Liturgical Space: Christian Worship and Church Buildings in Western Europe 1500-2000.
When Nigel Yates died in January 2009, we lost not only a puckish, generous man but also a wealth of scholarship. Does anyone now alive have a deeper and broader knowledge of church buildings in Western Europe than he did? So we might expect a final, sweeping survey of the entire field to be a backbreaking tome. Instead, Yates's achievement is to compress his vast subject matter into less than two hundred pages, and to cover it pretty thoroughly even so.
This book is primarily a textbook, and if what you want is a clear, practical survey of how architecture and liturgy developed and interrelated cross-confessionally during this period you could not do much better. The book is topped and tailed with chapters on the medieval inheritance and on twentieth-century developments. The real meat comes from four
chapters on the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Tridentine Catholic worlds respectively; and then--Yates's real home territory--from a fifth chapter on the neo-medievalist movement of the nineteenth century and its cross-confessional impact. He is particularly compelling on that movement's slow but implacable advance: what he cannot answer here (and perhaps it is unanswerable) is just where this agreeable fit of collective architectural madness came from.
The examples (and the photographs) are drawn liberally from across Europe, but the areas Yates knows best are the British Isles, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, and a disproportionate number of his examples are drawn from those regions. Indeed, at times the book has an unmistakably Britocentric feel (not Anglocentric, at least). He boldly claims that more detailed coverage of other areas would have made little difference to his conclusions, and we can accept that, or not. But this focus does have some real benefits, when, for example, he reminds us that Catholic architecture was not all a matter of baroque exuberance: Catholic churches in confessionally divided societies were, of necessity, very different places.
Those overall conclusions, or rather underlying themes, are simple and powerful. He is interested in the connections and feedback between architectural and liturgical change, events which he sees happening in parallel but not in lockstep: the interplay between them is complex and unpredictable. Likewise, he is keen throughout to emphasise how conservative both architecture and liturgy are, a conservatism that he believes scholars regularly underestimate. Our sources are, after all, inherently skewed: islands of novelty make waves and attract comment, whereas the sea of continuity goes by unnoticed.
The book's range also allows him to make some shrewd cross-chronological and cross-confessional comparisons. I was struck, for example, by his suggestion that classic Lutheran church building anticipated the post-Vatican II convergence in liturgy and architecture, in which Catholics and mainline Protestants moved toward something akin to a streamlined medieval rite.
All of which may make this sound a little abstract. But the joy of this book is how resolutely practical it is, never forgetting that architecture (and liturgy, for that matter) must be functional as well as aesthetic. He never lets us lose sight of concerns like audibility and lines of sight. And he reminds us that some problems in church life--like children in galleries surreptitiously spitting on the adults seated below them--are perennial.
And indeed, it is Yates's eye for detail that makes this book most valuable and enjoyable. He can spot common features and unique innovations, whether the Lutheran pulpit-altar arrangement (and the handful of Anglican churches which adopted it) or the Dutch penchant for suspending model ships from church ceilings. This is, in other words, a history not just of Christian buildings, but also of buildings with the Christians put back in.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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