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A History of the Church Through Its Buildings, by Allan Doig

26 February 2021

William Whyte enjoys a scholarly tour of the greatest churches

FLYING to Istanbul and then taking a tram to the centre of the city. Walking along the Via della Concillazione in Rome. Pushing your way through the souk of Old Jerusalem and finding yourself outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Driving to Oxfordshire and visiting the medieval village of Ewelme. Thanks to the pandemic, these excursions now seem unimaginably glamorous, the stuff of day-dreams, not reality.

What a treat, then, to be taken on a tour of sacred sites in Rome and Istanbul, Moscow and Jerusalem, Aachen, Paris, Córdoba — and Ewelme and Coventry — by the Revd Dr Allan Doig! An architect, priest, and scholar, he is an expert guide: one who has walked these streets many times before; one who has read widely and long reflected on how faith and architecture intersect.

In 12 chapters, Doig tells the story of some of the most important churches in the world. By relating these stories, he also seeks to offer insights into the wider history of the Church as a whole. Buildings become in this way a key to bigger questions about the interaction of politics and religion, the relationship between Christianity and other faiths, and much more besides.

© ALLAN DOIGThe vaulting and dome of the Cathedral of Córdoba, in the author’s photo for his chapter devoted to the architecture of this former mosque with its Christian and Islamic-era elements, in Andalusia, Spain

It is a big task for a single book. Different choices would have told a different story. A different format might also have yielded benefits. Not least, the decision to make each of the chapters self-contained results in some repetition. Charlemagne, for instance, is crowned no fewer than half a dozen times. Likewise, although the full-colour illustrations are lovely, there are only 18 of them, which is hardly lavish. Particularly in our current situation, a few more would have been highly desirable.

But no reader could resist the combination of scholarship and enthusiasm which runs throughout the volume, and it provokes the hope that others might follow its lead.

As it stands, this is a very European approach. Although Doig’s book hints at Christianity in the wider world, there is no room here for great American edifices such as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro or the National Cathedral in Washington, DC; nor for African projects such as the monumental Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in the Ivory Coast. The rock churches of Ethiopia, the Armenian Cathedral of Isfahan, Dali Trinity Church in Yunnan: when it’s possible, we must trust that Doig will start on his travels once again.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


A History of the Church Through Its Buildings
Allan Doig
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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