Knight & Dei
Sir Ninian Comper: An Intorduction to His Life and Work
reviewed by Matthew G. Alderman
When the Anglican architect Sir Ninian Comper passed away in 1960 at age 96, it seemed that the dwindling Gothic revival died with him. Within a decade, the moral and aesthetic landscape that he had known—a world of Latin plainchant and the Book of Common Prayer—had utterly vanished. This cheerful white-bearded Victorian seemed the deadest of dead white males.
Comper’s legacy is not merely historic, however. While he worked for Anglicans (and a few English Catholics), for whom Gothic was the only conceivable option, his designs drew their visceral potency from the liturgical art of Christian antiquity. Understanding his work may prove a crucial step in implementing an architecture that draws on both traditional forms and the ideals of Vatican II.
Unity by Inclusion
Sir Ninian Comper, the first book-length treatment of its subject, is the fruit of decades of research by Jesuit priest Anthony Symondson, the world’s foremost authority on the great Gothicist. It includes Comper’s classic essay “Of the Atmosphere of a Church” and an exhaustive gazetteer of his projects compiled by his grandnephew Stephen Bucknall.
Symondson divides Comper’s career into two periods: his early works, characterized by “unity by exclusion”—an exacting, if imaginative, recreation of a medieval Northern European past—and his later work, eclectic Mediterranean designs that sprang from his conversion to “unity by inclusion” after visits to Rome and Sicily in 1900 and 1905.
On his return from the south, Comper realized that the artistry of each Christian era pointed equally towards the beauty of holiness. No longer was Gothic England the single standard, but part of a continuum that embraced the faded frescoes of the catacombs, the solemn mosaics of Romanesque Palermo, and the ornate classicism of Renaissance Spain.
As Comper’s stock of architectural precedents expanded, his liturgical sensibilities also deepened. For him, Symondson explains, the altar was the most essential part of a church building. Its placement had to express both the intimacy and grandeur of God.
Never is this ideal more apparent than in Comper’s late-in-life masterpiece, St. Philip’s at Cosham in Hampshire, described in 1939 by critic John Betjeman as one of the six best new buildings in England. (Strangely enough, another of the six was the modernist penguin pool at the London Zoo.)
In a luminous, bone-white space equally Gothic and classical, Comper’s altar stands beneath a richly burnished gold canopy, known as a ciborium, crowned with a Renaissance-style figure of the risen Christ. Freestanding and set close to the congregation within a shallow chancel, the altar’s placement was taken from a ruined church at Theveste seen on a 1925 tour of Roman North Africa.
While unsurprising today, in Comper’s time it was radical, antedating the movement away from wall-altars by nearly three decades.
Symondson is careful to note that, unlike many of the church renovations of the 1970s, Comper’s altars reaffirmed the ancient tradition of the eastward position of the priest at the altar.
The ciborium, derived from early Christian examples, granted the altar a lofty grandeur, while the altar’s position bestowed upon it a new immediacy, intimately relating it to the ordinary churchgoers clustered at its base. Compared to the table-altars so common today, the unity of altar and ciborium better embodies Vatican II’s call for the re-invigoration of the liturgy within the stream of church tradition.
While he did not wholly abandon either the deep chancels and wall-altars of his “unity by exclusion” days or Gothic ornament, this arrangement became his ideal. “Nothing has ever so combined magnificence with simplicity—nothing so separates the altar from everything else in the building and gives it such prominence that we see at once it was to contain this that the church was built,” he wrote.
If revived today, the ciborium could restore to freestanding altars the visual prominence they have lost in recent decades. Such sanctuary arrangements may also prove equally adaptable to both the pre- and post-conciliar forms of the Mass that Benedict XVI has recently declared in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificium to be equal partners in Catholic sacramental life.
Symondson barely touches on the culture wars that have occurred since Comper’s death, but it is impossible to read his words—and Comper’s theories—without thinking of the future. There is much that may yet spring from the plentiful well. We may yet complete that tale—for the beauty that Comper sought never dies.
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