Saturday, 3 November 2012

Church History (full-time) 3.2: An introduction to Church Architecture

The Church of the Sacred Heart in Laytown, Co Meath, and its 20-foot wooden cross the looking out onto the beach and across to the Irish Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):

Saturday 3 November 2012:

3.2, An introduction to Church Architecture


Where we worship shapes how we worship and what we think of worship. The shape of our churches shapes our liturgies, enabling some styles of worship, but inhibiting others, so that liturgical change cries out for a change in buildings.

Church architecture has evolved over the past 2,000 years, partly by innovation and partly by imitating other architectural styles, usually responding – for better or worse – to changing beliefs, practices, local traditions and cultural, political and economic circumstances.

The simplest church building comprises a single meeting space, built of locally available material and using the same skills of construction as the local domestic buildings. In Europe, we think in terms of rectangular or square shapes. But in those African countries where circular dwellings are common churches may be circular in shape too.

The Church of Ireland parish church in Collon, Co Louth … in many parishes, the parish church may be the oldest and most beautiful building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But church architecture goes beyond the utilitarian and the functional. In many parishes in Ireland, the parish church may be the oldest building, and is larger than any pre-19th century structure except perhaps a barn. The church is often built of the most durable material available, often dressed stone or brick.

It may be the most striking – perhaps even the most beautiful –building in a town or village, and it may have more interior beauty than many other buildings too: paintings, historic monuments, works of art, stained glass windows, Arts and Crafts furniture, brass work, gold and silver altarware, organs that are as good to look at as they are to listen to.

Lichfield Cathedral... the great mediaeval Gothic cathedrals have shaped the ideas of church architecture in our minds’ eyes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For most of people on these islands, when we close our eyes and think of the shape of a church, we think of Gothic revival parish churches or cathedral, with their pointed windows, towers and steeples, side aisles and sanctuaries.

But this is conditioned by where we live. Other people would think differently in Germany, Italy, Greece or Russia.

Think of the great Romanesque abbeys and churches from the mediaeval ages that survive throughout Europe, and that survive in the many ruins throughout Ireland.

Or, think of the great Renaissance basilicas, with their emphasis on harmony, in southern Europe, some of them replicated in late 19th and early 20th century churches in Ireland.

Over the space of history, the needs of parishes and congregations have altered, changed and grown. No longer would we think of building a single-chamber church, and so any exercise in the history of church architecture cannot be reduced to a antiquarian pursuit of the primitive, but must seek to understand where we are today, and why are here.

‘The Presence in the Midst’ by Doyle Penrose … even Quaker meeting houses have liturgical shape and space

Today, churches have two clearly defined areas: one for the congregation and one for those who have liturgical responsibilities – even that most simple of liturgical spaces, the Quaker Meeting House, often has an elders’ bench.

In the course of time, our liturgical needs and our efforts to make our churches and our liturgies more beautiful and more accessible have seen the addition of side aisles, baptisteries, bell towers and belfries, side chapels and mortuary chapels, transepts and vestries.

For the Early Church. worship first took place in bolted rooms until Pentecost, in the Temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues until Jews and Christians separated, in open spaces outside city walls, and in private houses.

In Philippi, Paul and his followers were prepared to worship in an open place outside city gates until the wealthy Lydia invited them to her home (see Acts 16: 12-14), but also seem to have found another “place of prayer” (see Acts 16: 16). In Corinth, Paul and his followers worshipped in the home of Aquila and Priscilla, wealthy Jews who had come from Rome, as well as in the synagogue (see Acts 18: 1-4; I Corinthians 16: 19 ).

One of the earliest surviving examples of a “house church” is the church at Dura Europos in Syria (Photograph: Wikipedia)

We can therefore, how domestic buildings were adapted to function as churches. One of the earliest surviving examples of a “house church” is the church at Dura Europos in Syria, built ca 200-235 AD. There, two rooms were made into one by removing a wall and setting up a dais, and turning a small room beside the entrance into a baptistery. Several walls are still standing, and there interesting surviving frescoes.

It is to around the same time, ca 221 AD to 227 AD, that we can trace the origins of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, perhaps the earliest purpose-built church.

The church in Dura Europos is no longer used, Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome is a very different building today, and we could spend a lot of time discussing the claims to being the earliest church building.

The lower part of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome … built directly over a house where early Christians worshipped

But while the practice of Christianity was illegal, few churches were built. From the first century to the early fourth century, most Christian communities worshipped in private homes, often secretly. Some Roman churches, such as the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, are built directly over the houses where early Christians worshipped.

Other early Roman churches are built on the sites of Christian martyrdom or at the entrance to the catacombs, where Christians were buried.

With Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge 1,700 years ago, on 28 October 312, Christianity became first a lawful religion and then the privileged religion of the Empire.

This freedom gave freedom in the expressions of architecture, and the new buildings were modelled on the patterns of civic and imperial buildings.

Why did early church architecture not draw on the plans for Roman temples?

Well, those Roman temples did not have large internal spaces for worshipping congregations. The Roman basilica, on the other hand, was used for meetings, markets and courts, with large open spaces for meeting and assembling inside, similar to the needs of churches.

The basilica, with its large rectangular meeting hall, became the model for new churches in both the East and the West, with a nave and aisles, and sometimes with galleries and clerestories.

Roman basilicas were large vaulted buildings with high roofs, braced on either side by a series of lower chambers or a wide arcaded passage. At either end, a basilica had a projecting apse, a semi-circular space roofed with a half-dome, where the magistrates sat in court.

Civic basilicas had apses at either end. But the Christian basilica usually had a single apse where the bishop and priests sat in a dais behind the altar.

Previously, basilicas had a statue of the emperor as their focus, but Christian basilicas focused on the Eucharist.

Saint John Lateran, Rome ... dates from the early 4th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first large churches were in Rome and had their origins in the early 4th century. Several of churches in Rome, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), San Giovanni in Laterano (Saint John Lateran) and Santa Constanza, date from the fourth century.

Typical plans for later basilicas included an atrium or courtyard, a narthex or vestibule, a central nave with double aisles, a bema for the clergy, and a semi-circular apse.

Most of the atriums or courtyards with surrounding colonnades, have disappeared. In time, their function passed to large square cloisters or colonnaded squares in front of the basilicas, which we can see at Saint Peter’s in Rome, Saint Mark’s in Venice and in front of the Cathedral in Pisa.

The earliest large churches in Rome, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), consisted of a single-ended basilica with one apsidal end and a courtyard, or atrium, at the other end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

The earliest large churches in Rome, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), consisted of a single-ended basilica with one apsidal end and a courtyard, or atrium, at the other end.

With the development of liturgy, processions became the introductory part of worship. The processional door led from the furthest end of the building, while the public used the door central to one side of the building, as in a basilica of law.

As the clergy increased in number, the apse with the altar was too small to fit them all. A raised dais called a bema formed part of many large basilicas. We know from some early examples (Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s outside the Walls) that this bema extended laterally beyond the main meeting hall, forming two arms so that the building developed a T-shape.

From this beginning, the plans for church building developed with transepts into the shape of Latin Cross, and this became the standard shape of many cathedrals and large churches in the west.

The Rotunda in Thessaloniki … planned as an imperial mausoleum but turned to use as a church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another influence on early church architecture was the mausoleums of Roman nobles, which were square or circular domed structures built to house a sarcophagus.

Constantine built a mausoleum for his daughter Constanza with a circular central space surrounded by a lower ambulatory or passageway separated by a colonnade.

Her burial place, as well as being her tomb, became a place of worship. It is now one of the earliest church buildings that is centrally planned, rather than being built length-wise. Constantine was also responsible for building the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

This plan influenced the design of a many buildings, including San Stefano Rotondo in Rome and San Vitale in Ravenna.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Round Church, on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street, Cambridge … its design replicates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later examples include the Temple Church in London and the Round Church in Cambridge, and the shape of a former round church in Dublin, Saint Andrew’s, can still be traced in the semi-circular street line from Suffolk Street into Saint Andrew Street aoround the perimeter of the later Gothic Revival building.

These circular or polygonal churches have a centralised focus, rather than an axial one.

The Baptistery in Pisa … the circular or polygonal form was used in Italy throughout the Middle Ages for baptisteries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In Italy the circular or polygonal form was used throughout the mediaeval period for baptisteries, with famous examples in Florence and Pisa.

Other circular buildings that became churches include the Pantheon in Rome and the Rotunda, built in Thessaloniki originally as an emperor’s burial place. They have numerous niches designed originally for statues.

The Rotunda in Thessaloniki was built by the Emperor Galerius as his future mausoleum. But he died in Serbia and was never buried here. Instead, the Emperor Constantine converted the Rotunda into the Church of Aghios Georgios (Saint George).

Most mediaeval cathedrals and great churches have a cruciform ground plan. In Western Europe, this plan is usually longitudinal, in the form of a “Latin Cross,” with a long nave crossed by a transept of different proportions.

The dome became a marking characteristic of Byzantine churches and churches throughout the Orthodox East

Many early Byzantine churches have a longitudinal plan. Aghia Sophia in Constantinople has a central dome, which is framed on one axis by two high semi-domes and on the other by low rectangular transept arms. But the overall plan is square. This large church has influence the design of many later churches.

A square plan, with the nave, chancel and transept arms having equal lengths, is what we know as a Greek cross. In these churches, the crossing is generally surmounted by a dome.

This became the common form for Orthodox churches in Greece, and throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.

Churches in this shape often have a narthex or vestibule which stretches across the front of the church. This type of plan later influenced the development of church architecture in Western Europe, particularly noticeable in Bramante’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

With the division of the Empire into East and West in the fourth century, liturgy and liturgical needs evolved in different ways in the east and in the west long before the Great Schism in 1054.

While the basilica was the most common form in the Western Church, a more compact, centralised style became predominant in the Eastern Church.

The domes came to symbolise heaven. The projecting arms were sometimes roofed with domes or semi-domes that were lower and abutted the central block of the building.

The iconostasis in a typical Greek Orthodox Church on the island of Corfu(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

However, while Byzantine churches were planned around this central domed space, they generally maintained a definite axis, so that chancel generally extended further than the other arms. This projection allowed for the erection of an iconostasis or icon screen separating the altar area from the congregation except at those parts of the liturgy when its doors are opened.

By the 6th century, Byzantine churches were combining centralised and basilica-style plans, with semi-domes forming the axis, and arcaded galleries on either side. The design of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople influenced later Christian architecture, but also had an influence on Islamic architecture, seen in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus.

In 16th century Russia, the dome was replaced by a much thinner and taller hipped or conical roof. These “onion domes” may have had their origins in the practical need to prevent snow from building up on the roofs. One of the finest examples is Saint Basil’s in Red Square in Moscow.

In the Mediaeval Western Church, the rise of the monasteries changed the shape and architecture of church buildings too.

Pugin’s interior, including his rood screen, in Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The traditional nave-and-sanctuary church made the sanctuary the preserve of the clergy and it could then only be seen from a distance by the congregation through the intervening arch or rood screen. The elevation of the host became the focus of the celebration of the Eucharist, and some churches had holes or squints cut into walls and screens so that the elevation could be seen from the nave. The liturgy was said in Latin, and the people engaged in their own private prayers devotions until the elevation, but people in the congregation seldom received Holy Communion.

The canonical expectation that every priest would celebrated the Mass each day and the idea that an altar could only be used once meant that in religious communities a number of altars and side chapels were required and this practice spread from monastic churches to the cathedrals and to the parish churches.

The development of new materials and new techniques also influenced church architecture. Early churches in northern Europe were often built of wood. But in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Benedictines made wider use of stone and this made it possible to build larger structures, with transepts, crossing towers and west towers.

Across Europe, church architecture evolved, developing different styles even in the same region and in the same time period.

Collegiate churches and abbey churches, even in small communities, tend to be more complex than parish churches, which tend to be simpler. Churches built with the patronage of a bishop, a noble family or a local magnate often employed an architect rather than the local parochial builder.

This sort of patronage is also reflected in the development of chantry chapels, tombs, memorials, fittings, stained glass and other decorations.

Churches with the relics of famous or popular saints became the centre of pilgrimage and the financial benefit this brought was also reflected in the buildings.

Pulpits had always been a feature of Western churches, but the emphasis on their place in churches developed with the friars who prized preaching.

The Reformations in the 16th century brought radical changes in church architecture. While Roman Catholic churches retained an emphasis on the sacramental, in some traditions the pulpit replaced the altar as the primary focus in worship.

In England, stone altars were removed and replaced by a single wood table, although many of these changes were reversed under Archbishop William Laud in the 1630s and 1640s, when altars, including stone altars, were moved back to the East End, and altar rails were introduced.

But we could say that in the post-Reformation and post-Trent period, all traditions in the Church came to emphasise on full and active participation in the liturgy and public worship, even if there were different understandings of how this was attained.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there was an emphasis on the emotional and the ecstatic, achieved through the ceremonial performance of the liturgy, and enhanced by marble statues, gold fittings, and stained glass windows.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London ... built a century after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

To a lesser degree, this was the experience in many Anglican cathedrals and churches too. There is a clear comparison between the architecture of Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London … Peter and Paul, Rome and London, the old empire and the new empire find their apostolic centres of worship

For all, the common purpose was to help worshippers to feel they had come closer to God.

Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford ... one of Pugin’s great Gothic churches in 19th century Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,)

The 19th century saw a tidal wave of church building in Ireland. Classical architecture was seen as representative of Anglicanism, and so AW Pugin’s Gothic style influenced many of the churches and cathedrals built in Ireland from the 1830s and 1840s on. Newman failed to have nay Byzantine churches built in Ireland, with the notable exception of the University Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, and the Gothic style spread quickly to Anglicans and others, including the Unitarians.

But priorities in liturgy were changing.

The Liturgical Movement from the 19th century on emphasised the insight that worship is a corporate activity and that the congregation is not to be reduced to spectators, certainly not to be excluded from sight. Simplicity became an important goal in Church architecture.

Reinforced steel and concrete and the popularity of white walls and colourless windows brought new possibilities in 20th century church architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reinforced steel and concrete brought new possibilities in the 20th century to church architecture throughout the world. But so too did the popularity of white walls and colourless windows, and simpler seating.
The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool Vatican II encouraged circular buildings with free-standing altars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the Second Vatican Council, the decree Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 1963) encouraged “active participation” (participatio actuosa) in the celebration of the liturgy by the people and required that new churches should be built with this in mind (#124).

Subsequently developments included the introduction of free-standing altars that allowed the priest to face the people, and this encouraged circular buildings with free-standing altars, one of the best-known examples being the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool.

A “market place” theology suggested building multi-purpose churches, with secular and sacred events sharing the same space, albeit at different times.

But the emphasis on the unity of the liturgical action was countered by a return to the idea of movement. Three spaces, one for Baptism, one for the Liturgy of the Word and another for the Eucharist with the congregation gathered around the altar, have been popularised in Anglicanism by Richard Giles, author of Repitching the Tent and Creating Uncommon Worship.

But these arrangements are more difficult for large congregations.

A different and separate development has seen the building of large, theatre-like churches, complete with stages and large amphitheatre-like seating.


Which liturgical priorities are reflected in the churches you know?

What is the primary point of focus in your parish church or cathedral?

What is the theological message that this sends out?

Supplemental reading:

Peter and Linda Murray (eds), The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Richard Giles Re-Pitching the Tent (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004)

Richard Giles Creating Uncommon Worship (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004)


Church History 3.3: Field Trip 2, visits to Christ Church Cathedral; the former Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle; the former Parliament Building in College Green; the Library of Trinity College Dubin, including the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and the Book of Armagh; the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, including the Celtic and Early Christian collections, with the Cross of Cong, Cropsiers, reliquaries and psalters; and the National Gallery of Ireland, Clare Street, with the collection of European religious art, including Carravagio’s Taking of Christ.


Church History 4.1: An introduction to Church Music.

Church History 4.2: An Introduction to the history of liturgy, the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublinm, with participation by students.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 3 November 2012 was part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).

Church History (full-time) 3.1, An introduction to Church Art

Popular reproductions of great works of Christian art from the Uffizi on sale in a tourist shop in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):

Saturday 3 November 2012:

3.1, An introduction to Church Art


Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

We began this residential weekend looking at the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and the early development of the “Celtic” or “insular” church.

One of the great achievements of the “insular” church was the way it expressed Christianity in art, including illuminated manuscripts, carved stone High Crosses with their Biblical images, including images of the passion, and metalwork like the Ardagh Chalice.

The great illuminated manuscripts produced in Ireland include the Book of Durrow (ca 650-700) and the Book of Kells (ca 800), both now in Trinity College Dublin, while the monasteries in England produced the Lichfield Gospels (or the Saint Chad Gospels, ca 730), in Lichfield Cathedral, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca 715), now in the British Library in London. It is interesting to note that these two English Gospels are both older than the Book of Kells.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, Irish missionary monks and their monasteries were havens and sanctuaries for scholars and theologians, keeping alive Latin learning and the monastic schools in Ireland became centres of learning, attracting people from throughout Europe. The manuscripts and metalwork were produced by and for monasteries, yet these early forms of Christian art had profound influences beyond the monasteries on Western medieval art.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ ... misused in promoting Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code

Over the course of your ministry, you will hear from many people of who they have had deeply spiritual experiences as they encountered great works of art: Carravagio’s Taking of the Christ in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin or Michelangelo’s ceilings of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, for example.

We are all aware of how the spiritual message of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has been misused in promoting Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ ... the first image of Christ that I remember from my childhood

But think of how many people visit Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London solely to see William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. For me, this is the first image of Christ that I remember from my childhood, an image first shown to me in a book by my grandmother.

But works of art that are less well-known also have a strong impact on people, and necessarily during the first encounter. Although many of our churches have large east windows, this is the place for great works of art in, for example, the chapels of many colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, or in Lutheran churches throughout Scandinavia and Germany.

People will come to your churches to see the windows, or a painting, or the Telford organ, or the carved pews. Who can deny that these are religious experiences?

Is there ‘Christian art’?

So is there such a subject as Christian art?

And what is its place in the study of Church History?

Christian art is sacred art that seeks to illustrate, supplement and portray the principles of Christianity. Today, most Christian groups use art to some degree.

But there are strong objections to some forms of religious images, and there are major periods of iconoclasm in the past.

Which forms of Christian art do you find yourself feeling most comfortable about?

And which forms of Christian art do you find yourself feeling most uncomfortable about?

Statues of saints on the west facade of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


What about the following examples:

● Stained glass windows;
● Icons;
● Statues;
● Stations of the Cross;
● Paintings;
● Frescoes.
● Cheap kitsch popular devotional prints.

To what degree is your taste or distaste related to the subject matter?

The subjects represented in Christian art may include:

● Images of Jesus;
● Narrative scenes from the Life of Christ;
● Scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament;
● Images of the Virgin Mary;
● Portrayals of saints.

Can you think of others?


You may think portrayals of saints and their representation in statues are much rarer in Anglican and Protestant traditions than in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy traditions. But think of the carved statues on the west fronts of Westminster Abbey or Lichfield Cathedral.

David by Michelangelo ... part of the story of Florence and of the heritage of Western Christian art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

What do you think of the place of Moses and David by Michealngelo in Florence in shaping our understanding of key figures in the Old Testament?

Christianity makes a greater use of images than the other two principal monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, which discourage and even forbid the use of religious imagery.

The oldest image of Christ is the Icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai

Early Christian art can be traced right back to the beginnings of Christianity:

●The oldest surviving Christian paintings, from Megiddo, date from around the year 70.
●The oldest Christian sculptures are early 2nd century sarcophagi.
● The largest groups of Early Christian paintings come from the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome.
● The depiction of Christ in Christian art is a process that evolves until the 6th century. But the oldest image we have of Christ is the Icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai – there is a copy in the chapel.

However, Christian art is not only religious. It speaks to, informs and influences the development of art in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Church became one of the greatest patrons of art.

After Rome fell and the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Church continued to commission and to fund religious art.

In the East, the Greek Orthodox Church enjoyed greater stability and so there was greater continuity in art form in Constantinople and the East.

In Byzantine Christian art, a more abstract approach and replaced the naturalism found in Hellenistic art. Its primary purpose was to convey religious meaning rather than the accurate representation of objects and people. Realistic perspective, proportions, light and colour were ignored in favour of the geometric simplification of forms, reverse perspective and standardised conventions to portray individuals and events.

The controversy over the use of graven images, the interpretation of the Second Commandment, and the crisis of Byzantine Iconoclasm led to a standardisation of religious imagery in the Eastern Orthodoxy.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an end to the highest quality Byzantine art, produced in workshops in Constantinople and, most notable, in the school in Crete. Yet Orthodox art has since continued with relatively little change in subject and style.

When Western Europe became more stable in the Middle Ages, the Church commissioned paintings and sculptures.

The Renaissance saw an increase in great secular works of art, but until the Reformations Christian art continued to be commissioned in great quantities by the churches, clergy and the aristocracy.

The Reformation brought the production of public Christian art to a virtual halt in many European countries, and also saw the destruction of great works of art in churches, monasteries and other religious foundations. Artists were commissioned to work more secular genres, such as portraits and landscapes, and then – with the revival of Neoplatonism – subjects from classical Greek and Roman mythology.

In Roman Catholic countries, the Church role in commissioning art and the use of religious subjects in art continued. Indeed, this increased with the Counter-Reformation, although Roman Catholic art came under tighter Church control.

From the 18th century, the number of religious works by leading artists declined sharply, although important commissions continued, and some artists continued to produce large bodies of religious art on their own initiative. Examples of these include the Pre-Raphaelites in 19th century Victorian Britain.

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in Western Europe, some secular artists treated Christian themes, but only rarely was a Christian artist, such as Stanley Spencer, regarded as culturally significant.

However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in religious art, with many modern artists, both Jewish and Christian – such as Eric Gill, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland – producing well-known works of art for churches.

This morning, I want to introduce eight great paintings that may help you develop a way of relating art to spirituality.

The first work bridges the gap between Byzantine art and the classical western art; the second, from Raphael, bridges the gap between the mediaeval and the modern in western art; the third provides an interesting challenge to our preconceived ideas about the Continental Reformations; the fourth and fifth are from the Pre-Raphaelites, who had a particular relationship with the development of Victorian Anglicanism; the sixth is by a modern artist whose work cannot be understood without understanding his theology and his spirituality; and the seventh and eighth are from a controversial modern surrealist who, surprisingly, believed he was inspired by revelations.

1, El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588):

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588)

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588) was painted by El Greco, the Greek painter who is regarded as the architect of the Spanish Renaissance. This painting is widely regarded as one of his finest works. It illustrates a popular local legend. An exceptionally large painting, it is very clearly divided into two sections, with the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, but it gives little impression of duality, and the upper and lower sections are brought together in a unified composition.

The painting is based on a legend from the early 14th century. Don Gonzalo Ruíz of Toledo, lord of the town of Orgaz, who died in 1312, was a pious and charitable man. He left money for the enlargement and adornment of the church of Santo Tomé, which was El Greco’s parish church. According to the legend, when he was being buried, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine came down in person from heaven and buried the good knight with their own hands in front of the dazzled eyes of those present.

El Greco’s painting was commissioned by Father Andrés Núñez, the parish priest of Santo Tomé, for the side-chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Santo Tomé.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz has been admired not only for its art, but also because it was a gallery of portraits of the most eminent social figures of that time in Toledo.

The priest who commissioned El Greco is portrayed in the painting reading, while there is a life-like portrayal of the notable men of Toledo of the time. By including them in this painting, El Greco was paying homage to the aristocracy of the spirit, the clergy, the jurists, the poets and the scholars, who honoured him and his art, which had been spurned some time earlier in Italy.

Theologically, we should note how the painting is clearly divided into two zones: above, heaven is evoked by swirling icy clouds, semi-abstract in their shape, while the saints are tall and spirit-like; below, all is normal in the scale and proportions of the figures.

Can you see how the upper and lower zones are brought together in the composition? This is achieved, for example, by the standing figures, by their varied participation in the earthly and heavenly event, by the torches, by the cross, and so on.

The scene of the miracle is depicted in the lower part of the composition, in the earthly section. In the upper part, the heavenly domain, the clouds have parted to receive this just man. Christ clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.

This finds an obvious and immediate inspiration in the Greek Orthodox composition of the Deesis, where the enthroned Christ is guarded on each side by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, an arrangement that is generally seen on the iconostasis of Greek Orthodox churches too.

These three central figures of heavenly glory are surrounded by apostles, martyrs, Biblical kings and the just – including King Philip II of Spain, although he was still alive at the time.

Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine, robed in golden and red vestments, bend reverently over the body of the count, who is clad in armour that reflects the yellow and reds of the other figures.

The young boy at the left is El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel. Written on a handkerchief in his pocket is the artist’s signature and the date 1578, the year the boy was born.

El Greco is also included in the painting: his face is just above of the saint’s golden hat.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, The Dormition of the Virgin, Syros

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is El Greco’s first completely personal work. There are no longer any references to Roman or Venetian formulas or motifs. Yet El Greco remained a Byzantine painter all his life, and this painting should be compared with the composition of the Dormition of the Virgin, an icon found in 1983 in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the Greek island of Syros. It is now accepted that this icon was written by El Greco at the end of his career in his native Crete.

2, Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-1511):

Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-1511)

The School of Athens, or Scuola di Atene, is one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1510 and 1511 as part of Raphael’s commission from Pope Julius II, who wanted Raphael to decorate the rooms now known as the Raphael Rooms or Stanze di Raffaello, in the Vatican Museums in Rome, with frescoes.

The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of the rooms decorated by Raphael, and The School of Athens, the second painting he finished there, after La Disputa on the opposite wall. The work has long been regarded as his masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the High Renaissance.

However, the title, The School of Athens, is not Raphael’s: it comes from a 17th century guidebook, and the title tends to obscure the painting’s immediate context and meaning.

It is actually one of a group on the four walls of the Stanza depicting distinct themes of knowledge. Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo with a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with putti bearing the phrases: “Seek Knowledge of Causes,” “Divine Inspiration,” “Knowledge of Things Divine” (Disputa), “To Each What Is Due.” The figures on the walls below represent Philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology and Law.

The proper name of The School of Athens is therefore “Philosophy,” and its overhead-tondo-label, Causarum Cognitio, appears to echo Aristotle’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes (Metaphysics Book I and Physics Book II).

Aristotle appears to be the central figure in the scene below. Many of the philosophers shown in the fresco lived before Plato and Aristotle, hardly a third were Athenians, and the architecture is Roman, not Greek.

Commentators have suggested that nearly every great Greek philosopher can be found in the painting. But trying to identify who is who is difficult. Raphael left no newspaper-photograph caption for his work, and there are no contemporary documents to explain the painting.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Raphael found he had to invent his own system of iconography to allude to various philosophers for whom there had been no previous or traditional visual types. For example, while the figure of Socrates is immediately recognisable from classical busts, the figure said to be Epicurus is far removed from his standard type.

And yet there is widespread agreement on the identity of certain figures within the painting.

There is a popular notion that the rhetorical gestures of Plato and Aristotle show Plato pointing up to the heavens and Aristotle pointing down to earth. And yet, Plato’s Timaeus – which Raphael places in his hand – was a sophisticated treatment of space, time and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium. For his part, Aristotle, in his theory of four elements, held that all change on Earth was caused by the motions of the heavens. In the painting Aristotle carries his Ethics, which he denied could be a scientific study.

We do not known how much the young Raphael knew of ancient philosophy, what guidance he had from people such as Donato Bramante, or what detailed programme may have been dictated by the Pope.

Raphael orchestrates a beautiful space, continuous with that of the viewers in the Stanza, in which a variety of human figures, each expressing “mental states by physical actions,” interact and are grouped in a “polyphony” unlike anything in earlier art, in the ongoing dialogue of Philosophy.

The identity of some of the philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, the two central figures, is incontrovertible. But scholars disagree on many of the other figures, some of whom have double identities as ancients and as figures contemporary to Raphael. In addition, the extent of double portrayals is uncertain although, for example, it is generally accepted that Michelangelo is portrayed.

A key to understanding Raphael’s School of Athens

Raphael’s figures are usually identified as follows:

1, Zeno of Citium;
2, Epicurus;
3, Federico II of Mantua?
4, Anicius Manilus Sverinus Boethius, or Anaximander, or Empedocles.
5, Averroes.
6, Pythagoras.
7, Alcibiades, or Alexander the Great?
8, Atisthenes, or Xenophon?
9, Hypatia (Francesco Maria della Rovere).
10, Aeschines, or Xenophon?
11, Parmenides?
12, Socrates.
13, Heraclitus (Michelangelo).
14, Plato (Leonardo da Vinci).
15, Aristotle.
16, Socrates, or Diogenes, or Sinope?
17, Plotinus?
18, Euclid, or Archimedes with students (Bramante)?
19, Strabo or Zoroaster (Pietro Bembo).
20, Ptolemy?
R, Appeles (Raphael).
21, Protogenes (Il Sodomoa, Perugio or Timoteo Viti).

In the centre of the fresco, at its architectural central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects – Plato on the left, and his student Aristotle on the right. Both hold copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds Timaeus, Aristotle holds his Nicomachean Ethics. Plato is depicted as old, grey, wise-looking, and barefooted. By contrast Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, handsome, well-shod and dressed, with gold, and the youth about them seem to look his way.

In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upwards along the picture-plane, into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plan at right-angles to the picture-plane, initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, Plato and his theory of forms, Aristotle and his empiricist views, with an emphasis on concrete particulars.

The setting of this work is also important. The building is in the shape of a Greek cross, which some commentators suggest was intended to show a harmony between pagan philosophy and Christian theology. The architecture of the building was inspired by the work of Bramante who is said to have helped Raphael with the architecture in the picture. Some writers suggest that the building itself was intended to be an advance view of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

There are two sculptures in the background. On the left is Apollo, the god of the Sun, archery and music, holding a lyre; on the right is Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in her Roman guise as Minerva.

At the time, the major controversies may have been caused by the inclusion of a woman, Hypatia, who was regarded as the brightest of the students at the School of Athens, and the Spanish philosopher Averroes, a Muslim who has often been described as the founder of western secular thinking.

Does Raphael in this fresco succeed in showing how theologians can reconcile philosophy with theology?

3, Rembrandt, The Nightwatch (1642):

Rembrandt, The Nightwatch (1642)

The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) is the most famous work by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. The painting is best known for three striking elements: its colossal size (363 x 437 cm); the effective use of light and shadow; and the perception of motion in what might have been expected to be a static military portrait.

This painting was completed in 1642, at the peak of the golden age in the history of The Netherlands. It shows the company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, dressed in black with a red sash, and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, dressed in yellow with a white sash. Rembrandt’s effective use of sunlight and shade leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd, the two gentlemen in the centre, and the small girl in the centre left background. Behind them the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen.

Rembrandt shows the traditional emblem of the militiamen, the arquebusiers, in a natural way: the girl in yellow dress in the background is carrying the main symbols: the claws of a dead chicken on her belt, the pistol behind the chicken, which refers to the name of the militia, and the militia’s goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the militia. The dead chicken represents a defeated adversary, while the colour yellow symbolises victory.

The painting was commissioned by the captain and 17 members of the militia, who each paid a large sum for the painting which was to hang in musketeers’ newly-built banquet hall in Amsterdam. Some critics suggest that the occasion for Rembrandt’s commission was the visit of the then French Queen Marie de Medici in 1638. At the time she was escaping from her exile from France by her son, Louis XIII, but her arrival in Amsterdam was an occasion for great pageantry.

For centuries, the Nightwatch was covered with a dark varnish, giving the false impression that it shows a night scene, giving it its popular name. In 1715, the painting was moved cut down on all four sides so could fit between two columns in a new setting. This resulted in the loss of two characters on the left-hand side of the painting, as well as the top of the arch, the balustrade and the edge of the step, even though the balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion.

This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.

Why I have I chosen this painting?

This painting has an important place in European culture. It is the most famous and most popular exhibit in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and is said to be the fourth most famous painting in the Western world, after the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It has inspired many musical works, including the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony, and the front cover of Terry Pratchett’s novel, Night watch, is illustrated with a parody of the painting.

But I also think when we see this painting without the gloomy varnish coat that covered it until the 1940s, we realise that Dutch Calvinist society was not as gloomy and dour as some prejudices might lead us to think. In fact, at its height, Dutch Calvinist society was a bright and interesting culture.

You might like to think too of Rembrandt’s great paintings of Biblical figures. His figures were often based on members of Amsterdam’s thriving Jewish community at the time.

And so Rembrandt’s corpus of work integrates many aspects of religious life as it impacted the secular concerns of 17th century Continental Europe.

4, William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854-1855):

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854)

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) is best known for his painting The Light of the World [see The Light of the World: art as spirituality]. There are two versions of that painting, one in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a second in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford.

Holman Hunt was a founding figure in the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of English painters and poets who hoped to bring to their art the richness and purity of the mediaeval period.

This painting, The Scapegoat (1854-1855), which hangs in the Lever Gallery in Liverpool, has two Biblical quotations on the original frame: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53: 4); and “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited” (Leviticus 16: 22).

The Scapegoat was the first major painting by Holman Hunt during his first visit to the Holy Land. He was there in search of scenes to use in planned paintings of the life of Christ. But the idea for this picture came while he was studying the Talmud for information on Jewish ritual for his painting, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple.

Hunt learned how on the Day of Atonement, one goat was sacrificed while another was ejected from the Temple with a scarlet piece of woollen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the community. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white.

In the Book Leviticus, which is quoted on the frame, the goat is said to bear the iniquities of all into a land that was not inhabited. Hunt saw this Old Testament scapegoat as prefiguring Christ whose suffering and death expunged the sins of humanity.

Hunt set his goat in a landscape of quite hideous desolation – the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom, with the mountains of Edom in the distance. At the time, he described this setting as “a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness,” and he saw the Dead Sea as a “horrible figure of sin,” believing, as many at the time believed, that it was the original site of Sodom.

In a letter to Dante Rossetti in 1855, Holman Hunt said the extraordinary sight of the Dead Sea for the first time led to his decision to paint this subject. Hunt spent two weeks on the edge of the Dead Sea painting in the landscape and making sketches and notes. Although he took a white goat with him, and tethered it near the shoreline of the Dead Sea, he left blank that part of the picture that the animal occupies and only painted the animal when he returned to his studio in Jerusalem.

Take a look at the foreground. Holman Hunt actually brought back samples of mud and salt from the Dead Sea to help him finish the foreground. In Jerusalem, he also bought or borrowed sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton.

In both versions of this painting, he included the skull of an ibex, though in one version the skull and horns have become separated. The ibex skull was added to oblige a friend who told Holman Hunt that he should have used a goat with curved horns.

Hunt sold the picture for 450 guineas. The Liverpool soap magnate Lever bought the painting in 1923 for £4,950. It was exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in 1923 and it now hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. A smaller version of this painting, with a black goat and a rainbow symbolising hope and forgiveness of sins, is in the Manchester Art Gallery.

5, Dante Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850):

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850)

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites. The son of the exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.

Dante Rossetti studied at the Royal Academy, where he met William Holman Hunt and John Millais, and together they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Rossetti’s first Pre-Raphaelite paintings in oils, based on religious themes and with elements of mystical symbolism, were The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and The Annunciation: Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), both in the Tate Gallery, London.

Rossetti’s The Annunciation was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, along with works by Millais and Holman Hunt, all with Christian themes. In this painting, white dominates, only relieved by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity. The Archangel Gabriel offers Mary a lily – a flower that always denotes purity when shown alongside the Virgin Mary – as he tells her she is to bear the Christ child.

But what is unusual about this painting?

What was controversial about it?

Did you notice how Mary is shown in a state of fear? How she is cowering against the wall and casting her eyes down? This portrayal of Mary contrasts with many artistic depictions of the annunciation, where she is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

In painting his Annunciation in such a realistic manner, Rossetti was breaking with tradition. Italian Renaissance artists had painted the Virgin Mary as a holy figure, isolated and set aside from ever-day life. But in this work, she is an ordinary Mary, an every-day girl bewildered by the news she has just hear from the Angel Gabriel.

And, as you can image, large sections of the public were enraged.

6, Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927):

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927)

This painting hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and I have been intrigued by it long before it was used to illustrate a major feature of mine in The Irish Times.

The English artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1956) believed that the divine rested in all creation. His earthy Christian faith and his preoccupation with death and resurrection are reflected in many of his works. His mural for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, dedicated to the dead of World War I, has an altarpiece depicting the Resurrection of the Soldiers.

Stanley Spencer was born in and spent most of his life in the Thames-side village of Cookham in Berkshire, about 30 miles west of London. One of 12 children, he seems to have had an enchanted childhood. Perhaps this explains why he saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise in which everything is invested with mystical significance.

Characters and stories drawn from the daily Bible readings with his father inspired his future work. Much of his greatest work depicts Biblical scenes, from miracles to the Crucifixion. However, they are set not in the Holy Land, but – like this painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923–1927) – are set in Cookham, which he referred to as “a village in heaven.” Cookham and its familiar figures became the ingredients for most of his paintings, with actual villagers depicted as Biblical characters.

The Resurrection, Cookham is the first of a great series of resurrection paintings. The entire population of the village – including Spencer – is seen popping out of their graves in the churchyard in Cookham, looking as dapper as ever, squinting in the sunlight of bright sunny day.

Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer himself appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone. His fiancée Hilda Carline – whom he married in 1925 while working on this painting – lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, we can see risen souls being transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed along the River Thames.

But do you notice anything odd here?

This is a resurrection without a last judgment. It seems everyone in Cookham is to be forgiven their sins.

7, Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross (1951):

Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross

The Christ of Saint John of the Cross was painted by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) in 1951, and is probably the best-known modern painting of the Crucifixion.

The painting shows Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. The people beside the boat are derived from a picture by Le Nain and from a drawing by Velazquez. But the painting takes its theme, inspiration and title from a drawing by the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint John of the Cross, in which Christ is depicted as if seen from above. That work is now in the convent in Avila.

Although this is a depiction of the Crucifixion, did you notice how there are no nails, blood, wounds, or crown of thorns?


Dalí said he was convinced in a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ.

Secondly, take a look at the angle that we are asked to see Christ from.

Once again, Dalí said that in a dream he was revealed the importance of depicting Christ in this extreme angle.

In 1961, the canvas was damaged by a visitor to the museum who threw a brick at it. He later explained his action, saying the viewpoint of the artist was looking down on rather than up at Christ on the Cross.

Thirdly, notice how the composition of Christ is based on a triangle and circle. The triangle is formed by Christ’s arms; the circle is formed by Christ’s head.

What is the artist saying here?

The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity. The circle may be an allusion to Platonic thought.

On the bottom of his studies for the painting, Dalí explained its inspiration: “In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!”

This painting was regarded as banal by an important art critic when it was first exhibited in London for the first time at the Lefevre Gallery. It was bought by Glasgow Corporation in the early 1950s for £8,200, which was a very high price high at the time. It now hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and has been voted Scotland’s favourite painting.

8, Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ (1958):

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ (1958)

Dalí said that his inspiration for The Ascension of Christ similarly came from a “cosmic dream” that he had eight years earlier in 1950. In the dream, which was in vivid colour, he said he saw the nucleus of an atom, which we see in the background of the painting.

Dalí said he later realised that this nucleus was the true representation of the unifying spirit of Christ. As with most of Dalí’s other paintings of Christ, his face is not visible.

Did you notice how the figure of the Christ, from his feet in the foreground to his outstretched arms, forms a triangle?

The feet of Christ point out at me as the viewer, drawing my eye inwards along his body to the centre of the atom behind him. The atom has the same interior structure as the head of a sunflower.

We have just noticed how Dalí first used a triangular structure in 1951 in his painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

The painting is also formed by the theories of the golden rectangle. A golden rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio, one-to-phi, that is, approximately 1:1.618. A distinctive feature of this shape is that when a square section is removed, the remainder is another golden rectangle, that is, with the same proportions as the first. Square removal can be repeated infinitely, which leads to an approximation of the golden or Fibonacci spiral.

What do you think Dalí is trying to say to us by using the gold rectangle in this work? What is he saying about the Cosmic Christ and eternity?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 3 November 2012 was part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).