Augustus Pugin and the Gothic Revival – God’s Architect

A young architect, enthused by the ruins of medieval Christendom, was able to revive its architecture by bringing out the forgotten, and often ignored, symbolism of what could be called the art of the supernatural.

If, instead of publishing a book, that “lunatic” architect had thrown a bomb at Windsor Castle, the impact could hardly have been of a greater magnitude than that caused by this work… The fact he had left Anglicanism to embrace the Catholic Faith was already a great scandal in nineteenth century England, but that he published a work that strongly criticized the Protestant underpinnings of the British architecture of the time was more than pre-Victorian society could bear…

However, his book Contrasts1 – to this day the subject of heated debate – was the beginning of a great restoration, the most emblematic exponent of which was also born from the pencil of this original author: the Tower of Big Ben.

Let us take up this interesting story from its beginning.

An Englishman with French roots

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born in London on March 1, 1812. His father, however, was from France, whence he had fled around 1798, after the turmoil of the Revolution.

A born artist with a rare gift for drawing, young Pugin began his career in the artistic world at the age of fourteen, designing furniture and artefacts for castles such as those in Rochester and Windsor. A great admirer of ancient architecture, he made several trips to France, where the beautiful Gothic cathedrals won him over completely. They spoke to him of metaphysical values absent in Anglican England, and opened his eyes to a horizon unknown to him.

His upbringing in a Protestant family certainly influenced him in the opposite direction, but as Pugin deepened his study of the art of the centuries that preceded him, he discovered hidden in its depths the treasures of the Catholic Faith, and his soul was eventually opened to the power of God’s grace.

Genesis of a conversion

There were critics who, not without spite, attributed his conversion solely to the love he professed for medieval architecture. Nevertheless, Pugin himself was eloquent about the motives which led him to the true Faith, demonstrating that they arose in much loftier regions than that of simple admiration for the external magnificence of buildings:

“With what delight did I trace the fitness of each portion of those glorious edifices to the rites for whose celebration they had been erected! Then did I discover that the service I had been accustomed to attend and admire was but a cold and heartless remnant of past glories, and that those prayers which in my ignorance I had ascribed to reforming piety, were in reality only scraps plucked from the solemn and perfect offices of the ancient Church.

“Pursuing my researches among the faithful pages of the old chronicles, I discovered the tyranny, apostasy, and bloodshed by which the new religion had been established, the endless strifes, dissensions, and discord that existed among its propagators, and the devastation and ruin that attended its progress: opposed to all this, I considered the Catholic Church; existing with uninterrupted apostolic succession, handing down the same Faith, Sacraments, and ceremonies unchanged, unaltered through every clime, language, and nation.

“For upwards of three years did I earnestly pursue the study of this all-important subject; and the irresistible force of truth penetrating my heart, I gladly surrendered my own fallible judgement to the unerring decisions of the Church, and embracing with heart and soul its faith and discipline, became an humble, but I trust faithful member.”2

“Contrasts”: a radical’s critique

Deeply disturbed when confronted with the moral degradation reigning in English society of his time – in his view, the result of the country’s religious decadence, Pugin decided to deliver a masterstroke to that stuccoed Establishment, a reflection of a frivolous and profligate court.

In Contrasts, he makes a moral analysis of this decadence, illustrating it with the country’s religious monuments and buildings, built under the inspiration of classical mythology and considered models of elegance and comfort: facades that simulated stone, being in reality only of brick; slender columns designed to support a non-existent weight; vast buildings inside of which there was often almost nothing…

For Pugin, the architectural style then dominant constituted a “perfect outrage to Christian feelings,” a “a sorry substitute” for the wonders of the past. Buckingham Palace itself was conceived in a manner “utterly unsuited for a Christian residence,” forming a “lamentable and degenerate contrast” with the noble medieval structures of Westminster.

The neglect of the country’s Gothic jewels went back to the time of Henry VIII, when “a melancholy series of destructions and mutilations” entirely demolished or stripped Catholic churches and monasteries of their beauty.3

As the underlying problem, he shows that the poor quality of architecture was the physical expression of the decay of souls:

“[The] mania for paganism is developed in all classes of buildings erected since the fifteenth century, in palaces, in mansions, in private houses, in public erections, in monuments for the dead; it even extended to furniture and domestic ornaments for the table. […]

“The triumph of these new and degenerate ideas over the ancient and Catholic feelings, is a melancholy evidence of the decay of faith and morals at the period of their introduction, and to which indeed they owe their origin. Protestantism and revived Paganism both date from the same epoch, both spring from the same causes, and neither could possibly have been introduced, had not Catholic feelings fallen to a very low ebb.”4

To correct the deviations in religious art, Pugin proposes a bold solution: “only by communing with the spirit of past ages, as it is developed in the lives of the holy men of old, and in their wonderful monuments and works, that we can arrive at a just appreciation of the glories we have lost, or adopt the necessary means for their recovery. […] Before true taste and Christian feelings can be revived, all the present and popular ideas on the subject must be utterly changed.”5

Pugin believed that the then-prevailing architectural style, a “sorry substitute” for the wonders of the past, was fruit of society’s moral decadence
Pugin’s own illustrations in his book “Contrasts”: at left, a parish church of the time; at right, a Gothic cathedral. On previous page, the interior of the Cathedral of Amiens, by Jules Victor Génisson – Painting Gallery of São Paulo State

With his book, Pugin started a real revolution. He was acclaimed and imitated, or rejected and condemned in all spheres of society, including in churches of Anglican worship… His critique eventually revived the conscience of the English regarding their priceless architectural works that lay abandoned or were undergoing dismal modifications.

But let us leave aside his success as a writer, and go on to contemplate e the art that so singularly captivated his heart.

Gothic: the art of God

It would be a mistake to think that Gothic architecture was born exclusively of the Romanesque; far from merely being the latter’s heir, the Gothic style possesses forms that amaze, and appear almost to be “its emphatic antithesis”…6

Engendered in an enigmatic way by the genius and inspiration of a monk, the Gothic can be considered as the art of God, fruit of a society whose ideal of sanctity was stamped on all aspects of life. For medieval man, the offspring of Scholasticism and Tradition, the Gothic church was the threshold of Heaven, and “within its walls God himself was mysteriously present.”7

Abandoning entirely the remote influences of classical mythology, in Gothic architecture “the medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence.”8 His works “appealed to the soul to make the transference from the created to the non-created world, from the tangible to the ineffable.”9

On the other hand, for the Gothic artisansars sine scientia nihil est.Art – practical knowledge through experience – would be nothing without science, that is, without mathematics and especially geometry, by which man is able to explain the physical reasons that determine architectural work.

Yet how far this science was from contemporary pragmatism! Medieval geometry was understood in the light of the teachings of Saints like Augustine of Hippo, for whom architecture and music were “the noblest of the arts, since their mathematical proportions were those of the universe itself, and they therefore elevated our minds to the contemplation of the divine order.”10

The dignity of medieval art lay in its intimate conviction that true beauty “is anchored in metaphysical reality,” where “visible and audible harmonics are actually intimations of that ultimate harmony which the blessed will enjoy in the world to come.”11

The Lord composed the universe as His royal palace, being himself the creative Light in which all creatures participate. To discover the order, harmony and proportion existing among beings and to translate them into works of art, signified a continual advance in the knowledge of God himself.

More metaphysical than symbolic

A precursor of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Gothic edifice is “the intimation of ineffable truth”12 and, through the solemn language of its forms, it evokes transcendental realities. However, its symbolism, a mixture of the mystical and the natural, relates the physical aspects of the building to moral realities, without forgetting their practical and material sense. Indeed, “all really beautiful forms in architecture are based on the soundest principles of utility,”13 Pugin would explain.

We can thus glimpse something of the spirit in which Gothic construction was conceived, taking as our presupposition that it was the result of the illumination of souls by the vision of divine harmony.14 The buildings erected in this style, truly monumental, are characterized by spacious ribbed vaults, ogival arches, flying buttresses, pinnacles and stained-glass windows, each holding within it a mysterious symbolism.

Pugin hoped for a future in which not only buildings, but also souls would be Gothic
Church of St. Giles, designed by Pugin – Cheadle (England)

Let us consider a few examples: “The three great doctrines, of the Redemption of man by the sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross; the three equal Persons united in one Godhead; and the resurrection of the dead, – are the foundation of Christian Architecture. The first – the Cross – is not only the very plan and form of a Catholic church, but it terminates each spire and gable, and is imprinted as a seal of faith on the very furniture of the altar. The second is fully developed in the triangular form and arrangement of arches, tracery, and even subdivisions of the buildings themselves. The third is beautifully exemplified by great height and vertical lines, which have been considered by the Christians, from the earliest period, as the emblem of the Resurrection.”15

Uniting beauty and practicality

As for the consideration of its forms, the Gothic is undeniably beautiful, logical and practical.

With its slender lines, made of solid stone that seem to defy the law of gravity, Gothic structure suggests perenniality, strength, and seriousness, while the lightness of its carved columns expresses something of the combativeness and delicacy of the medieval soul. They represent “much more the warrior at rest and at prayer than in battle.”16

Its ogives, always converging towards a central point, recall Jesus Christ himself, the cornerstone on which Holy Church is built (cf. Eph 2:20), and its beautiful stained-glass windows, a material expression of the divine light, make this style “transparent, diaphanous architecture.”17

Pugin defended other Gothic details in several of his works, such as, for example, pinnacles: “I have little doubt that pinnacles are considered by the majority of persons as mere ornamental excrescences, introduced solely for picturesque effect. The very reverse of these is the case. […] They should be regarded as answering a double intention, both mystical and natural: their mystical intention is, like other vertical lines and terminations of Christian architecture, to represent an emblem of the Resurrection; their natural intention is that of an upper weathering, to throw off rain.”18

Finally, the contemplation of each of its perfections and dimensions leads the soul to admire Gothic architecture as “a magnificent reflection of the immense, inexhaustible and fabulous spirit of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”19

Towards the Reign of Mary!

Pugin’s influence on English polychrome decoration was immense. Although silenced and often criticized on account of his Catholic status, he almost completely changed the nation’s landscape, with Gothic-inspired churches, castles, colleges and residences, among which we can appreciate today, as an indisputable symbol of his ardour, the Big Ben Tower and the Parliament building, although his authorship has been ignominiously erased from the records of these works. In short, most of the main monuments admired in London today were born of his genius.

For Pugin, the Gothic structure is “the intimation of ineffable truth”; through the solemn language of its forms, it evokes transcendental realities
Westminster Palace, whose Gothic facade came from Pugin’s hands – London; inset, anonymous portrait of the English architect – National Portrait Gallery, London

Nevertheless, Pugin was a man of greater desires, he felt himself made for much higher achievements… Despite all the work he accomplished, at the end of his short life – he died aged forty – he regretted not having fulfilled the yearnings that pervaded his soul:

“I believe, as regards architecture, few men have been so unfortunate as myself. I have passed my life in thinking of fine things, studying fine things, designing fine things, and realizing very poor ones. I have never had the chance of producing a single fine ecclesiastical building, except my own church.”20 A prophetic glimmer dwelt in his heart, having stated that a day would come in which not only buildings, but also souls would be Gothic.

If “the greatest privilege possessed by man is to be allowed, while on earth, to contribute to the glory of God,”21 his vast work – perhaps prefiguring the far greater glories that will come when the Immaculate Heart of Mary triumphs on earth – could be summed up in the enigmatic dedication that Suger, the father of Gothic architecture, composed for the portico of Saint-Denis:22 “The golden door foretells to you what shines here within.” ◊



1 The full title of the work, which gives it a more caustic character, is: Contrasts: or, a parallel between the noble edifices of the middle ages, and corresponding buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste.

2 FERREY, Benjamin. Recollections of A. N. Welby Pugin, and His Father, Augustus Pugin; with Notices of Their Work. London: Edward Stanford, 1861, p.103-104.

3 The expressions in quotations are from the English architect himself: PUGIN, Augustus Welby Northmore. Contrasts. 2.ed. London: Charles Dolman, 1841, p.10-12; 23.

4 Idem, p.9; 13.

5 Idem, p.16.

6 SIMSON, Otto von. The Gothic Cathedral. Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order. 2.ed. Princeton: University Press, 1974, p.61.

7 Idem, p.XVII.

8 Idem, ibidem.

9 DUBY, Georges. The Age of the Cathedrals. Art and Society, 980-1420. Chicago: University Press, 1981, p.102.

10 WOODS JUNIOR, Thomas Ernest. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington (DC): Regnery, 2005, p.121.

11 SIMSON, op. cit., p.24.

12 Idem, p.35.

13 PUGIN, Augustus Welby Northmore. The True Principles and Revival of Christian Architecture. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1895, p.11.

14 SIMSON, op. cit., p.129.

15 PUGIN, Contrasts, op. cit., p.3.

16 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Arte gótica, a expressão de desejo do Céu [Gothic Art: the Expression of the Desire for Heaven]. In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year XIII. N.142 (Jan., 2010); p.34.

17 SIMSON, op. cit., p.4.

18 PUGIN, The True Principles and Revival of Christian Architecture, op. cit., p.8.

19 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Reflexo do inesgotável espírito da Igreja [Reflection of the Inexhaustible Spirit of the Church]. In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year II. N.16 (July, 1999); p.34.

20 FERREY, op. cit., p.164.

21 PUGIN, The True Principles and Revival of Christian Architecture, op. cit., p.36.

22 DUBY, op. cit., p.89.



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