Friday, October 03, 2008

"Perfect Cheadle"

St Giles' in Cheadle, Staffordshire is an exceptional Catholic church. Built between 1841-46 and financed by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, A. W. N. Pugin endeavoured to create "a perfect revival of an English parish church of the time of Edward I". Often, Pugin's ambitions had to be scaled down because of the lack of funds, but here at Cheadle, Pugin's patron had seemingly ample resources to match Pugin's imagination and skill. Consequently, the church possesses a soaring 200ft spire, so that the church dominates the town as no other Catholic church in England does, and inside, the polychrome splendour (inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris) is awe-inspiring. 

"Perfect Cheadle"

One typically enters the darkened church and the details and colour are lost in the gloom, but as the lights very gradually and slowly come on, they reveal the splendour of the church and for several moments one is stunned into silence, and then one slowly begins to explore the richness of the building. I watched this happen when I visited St Giles' recently and it seemed to me a parable of sorts, pointing to our longed-for visio Dei. For Purgatory is surely an adjustment to the glory of God, as our eyes, darkened by sin become attuned to the light, colour and splendour of the beatific vision and we "behold Him as He really is", and then we explore the beauty of holiness, of God who is blest "in his angels and in his saints".

A Catholic church on such a grand scale and decidedly based on medieval antecedents naturally drew architects and churchmen from near and far who came to marvel at Pugin's determined Gothic revival. Cheadle was the gem in Pugin's crown which materialized every ideal he had outlined in his 'Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England' (1843) and 'True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture' (1841), and Lord Shrewsbury intended Cheadle to be "a text book for all good people [that would] improve the taste of young England". As such, the church was intended as a showpiece for how Christian architecture in Victorian England should proceed.

Pugin's ideal church did not come without opposition but he fought strenuously to realize his dream and so he called Cheadle "perfect Cheadle, my consolation in all afflictions". For Pugin, Cheadle was to be "an old English parish church [of the early 14th century] restored with scrupulous detail". This meant that it was furnished for the liturgy of medieval England, notably the Sarum rite.  For Pugin expected that the newly-emancipated Catholic church in England would adopt its ancient pre-Reformation rite. Consequently, Pugin introduced such revivals (or 'innovations' at the time!) as a Rood screen, an Easter sepulchre, a separate chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and a medieval arrangement for the sedilia. However, in the 1850s the restored Hierarchy of England & Wales voted to retain the 'Tridentine' missal rather than to revert to the Sarum rite. 

Cheadle Rood screenPugin promised that the Rood Screen at Cheadle (which was not the first he introduced) would be "the richest yet produced". The introduction of the Rood Screen was controversial in Pugin's time and it was one of the items which excited Gothic revivalists. As Rosemary Hill says: "The passions aroused by liturgical furnishings were, sometimes still are, extreme." Further on, she notes that Nicholas Wiseman (later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster) was initially opposed to Rood Screens although he later came to accept them. Nonetheless, his opinions and arguments are interesting and have a contemporary ring to them!

Wiseman wrote to Lord Shrewsbury in 1840 saying that "I think it of the utmost importance to throw our ceremonies open to all... In Catholic countries where the people have faith in the divine mysteries, and where they do not care about seeing... it may do to screen [the chancel] off... but here... the effect is one of concealment & separation to which neither catholics nor protestants have been accustomed."

These observations are not remote from our time, for whether we speak of Rood Screens, or the 'Benedictine' altar arrangement today, then, as Hill comments, these "were soon to become the symbol of division, not between priest and people, but between English Catholics and Ultramontanists, those who looked to Rome rather than to history and local tradition for their authority. The issue also divided high and low Anglicans and, more generally, as it still does, those for whom mystery and symbolism are essential elements of faith and those who see inclusiveness and clarity as the way forward for the Church."

Easter SepulchreOnce an essential part of the medieval rites of English Catholicism, the Easter sepulchre was normally found in the north wall of the chancel and was used to 'bury' the Host (and Crucifix) on Good Friday after which the people kept watch before it, and then the Sacrament was raised into the hanging Pyx on Easter Sunday.

As Eamon Duffy says: "The Easter sepulchre and its accompanying ceremonial constitute something of an interpretative crux for any proper understanding of late medieval English religion. The sepulchre was emphatically a central part of the official liturgy of Holy Week, designed to inculcate and give dramatic expression to orthodox teaching, not merely on the saving power of Christ's cross and Passion but on the doctrine of the Eucharist."

Consequently, Pugin provides just such a sepulchre in Cheadle. In this photo, one can also see the brilliant encaustic tiles by Minton on the sanctuary floor. In the 1830s, Minton had experimented and mastered the medieval technique of creating encaustic tiles whereby different coloured clays bonded in the kiln itself so that the design was burned into and thus integral to the tile itself. With Pugin's encouragement, Minton's tiles became ubiquitous in Victorian buildings. As Hill says, "practical, hygienic and authentically Gothic, encaustic flooring [was and remains] the essence of Victorian decoration."

Sedilia in CheadleAt the time Cheadle was built, the priest customarily sat in the centre of the sedilia and was flanked by deacon and sub-deacon.

However in Cheadle, Pugin once again showed his zeal for the medieval Church and reverted to a medieval arrangement and placed the seats on ascending steps, with the priest on the highest step, followed by deacon and then sub-deacon, and he inscribed the seats with the names of the offices, and symbols of the offices above the seats, so as to avoid any confusion in the future! So, we see the chalice and paten above the priest's seat, then an Evangeliarum for the deacon, and finally cruets for the sub-deacon. The angels in the canopies above the sedilia also bear the same symbols of office.

The ascending steps before the High Altar are also inscribed with the verses of psalm 43: "Introibo ad altare Dei..." and similar inscriptions from the psalms are found throughout the church.

Blessed Sacrament chapel in Cheadle

Pugin's research into medieval churches convinced him that Cheadle should have a separate chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. As such, rather than to reserve the Sacrament on the High Altar as was the norm (indeed law) at the time of Cheadle's construction, he built a chapel in the east end of the south aisle.

Alive with colour and detail comprising various Eucharistic emblems, it is a "perfect exposition of Catholic Eucharistic theology, and belief in the Real Presence". When John Henry Newman saw it in 1846 he called it the 'Porta Coeli' and indeed he considered St Giles' "the most splendid building I ever saw."

Sadly, Newman was temperamentally quite incompatible with Pugin and he disliked what he considered emotionalism (as opposed to an intellectual reserve) among Gothic revivalists. Eventually Newman would come to consider Pugin as "troublesome" and he seemed to take steps to officially obstruct him although Cardinal Wiseman protected Pugin from such restrictions. Pugin was also among the first to design ample flowing vestments such as the set seen here at Westminster Cathedral and designed for Cardinal Wiseman, but a decade after Pugin's death, the Congregation of Rites appeared to question whether they conformed to the then current liturgical norms.  

Pugin was clearly a visionary and unique architect and designer and Cheadle is his unique masterpiece; there is nothing quite like it and indeed, there arguably never was a medieval parish church quite as sumptuous as this. Hill argues that it "is a full-blown work of high romantic art". Whatever one thought of Pugin, he was not someone to be ignored and his influence, and indeed the controversies of his time, are still felt today.

A visit to Cheadle allows one to experience something of Pugin's vision and his approach to sacred art and architecture, which is profoundly Catholic. As the journalist who attended the opening of Cheadle's church on St Giles' day, 1 September 1846 (at which ten bishops and two archbishops were present in full pontificals) said, Cheadle was a demonstration of "the indissoluble connection between Art and Faith; the external beauty and the inward principle from which it springs... the universality of the Catholic Church in both space and time."


Aldrich, Gothic Revival (London: Phaidon Press, 1994)
Atterbury & Wainwright, Pugin (London: V&A, 1994)
Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005 - 2nd ed.)
Fisher, Perfect Cheadle (Stafford: M. J. Fisher, 2004)
Hill, God's Architect (London: Penguin, 2007)

Photographs of Pugin's work and Cheadle are in my Flickr set. More photos from Cheadle will be added in the next few days.

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