proportion of what was bestowed upon the architecture.

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1150 (with later clerestory)

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1233-57

Another Gothic delight is a short, or not so short if you’re on foot like muggins here, distance south of the town. The Cisterican Abbey of Ourscamp was founded around the same time Noyon Cathedral was built, and the choir rebuilt in the 1230s with a very restrained vocabulary of forms, making it not too disimiliar to the Early Gothic/Rayonnant hybrid at St-Denis, Paris. The pockets of the vaults were removed in the eighteenth century leaving only the ribs to improve its picturesque quality as a ruin, and this skeletal beauty is testament to the Gothic system. Worth the four miles walk, I think, if a little trying for the four miles back.



Amiens facade in the evening light

Amiens facade in the evening light

Finally on my gruelling Gothic quest came Amiens. We are now back to the early thirteenth-century spatial triumphalism of Rheims, but here with a choir superstructure of the 1250s that shows the beginnings of the self-referentialism of Gothic: once purely structural forms like gables are now used decoratively, resulting in the dreamy fantasy of the cosmic palace of the Heavenly Jerusalem, causing a formal feedback resulting in a delightfully cacophanous harmony of ornament. The facade is a sublime masterpiece of The Gothic, with the whole solution of our existence sculpted in stone across its surface. The Cathedral is also a bit of an oddity in France due to the amount of interesting stuff in it. While many English Cathedrals have bishop’s tombs, choir stalls and other furniture, the disestablishment of the whole Church in France means much of this stuff went at the Revolution. Amiens has all this and more: the fifteenth-century sculptural narratives are of absolutely remarkable quality, with incident, psychology and most of all, impressive skill that is characteristic of the late Gothic artisan.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Otherwise Amiens was a disappointment. Unavoidably, I was there on a Monday, which is a no-no for an art historian on the continent, as it tends to be galleries-and-museums-shut day. The churches were also all locked without so much as a sign with its dedication outside. It is surprising for a Catholic country how many of the churches are treated as “historic monuments”, and just sit there in the urban fabric with no real life or presence inside them. Services often seem to take place within, and in spite, of them, with no real community keeping them alive. I am sure there are exceptions, but French churches seem much more unloved than English ones.

Cheap 'n' nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Cheap ‘n’ nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Anyway, it was back to Lille for a look in the Cathedral, entirely rebuilt as a triumphal Catholic gesture in the 1850s on the site of a demolished collegiate church. It is a horrible, stodgy lump of a thing, like someone had poured concrete on top of the classic radiating chapel plan, sticking some ever-cheap plate tracery in the windows and giving it some strange galleries that look like something off a Brutalist car park. It doesn’t even have a rib-vault over the main vessel. It was irretrievably mechanical and depressing, especially after the tour d’forces of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the last few days. So quickly it was down to the Beaux Arts museum for some more authentic Gothic in the form of Netherlandish sculpture as well as some fine paintings before home on the 20:30 Eurostar. It was an ambitious few days, and although I prefer the smaller and more obscure to the famous and top-tier, it proved an unparalleled learning experience of the Gothic.

I will upload images to this Flickr set, but possibly not all because I think a few people have been to these buildings with a camera.