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June 17, 2005

Sacred Geometry - St Bartholomew's, Brighton

Posted by Roger Homan

Prof. Roger Homan celebrates St Bartholomew's Church, Ann Street, Brighton.

This year is the centenary of the death of Edmund Scott. As the designer of modest parish churches at Eastbourne, Keymer and Buxted he may well by now have been forgotten. However, he was also responsible for what is widely regarded as the most remarkable of Victorian church in England, St Bartholomew Brighton. In a rare lapse from his customary Germanic reserve, Pevsner refers to "this tremendous church" as "an unforgettable experience". Simon Jenkins notes "biggest nave". It is beloved of Victorians living in the twenty-first century. Some think it a folly but the one attitude that no one has toward St Bart's is indifference.

It is conspicuous not least for its scale. Its roof ridge is higher than Hawksmoor's west towers of Westminster Abbey and than many a church spire thought in its locality to be lofty. Betjeman said of it that one expects the priests to come riding on elephants: witness the procession at the patronal festival one Saturday evening in August and you will see that he was not far wrong. Others behold it towerless and spireless as they come into Brighton station and suppose it to be a railway shed. Indeed, outwardly it is a simple shed with a medium-pitched roof, little to proclaim itself as a church, built of brick without buttresses – and thereby defying gravity. The secret of its construction is that the buttresses are within, forming cells against the north and south walls for shrines and confessional boxes.

Over the west entrance is a stone figure of St Bartholomew to the drawings of Henry Wilson, the Arts and Crafts designer and erstwhile editor of the Architectural Review. His also are some of the furnishings within such as the font, pulpit and silver altar to Our Lady and baldacchino.

The Lady chapel altar of 1902 on the south side is fashioned in repoussé silver on copper and bears a representation of the Adoration of the Magi and the signs of the zodiac. Fixed to the north wall, Wilson's pulpit of 1906 is of Irish and African marbles, with panels of green and supporting columns of rose. The imposing font and baptistery at the west end were installed in 1908 with the addition in 1924 of a statue of St John Baptist by Gough to a design of Giles Gilbert Scott.

In its own right, each of these features is majestic. Only presented as an inventory, however, do the apparatuses of devotion at St Bart's sound like a museum collection. For their setting, a little known provincial architect has provided the highest nave of any parish church in England. Such are the proportions of the internal space that no subordinate feature diverts us from the High Altar. Our experience as we enter from the west and come past the font is of a single uninterrupted space. That focus is not lost when we stand in the congregation, for the illuminated altar is so elevated that it compels a view over the heads of the faithful company in front. One thinks of the diminutive Zacchaeus who was also obstructed by the crowd and resorted to climbing a sycamore tree.

The sanctuary is approached up five marble steps and there are more up to the altar which has paintings by S. Bell 1874 and bears six brass candlesticks. The standards in the sanctuary are massive marble pillars, 1906. The grandeur of the altar is achieved by the baldacchino, 45 feet high. It is flanked by wall mosaics of figures with gold haloes by F. Hamilton Jackson 1911. Thus, in a manner that he could barely have envisaged, Scott's vast barn, with little original colour other than the polychromy of the brick, gradually accumulated devotional works from some of the most distinguished Arts and Crafts practitioners of the early twentieth century.

The west gallery of 1906 has accommodation for fifty persons. Galleries were never approved by the Cambridge Camden Society or Ecclesiologists who emerged in the nineteenth century as the influential arbiters of arrangements for sacramental worship. One does not look down upon one's Host. Indeed, at St Bartholomew Brighton the contingent of the congregation occupying the gallery would not enjoy the elevating experience compelled by the geometry at ground level. The gallery, however, is the perfect acoustic setting for the minstrels and at St Bart's, as at Pusey House and St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, it is now the home of a fine musical tradition.

So in space – in space only! - the choir sings above and behind us, through us and for us. We do not thereby become a non-participant congregation because we are aware that the music is offered on our behalf. As the Kyries and the Sanctus pass through us, our eyes are fixed still on the High Altar and the six brass candles half way up the east wall. In the sacred moments of the Eucharist, the congregation is barely more intrusive than a carpet over which our attention has been uplifted. The geometry of St Bart's is not right for a social encounter and it is not for that reason that they come here.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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