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.


Hels said...

That Oxford should remain royalist during the Civil War was surprising only in that you might have expected royalist sentiment further north. And your mention of Oxford's enduring high church element in its heterodox Anglicanism makes sense.

But King Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury as early as 1633. And despite the looming conflicts, the city really had a few years to built unEnglish, high church, over-the-top architecture. Wisely (as it turned out), the porch was the only specimen that was built.

Anonymous said...

I was down in Oxford only Tuesday, and admiring this entrance.
The church inside isn't that special in comparison, but it does have a lot of 1600s and 1700s tombs in the floor, which have some lovely lettering

CarolineLD said...

Lovely - I've always been very fond of those pillars!

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I can't help feeling that the porch is formally Baroque but lacks any of the fluidity or drama of some Continental specimens. There is something too solidly mechanical about it. The church is associated of course with the Blessed John Henry Newman, who took High Church ideas to more extreme levels by "Poping" - but resigned the living the moment he felt he no longer believed in what the Church of England believed. Irrelevant for architecture maybe, but the porch is perhaps a bit reserved and Anglican and doesn't let go, unlike those passionate and unpredictable Continentals?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: You have a point. Perhaps I see a bit more fluidity and movement in the porch's architecture than you do - I see these qualities not just in the twisting columns, but also in the scrolls and the various visual changes of plane caused by the broken pediments and other devices. And yet, I agree, there IS something earthbound about the design, and this solid, earthbound quality is very different from the more airy quality I find in Continental Baroque.