Para descubrir al tonto no hay mejor reactivo que la palabra: medieval.
Inmediatamente ve rojo.
To discover the fool there is no better reagent than the word “medieval.”
He immediately sees red.
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila
The church of St. Mark in Hamilton Terrace was consecrated by the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield, on June 24, 1847, and for the next 175 years, it would adorn the district of St. John’s Wood in the City of Westminster, its lofty crocketed pinnacles and angular stone steeple rising high above the surrounding villas and terraces. While the exterior of St. Mark’s, designed by the gifted ecclesiastical architect Thomas Cundy the Younger, represented a shining example of the Gothic Revival, the church’s interior would provide the building’s true claim to fame. In keeping with the “smells and bells” high church tendency toward rich ornamentation, St. Mark’s featured an elaborately carved Gothic reredos, a gorgeous chancel brightly lit by stained glass windows, stunning paintings by Edward Armitage and Sigismund Goetze, and numerous mosaics, intricate and glittering, produced by the glassmakers Salviati, Jesurum & Co. of 213 Regent Street.
Few churches in Britain could boast of such an exquisite collection of mosaics. Executed in neo-medieval, neo-Byzantine, and Arts and Crafts styles, they embellished the floors, the walls, and even the pulpit of St. Mark’s, giving visitors the impression of having been whisked away from a leafy London suburb to Constantinople, Ravenna, or Venice. Some of the Salviati mosaics, like the iridescent 1905 triptych dedicated to the Rev. Charles Erskine, were of a quality comparable to far better-known designs by Edward Burne-Jones and Robert Anning Bell. Other works, like a 1944 representation of the hermit Leonard of Noblac, patron saint of prisoners, were perhaps less accomplished, but often just as affecting. The Saint Leonard mosaic, with its shimmering tesserae in vibrant hues of gold, green, cobalt blue, and porphyry, was commissioned in memory of the Rev. Joseph Hobling, an army chaplain captured by the Nazis in 1940, incarcerated in a prison camp, and mortally wounded during a misdirected American bombing raid on Dec. 18, 1944. Hobling, prisoner No. 95855 at Stalag Wolfsberg Camp 18(a), was offered a transfer to a more comfortable officers’ detention center, but he remained behind to tend to the spiritual needs of the rank and file, only to perish alongside 60 other members of his flock. Thanks in no small part to that modest mosaic in St. Mark’s, the memory of Rev. Hobling’s humanity, heroism, and tragic fate has survived to the present day.
St. Mark’s featured an elaborately carved Gothic reredos, a gorgeous chancel brightly lit by stained glass windows, stunning paintings by Edward Armitage and Sigismund Goetze, and numerous mosaics.
St. Mark’s itself was badly damaged during the Blitz, but by 1955 it had returned to a full state of repair. Ten years later, the church would serve as a fitting venue for the launch of the St. John’s Wood Preservation Society, and on Feb. 5, 1981, it was officially listed by Historic England as a Grade II* building, a category reserved for “particularly important buildings of more than special interest.” The National Churches Trust, meanwhile, recognized St. Mark’s as a grade II Victorian church, describing it as an “architectural and historical treasure.” It was this very treasure that was destroyed by a still-unexplained conflagration on the night of Jan. 26, 2023, much to the horror of church-goers and church-crawling art lovers alike. St. Mark’s vicar, the Rev. Kate Harrison, described the damage in harrowing terms: “[T]he gorgeous mosaics that were on the walls have gone, the Victorian pews have gone, the gallery has just disappeared, the organ which was up in the gallery has disappeared. It looks like it’s been hit by a bomb. It’s a shell, with huge amounts of debris inside.” What the Luftwaffe sought to achieve in 1941 and 1944 finally occurred in the early days of 2023, just as the congregation prepared to celebrate Candlemas, though whether by misadventure or criminal intent, we cannot yet say.
When Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire on April 15, 2019, the eyes of the world turned toward the Île de la Cité, but the towering inferno that consumed St. Mark’s was at most a short-lived local news story in the London metropolitan area. This is understandable, given that Notre-Dame is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most iconic structures on the planet, while the charms of the church of St. Mark in Hamilton Terrace are familiar only to its parishioners and select connoisseurs of Victorian and Edwardian art and architecture. As a consequence, whereas the Notre-Dame reconstruction effort quickly attracted nearly $1 billion in pledges, St. Mark’s will struggle to rebuild at all, while its painted reredos, its pews, its spandrels, its carvings in alabaster and granite, and its mosaics have all disappeared in a trice, melted and burnt beyond recognition, a terrible reminder of the vulnerability of our collective cultural, artistic, and religious patrimony.
These historic structures, however modest or off the beaten track, are irreplaceable.
St. Mark’s is far from the only church to have been set ablaze in recent months. Since Jan. 17, 2023, in Paris alone, three churches have caught fire — Saint-Laurent, Notre-Dame-de-Fatima, and Saint-Martin-des-Champs — prompting prosecutors to launch investigations into this rash of “aggravated deliberate damage.” Churches in Millau, Toulouse, Nancy, Grenoble, and Paris have all been the target of firebombing in recent years, while in Canada some 71 churches were either damaged or destroyed during the infamous summer 2021 moral panic that followed the supposed discovery of unmarked Canadian Indian graves at residential school sites. But it is not always arson, or negligence, or neglect, or natural forces that claim such august structures. As a native of the Philadelphia region, I have been looking on in dismay as marvelous churches like Our Lady of the Rosary in the old Haddington Section of the West End, and St. Laurentius in Fishtown, come crashing down in order to make way for mixed-use developments, and as the Immaculate Conception Church in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, and St. Cyril of Alexandria Church in East Lansdowne, among others, are relegated to “profane but not sordid use,” similarly bound for the chopping block.
The French writer and politician Maurice Barrès, in an impassioned 1910 letter to Prime Minister Aristide Briand, expressed his displeasure with the practice of tearing down those historic churches that hadn’t achieved the status of tourist attractions: “Don’t tell me that you are safeguarding the most precious of the churches. Who can judge their price, and isn’t the most modest one infinitely precious in its context? What does it matter to me if you keep a more beautiful church in Toulouse, if you throw down the church in my own village?” These historic structures, however modest or off the beaten track, are irreplaceable, nonrenewable resources, part of the fabric of their communities, and constructed using stone, wood, and glass-working methods that are now lost, nearly lost, or impracticable on any meaningful scale. The toll, self-inflicted or otherwise, begins to add up. Franz Kafka observed in a diary entry that “whatever advantage the future has in size, the past makes up for in weight.” Medieval cathedrals — the “peaks and mountains of the Middle Ages,” Rilke called them — possess that weight, as do the Gothic Revival churches that root communities in the depths of the past. But what happens when the physical vestiges of that past are going up in smoke, or being unceremoniously carted away by trash haulers?
The modern world has not been kind to Gothic architecture. Eliza Stothard, novelist, antiquarian, and author of Letters Written during a Tour through Normandy, Brittany and Other Parts of France in 1818, was sickened by how the “unfeeling ravages of the revolution” had been visited on French churches, cathedrals, and abbeys:
Every where abounds with the most beautiful gothic structures, and interesting remains of antiquity, that must excite the admiration of all persons who have the least taste for the production of art…yet upon the French such works are entirely lost; few, very few of them, can in any manner appreciate what their country so amply possesses. They look upon a fine building with a stupid insensibility: even some of their clergy, and well-educated persons have frequently appeared surprised, when we have spoken with admiration of a Gothic structure, or an ancient castle; and if we asked them questions to obtain any information concerning either, they have often replied, that it was not worth our attention, “C’est vilain c’est barbare; c’est vieux, ce n’est rien [It’s nasty, it’s barbarous, it’s old, it’s nothing at all];” and proved as ignorant concerning it, as the most illiterate person to whom we could have applied.
Ignorance and stupid insensibility would lead inexorably to outright enmity. Visiting Notre-Dame et Saint-Laurent in the picturesque Norman town of Eu, Stothard and her husband found that “every monument had been torn down and dreadfully shattered, fragments of broken Gothic arches, and columns, were piled amidst dirt and rubbish…. The fury of the revolutionists [seems] yet to speak in these stones, they lie tossed confusedly about as if scattered by the ferocity of madness.” That madness would not abate even in post-revolutionary times; in the early 20th century, Maurice Barrès would be informed by the mayor of Cinqueux that the local church, even if it was “patrimony of our ancestors,” still deserved to come down, since it served as a reminder of “the Inquisition, St. Bartholomew’s Day, the Dragonnades, etc.”
Such attitudes persist in our own day. The American historian and novelist Richard Marius, in his 1996 essay “Goodbye to Gothic: On Finding Oneself in the Camp of the Enemy,” described his rather unsatisfactory trip to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Musing upon the legacy of medieval antisemitism and the suppression of the Cathar heretics, Marius concluded that the “Gothic represents not spontaneity but dominion, not serene faith but an instrument in the continual, determined war of official faith against unbelief.”
Does it matter? Can we separate art from the motives that inspire it? Does beauty exist in a realm of its own, removed from the social forces that construct it? I’m not sure. The questions are not unlike that of whether we can separate the philosophy of Martin Heidegger or the historical work of Joseph Lortz from their membership in the Nazi party. We must all give our own answers. All I can say is that I stood in the blue light of Chartres that September afternoon and felt a profound and prodigious antagonism. The stern message of Gothic is that one cannot easily separate the “good” in Christianity from the whole, and it is to me a major and open question whether Christianity in the history of the West has been responsible for more good than evil. Suddenly in Chartres I felt that I was taking my aesthetic ease on a summer afternoon in the camp of the enemy.
Marius proceeded to visit the ruins of a nearby megalithic tomb, called a dolmen, and although he recognized that “I do not know what purpose dolmens served,” nevertheless “I leaned my bike against the dolmen and sat inside for a while, embraced by time, watching the rain, and oddly more at home than I had been standing within the splendor of Chartres.”
Excavations at similar sites, like the 4,300-year-old Pömmelte enclosure in Germany, have revealed evidence of human sacrifice, with the bones of children, teenagers, and women with bound hands and fractured skulls and rib bones intermingled with ritualistically broken artifacts. The people who built Marius’ precious dolmens likely practiced human sacrifice, committed massacres and abductions, may have employed unfree labor, and were ignorant of the tenets of even first-wave feminism. “Does it matter? Can we separate art from the motives that inspire it?” Can we enjoy the sinuous curves and lustrous metallic surfaces of the Benin Bronzes, knowing that the Kingdom of Edo profited handsomely from the slave trade and carried out grisly human sacrifices in honor of the God of Iron and the King of Death? Are we in the “camp of the enemy” when we enter a gallery of impressionist paintings, given that Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne were anti-Dreyfusards? Perhaps we are even in enemy territory when we read the works of, say, Richard Marius, who was infamously fired from his position as a White House speechwriter in 1995, at the urging of New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz, when it was discovered that Marius had written in Harvard’s alumni magazine that “Many Israelis, the Holocaust fresh in their memory, believe that that horror gives them the right to inflict horror on others. Winternitz’s account of the brutality of the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, is eerily similar to the stories of the Gestapo … arbitrary arrests in the middle of the night, imprisonment without trial, beatings, refined tortures, murder, punishment of the families of suspects.”
Or perhaps beauty does exist in a realm of its own, and the social forces that construct it are themselves subject — sometimes for better and very often for worse — to something known as “the human condition.”
It is plainly apparent why thinkers of a secularist disposition would be antagonistic toward the Gothic, toward the idea of a prayer rendered in stone, soaring above the dross of everyday life toward the very heavens. Indeed one would expect nothing less. Yet the threat sometimes comes not from without, but from within. William Whyte, in his magisterial Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space (2017), disapprovingly cited an article in, of all places, the British periodical Church Building, which suggested that “St Peter’s [in Leeds] should be stripped out — and its beautiful ground floor pews recycled … Surely St Peter’s is a church loved by its congregation — and no doubt by the Victorian Society — but we cannot worship in a free, unfettered and joyous way while fixed into the building like this.” There is evidently a school of thought which, as Jonathan Mackechnie-Jarvis of the Society of Antiquaries of London put it, blames “the pews, irrationally, for reduced congregational support or, equally irrationally, hoping their replacement with comfortable chairs will magically solve more fundamental problems.” Others apportion a share of the blame to the Victorian Society for advocating on behalf of historic structures; Canon Timothy Allen vented, during the Church of England’s 2015 General Synod, that “the three great banes which hold back more effective use of church buildings as an instrument of mission and growth are the following: blocked gutters, bats, and the Victorian Society.”
It was the critic Jonathan Meades who summed up the situation best in his 2022 London Review of Book essay “Blighted Plain,” singling out the diocese of Salisbury for criticism:
Anglicanism is not necessarily good for the health of buildings in the stewardship of its clergy. The Church is often the enemy of churches….These gentlemen may have been top god-botherers but that was no reason to let them loose on one of the finest buildings in the world (exterior only). Thirty years ago, Hugh Dickinson proposed knocking down a Grade 1 listed wall to admit tourist coaches and so increase revenue (and the likelihood of floods). He didn’t get away with it. Sixty years ago, Kenneth Haworth removed George Gilbert Scott’s reredos and transparent iron screen from the chancel. He did get away with it.
Thinking back on the temporary conversion of Rochester Cathedral’s nave into a mini-golf course in 2019, it seems it would be far better to take one’s chances with the Victorian Society (or even the bats).
Sometimes the hostility toward the Gothic comes not from ideological, but merely aesthetic prejudice. P.G. Wodehouse famously professed that “whatever may be said in favour of the Victorians, it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks,” though it is hard to take anything Wodehouse wrote terribly seriously. The influential architect Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel certainly did not have his tongue firmly in his cheek, however, when he described the Gothic Revival as an “architectural tragedy,” a movement motivated by a “sadistic hatred of beauty” and marked by “uncompromising ugliness.” Another architectural critic and hero to many traditionalists, the American Henry Hope Reed Jr., was a fervent proponent of classicism and had nothing but praise for federal architecture in the nation’s capital, but in his 1959 treatise The Golden City: An Argument for Classical Architecture claimed that “the one exception in Washington was the Smithsonian Institution, the lamentable pseudo-Gothic error on the Mall.”
A few weeks ago, while making a pilgrimage to Whistler’s Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art, I found myself standing in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, which lies in the shadow of the Smithsonian Castle. I felt as if I were in something of an oasis, at last shielded from the hulking, often bloodless and sterile neoclassicism and brutalism of so many of the buildings that occupy the Mall. I don’t know how many visitors to Washington D.C. actually regret the existence of the one Norman Revival structure there — I can’t imagine there are many — but the fact that the Castle bothered Reed so much is genuinely revealing. The Castle on the Mall is the exceptio probat regulam, asking us to consider why we are so beholden to neoclassicism when plenty of other traditional or vernacular alternatives exist. As George Hersey wondered in The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture:
Why at great expense do we have stone-carvers make replicas of beads, reels, eggs, darts, claws, and a type of prickly plant, the acanthus, that grows only in certain parts of the Peloponnese? Why wrap a courthouse in what an ancient Greek would interpret as the garlands or streamers used to decorate sacrificial oxen? Why call a gable by the name of a bone and leather drum, tympanum, that was used in Bacchic rituals? Why construct a crest for this drum and call it an eagle, ἀετός? Why set this drum and its eagle on humanoid supports decked in the trappings of animal sacrifice (that is to say, columns)? As Pugin, the great anti-classicist, asked, “Do we worship the blood of bulls and goats?”
We don’t, but Henry Hope Reed went even further, blaming the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, restorer of Notre-Dame de Paris, Saint-Denis, and Sainte-Chapelle, for having given rise to modern architecture in all its ghastliness, drawing a line from the French Gothic Revival to Picturesque Secessionism to “le Moderne style,” the “neue Stil,” and the aesthetic catastrophes that would follow.
Victor Hugo, in a famous passage in Notre-Dame de Paris, convincingly argued precisely the opposite, that it was neoclassicism that planted the diseased seeds of modern architecture. “But already from the sixteenth century on,” wrote Hugo, “architecture’s sickness is evident; it has already ceased to be the essential expression of society; it transforms itself miserably into classical art; once Gaulish, European, indigenous, it becomes Greek and Roman, once genuine and modern, it becomes pseudo-antique. This decadence is what is called the Renaissance. A splendid decadence, though, for the old Gothic genius; the sun setting behind the gigantic printing press at Mainz still for a while sheds its final rays on that hybrid heap of Latin arcades and Corinthian colonnades. This setting sun is what we take for a new dawn.” Classicism and neoclassicism have their merits, and the point here is not to engage in some sort of paragone debate over which movement is “better.” Both have their place.
Still, it must be remembered that the Secessionist architect (and convicted pedophile) Adolf Loos, who insisted that ornament was crime and thus condemned Europe’s Gothic heritage, was something go a classicist manqué. His 1910 Goldman and Salatsch Building in Vienna and other public commissions adopted unmistakably classical details, and his submission to the 1922 Chicago Tribune competition was, curiously enough, a skyscraper in the form of a gigantic doric column. The arch-modernist Le Corbusier’s acclaimed Villa Savoy was, in the words of William Curtis, “a distillation and abstraction of Classical Order and in some ways may be thought of as a machine age temple,” and his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles was “the abstraction of an Antique ruin in ‘béton brut’ with its gymnasium, crèche and collage of sculptural stacks drawing in the surrounding rocky hills and celebrating the architect’s Mediterranean myth.” Louis Kahn’s massive, monolithic modernist structures were similarly inspired by Roman ruins, as well as by Mussolini’s ersatz Foro Italico. And walking along the Mall, down Independence Avenue, it is hard not to notice the almost seamless transition from the stripped-down, wearyingly repetitive classicism of the gargantuan United States Department of Agriculture’s South Building to the forbidding brutalism of the low-rise James V. Forrestal Building.
Auguste Rodin, in his 1914 Les Cathédrales de France, would follow in Hugo’s footsteps, praising the “grandeurs of the Gothic soul” and lamenting how “architecture no longer touches us. The rooms in which we consent to live are without character.” Such grandeurs — Henry Hope Reed’s classicizing and ant-Gothic crusade notwithstanding — are unparalleled in architectural history, marrying like no other style the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the grotesque, the artificial and the natural. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “History,” illustrated how:
The Gothic church plainly originated in a rude adaptation of the forest trees, with all their boughs, to a festal or solemn arcade; as the bands about the cleft pillars still indicate the green withes that tied them. No one can walk in a road cut through pine woods without being struck with the architectural appearance of the grove, especially in winter, when the barrenness of all other trees shows the low arch of the Saxons. In the woods, in a winter afternoon one will see as readily the origin of the stained-glass window, with which the Gothic cathedrals are adorned, in the colors of the western sky seen through the bare and crossing branches of the forest. Nor can any lover of nature enter the old piles of Oxford and the English cathedrals without feeling that the forest overpowered the mind of the builder, and that his chisel, his saw and plane still reproduced its ferns, its spikes of flowers, its locust, elm, oak, pine, fir, and spruce. The Gothic cathedral is a blossoming in stone, subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man. The mountain of granite blooms into an eternal flower, with the lightness and delicate finish as well as the aerial proportions and perspective of vegetable beauty.
A blossoming in stone, a prayer in stone, a book in stone — the Gothic church remains nothing short of a miracle in stone.
The architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, pioneer of the Gothic Revival and author of the spirited 1836 treatise Contrasts: Or, A Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day, admitted to having felt “acutely the fallen condition of the arts, when each new invention, each new proceeding, seems only to plunge them deeper in degradation,” resulting in little more than “a cheap, gaudy, vulgar show.” (Oh, if only he could see us now.) Pugin’s goal, pursued via his scholarship, his polemics, and his ecclesiastical, institutional, and residential designs, was “to pluck from the age the mask of superior attainments so falsely assumed, and I am anxious to direct the attention of all back to the real merit of past and better days. It is among their remains that excellence is only to be found; and it is by studying the zeal, talents, and feelings, of these wonderful but despised times, that art can be restored, or excellence regained.” But can art really be restored, can our misplaced excellence still be regained, when the remaining fragments of the past are as we speak being systematically expunged, be it intentionally or through neglect?
Consider “La cathédrale engloutie,” or “The Sunken Cathedral,” Claude Debussy’s 1910 prelude for solo piano, a haunting work of musical impressionism based on an ancient Breton legend concerning the cathedral on the Isle of Ys, purported to have been engulfed by the English Channel as a result of the people’s impiety. The cathedral regularly rises out of the water, a spectral reminder of the wages of sin, before slowly returning to its watery grave. In Debussy’s rendition, a series of stark open fifths suggest the sound of church bells tolling beneath the waves, and in the 16th measure the pianist is even given the unique instruction peu à peu sortant de la brume, “emerging from the fog little by little.” A pipe organ once again resounds, medieval chants can even be detected, but the poignant melodies recede as the church sinks back down, trailing off with a ever-fainter pianissimo.
So too has the legacy of the Gothic been overwhelmed by the unfeeling ravages of revolution, by those who deem it nasty, barbarous, old, or simply of no account. The Gothic Revival (and to some extent its spiritual successor, the Arts and Crafts movement) brought back a bit of its original luster, at least for a time, only for it to be once again swamped by the tidal wave of modernity, or the corrosive effects of time. In the case of the fire at the church of St. Mark in Hamilton Terrace, we don’t even know which it was. What we do know is that St. Mark’s is largely lost to history, its illustrious mosaics melted into varicolored puddles on the charred floor, its painted panels reduced to ash and cinders. Yet “the medieval dream,” as G.K. Chesterton maintained, “is more solid than the modern reality,” and even the mere memory of the mosaics of St. Mark’s assuredly outweighs all the mass-produced detritus of a vulgar and unnatural modern civilization. Such works will live on in memory, and perhaps they will one day aid us in returning to our senses, as we emerge from the fog that surrounds us, little by little.
READ MORE by Matthew Omolesky:
Odesa’s Catherine the Great Monument and the Legacy of the Russian World
A Kind of Magic Mirror: The National Gallery’s Carpaccio Exhibit