Architect of Faith

A quest to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land began nearly a century before William Blake composed his poem; for Queen Anne, in her 1711 Act of Parliamentary, decreed that “…50 new churches [were to be built] of stone and other proper materials, with Towers or Steeples to each of them.” The churches would be needed to serve London’s growing population; they would also offer an opportunity to secure an Anglican presence amid increasing numbers of Catholics and Dissenters. The Parliamentary Act, passed by a then recently reinstated Tory government, imposed a duty on coal to pay for the new churches, a cogent and visible collaboration between the state and church. Of the 50 churches commissioned by the queen, only a dozen were ever built, six by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736), a protégé of Sir Christopher Wren, considered by many to have been England’s finest Baroque architect. Hawksmoor has frequently been overshadowed by the glory of his great master Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), and by his friend and contemporary Sir John Vanbrugh (1664–1726). All three men were masters of the English Baroque style, which came to fruition during the transitional period between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—it is a tempered version of the flamboyant and highly decorative Baroque found on the continent. It has some of the reticence of the English character, which resisted the powerful continental messages of the Counter-Reformation.

Despite the influence of the two great architects, Hawksmoor’s work is highly individual and discernibly different. In contrast to Wren’s graceful lines and Vanbrugh’s flamboyance, the classical language of Hawksmoor’s oeuvre is muscular and bold, almost cyclopean in its massiveness. Although Hawksmoor never went abroad to study the remains of Classical antiquity like many of his contemporaries, he was nevertheless fascinated by the monuments of the ancient Mediterranean world, referencing them in many of his works. With their massive bulk, soaring height, and dramatic use of light and shade, Hawksmoor’s six London churches provide a distinctive punctuation to the architectural landscape on both sides of the Thames. St. Alfege (1712–1714) in Greenwich was the first of the churches to be built under the 1711 Act of Parliamentary. As shown in the plan, there is a central space and two axes, the longer running from east to west with the cross axis marked, in this case by two transepts.

All these features are characteristics of Hawksmoor’s other churches, setting the tone for the other five. The ceiling is flat and the auxiliary spaces are richly decorated, as at other Hawksmoor churches. The tower was finished by John James in 1730 and is insignificant compared to the rest of the mighty composition. The exterior is smooth with round-headed windows that contrast with the heavy, keystoned square ones. The portico at the east end is plain yet majestic, with its Doric columns and Roman arch that breaks through the pediment. The interior was gutted by bombing during the Second World War, but restored by 1953, when it was rededicated.

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