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Liturgical Space in Old Europe: Church Interiors and Architecture as Viewed in the 1800s

February–March 2020

Jean-Léon Allie Library and Archives

This exhibit highlights books devoted to church interiors and architectural design in England and France. These works, dating from 1828 to 1905, provide a fascinating window into the attitudes of nineteenth-century historians towards the meaning and construction of church architecture. For these writers, the Gothic Revival was not a distant period in art history, but a contemporary phenomenon with burning relevance, engendering many arguments regarding the best way to incorporate the medieval heritage into church building. While some of the exhibited books focus on the art historical aspect, others seek to elucidate the religious symbolism in church design.

As Gerard Lukken has noted, buildings are not only physical objects, but are also cultural entities that facilitate social relationships and human communication. This is particularly true of ecclesiastical buildings, in which the architectural space plays an essential role in liturgical ritual: “The quality and color of the architectural materials, the shape and height of the building, the lighting, and the way the altar is placed ... affect the way a congregation experiences ... the liturgy as a whole.” The interior design of the church is particularly significant because “the interior of the building is conceived in opposition to the space outside the church,” and marks the “transition from the profane to the sacred…. To enter the church is to cross a ... clearly defined threshold” (Semiotics and Church Architecture, 1983, pp. 12, 62–63, 70).

All the physical components of a church, from the architectural framework (doorways, windows, vaults, arches) to the movable objects within that space (altars, pulpits, baptismal fonts) and the minute elements of decoration, work together to create a unified liturgical space, in which the design of every detail invites the participant’s encounter with the sacred. The interior of a church can thus be experienced in multiple ways, simultaneously as a tangible physical object and as an intangible spiritual event. Liturgical space uniquely combines historical architectural design with ecclesiastical symbolism, to create a paradoxical union of past, present, and future, of both solemn quietude and communal ritual.


Traité de la réparation des églises

Dessin en noir et blanc d'une torchère du 18e siècle // Drawing of an 18th Century Torch

Raymond Bordeaux (1821–1877), Traité de la réparation des églises : principes d'archéologie pratique, 2nd ed. (Evreux: A. Hérissey, 1862).

This work focuses on church architecture from the point of view of restoration, with an emphasis on respecting the original design and the spiritual intent. After a theoretical introduction, the author provides detailed advice regarding the repair of both exteriors and interiors, including elements such as vaults, windows, and tapestries. “Une église est un poème architectural, dont tous les mots doivent être également nobles et harmonieux…. Les ornements ne sont pas là pour le seul plaisir des yeux; ils doivent agir le cœur” (p. 24).


Hints on Building a Church

Dessin en noir et blanc de la chaire de l'église St. Martin, en Angleterre. // Black and white drawing of the St. Martin's Church pulpit in England.

Henry Parr Maskell, Hints on Building a Church (London: Church Bells Office; Milwaukee: Young Churchman, 1905).

This unusual book combines a critique of English church architecture with suggestions on how to construct a new one. Contrasting “comfortable” but “ugly” Georgian churches with the artistically “accurate” but impractical Gothic Revival edifices, Maskell argues that the “art of architecture” lies in a balance between ornament and “intelligent construction” (pp. 1–3). The remainder of the work offers both a survey of architectural history as well as practical advice regarding issues such as choosing a site, planning for the different components (sanctuary, nave), budgeting, providing adequate heating, and constructing the churchyard. “Descending now from theory to practice, the predominant dimension in a church should always be its length…. If width and height are duly balanced with each other, no church can ever look too long” (pp. 95–96).


The Parish Church

Dessin en noir et blanc d'une femme assise à l'intérieur d'une église. / Black and white drawing of a woman sitting inside a church.

Thomas Parry Garnier, The Parish Church: A Simple Explanation of Church Symbolism (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1876).

In this work, Garnier uses scriptural citations to explain the religious symbolism of the different parts of a typical English parish church. Much of the book is recounted in dialogue form between a rector and the children at his Sunday School. The meaning of the pillars shown on this page is highlighted with a passage from Luke 6.48, “for it was founded upon a rock” (pp. 78–79).


Churches: Their Structure, Arrangement, and Decoration

Dessin en noir et blanc d'une porte d'église. // Black and white drawing of a church door.

Reverend George Ayliffe Poole, Vicar of Welford (1809–1883), Churches: Their Structure, Arrangement, and Decoration (London: J. Burns, 1846).

This book covers both the general history of ecclesiastical architecture, and the religious symbolism of its different components, such as the door, steeple, font, furniture, altar, pulpit, and monuments. The author focuses both on historical details, such as the irregularity of Gothic architecture, and liturgical issues, such as where certain objects should be located within the church to support the ecclesiastical ritual. “Irregularity is a beauty purely Gothic…. A Gothic church is, as it were, a combination of materialized aspirations” (pp. 63–65).


Monographie de la basilique Saint Epvre

Dessin en noir et blanc du sanctuaire de la basilique Saint Epvre à Nancy. // Black and white drawing of the Saint Epvre Basilica sanctuary, in Nancy.


Émile Badel (1861–1936), et al., Monographie de la basilique Saint Epvre à Nancy, 2 vols. (Tournai: Desclée, Société de Saint Jean l'Evangéliste, 1890).

This monumental two-volume work is devoted to the neo-gothic Basilica of Saint-Epvre in Nancy, France, which was constructed from 1864 to 1871 by the architect Prosper Morey (1805–1886). The basilica is devoted to Saint Aprus, known in French as Saint Epvre, Bishop of Toul (died 507). An earlier version of the church, built from 1436–1451, was demolished in 1863. The first volume covers the history of both the earlier church and the current building. The second volume contains illustrations of the basilica’s exteriors and interiors.


Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture

Dessin en noir et blanc d'une fenêtre avec les mots « Altar, Warmington Church, Warwickshire » // Black and white drawing of a window with the words “Altar, Warmington Church, Warwickshire”.

Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805–1888), The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture, with an Explanation of Technical Terms, and a Centenary of Ancient Terms, 10th ed. (London: Kent, 1859).

This work offers a broad history of church architecture, from the Anglo-Saxon Style to the Reformation, with an emphasis on the subtle differences between each phase of the Gothic style. Lavishly illustrated, the text explains the variations between different components of the church, such as windows, arches, doors, capitals, parapets, buttresses, and finials.


Archéologie chrétienne

Dessin en noire et blanc d'une fenêtre. // Black and white drawing of a window.

L’Abbé Jean-Jacques Bourassé (professor of archaeology at the Petit Séminaire de Tours, 1813–1872), Archéologie chrétienne, ou Précis de l’histoire des monuments religieux du Moyen Age (Tours: Mame, 1841).

This book begins with an overview of pre-Christian monuments (in both Greek and Roman antiquity and in ancient Celtic culture), and then provides a detailed history of architecture in the Christian era, from the earliest examples (Roman catacombs) up  to the Renaissance. The focus of this work is on the differences between architectural styles (Byzantine, Roman-Byzantine, ogival). “Admirons les monuments de la foi de nos pères, mais aussi partageons leurs esperances...” (pp. xi–xii).