Corpus Christi

Alun Jones, ‘Corpus Christi’, in: Corpus Christi Guide (London, UK: February 2012)

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Corpus Christi

The history of architecture in post reformation England is an intriguing world of stylistic reinvention, and Corpus Christi forms an important part of this story.

Inigo Jones, architect to the Stuart Court, was the first to confront the issue of what an ‘Anglican’ architecture could look like. He miss-judged the mood of the nation, and his classical style portico, at St Paul’s Cathedral, was torn down by the Puritans for being too ‘Catholic’; and his patron, Charles I, lost his head.

Jones’ successors, Wren, and more importantly Hawksmoor, combined elements of architectural style from different ages and places, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and ancient Roman, in their search for a style that had its roots in a time before the Catholic Church. The success of this ‘Anglican’ style was that it did not look like Italian architecture, and could therefore not be confused with Catholicism.

The next turn in the story follows Catholic Emancipation in 1829, when a new wave of Catholic church building began, and the question of what style Catholic churches should adopt came to the forefront of artistic debate. Following Pugin, one of the architects for the Houses of Parliament, and the philosophical ideas put forward by Cardinal Newman and the Oxford Movement, Gothic was appropriated. 

Bentley’s genius was to take the form and proportion of Gothic architecture and to fuse with it the ornamental character of Byzantium – the first Christian empire. This made a clear statement that his churches were not Anglican, nor were they pre-reformation Gothic churches now in the hands of the Anglicans, but they pointed back to the genesis of the Christian Church. However, this stylistic fusion was slow to evolve and Bentley’s early church architecture is more straight-forwardly Gothic. Corpus Christi is an important building as it represents the shift in Bentley’s work towards the Byzantine style, which then flourishes at Westminster Cathedral, his masterpiece, and one of this country’s finest buildings.

The exterior of Corpus Christi cleverly melds the Gothic and the Byzantine. The verticality of the Gothic proportions, married to the red brick and white stone striped facades, is suggestive of Constantinople or Venice, and creates a deeply powerful impression. It is a building that does not immediately speak of England, but resonates with a familiarity that we recognize.

Despite appearing symmetrical, the building isn’t; shifts in the plan are made to accommodate the complexities of the site and the ancillary uses that the building needed to contain. These are complimented by subtle adjustments to the section that allow Bentley to maintain the overall harmony of the composition whilst accommodating the contingent. 

The interior of the building is stylistically quiet after the exuberance of the exterior, the exception being the east wall and High Altar. The Altar is a fine composition of mostly Italian marble, with the Altar top being a particularly fine slab of blood-red porphyry. Above the Altar is the Reredos, with a beautiful triptych made inopus sectileand executed in a style after the renaissance master Piero della Francesca, depicting Christ’s baptism, passion and resurrection. Behind the reredos is the east wall, which contains the stained-glass windows. This wall holds up the east end of the church, but being so tall is required to be very thick. Bentley uses this fact to his advantage by incising deep niches into it to frame the windows, and in the triforium he further excavates into this depth to make a colonnaded gallery. The overall effect is one of great plasticity and sculptural complexity, which elevates the iconography of the windows and provides a focus for contemplation.

Very few of Bentley’s original drawings remain that could provide us with a true picture of its projected majesty. What we do know is that the church would have been two and a half times longer than the existing building, and would have incorporated a presbytery in the south-west corner. The main entrance would have been on Horsford Road, located at the base of a tower that was projected to be 197ft or 60m tall. We lament the incompletion of what would have been a truly spectacular building, but we can be grateful for what we have, and in Corpus Christi we have a magnificent building that stands at a pivotal place in the career of one of Britain’s best architects.

In 1902 J.F.Bentley was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, the highest honour awarded to an architect by their peers. Bentley died just weeks before he was due to receive it.

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