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No ordinary churches: pagan symbolism, occult designs from ancient Egypt, flesh-eating gods, Masonic cults, Jack the Ripper ... Charlie Furniss explores the bizarre architectural legacy of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Businesspeople in the City of London may be alarmed to hear that they are working within an axis of evil. And not just an axis, but an entire web--a devilish network of ley lines, ancient highways and invisible paths that, according to author Iain Sinclair, conveys the spirits of darkness between sources of occult power scattered across the capital: temples and monuments, plague pits, ancient burial grounds and murder sites. And at its centre, the origin of its power, are five 18th-century churches.

These are no ordinary churches. In his fictional book Lud Heat, Sinclair suggested that their positions demarcate that most potent of occult symbols, the pentangle. He describes pagan symbolism in their architecture and how their designs relate to ancient Egyptian mortuary temples. Others, following Sinclair's revelations, have associated the churches with Atlantis, flesh-eating gods, Jack the Ripper and Masonic cults.

But these are sacred Christian buildings. Surely there is no place for 'pagan' symbols in their designs. Have they really been tattooed with a hidden code and infused with the mysterious powers of ancient Egypt?

The churches are the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor. A pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, he had a hand in some of our most famous monuments, including St Paul's Cathedral and Blenheim Palace. In 1711, he was appointed chief surveyor for a project to build 50 new churches around London. In the end only 12 were built, but Hawksmoor was responsible for half of these, six structures that continue to turn heads today.

Sinclair didn't conjure his occult fantasy from thin air. Built from striking white Portland limestone, Hawksmoor's churches have an awesome, rather unsettling presence that owes much to their antiquarian symbolism. In Greenwich, four Roman sacrificial altars guard the entrance portico of St Alfege, and Doric columns and pilasters decorate its exterior. The same altars reappear atop the tower of St George-in-the-East in Wapping. In a similar position at St Anne, Limehouse, there is a set of pyramids, while another pyramid some three metres high stands mysteriously within its grounds.

At St Mary, Woolnoth, located in the heart of the City, Corinthian columns embellish the tower, and twisted columns on the wooden reredos echo the Temple of Solomon. (Somewhat bizarrely, St Mary was omitted from Sinclair's pentangle --including it and excluding St Alfege creates a neat pentangle north of the Thames, while the opposite renders the pentangle undrawable.) Further north, Hawksmoor's masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields, has an ominous, pyramidal spire above an arched portico influenced by classical Etruscan architecture.

The most unusual and flamboyant of Hawksmoor's churches is St George, Bloomsbury. Its entrance portico was inspired by the Temple of Bacchus, built by the Romans at Baalbeck in Lebanon during the second century. And the incredible stepped pyramid of the spire is a reconstruction of the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Above this, a statue of George I stands proudly on another Roman sacrificial altar.

Several authors have reprised Sinclair's occult motif, most famously Peter Ackroyd in his chilling (fictional) murder story Hawksmoor. In From Hell, Alan Moore's graphic novel about the Ripper murders, the character Sir William Gibb suggests that the writings of the Roman architectural scholar Vitruvius led Hawksmoor to become a follower of the Dionysiac cult.

The Dionysiacs were the mythical master craftsmen of Atlantis, who founded Freemasonry and whose descendents built the great monuments of antiquity, including Solomon's Temple, the pyramids and the Tomb of Mausolus. Legend has it that they also worshipped a flesh-eating god, Dionysius (aka Bacchus), who was the original model for the horned, masked devil at the centre of the Black Mass. Gibb speculates that through his churches, Hawksmoor sought to perpetuate the occult teachings of the Dionysiacs.

It's no secret that Hawksmoor was a Freemason and there's no doubt that he admired Vitruvius's work, but not because he practised the black arts. Far from it. In the late 1600s, many architects and theologians were involved in a new form of scientific enquiry. "Thumbing through Roman scholars' writings and the backwaters of the Old and New Testaments," writes Pierre Du Prey in Hawksmoor's London Churches, "Wren and Hawksmoor ... performed detective work to try and reconstruct the temples and monuments of the ancients." It was in this climate that Hawskmoor developed a taste for the exotic flavours that were to permeate his work.

But the antiquarian characteristics of Hawksmoor's churches tell another tale, the roots of which lie in the social and political upheavals of the times. In 1642, the civil war had presented a challenge to the establishment--not only the monarchy, but the Anglican Church, which at the time were essentially one and the same. Building churches was seen as the best way to re-establish the authority of the Crown, because there was a church in every parish. The Great Fire of 1666 presented the first opportunity and the government was quick to commission Wren to rebuild 50 churches in the City. But during the reign of the Calvinists William and Mary (1689-1702), the necessary funds were held back.

Then, as now, London was a global centre of commerce and people flocked to the capital looking for work. With this influx of labour, new suburbs began to emerge, particularly in the east, around the docks. In such areas as Deptford and Stepney, a rising number of dissenting chapels spelled trouble for the Anglicans.

When Anne--a staunch high-church Protestant--took the throne in 1702, she sought to address these problems. Wren's construction project was immediately restarted, and in 1711 the Tory government commissioned the building of the new churches in and around the City, concentrating particularly on the new suburbs.

Strange as it may seem, Hawksmoor's 'pagan' symbolism is linked to the political motives behind these acts. In order to distance themselves from Baptists and Presbyterians on the one hand, and from Roman Catholicism on the other, 17th-century English Protestant leaders had invented a piece of propaganda that precipitated a movement known today as primitivism, says Dr Judi Loach, an architectural historian from the Welsh School of Architecture. "This proposed that the Anglican Church was as venerable as the church of Rome," Loach says. "It was decided that if the Catholic Church was founded by St Peter in Rome, then it should be said that the Anglican Church was founded by St Paul in London. That's why we have St Paul's Cathedral."

The Anglican clergy attempted to reintroduce the liturgy of the first Christians and to reconstruct their architecture. But there was little evidence of such buildings, so they deferred to the Constantinian, or Byzantine, tradition because they had textual sources to hand. With this in mind, a committee prepared guidelines according to which the new churches should be built. Fonts, for example, were to be "so large as to be capable to have Baptism be administered by dipping" and the buildings themselves were to be oriented east-west.

According to Du Prey, the apparent mish-mash of 'pagan' symbolism recalls the early Christians' practice of salvaging materials from ancient monuments to build their new structures. But Dr Loach sees it another way. The names of the churches (with the exception of St Alphege, which was a replacement, and Christ Church) suggest that they were as much memorials to monarchs of the period as they were parish churches. "The evidence is in the design," she says. "The interiors reveal two sets of planning superimposed on each other: a rectangular form, which early Christians would have called a 'basilica', and a centralised design corresponding to a 'martyrium'--a shrine."

The pyramids and altars are funerary symbols dedicated to the memories of the monarchs, she says. The most elaborate of these is the stepped structure in the tower at Bloomsbury, which supports the statue of George I. "If you're working within the classical tradition and you want to find a model for a kind of shrine to a royal dynasty," she says, "the ultimate example must be the first mausoleum ever: the Tomb of Mausolus. It's a very powerful political statement."

Political motives aside, there is no doubt that Hawksmoor would have relished the opportunity to realise the world of the ancients. Although he never set foot outside Britain, he liked nothing better than to indulge his penchant for drafting reconstructions of famous structures, particularly the Tomb of Porsenna, of which he made 28 drawings. Following his death in 1736, his obituary read: "He was perfectly skilled in the history of architecture, and could give an exact account of all the famous buildings, both ancient and modern, in every part of the world, to which his excellent memory, which never failed him to the very last, greatly contributed."

So no Egyptian cults, no Masonic dynasties and no flesh-eating gods--just some political intrigue and a passion for the architecture of the ancients. But even when stripped of their supernatural connotations, Hawksmoor's churches remain a fascinating part of London's architectural heritage.

RELATED ARTICLE: Restoring Hawksmoor's masterpiece.

Incredibly, Christ Church, Spitalfields, said to be Hawksmoor's masterpiece, fell into disrepair last century, despite being a Grade I listed building. By the 1950s, the church was virtually derelict. Situated in one of London's poorer areas, there was no interest or money available to fund badly-needed renovations.

Christ Church was saved from demolition by the Hawksmoor Committee, which was formed in the 1960s to raise awareness of the building. Its fate improved further in 1976 when the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields (FCCS) was formed to oversee its renovation. With grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, cracks in the tower were eventually repaired and the exterior cleaned in 2001. The FCCS is looking to raise a further 500,000 [pounds sterling] to complete the work and match Heritage Lottery Funds.

Work is currently underway to restore the interior, at an estimated cost of 6.5million [pounds sterling]. Plaster work is being cleaned and repaired and the floor is being replaced with newly-cut Purbeck stone from Portland. In addition, there is more than 1 million [pounds sterling] worth of oak joinery.

* For more information or to make a donation, contact the FCCS (Tel: 020 7859 3035, email:
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Author:Furniss, Charlie
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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