The Cathedral: A Sermon In Stone
By the Architect, RALPH ADAMS CRAM, Litt. D., LL.D F.R.G.S.
From the Cathedral publication One Hundred Years: 1824-1924
IN ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL an attempt has been made to adapt to modern ideals, conditions, and environment, that style of architecture which Christian civilization developed for its own self-expression, the so-called Gothic of the middle ages. When St. Paul’s Cathedral was designed some of us who were trying to make Christian art a living thing again were principally engaged in the effort to do “Gothic” that should avoid archaeology on the one hand and “originality” on the other; to build churches that should be as Gothic in spirit and effect as we could make them, but without copying and without any surrender to that “modernism” that already was showing itself in such plausible guise. We felt that “Gothic” was primarily a spirit and an impulse, and only secondarily a series of forms; something that had come out of the very heart of Christianity, somehow expressed it to perfection, and could be restored again, brought back to life, and made once more the visible manifestation of a Catholic Faith that could never die.
Since the revival of art in England in the first quarter of the nineteenth century men have turned now to France, now to England for their inspiration, while different architects have fallen back on the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth centuries for their models: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England have all contributed valuable elements to the great artistic cosmos, while each century has developed to perfection some one or more qualities of Gothic art. We are “the heirs of all the ages,” and therefore bound to gather where we can and all we can.
In St. Paul’s Cathedral recourse has been had to that early type of thirteenth century work represented by Netley and Tintern Abbeys. At this time much of the strength and simplicity of the earlier Norman work still remained, while the austere influence of the Cistercian reformation was vigorously operative. In no instance has any detail, even the contour of a moulding, been copies, but instead every effort has been made to express through modern forms some of the qualities of composition, proportion, development, and relation that reveal themselves through this particular aspect of Gothic.
I suppose as much thought went into the designing of this cathedral as any other structure of the same nature we ever dealt with, for it was here that we had one of our first opportunities to show what we felt to be our profound and searching belief. Here must be a cathedral which looked like a cathedral, was one in very fact, and not merely a large parish church, though its dimensions are not necessarily greater than those of a parish church in England. Also it was bound to be Gothic, yet in no sense a replica of any mediaeval church; something that had grown out of the nineteenth century, in a new land, yet linked itself inseverable with the great Christian past, both religious and architectural.
Certainly this is a Gothic church, and certainly a cathedral, yet it follows no recognized model – neither of the past nor yet of the vital English school which flourished so splendidly towards the end of the last century and then fell away, to be sporadically revived in its noblest form in the great Liverpool Cathedral, the first portion of which was consecrated during the present year. The narrow nave aisles, the circular, unmolded columns, the four great cylindrical piers of the crossing, the lancet windows with the sparing use of tracery, the parsimony with which ornament has been used, the reliance on form and proportion – all these are factors which are far from English, and where they have mediaeval precedent at all, are drawn from many lands. In a way the design is an epitome, in very limited form, of mediaeval architecture, and the man who tries to place it in any specific school will have little more than his labor for his pains. For my own part l am not sure this quality is not its greatest merit, and I may confess, now that so many years have passed since it was designed, I never go inside without a certain feeling of grateful satisfaction and a renewed belief that here something was actually accomplished towards the revitalizing of Christian architecture. Of course the full unity of the design will not appear until all the stained glass is in place, for a Gothic church is conceived and accomplished with glass as an essential element. Much has been done in this direction, however, and more is contemplated, so the possibility of this completion is no longer remote.
The same thing is true of the exterior; that the scheme as a whole cannot show itself until the central tower is built. This was always an integral and essential part of the whole composition. As the building now stands, without its central tower, it is lacking both in form and in consistency. The great tower, rising high above the crossing of nave and transepts, is the key to the whole composition, and until it is built, the exterior cannot achieve completeness or show the real nature of its design.
I have spoken above of the “parsimony” in the use -of ornament. One ever present danger in the restoration of Gothic as a living style, is the inclination to fall back on scrupulous detail for the obtaining of stylistic quality. This, of course, is wholly wrong. Not only is this ornament something added to the architectural idea as a whole, but it is a pitfall for the unwary, owing to the fact that we can no longer command the type of craftsman that once made mediaeval churches marvels of delicate fancy and supreme craft. It is form, composition, light and shade that now must be depended on, at least so far as carving in stone is concerned. Moreover, increasingly, as the cost of building rises, we are driven back, and fortunately, on these primary considerations. In this respect also, I think St. Paul’s Cathedral achieves considerable success in that it is in no regard dependent on ornament for its effect.
When it comes to the woodwork and the other furnishings of the interior, the case is different, because now good craftsmen are available. Therefore all the woodwork of the chancel is of a quality that may well be compared, and not unfavorably, with the product of Mediaevalism. It is here, and in stained glass of the standard that has been set and maintained in this Cathedral, that we must depend at present for those elements of richness which are so necessary in a church.
The construction throughout is of the most solid and enduring nature; walls, columns, and arches are of honest masonry, the floor is of reinforced concrete, the aisles are laid with tiles, and the entire presbytery and sanctuary are paved with large slabs of marble, combined with tile of different colors. The pier sections are unusually large for this country and the walls thicker than those generally provided. In many cases this thickness permits passages through the walls themselves, as in the west and east ends. In the former these passages are approached by winding stairways in the turrets and form open galleries along the front of the church. In the latter the opening is toward the church itself, thus giving a very great reveal to the east window, with a corresponding richness of light and shade.
Altogether, I cannot but feel that something of great value was achieved in this building, and I am persuaded that much of this result could not have been attained but for the sympathetic appreciation and the enthusiastic co-operation of the late Bishop Williams, Dean Marquis and the members of the Building Committee. The construction of this cathedral was a real “labor of love” just because of this unity of spirit and closeness of co-operation.