Thursday, March 28, 2013
A dramatic entrance
I must have passed St Mary's, the university church of Oxford, hundreds of times, but this porch still calls attention to itself as loudly as it did the first time I saw it. With its curly barley-sugar columns, its scrollwork, broken pediment, and statuary, this porch of 1637 is as baroque as anything in English architecture. Built on to the side of the mainly late-medieval church, it doesn't blend in, as we are so often told that alterations to old buildings should. It sticks out. And with reason.
The porch was the gift of Morgan Owen, a Welshman who had studied at Jesus College, Oxford, before eventually becoming chaplain to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was famously a high churchman, with views on doctrine and ritual that took the Anglican church close to Catholicism – too close for many of his Puritan opponents, some of whom were tortured for their beliefs, some of whom left England for America.
It was not surprising that a Laudian like Owen should commission a highly ornate piece of architecture such as this porch, its facade focused on a statue of the Virgin and Child above the entrance arch. Had the 17th century's violent disagreements about religion and government not escalated into Civil War a few years later, there might well have been more church buildings like this in England. As it was, the war slowed building projects down or brought them to a stop, and what came afterwards was far more restrained.
So this porch, with its restlessly twisting columns, its intricate upper portion, its dramatically intercutting surfaces, and its striking play of light and shade, remains unique in England. Oxford, royalist during the Civil War and with an enduring high church element in its heterodox Anglicanism, kept the porch, though, and it survives, in spite of bullet holes, made by Cromwell's troops, in the statue of the Virgin. But English buildings were never quite as wholeheartedly baroque again.