In my efforts to find the E=MC2 of religious architecture, I’m now playing with the idea that the whole shebang can be boiled down to two ur-forms: though they are in some ways misleading, I call these the barrow – the hemispherical burial mound; and the tent – the temporary enclosure set aside for worship.
Both are truly ancient – barrows are such an obvious side-effect of burial that they occur in a great many cultures, going back several millennia BC; while all the earliest axial temples, whether in Egypt, or Mesopotamia, or much later in Greece or India, demonstrate architectural motifs clearly derived from earlier structures made of temporary materials. More to the point these two ur-ideas embody the great themes that unite religious buildings of all kinds.
The barrow, from this point of view, is there to service the practical need for burial, the very act of which suggests this monumental form: an earth mound over a body, neatened up. By its function it stands as a cipher for the questions of the unknown, of the spirit world, whether that refers to the dead or to the divine, which is one chief uniting theme of all religion. And by taking on a geometrically simple form, and not requiring an interior, and being imbued by its function with a given culture’s ideas about invisible worlds, afterlifes, etc, it becomes an early carrier of another key quality of religious architecture: that embodies meaning. And of course symbolic forms in the landscape can attract a huge range of such meanings, and often symbolically embody landscape forms in their own right.
The tent, by turn, is there to service the practical need to provide a venue for ritual, a shelter for activity, a setting-aside of a place so that certain things can be done within it. This, then, does have an interior, and its form reflects the nature of a given faith’s ritual: for example, axialplaces of worship are popular because most rituals involve some demarcation between congregation/supplicants/worshippers and idol/idea/priesthood (or whatever). The tent/axial enclosure then stands for the liturgical, performative, living, human aspects of religious activity; and as it develops it is likely to acquire an architecturally theatrical aspect, to be a stage set — simple or elaborate, manipulating the emotions or passively permitting silent communion – reflective of a given culture’s ideas about worship itself.
From these two ideas can be developed all the great variety of religious buildings, including the formal building blocks such as the ‘man made mountain’, ‘the hall’, etc that I’ve posited in an earlier post (and in my forthcoming book). Many of the formal details of religious architecture derive from them, too. And rather neatly, they are summed up in the two buildings which, as again I’ve posted before, can be regarded as the oldest religious building-types on the planet still to be in use: the stupa, Buddhist but originating as a barrow, and carrying with it much of the cosmology of an ancient and polytheistic/early Hindu India, influential across central and eastern Eurasia; and the synagogue, Jewish and thus by definition monotheistic, but stretching back to the Temple and before it to the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God for the ancient Hebrews, one of the root buildings (though here the earlier and grander architecture of the pagan middle east is important, too) of the middle-eastern and western traditions: the original tent in the desert.
The great Curvilinear Decorated works that line the north and east coasts of England, from Carlisle’s east end through York and Selby and the parish churches of Lincs and north Norfolk to Ely’s lady chapel and on, can seem like a curvilinear boiler-plate Dec when viewed from the point of view of the pyrotechnical experiments of the Court and the south west. But the more I look at them, the more I think this is an underestimation.
These chaps coined some of the most original things in the genre, such as (at Lincoln, if a little earlier) the flying rib. They also, in spite of the dozens of buildings produced by them, can do sophisticated things time and again: change mode, so that a supporting part of the building is plain even when an sacred part if rich (Snettisham, Michaelhouse, Cambridge); and in liturgical set pieces come over as original as anything in the south west: the galilee porch at Snettisham, Norfolk is just one example; the bosses and Prior’s Door in the e walk of the Norwich cloister another, the entire church at Patrington, especially the (Marian image-cult related?) detailing of the south transept and its approaches, is a third.
More to the point, their work begs a whole load of questions. Just how many workshops are churning this stuff out, given its ubiquity across east Anglia, Lincs, and south/east Yorks, and its strong commonality, and astonishing maintenance of quality throughout? if this great strip, with its extraordinary epicentres of wealth and scale around the Wash and the Humber estuary, is the homeland of Curvilinear, what is its relationship with Continental Flamboyant? The experiments of the west country have been mined for their relationship with central European architecture, but this question is equally significant.
And closer to home, what is their relationship with Perp? On the surface again, it is Bristol, Wells and Gloucester which take up the ideas coined in St Stephen’s chapel, Westminster and run with them; yet William Ramsey, coming up with Old St Paul’s chapter house in the very year of the Gloucester south transept, was a Norwich man. And, while the genre has significant roots in the C13 (Grantham), it is in the early C14 that the great barn churches which in the Perp guise we call wool churches become widely accepted, from Cley to Hull. There is repetition here, and spaciousness: one of the reasons for E. coast Dec’s boiler-plate image: but the search for such effects may be precisely the point, and also the reason why east coast architects did not abandon Dec motifs when Perp came along, or not to the extent of those to the south and west. As far as they were concerned, perhaps, they were already halfway there.