St Michael’s Longstanton: a Gothic Revival role model

I read about St Michael’s Longstanton on Friday, and found myself in the next Cambridgeshire village on Sunday. And the sun was out. And there was moss! I wouldn’t like to discourage Serendipity by ignoring such opportunities presented by her to test my ability to explain the principles of gothic revival. There’s a great deal I don’t say in this very short summary, but I hope it sparks your interest.

West end of St Michael’s Longstanton, with its ancient well and churchyard wall.

St Michael’s is important in the gothic revival because in about 1842 the Cambridge Camden Society’s journal The Ecclesiologist identified it as perfectly embodying the principles of gothic architecture as set out by Pugin in the ideal form for small village churches — such as were required in countless colonial settlements. As a result, St Michaelses popped up all around the world.

What gives a gothic building away is the windows: the revivalists called it the Pointed style. They divided the gothic into three phases, easily identifiable by the window tracery: 
  • early, with simple tracery, regarded as full of energy but underdeveloped
  • middle, decorated or flamboyant, regarded as the high-point of the style
  • late or perpendicular, in which the vertical bars go all the way to the top, regarded as degenerate and enervated

The early thirteenth-century St Michael’s was built in the decorated style which the Ecclesiologists liked best.

Decorated tracery in St Michael’s nave. The pulpit and lectern are on either side of the nave, at its junction with the chancel.

Whereas the earliest gothic revivalists, such as the writers of gothic novels in the late eighteenth century, were interested in the romantic and sublime possibilities of the appearance of gothic decoration, Pugin and the Ecclesiologists were interested in structure. St Michael’s fits Pugin’s principles of architectural authenticity. Firstly, he appearance of the building should show:

  1. how it is engineered
  2. what materials it is made of. 

There may be plenty of decorative carving and painting, but no veneers or, for example, a plaster ceiling imitating a stone vault, or sandstone pillars veneered with wood painted to look like marble.

Secondly, carved decoration is not gratuitous but ornaments structural features, such as the window tracery, or the alternating rounded and squared pillar heads below: it is decorated construction, not constructed decoration. Pugin observed that this was the case for all gothic decoration. A larger building than St Michael’s, such as a cathedral, had a more complex structure and therefore more opportunity for ornament: foliated pinnacles, for example, add important weight to a flying buttress, while grotesque gargoyles are decorated drainpipes.

St Michael’s is an honest building: you can see its pillars and arches holding up the roof, decorated pillar and window heads, wooden ceiling, tiled floor, stone walls, and thatched roof.

What made St Michael’s really ideal for the Ecclesiologists, however, was that it incorporated, in pocket-sized form, all the features they considered essential for the proper liturgical ordering of a church. For Christians of the Enlightenment it was the intellectual content of worship which was important, if the sermon argued the truth persuasively and the prayers expressed the right petitions, worship could take place in any convenient hall. But for Christians influenced by the Romantic movement, this was too dry. As physical, emotional beings, people needed to worship in sensory spaces which appealed directly to their feelings and physically embodied their spiritual principles. The shape of the space was therefore very important. They made a list which included such items as:

  1. a clearly separated nave and the chancel, with more ornament in the chancel
  2. a porch to the south
  3. a bell tower suitable to the scale of the church
  4. three steps up to the altar
  5. an east window with three lights, to represent the Trinity

St Michael’s had all these and many other essential liturgical details which made it the perfect model of a small church. It was copied all around the world. 

St Michael’s has a south-facing porch, bell tower, clear separation of (larger) nave and chancel (in the foreground), and buttresses supporting the walls.

The modern visitor’s eye might be more likely to be caught by the imposing key you borrow to get in, which goes in and turns the opposite way to modern keys, and the ancient, perhaps pagan, well, with its stone cross cut into the rear wall: the local tradition is babies can only be baptised when the morning sun shines from the east through the cross and into the well:

But if you visit St Michael’s — or any church built in the Medieval thirteenth century, or the Victorian 1840s, have a look for Pugin and the Ecclesiologists’ principles of gothic: visible engineering and materials, ornamented structure rather than constructed ornament, and liturgical ordering in the architecture. For them, this wasn’t just a pretty, interesting, or convenient building, it was, like the faith it was built to house, intended to be a true one.