Thursday, June 03, 2010

A Clever Detail

One favorite website of mine, and an invaluable source for some of the more obscure details of medieval and Gothic revival art, is Vitrearum's Church Art weblog, run by Allan Barton, an Anglican clergyman in the Diocese of Lincoln. Most entries showcase his own photography of England's greater and lesser medieval churches. A design feature illustrated in one recent entry struck me as particularly clever, and if there is one thing I like better than beautiful church furnishings, it is when they are perfectly, if unexpectedly, adapted to their purpose. He writes:

So you are medieval priest in a rural parish, with very fews clerks to hold your liturgical books for you. What do you do at a baptism with your nice new copy of the Sarum Manual? Well you either use a wooden lectern or have a stone one constructed against the pillar next to the font. That is precisely what they did at Beckley in Oxfordshire, where a fifteenth century stone lectern built as an integral part of a pillar next to a plain reset Norman drum font. There are one or
two stone gospel lecterns still in existence, built out from the north wall of the chancel, but this font lectern is, I think, a unique survival.

As someone who himself designed some fairly elaborate baptistery furnishings--an ambry in the form of a tryptich shrine, a marble font, and polychromed wood font-lid--that were installed in a missionary church in the Far East some time ago, I am more than a little envious of this remarkable, economical and intelligent little detail. It is easy to get caught up in all the functional details of Gothic that may no longer serve a usable liturgical purpose in most forms of the Roman rite--such as the Easter Sepuchre, or, sadly, the rood loft, though the latter is ripe for revival as an expansion on the post-conciliar emphasis on the ambo--but splendid notions like this are worth their weight in gold to a designer, as they represent an organic response to the spatial needs of the liturgy, and which could not have been developed but through a deeply-ingrained familiarity with the rite itself.

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