Saturday, September 08, 2012

Book Review: Liturgy and Architecture

Alan Doing investigates the relationship between architecture and liturgy. His conclusion that ‘liturgical function by no means resulted in the development of the architectural form of the Gothic from those of the Romanesque’1 , is unsurprising given the temporal distance between medieval religious architecture and modern form-causing-function. Given that liturgy requires active participation it is inappropriate to attempt a crystallization of liturgy within the architecture.  The function of liturgy is to invite elaboration upon established themes and narratives, and any attempt to set in stone any one liturgy will undoubtedly strip that liturgy of its power.

Christian thought has always emphasised the enfranchisement of the disenfranchised, and the liturgical rituals were part of this process.  Medieval Christians re-lived scriptural narrative through actively participating in rituals, and through this re-enactment did historical narrative hold power for medieval man.  They lived the scriptures through participating in liturgical rituals, and medieval life was organised and understood through these rituals.  The attempt to establish a ritual function from which the medieval architecture followed would preclude the embellishment necessary for liturgical ritual.  Fixing meaning and ritual for all eternity within a single architecture precludes participation and enfranchisement.  

Instead Alan Doig presents archaeological evidence of Christian liturgy and architecture before Constantine’s conversion elaborated Christian ritual with princely ceremony, and follows Christian liturgy and architecture until the late middle ages.  From the initial wealthy converts that allowed their homes to be used for Christian worship, to the Cathedrals of late medieval Europe, the reader is presented with information that paints a broad picture of the state of Christian architecture through the years.  Eventually he finds importance within the monastic reforms, and the monastic rituals within monasteries.  Here is his best opportunity to describe a form following function narrative, if there ever was one to be found.  Unfortunately history has been unkind, and no such narrative can be concretely articulated despite monastic reforms and architectural decisions being decided by a small group of individuals.

Of all the information to come from Liturgy & Architecture, the strongest would have to be the importance placed upon monasticism for the development of medieval life, and the Gothic form.  The trend of enfranchisement was taken up by the monastic orders, and the narratives these orders propagated relied on liturgical and allegorical thinking.  While we cannot establish any monastic order as responsible for the development of the form of Gothic, we can know for certain the monastic orders espoused anyone could find their place within the Christian cosmos, and that manual labour was part of the spiritual process of edification.  This important connection between work and liturgy allowed for the Christianising of many people who did not have the free time to devote to prayer and daily ritual.

Establishing the link between medieval masons who constructed the cathedral, and the monks who established the importance of liturgical and allegorical thinking, allows a connection between the thinking of the monastic orders, and the working masons.  The subsequent Gothic development from Romanesque precedent was possible not from seeing liturgy as function, but instead from the application of liturgical and allegorical thinking.  The liturgy of construction, then, allowed for the construction of Gothic cathedrals, (without construction documents, I might add), without petrifying the liturgical ritual as a function from which the Gothic form was derived.

1. [DOIG, A. (2008). Liturgy and architecture from the early church to the Middle Ages. Aldershot, England, Ashgate. (page 169)]