CHURCHES: Old and new

England Travel Blog

 › entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
LEISTON ABBEY

King Henry VIII reigned from 1509 to 1547. During this time, he was prone to changing wives. His first was Catherine of Aragon. Because of the Pope’s disapproving of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, the king decided to discard his recognition of papal authority in the Church, and to assume its leadership in Great Britain. Although the King might not have abandoned Roman Catholicism, many other people in Europe were doing so or had already done so, following in the footsteps of, for example, Martin Luther and John Calvin. For various reasons, including financial, between 1536 and ’41, Henry VIII ordered the closure of all the monasteries, convents, priories, and friaries, in England, Wales, and Ireland. This so-called ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’, which not only reduced the power of often wealthy religious bodies but also raised a lot of cash to finance military campaigns.

LEISTON ABBEY
Leiston Abbey in Suffolk was one of the victims of the Dissolution.

The Act of Uniformity passed in 1559 made outward (i.e. unconcealed) observance of the Roman Catholic faith illegal. It was not until 1828 that the Roman Catholics were ‘emancipated’, and allowed to worship openly. In the years that followed, new Roman Catholic churches were built. One of these, which was built in 1939 at Gorleston-on-Sea (a part of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk), was designed by an artist who is best known for his graphic art and sculpture, Eric Gill (1882-1940). This essay describes an abbey, which was destroyed under the orders of Henry VIII and a church which was built after the rehabilitation of Roman Catholicism in the UK.

LEISTON ABBEY

Leiston Abbey was founded for the Premonstratensian Canons, an order founded in Rome in 1120, in 1182. It was moved to its present location in 1363, where it was rebuilt after a fire about fifty years later. The clerics were canons rather than monks. They served the local parishes, but resided in the Abbey compound.

After the Dissolution, the abbey grounds and buildings became part of a farm. A farmhouse was built amongst the ruins, making use of some of what was left standing. This building acquired a Georgian frontage, and was extended in the 1920s.

Wandering amongst the ruins, which are surrounded by cultivated open fields, is enjoyable. Various walls, some with gothic window frames and others with arched doorways, represent all that remains of the abbey church, its cloisters, chapter house, and other buildings.

ST PETERS GORLESTON
They contain typical features of what was built in the 13thand 14thcenturies.

The remains of a brick gatehouse, built in the 16thcentury, are particularly attractive. The brickwork is decorated rather than plain. At the time it was built, the use of bricks (rather than stone) in such a way was a sign of the owner’s wealth.

As you wander around the ruins, you will usually hear strains of music around you. These come from the restored farmhouse and other neighbouring newer buildings. Since 1977, the abbey site and its buildings have been owned and used by the Pro Corda Trust, which is an educational charity to educate young people in the practise, art, and philosophy of performing music, particularly in chamber ensembles. Where plainsong chants were once heard long ago, today the air is again filled with the sound of music.

ST PETERS GORLESTON

Twenty-five miles almost due north of the remains of Leiston Abbey, stands the Roman Catholic church of St Peter on Lowestoft Road, Gorleston-on-Sea. In 1928, a Catholic priest Thomas Walker arrived in Gorleston from High Wycombe, where the artist Eric Gill, a Roman Catholic, was living at the time. Soon after the priest arrived in Gorleston, the local Roman Catholic congregation received a large inheritance, which was sufficient to allow them to build a proper parish church. Walker, who was a friend of Gill’s and admired his work, asked the artist to design the new church (see: http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/gorleston/gorlestonpeter.htm).

Construction work began in 1938, and was completed in 1940 just before the outbreak of WW2.

ST PETERS GORLESTON
Gill died in late 1940. The outside of the brick church looks unusual, but conceals the surprise that greets the visitor on entering it. Above the entrance on the north side of the church, the external brickwork has been carved to produce a very shallow bas-relief depicting St Peter casting his fishing net.

The interior of the church is stunning. It is like stepping inside a three-dimensional version of an Eric Gill wood engraving. The dominant motif is a series of pointed arches, which are not exactly gothic but rather a modern version of this ancient style. The arches support the roof of the nave. Four of them provide the only support for the centrally located tower of this cruciform church. The four tower-supporting arches intersect one another producing an interesting, pleasing geometric effect.

ST PETERS GORLESTON

A painted bas-relief wooden crucified Christ is suspended above the main centrally-located altar. This is in front of a fresco painted on the eastern arch of the tower. The fresco was painted under Gill’s supervision by his son-in-law, a former Trappist monk, Denis Tegetmeier (1895-1987). It includes a cross with leafy branches sprouting from it. This is a modern example of an ‘arbor crucis’, a cross depicted as a tree with branches, shoots, and so on, which first appeared in the 12thcentury (see; “The Dendrites In Pre-Christian and Christian Historical-Literary Tradition and Iconography”, by CP Charalampidis, publ. 1995).

Apart from the architecture itself, a major visual attraction is the wonderful stained glass in the eastern window behind the high altar.

ST PETERS GORLESTON
Designed by Gill’s friend Joseph E Nuttgens (1892-1982) who lived in High Wycombe, they were installed in 1963. The detail and colouring of the stained-glass works is masterful. The whole window complements the rest of the church’s effectively simple décor. Apparently, Gill was against the idea of installing stained glass in his church, but his wishes were, fortunately, overridden after his death. Nuttgens, who claimed to have assisted Gill in designing the church but was never acknowledged for his input, called his fine window ‘his revenge on Gill’.

Above the central figure of Christ, you can see the letters “NIKA” and beneath them “IC” and “XC”. The lower two couples of letters are Greek ‘christograms’, abbreviations for Jesus Christ (‘ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ’ in Greek). “NIKA” is the Greek for ‘victory’.

Apart from the windows, there are many small details to be admired in the church. For example, there is a highly ornate bell for use during masses. The furniture next to the high altar seems to have been specially designed to match the architecture. And, the paintings at each of the Stations of the Cross are well-executed. There is also a beautifully carved small wooden bas-relief beneath the east window. This depicts a crucified man with a large shawl draped over his outstretched arms and trunk. Even the small wall-mounted carved wooden candle-stick holders are shaped to match the huge arches supporting the church.

This building is amongst the best modern churches that I have seen. I would rate as much a masterpiece as Le Corbusier’s church in Ronchamp (France), St Josephs in Redhill, and Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. It confirms my impression that when Roman Catholics build new churches, they are often far more adventurous than others in architectural aesthetics.

Within twenty-five miles of each other, it is possible to visit the ruins of a church which was destroyed because of the cessation of tolerance of the Roman Catholic Church, and one that was built after its overdue rehabilitation.

german_eagle says:
Stunning architecture, indeed. I like the fresco and stained-glass windows very much.
Posted on: Nov 12, 2017
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
LEISTON ABBEY
LEISTON ABBEY
LEISTON ABBEY
LEISTON ABBEY
LEISTON ABBEY
LEISTON ABBEY
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
ST PETERS GORLESTON
Sponsored Links