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Is this a mouchette which I see before me?

16 August 2013

Serenhedd James welcomes a new book, which illuminates the ins, outs, and finer details of church architecture - just the distraction needed for a dull sermon

YOU know it is going to be one of those homilies when the prebendary, on his annual cathedral outing, climbs into the pulpit, cracks a joke that is not funny, misquotes the day's Gospel reading, and reminisces about an occasion that he clearly did not attend.

Do you see the lay clerks' heads disappearing, one by one, under the music desks? That is because they are checking the cricket score on their iPhones, updating their Facebook statuses, or grabbing a few minutes' kip in an attempt to shift that stubborn hangover. And the organist? Having a shifty smoke on the roof.

But all is not lost. If you are facing a stinker of a sermon, you could do no better than arm yourself with Rice's Church Primer, and teach yourself a thing or two about the things to be seen in some of our historic cathedrals and churches.

As your eyes wander, you know that you know the difference between a round arch and a pointed one, but are they equilateral, ogival, or stilted? You know that the windows are in the Decorated Style, but do they use trefoils, quatrefoils, or cinquefoils? And is that a mouchette, or a dagger; a mullion, or a transom? 

Generously illustrated by the author, and divided under such headings as "Grammar", "Vocab", and "Examplars", this successor to Matthew Rice's Architectural Primerof 2009 will tell you all you need to know about the architectural elements of churches and their fittings. 

With a master's skill, Rice takes his readers on a whistle-stop romp through the various British church-building developments of the past 1000 years, in full and glorious technicolour.

THERE are vaults: and not just barrel, groin, and rib, but liernes, with tiercerons and quadripartite intersections. Columns - having previously come in Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian - now come to life with astragals, fillets, and fleurons, and toruses, scotiae, and volutes. Decorated spires come complete with crockets, lucarnes, and gablets, and Baroque towers with quoins, lobes, and dentils. Georgian preaching-boxes come with drums, and - perhaps my favourite - Diocletian windows.

The nuances of the neo-Gothic and neo-Classical architecture of the various Victorian revivals are brought out beautifully - who knew about triglyphs and stylobates? - and so are the various less elegant, but whimsically delightful, mishmashes produced by architects with their hearts in heaven and their heads in the clouds.

Rice has less to say on the Modern period - and who can blame him? While he notes and illustrates some laudable exceptions, his general observation that "the post-war Liturgical Movement calls for an auditoria-style church that decisively rejects the entire legacy of church architecture" rings true.

What were they thinking, those architects of that brave new world? Did they think that, with soaring cranes, rolled steel, and concrete, they could better, in a few short months, the buildings that took their forebears centuries to create, with stone, chisels, and plumblines? 

"The Church has resorted to the lowest common denominator," Rice bemoans, "in this, the least productive and least pleasing era of church-building."

This is a glorious book. And it is funny, too. The architectural drawings have details that make them instantly human, and will make you chuckle - such as the "rather heathen church visitors" at St Mary's, Stoke Newington, or the Georgian rector taking a funeral from his elegant outdoor shelter while everyone else gets soaked.

For anyone with even a vague interest in churches, this is a must-have. Give it to your godchildren; buy it for the curate. For clerics dealing with leaking roofs and crumbling pinnacles, it would be a cheerful vade mecum with which to be armed before the inevitable architect's report. And take it with you the next time you go to the cathedral - just in case.

Rice's Church Primer by Matthew Rice is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer £11.99); 978-1-4088-0752.

Dr Serenhedd James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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