Friday, July 18, 2008
The Gothic Revival, Industry, and Social Conscience
The revival of serious interest in medieval art began in the same country where the Industrial Revolution started, and that is not accidental. In the reaction against the anticlericalism of the now defeated French Revolution, the English Parliament passed the Church Building Act of 1818. Over 600 churches were built, most of them in London, at that time, a city of 2 million people, the largest city in the world, and the largest in all history up to that moment. Some of those churches were built in what was called Commissioner's Gothic; an expedient use of the skeletal Gothic structure to save money on carved stone ornament, and to use prefabricated cast iron framework.
In England, the Romantic movement brought a serious interest in medieval art. We've already seen how William Blake used a very idealized and personal interpretation of Gothic art in his work. By the 1830s, there were now serious archaeological studies of medieval art as ambitious and thorough as the studies published about Greek and Roman art a few decades before. Scholars now poured over the crumbling monuments of medieval England, long neglected since the Reformation. The Gothic revival in architecture was closely bound up with the Catholic revival in the Anglican Church through the Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society. The Catholic Emancipation Act, and the Anglican Catholic revival bought a new urgency to this medieval archaeology and a dramatic transformation in the construction of new churches.
The revival of Gothic architecture as a proper liturgical style was lead by an architect and Catholic convert named Augustus Welby Pugin. His sometimes fiery condemnations of modern architecture and church design were so effective that English bishops, Catholic and Anglican, refused to consecrate churches built in any material other than cut stone. It was through his influence that the altar once again became the focal point of Anglican churches, and that clergy began to insist on "correct" and historically accurate Gothic design.
There was another larger dimension to the Gothic revival, and Pugin's role in it, beyond liturgical revival. In 1841, Pugin published a book of engraved illustrations titled Contrasts. In it, he compares, not just the look, but the design and governance of modern industrial England with its late medieval past. The industrial present is always found wanting. The most revealing of the illustrations is the one I reproduce up at the top. He compares the treatment of the poor in the industrial present with the medieval past. The modern poorhouse is a brutal symmetrical (and NeoClassical) structure where the poor are cruelly treated and even denied the dignity of a decent burial. The medieval poorhouse is a monastery with gardens and cloisters, where the wards are treated as brothers, and prayer and charity prevail. This is the beginning of a sustained religious protest against the brutality and dehumanization of the new world of industry. On a deeper level, it is a protest against the "alienation of labor," the alienation the worker feels from his work brought about by mechanization and mass production. Consequently, there is a corresponding alienation from this new world of disposable and cheaply produced things. It is the beginning of that protest against the "reduction of all values to values of use and exchange" brought about by industrial capitalism, at the very same time that Marx was beginning to write about these things.
In England, this religious protest against dehumanizing industrial capitalism will culminate in Christian Socialism and in William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.
The Gothic Revival in its beginnings was a very English and specifically Anglican phenomenon (Pugin had far more influence on the Anglican Church than on his own Roman Catholic Church in England). When the Anglican Catholic revival came to America, so did the Gothic revival. In fact, some of the finest architecture of the Gothic revival is here in the United States. One of the finest of all Gothic revival churches from the 19th century is Trinity Church on Wall Street (1839-1846) in New York City designed by Richard Upjohn (an English immigrant) and seen in the lower picture at the top of this post. He brought not only the Gothic Revival, but something of the Catholic revival to the American Episcopal Church a little before the Episcopal clergy were ready for it. The clergy and vestry of Trinity stubbornly opposed Upjohn's original intention to have a permanent altar as the focus of the church design. The present altar is a later addition. Upjohn would later design a number of Gothic revival Episcopal churches in New York and throughout the Northeastern USA.
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, July 18, 2008