In the plan of the buildings and their decoration everything still remained subordinate to the high altar; but though on this and its surroundings ornament was most lavishly expended, the churches—wherever wealth permitted—were covered within and without with sculpture or painting: scenes from the Old and New Testaments, from the lives of saints, even from every-day life; figures of the Almighty, of Christ, of the Virgin Mother, of apostles, saints, confessors; pictures of the joys of heaven and the torments of hell; and outside, grimacing from every angle, demons and goblins, amusing enough to us but terrible to the age that set them there, visible embodiments of the evil spirits driven from within the sacred building by the efficacy of the holy rites. In considering the origins of medieval churches, moreover, it must be borne in mind that as a general rule their builders were not actuated by the motives usual in modern times, at least among Protestants. The size of churches was not determined by the needs of population but by the piety and wealth of the founders; and the same applies to their number. Often they were founded as acts of propitiation of the Almighty or of the saints, and the greater their size and splendour the more effective they were held to be for their purpose. Local rivalry, too, played a large part, one wealthy abbey building “against” another, much in the same way as modern business houses endeavour to outshine each other in the magnificence of their buildings. Of all the mixed motives that went to the evolution of church architecture in the middle ages, this rivalry in ostentation was probably the most fertile in the creation of new forms. A volume might be written on the economic effects of this locking up of vast capital in unproductive buildings. In Catholic countries (notably in Ireland) great churches are still built out of the savings of a poverty-stricken peasantry; and from this point of view the destruction of churches in the 16th century was probably a benefit to the world. This, however, is a consideration altogether alien to the Christian spirit, the aspiration of which is to lay up treasures not on earth but in heaven.
The Reformation was a fateful epoch in the history of church architecture. The substitution of the Bible for the Mass destroyed the raison d’être of churches as the middle ages had made them. Pictures and stories, carved or painted, seemed no longer necessary now that the open Bible was in the hands of the common people; they had been too often prostituted, moreover, to idolatrous uses,—and “idolatry” was the worst of blasphemies to the re-discoverers of the Old Testament. Save in some parts of Germany, where the influence of Luther saved the churches from wreck, an iconoclastic wave spread over the greater part of Western Europe, wherever the “new religion” prevailed; everywhere churches were cleared of images and reduced to the state of those described by William Harrison in his Description of England (1570), only the “pictures in glass” being suffered in some cases to survive for a while “by reason of the extreme cost of replacing them.” The structures of the churches, however, remained; and these, even in countries which departed furthest from the Catholic system, served in some measure to keep its tradition alive. Protestantism has, indeed, produced a distinctive church architecture, i.e. the conventicle type, favoured more especially by the so-called “Free Churches.” Its distinctive features are pulpit and auditorium, and it is symbolical of the complete equality of ministers and congregation. In general, however, Protestant builders have been content to preserve or to adapt the traditional models. It would be interesting in this connexion to trace the reverse effect of church architecture upon church doctrine. In England, for instance, the chancels were for the most part disused after the Reformation (see Harrison, op. cit.), but presently they came into use again, and on the Catholic revival in the Church of England in the 19th century it is certain that the medieval churches exercised an influence by giving a sense of fitness, which might otherwise have been lacking, to the restoration of medieval ritual. A similar tendency has of late years been displayed in the Established Church of Scotland.
Churches, as the outcome of the organization of the Catholic Church, are divided into classes as “cathedral,” “conventual” and “collegiate,” “parochial” and “district” churches. It must be noted, however, that the term cathedral (q.v.), ecclesiastically applicable to any church which happens to be a bishop’s see, architecturally connotes a certain size and dignity, and is sometimes applied to churches which have never been, or have long ceased to be, bishop’s seats. (W. A. P.)
(2) The Religious Community.—In the sense of Christian community (ecclesia) the word “Church” is applied in a narrow sense to any one of the numerous separate organizations into which Christendom is divided (e.g. Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Eastern Church, Church of England, Evangelical [Lutheran] Church)—these are dealt with under their several headings—and in a comprehensive sense (with which we are now concerned) to the general body of all those “who profess and call themselves Christians.” Religion, according to the old definition, is the bond which binds the soul of man to God. It begins as the relation of a tribe to its God. Personal religious conviction grows out of the tribal (corporate) religious bond. But the social instinct is strong. Men owning the same religious convictions will naturally draw together into some sort of association. Using the word religion to cover all the imperfect ways in which men have felt after God, we note that in every case men have found the need alike of a teacher and of fellowship. Thus the idea of a church as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. iii. 15) corresponds to some of the primary needs of man. Even at Stonehenge, the oldest relic of prehistoric religion in England, where we picture in imagination the worship of the rising sun, nature worship degraded to a horrible depth by human sacrifice, we find struggling for expression the idea of a corporate religious life. From all the lower levels where superstition and cruelty reign, from the depths of fear inspired by fetichism, we look on to the higher level of Judaism as the progressive religion of the old world. This does not mean that we shut our eyes to the ideals of Greek philosophers, with whom morality was constantly outgrowing religion. “The vision of an ideal state which the master-mind of Plato contemplated, but thought too good ever to become true in actual realization, is full of aspirations which the Christian Church claims to satisfy. The problems of the relations of the life of the State and the life of the individual, which Aristotle ever suggests and never solves, are problems with which the Christian Church has at least attempted to deal.”
From the beginning of the history of the Jewish race the idea that the world is a kingdom under the rule of God began to find expression. The conception of Israel as “a kingdom of priests and an holy nation” (Exod. xix. 6) bore witness to it. The idea of kingship from the first was that of a ruler representing God. As time went on and even the dynasty of David failed in the persons of unworthy representatives to maintain this ideal, both psalmists and prophets taught the people to look beyond the earthly kingdom to the spiritual kingdom of which it was a type. But even Isaiah tended to think of the spiritual life and worship of the nation as a department of political organization only, controlled by the king and his princes. It was reserved for Jeremiah, in the darkest days of his life, to build up the ideal of a spiritual society which should weld Israel together, to proclaim a new covenant (xxxi. 31-34) which Jehovah would make with Israel when representatives of the previously exiled ten tribes should return with the exiles of Judah. This prophecy is instinct with the growing sense of the personal responsibility of individual men brought into communion with God. The religion of Israel from this time of the captivity ceased to be a merely national religion connected with particular forms of sacrifice in a particular land. The synagogues which traced their origin to the time of Ezekiel, when the sacrificial cultus was impossible, extended this ideal yet further. During the centuries preceding the birth of Christ there grew up an apocalyptic literature which regarded as a primary truth the conception of a
- Lactantius, Inst. Div. iv. 28 “Vinculo pietatis obstricti, Deo religati sumus unde ipsa religio nomen accepit.” The etymology may be wrong, but this is the popular sense of the word.
- Darwell Stone, The Christian Church, p. 18.