Thursday, November 16, 2006

Saint Austin Review: AWN Pugin and the Cambridge Camden Society

[The following essay-review of mine appeared in the Nov/Dec 2006 edition of The Saint Austin Review titled, "Augustus Pugin: Reviving the Gothic".]

Book Review: Contrasts and True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, A.W.N. Pugin. Spire Books, 2003. ISBN: 0954361547. $70.00 USD. 'Temples... worthy of his Presence': The Early Publications of the Cambridge Camden Society, Christopher Webster, ed. Spire Books, 2003. ISBN: 0954361520. $50.00 USD.

by Shawn Tribe

It seems only too seldom that people of high ideals make much of an impact on the general populace, let alone realize those ideals. This was not the case with regards Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and the Cambridge Camden Society. These names are of course synonymous with the nineteenth century Gothic Revival movement. Of that movement, these men are amongst the most significant, and arguably, effected that movement and the English Christian landscape more than any other of their colleagues. In the case of both Pugin and the Camdenians, they had a keen awareness of the iconographic importance of architecture and ornament and they presented this vision passionately to their contemporaries. This was no mere aesthetic preference. Rather, these men understood that architecture affects the human person on a profound level; thus its very form, crafting and care, is of spiritual importance. To paraphrase St. Gregory the Great, they are bibles in stone. Good Christian architecture then is like a good book which unfolds the sacred doctrines and teachings of Christianity. Pugin and the Camden Society sought to open wide the pages of that book to what they felt was its best and brightest passage: the Gothic style.

Two of Pugin's most important works were his Contrasts and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture. These works have been virtually impossible to come across, except by way of academic libraries. Spire Books and the Pugin Society have bound them together in a volume which seems to approximate the original scale of the work. The book is handsomely bound in a deep green hardcover binding, and notably includes an attractive gold embossed image of Pugin's Gothic styled coat of arms on the front cover, making the book of collectible quality. The text itself is an actual copy of Pugin's own edition, giving you the impression of the original. Of course, this means that Pugin's remarkable and copiously detailed engravings, so fundamental to his works, are also all present – which alone make the book worthwhile.

The overall tone of these two works can only be characterized as polemical. If passion and conviction are what one wants, that is what you will find in Pugin's writing. He attacks the classicist movement as inherently pagan and not suited to Christian temples. In fact, Pugin would go so far as to say that the Christian Faith is embodied in the Gothic style; a style he considers superior to all other kinds. Pugin's argument for this is that the three great Christian doctrines are represented in a proper Gothic church. In the cruciform shape of Gothic churches and in the crosses which adorn its various spires, he sees the doctrine of our redemption via the Cross of Christ. In the arches and tracery he sees the doctrine of the Trinity. Finally, in the characteristic height and verticality of the Gothic style he sees references to the Resurrection.

Pugin makes his case throughout his works in a flowery style which cannot but evoke a sense of wonder. We read in the Contrasts: "if the exterior of the temple be so soul-stirring, what a burst of glory meets the eye, on entering a long majestic line of pillars rising into lofty and fretted vaulting! The eye is lost in the intricacies of the aisles and the lateral chapels; each window beams with sacred instructions, and sparkles with glowing and sacred tints; the pavement is a rich enamel, interspersed with brass memorials of departed souls. Every capital and base are fashioned to represent some holy mystery; the great rood loft, with its lights and images, through the centre arch which, in distant perspective, may be seen the high altar blazing with gold and jewels, surmounted by a golden dove, the earthly tabernacle of the Highest; before which, burn three unextinguished lamps." But the lofty and awe-invoking words of Pugin are equally matched by the ardour of his polemics when broaching a matter which meets with his disapproval. Speaking of the sacred art of the Victorian era, he refers to its products as "childish and tinsel ornaments." Pugin's criticism extends to Protestantism, which movement he sees as having pillaged Gothic buildings and defaced the Catholic inheritance of England. He details this in the Contrasts in his accounts of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries as well as the persecution of Catholics under Edward VI. Pugin's criticisms are not withheld from his fellow Catholics, however, whom he deplores for their own use of the classical style and motifs. His True Principles is the more strictly architectural of the two works, presenting Pugin's vision for what a Gothic temple should be. Herein Pugin lays out, as the title suggests, what the principles of Gothic architecture are – at least in his understanding. Pugin accomplishes this by continuing his classicist critique, defining how a Gothic building is ornamented compared to a Greek temple, and how and what materials are to be employed.

Pugin's zeal for the Gothic and detestation of the classical style won him the reputation as an "architectural bigot" by his contemporary, and fellow Catholic convert, (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman. Newman pointed out that so central and important a church as St. Peter's in Rome had never been Gothic. Indeed, it can certainly be said that Pugin's love for the Gothic was over-zealous – if that is not an understatement. While that love and appreciation is more than understandable, Pugin took this appreciation too far. He raised the Gothic style to the level of a dogma of Christian faith in effect, believing that it was perfect, requiring "a reasonable purpose for the introduction of the smallest detail." That being said, where Pugin had it right was in his understanding that ecclesiastical architecture is not merely the window dressing of Christianity – and thus something trifling, without importance or influence -- but rather that it is catechism in stone and glass, being ordered towards the form of the worship which is accomplished therein, which in turn is formed by the doctrines of the Faith. Pugin's over-zealousness can make a rather entertaining read, if only because of his conviction and passion, but the real merit of the work, and its real relevance for today, is found in the aforementioned virtues.

It might be said that Pugin's rather intemperate style was met by a slightly more guarded style on the part of the Cambridge Camden Society – a group originally formed by Anglican undergraduate students. The Camden Society nevertheless got across the pro-Gothic gospel and did not fear to criticize the order and modifications of many Anglican churches of their day. So successful where they in spreading their message that, as J.M Crook said in The Dilemma of Style, they "had succeeded in transforming the appearance of every Anglican church in the world." They did so by producing inexpensive pamphlets which were strategically targeted to particular audiences in subject and in style. Eight of the very first of these pamphlets have been republished for the very first time by Spire Books and the Ecclesiological Society (the modern successors of the Camden Society) in 'Temples...Worthy of His Presence.' Christopher Webster, the book's editor, has done an excellent job giving a critical analysis at the beginning of each pamphlet. Particularly edifying and informative is his general introduction in which he gives a good synopsis of the climate of the Church of England during the time in which the Camdenians operated; a climate characterized by tensions between protestant "Low church" theology and worship, and the more Catholic liturgical praxis and theology being advanced by the "High church" Tractarians of the Oxford movement. Webster neatly summarizes the basic beliefs and aims of the Cambridge Camden Society, which ultimately (if indirectly) found itself working in sync with the principles of the Catholicizing movement within the Anglican church. Supplementing the original pamphlets, Webster includes many drawings, photographs and even editorial cartoons from Victorian times which bring to life precisely the state of affairs in English churches and worship at that time which the Camdenians fought against.

The pamphlets themselves give many details which highlight precisely the poor state to which English church buildings had fallen into by the time of the nineteenth century, often being treated in a very desacralizing manner and with little regard for their ancient historical elements. As well, modern ears will hear an only too familiar problem when the Camdenians criticize the churches of their day which they characterize as "often scarcely distinguishable from contemporary secular buildings, for instance assembly rooms or town halls; they were often about the same size and used the same fashionable architectural vocabulary." Likewise, they criticize renovations and additions which were destructive to the Catholic arrangement of the church – all themes which are as relevant today as they were then. Like Pugin, the Camdenians were clearly concerned with an architecture which was ordered in a way which reflected their theological and liturgical presuppositions – though they were careful to not come right out and say as much so as to avoid too much opposition from the Low Church parties. The Society's aim was to bring people, both educated and uneducated, back to the Gothic style which they understood to be part of the inheritance of Anglicanism. They sought to do this both by restoring those Gothic edifices which had been altered by later generations, and by laying down principles for the arrangement and design of new church buildings according to the Gothic style.

The Camden Society pamphlets are primarily oriented toward more purely architectural considerations, whether it be in the care and restoration, or in the building and study of churches – though it does not take much to see the implicit message and motivation that lay behind their ideas. Some of the pamphlets are heavily laden with architectural terminology, making it slightly more difficult for the layman to read. Despite this, the very flowery presentation of the details and historical development of medieval Gothic churches make it an edifying read. Moreover, in their description of how to study ancient churches, as well as in their other pamphlets, many interesting details come up which paint a picture of the way in which the Reformation, and particularly the Puritan movement, modified the Catholic arrangement of English churches, giving us a sense of how theology serves to influence and shape sacred architecture. Additionally, it gives us an interesting insight into the history of those tumultuous times – times which saw much that was formerly conceived as sacred attacked and, as the Camden Society would put it, profaned.

While all of these works are now more than 150 years old, what is encouraging is that the very debates we see raging today in Christian circles about appropriate Christian architecture were present then as well. This is encouraging in the sense that, like many problems that have faced the Church, this is nothing new under the sun; and if it is not new, perhaps we can trust that the phoenix will rise yet again from the ashes of architectural indiscretions. To that end, these works not only provide a basis for the first principles of Christian architecture – particularly if we can Pugin's own absolutizing of that which is not absolute -- but should also provide an antidote to a time suffocated by iconoclasm, disregard for the past and sterile modernism.

For more information on these books, please visit Spire Books at North American orders may be ordered through the David Brown Book Company,

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