John Ruskin’s “The Lamp of Sacrifice” — a chapter in his extended essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture — focuses on man’s falling away from God as seen through the lens of architecture and building. “The offering which God would in the end provide for all men” — his death on the cross to atone for original sin — merits a sacrifice of equal expression on the behalf of both the architect and the builder of each holy edifice. Architecture and building are sacrificial. The painstaking precision in laying each stone and the careful, intricate detailing adorning each archway require sacrifice, the sacrifice of “substance and labour and time.” The majesty of the physical building, however, interests God less than the actual spiritual process of the construction, specifically the heart the individual pours into his work. Although Ruskin admits that the majesty and luxuriousness of a church are less indicative of man’s piety than his individual sacrifices and persistent worship of the Lord, the essayist also acknowledges that, for the builder, the construction of each holy house becomes a means through which he can express his reverence for and devotion to God.

The church has no need of any visible splendours; her power is independent of them, her purity is in some degree opposed to them . . . it may be more than questioned whether, to the people, such majesty has ever been the source of any increase of effective piety; but to the builders it has been, and ever must be. It is not the church we want, but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration; not the gift, but the giving.

God places value not in the physical but, rather, in the spiritual. “Sacrifice . . . adoration . . . giving”; God rewards these virtuous qualities of man, believing them indicative of true spirituality and devotion to His word. Ruskin, consequently, praises those of steadfast spirit. However, when he proceeds to emphasize the declining quality of architecture — a trend he harshly criticizes — he provides his readers with a commentary on contemporary society. Ruskin emphatically expresses his distaste for a society that he deems has grown increasingly “lazy,” lacking pride in the strength of its performance

There is not a building that I know of, lately raised, wherein it is not sufficiently evident that neither architect nor builder has done his best . . . Ours has as constantly the look of money’s worth, of a stopping short wherever and whenever we can, of a lazy compliance with low conditions; never of a fair putting forth of our strength . . . it is not a question of doing more, but of doing better.”

Man’s tendency toward “stopping short wherever and whenever we can” signifies a sharp dichotomy between architecture in the past and Ruskin’s contemporary architecture. Where man once used his devotion to God to fuel his architectural prowess, he now contents himself with subpar constructions that want for greater magnificence. A subsequent lack of concern for perfection and a “fair putting forth of strength” correspond directly with man’s falling away from God, an inexcusable and fearful phenomenon for sage writers like Ruskin or his predecessor Thomas Carlyle.


1. Ruskin emphasizes the necessity of a meaningful sacrifice having a personal “cost” comparable to those of Jesus’ enormous sacrifice: “ ‘Neither will I offer unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing.’” That costliness, therefore, must be an acceptable condition in all human [33/34] offerings at all.” How can one decide what constitutes a meaningful sacrifice? How can every person be expected to sacrifice to the extent that Jesus sacrificed for man’s original sin? Does this concept not seem inherently unfair?

2. In the following passage, Ruskin emphasizes that “it is not the church we want, but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration; not the gift, but the giving.” Here, Ruskin emphasizes a person’s actions as opposed to a person’s emotions or physical objects representing those emotions. What does Ruskin to achieve with this emphasis? In what ways do actions reflect differently upon a person than words?

3. In "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle criticizes the mechanization of society and the people's obsession with industry. How does Carlyle’s argument compare to that of Ruskin? How do both men criticize society and the effects of industry?

4. Carlyle has a markedly pessimistic opinion regarding society’s ability to turn from its destructive course. How does Ruskin’s social commentary differ from that of Carlyle and do you think he takes a more or less positive stance regarding society and its relationship with God? Does Ruskin believe that society can redeem itself and learn, once again, to embrace the will of the Lord?

Last modified 9 February 2011

6 May 2019