The prospect of “redecorating,” or any other form of “home improvement,” generally gets me thinking, quickly, about a lengthy research trip abroad. Yet I can, and recently did, spend several pleasant hours contemplating ceramics, furniture, and — would you believe it? — wallpaper. But not at Home Depot, I quickly add; rather, in a book — Pugin: A Gothic Passion, published in 1994 by Yale University Press in association with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
I dug out Pugin — stuck among the oversized art books in my home library for the better part of two decades — when I learned that 2012 is the bicentenary of Augustine Welby Northmore Pugin, pioneer of the Gothic Revival style and one of the aesthetic geniuses of the 19th century. Best known for his work on the Palace of Westminster (home of the Houses of Parliament), Pugin was also an ecclesiastical architect of note, with almost fifty churches to his credit. And if the Luftwaffe put paid during the London Blitz to what may have been his masterwork of church design, the Cathedral of St. George in Southwark, there are still Pugin churches to be admired throughout Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia.
As I suggested at the top, however, Pugin’s genius was not limited to architecture and other grand schemes of design. He also worked magic on a much smaller scale: custom-designed wallpaper; magnificent pieces of furniture (dining-room cabinets, armoires, tables, desks, and tables); beautifully intricate ceramic tiles, plates, and dinner and tea services — all of them a delight to the eyes.
Born on March 1, 1812, Pugin was received into the Catholic Church in 1835, and his passion for the Gothic (by which he meant the civilization of the Middle Ages and its distinctive aesthetic, not hair-raising horror novels) was obviously enmeshed with his religious convictions. For the Gothic, as Pugin understood it, communicated even more than that sense of transcendence that is palpable in a great medieval cathedral like Chartres. The Gothic bespoke a sensibility about this world, the human place in it, and the moral life appropriate to men and women made in the image and likeness of God. Buildings tell us something about the people who live, work, and worship in them, Pugin, believed: they tell us what those people think of themselves, their destiny, and their responsibilities.
Thus in an 1836 polemic, Pugin, arguing on behalf of the Gothic Revival to which he and Sir Charles Barry gave noblest expression in the Palace of Westminster, contrasted a medieval monastery with a 19th century poorhouse. The monastery, Pugin noted, was a place where the monks grew their own food, made their own clothes, shared what they grew and made with others, and offered the poor a decent place to be buried. Compare this, Pugin wrote, to “a panopticon workhouse where the poor were beaten, half-starved, and sent off after death for dissection. Each structure was the built expression of a particular view of humanity: Christianity versus Utilitarinism.”
Considering which, we may well hope that the Department of Health and Human Services never gets into the architecture business.
Pugin’s magnificent ecclesiastical architecture and church decoration, like the extraordinary interiors he designed for the Palace of Westminster, were, to adapt Blessed John Paul II, material exercises in philosophical anthropology — expressions of an idea of the human person. Pugin’s churches were built for people whose baptism had given them a unique dignity: through the eternal priesthood of Christ, exercised through the ordained ministry of the Church, the baptized were empowered to offer true worship to the Father. The same was true of the Houses of Parliament. They were designed by Barry and Pugin to reflect the dignity of self-governance among free citizens, whose participation in public affairs was another expression of their innate human dignity.
Churches that look like Pizza Huts are expressions of a dumbed-down theology and (if you’ll pardon the word twice in one column) anthropology. On Pugin’s bicentenary, the Church might well reflect on how it can do better than that.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.