Common spaces: downland churches

29 08 2013
Interior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Interior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.

The road to Up Marden

The road to Up Marden

Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.

Exterior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Exterior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.

Nave, St Michael's church. Up Marden

Nave, St Michael’s church. Up Marden

Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.

Candle holder, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Candle holder, St Michael’s church, Up Marden





Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Ghosts in the city: the ruined churches of Famagusta

18 04 2013
Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Famagusta (Gazimagusa) is a medieval walled city in north Cyprus that has changed hands many times in its long history: once a Crusader stronghold; then a Venetian fortified city, prized by Leonardo da Vinci; then, after an epic siege in 1571, an Ottoman outpost; then, from 1918 to 1960, a British colony; today, the southernmost city of Turkish-controlled north Cyprus, who seized control in 1974. From its immense walls – as impressive as any built by the Venetians – one sees the signs of Turkish militarisation everywhere: immense battleships in the industrial port; barracks sealed off by barbed wire; and, in the distance, the ghost city of Varosha, the modern formerly-Greek suburb that’s now a sealed-off forbidden zone.

It has been said that Famagusta once had 365 churches, each one paid for by a man or woman intent on buying their place in heaven. That’s one church for every day of the year – an extraordinary number perhaps explained by the large number of sects that used to coexist in the city: Latin and Greek, Maronite, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Carmelite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Abyssinian and Jewish. From the meagre 17 churches that still remain today, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming spectacle of such a large number of churches crammed together in such a small area; yet, in some way, the remainders – most in ruins – still testify to the ghostly presences of all those other churches that have been erased from the cityscape.

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

St Nicholas Cathedral (1, now the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque) is still the architectural focus of the city, its imposing western facade, built in the 14th century likened to Reims Cathedral in France. Now, the former cathedral is a mosque, its incongruous minaret added by the Ottomans, the interior whitewashed, the altar supplanted by the minbar and mihrab, and the floor covered in soft carpets. Hearing the Azan emanating from this former church is both disorientating and strangely moving, jolting you into a place between the two hard-faced religions that still seem to face each other off in today’s divided Cyprus.

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

The other 16 churches are scattered inside the city walls, most of them in various stages of ruin; those that are not, firmly locked to curious visitors. Peering through a crack in the door of the 14th-century Nestorian Church (the most intact of the smaller churches), one sees an interior untouched by time, its pews, lectern and screen seemingly awaiting the next group of worshippers that may never come (2). In other more ruinous churches one can wander at will, the insides of these buildings now turned outwards: faded frescoes exposing the saints to the elements (3); homilies only offered by the pigeons who inhabit the vaults; the soft brown limestone eaten away into fantastical miniature worlds of coral-like formations (4).

5. Church of Ayios Nicholas

5. Church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

At the southern end of the city are the two perfectly formed churches of Ayios Nicolas and Ayia Zoni: small, rustic buildings with their pleasing geometries of square, octagon and circle (5 & 6). Sitting here sketching on a windy afternoon, I was drawn, like many ruin gazers, into a reflective mode of perception. Unlike modern ruins, which sting us with their raw violence, old ruins comfort because they inhabit a different temporal realm from us. Long ago – a time which I can only imagine and not experience – these were churches; yet, they still remain as ghost churches, bearing witness in their materiality to distant traumas that remain in soft material traces. It’s as if they say to us: if you’re lucky, you might age as beautifully as we do. So, perhaps my own traumas, destructive as they are, will not end in my erasure but rather in my slow, but nevertheless inevitable, transfiguration into a silent witness.





Cryptic space

17 08 2012

Entrance to the crypt under Canterbury cathedral

‘The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls …walls that have the entire earth behind them’

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Underneath the apse of Canterbury cathedral (and in common with most large Christian churches) is the crypt, the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th century. In an almost exact reversal of the gem-like Gothic space above ground, the crypt is dark and severe. In one corner, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, is an extraordinary testament to the power of cryptic space. Here, the column capitals are carved into a variety of grotesque forms, some devil-like, others more like mutated animals, as if the unconscious mind has here been given free reign; while above are the remains of a fabulous wall painting of Christ in glory, surrounded by beatific saints and angels. It’s as if two contradictory modes of the imagination – the utopian and dystopian – have been allowed to come together in this space, both being freely expressed but confined to the secretive world of the crypt.

Capital, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, Canterbury cathedral crypt

Wall painting in Saint Gabriel’s chapel

The English words Crypt and cryptic come almost uncorrupted from the Latin world crypta meaning concealed or private; and it’s this sense of the word that holds the key to understanding the potential richness of cryptic space. According to Gaston Bachelard, in his famous meditation The Poetics of Space (1958), domestic underground space (the cellar or vault) is first and foremost the ‘dark entity’ of the house, one that ‘partakes of subterranean forces’. For Bachelard, the underground is the one space the can never be rationalised: because it’s always in the dark, it’s a space that becomes a repository for the unconscious, a force that ‘cannot be civilised’ no matter how much we’d like it to be. Moreover, the unconscious itself is usually imagined in cryptic spatial terms – it’s the secret, concealed part of us, the bearer of hidden meanings.

The crypt under Oxford Castle, together with a re-enactment of the founding of the university

Restaurant in the crypt of St John’s church, Smith Square, London

Cryptic spaces have always been subject to attempts to rationalise their darkness. Crypts are often described as foundational spaces. Indeed, Canterbury’s crypt is said to be the foundation on which the present cathedral was built, while that under the Oxford castle is now quite literally cast as the space in which its world-famous university was founded, with monks offering the first clandestine teaching there over 900 years ago. Visualising the crypt as a ‘foundation’ fixes its otherwise obtuse meaning and transforms it into a mythic space, but one that is nevertheless rooted in its rationalisation. In present-day equivalents, many of London’s church crypts have now been converted into restaurants – St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Bow, St John’s in Smith Square, to name but a few. Here, the potent mystery of the crypt is reduced to simply a novel spatial experience – a new background to an everyday activity – but perhaps with the element of secrecy still drawing the illicit in the form of hushed, private conversations.

‘Sound II’ in the crypt of Winchester cathedral

Yet, despite the increasing rationalisation of cryptic spaces, they nevertheless have a stubborn hold on the imagination that resists this process. Oxford castle’s crypt is widely perceived as the most haunted space in the city, with regular ghost-hunting tours promising to reveal its occult presences that lie far beyond the rational and reasonable world above ground; while the crypt under Winchester cathedral contains another ghostly presence – not an apparition but Antony Gormley’s striking sculpture Sound II, a life-size cast of the artist’s body contemplating a bowl held in its hands. When the crypt floods, as it often does, the sculpture appears as if hovering over the deep, the figure longing for the bowl to be filled by the rising flood. It’s a simultaneously gentle and disturbing symbolic representation of the imaginative potency of the crypt that, even as it evades comprehension, nevertheless haunts the mind for a long time after it’s seen.





Temples of convenience: cast-iron fountains and urinals

10 03 2011

1: Water fountain, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.

2: Heron, water fountain, Shirehampton, Bristol, 1886

3: Salamander, water fountain, Wallingford, Oxon, 1885

4: Fountain canopy, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

5: Fountain canopy, Whitehall Park, Darwen, 1906

These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.

6: Canopy inside the men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

7: Men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.





The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth








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