At different points in his history of the Gothic Revival (1872), Charles L. Eastlake explains that two very different groups of believers who disagreed on so many essential points of doctrine both opposed the use of gothic architecture for churches. Not surprisingly, Evangelical Protestants, who considered themselves descendants of Puritan iconoclastic reformers, disliked — and feared — anything associated with Roman Catholicism. Eastlake points out that although Evangelicals may have done "excellent work" in the cause of religion, they did great harm to art and architecture:

The symbolism, the ceremonies, the sacred imagery, the decorative adjuncts of a material church, they regarded not only with indifference, but with pious horror. No service could be too simple, no chapel could be too plain, no priest too unsacerdotal for the exigencies of their creed. To what purpose, they asked, had the Reformers worked and suffered if we were to revive in the nineteenth century the ecclesiastical architecture, the idolatrous gewgaws, the superstitious forms and ceremonies which had prevailed in the Middle Ages? Whether a congregation of Christians assembled for public worship in a cathedral or a barn their prayers would be equally acceptable. The best form for a church, they reasoned, was surely that which was the simplest in which all could see the preacher and hear his words. For the plan, a mere parallelogram would suffice. The chancel, with its Popish rood screen, its credence table and sedilia, was but a relic of the Dark Ages, and totally unsuited to the requirements of a Protestant community. Crosses, whether on the reredos or the gable-top, were to be avoided as objects of superstitious reverence. Ornamental carved work, decorative painting, encaustic tiles, and stained glass were foolish vanities which lead the heart astray. The very name of the altar was a scandal and a stumbling-block to the right-minded.

Eastlake adds that whereas all Evangelicals thus saw the Gothic Revival as "a source of immediate danger to the Reformed faith," others also thought that buildings in that style simply cost too much:. According to them,

a refined type of structure and ecclesiastical decoration was to be avoided, not so much because it might be spiritually dangerous, but because it was decidedly expensive. For the cost of one stone church with a groined roof, or even an open timbered roof, two might be built in brick with plaster ceilings; and who could dare to say that worship in the plainer building would be less devout or sincere than that which was offered in the other?

In fact, one may add, it was precisely these two Evangelical arguments that inspired Ruskin to write The Seven Lamps of Architecture, borrowing methods of the Evangelical sermons he heard in his childhood years to defend the Gothic. As I have explained elsewhere, "The Lamp of Sacrifice" applies standard Evangelical readings of the Bible to argue that God demands non-utilitarian expenditures in houses of worship. Summoning the tone, vocabulary, and arguments of an Evangelical preacher, Ruskin examines the nature of sacrifice in the Bible, coming to the conclusion that this question "admits of entire answer only when we have met another and far different question, whether the Bible be indeed one book or two, and whether the character of God revealed in the Old Testament be other than His character revealed in the New" (Works, 8.32). Drawing upon the theory of types — the idea that God placed foreshadowings of Christ and his Church in the Old Testament — Ruskin argues that

God is one and the same, and is pleased or displeased by the same things for ever, although one part of His pleasure may be expressed at one time rather than another, and although the mode in which His pleasure is to be consulted may be by Him graciously modified to the circumstances of men. Thus, for instance, it was necessary that, in order to the understanding by man of the scheme of the Redemption, that scheme should be foreshown from the beginning by the type of bloody sacrifice. [8.32]

Ruskin so emphasizes the notion of the typological significance of ceremonial law that he holds that "costliness, therefore, must be an acceptable condition in all human offerings at all times" (8.33-34). Hence Ruskin, using Evangelical method and manner, can convince Evangelicals to build costly Gothic houses of worship. He directed The Seven Lamps of Architecture at his English Protestant audience which, he knew, would not accept Gothic architecture as long as it seemed a Roman Catholic style. Ever a polemical writer, he adapts himself to his readers, wielding the phrases of the preacher and the evidence of scripture, to convince them that an Evangelical reading of the Bible demanded sacrifice.

Although one might expect Evangelicals to reject any kind of medieval revival because it had too many associations for them with Roman Catholicism, one hardly expects Catholics to reject Gothic architecture. True, there were a very few "zealous supporters of the Gothic cause," such as the Earl of Shrewsbury, who "found in Pugin an enthusiast whose ecclesiastical zeal was only equalled by his Mediaeval sympathies; and at the time that St. Chad's at Birmingham, St. Barnabas' at Nottingham, and St. George's pro-cathedral in London were being raised there is no doubt that the Church of England was far behind its rival in the encouragement of Gothic art. . . . But for all this, the Church of Rome has never been so earnestly or consistently identified with the Revival as the Church of England."

According to Eastlake, this lack of enthusiasm for Gothic Revival church architecture had "three principal causes," the first of which was Cardinal Wiseman's preference for Renaissance art, and "for some years before he died most of the churches erected under his authority were of a quasi-Italian character." Second, "religious orders of an Italian origin or character" preferred Renaissance Italian architecture. The most important obstacle to advocating Gothic Revival churches, however, was economic: the sudden influx of almost a million Irish immigrants required providing churches "in districts which could ill afford the expense. Schools, priests' houses, and convents had to be erected throughout the land, and in nearly every case for the smallest possible amount of money."


Eastlake, Charles L. A History of the Gothic Revival. London: Longmans, Green; N.Y. Scribner, Welford, 1872. [Copy in Brown University's Rockefeller Library]

Ruskin, John. Works. Library Edition. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-12.

Last modified 9 February 2008