Significant Architectural Work By Novelist Thomas Hardy Rediscovered

A major architectural discovery may be about to change the way we think about one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is familiar to anyone who has studied British literature, was an acclaimed novelist, poet, and dramatist. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a whopping 12 times, back when that was a highly prestigious award, although he never actually won. In books such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, Hardy often exposed the darker, more savage undertones of the veneer of Victorian propriety. His works have been turned into popular films and television series many times over.

What you may not know about Thomas Hardy however, is that he was also an architect. Hardy left the profession in the early 1870’s in order to pursue writing full time, leaving few completed projects to his name. A simple, but unusual and creative example of his work can still be found, perhaps appropriately for Hardy the writer of somber literature, in a London graveyard – a design which deserves a brief detour in our story of discovery.

Back in 1865 the young Thomas Hardy, apprenticed to a London architect who specialized in the restoration and redecoration of old churches, was faced with a somewhat macabre task. He had been given the unenviable job of clearing part of the cemetery located on the grounds of Old St. Pancras Church in Central London. A new railway line was set to cut through the churchyard, but a number of graves stood in its path. The coffins of the deceased had to be disinterred, under Hardy’s supervision, and moved to another location which the church had acquired for this purpose.

The problem of what to do with all of the old tombstones, which would not be accompanying the remains to their new resting place, was another matter. At the time, common practice was either to smash up discarded gravestones for other uses such as paving, or to simply throw them away. Hardy’s unusual solution was to stack the stones against each other in concentric circles, around the base of a young tree. Today, the so-called “Hardy Tree” still exists; over the years its roots have enveloped many of the crumbling, moss-covered grave markers that Hardy had arranged around its trunk.

But back to our main story.

Hardy’s architectural renderings from his early days have reappeared from time to time, such as in the 1970’s when several of Hardy’s proposed designs for a reredos in the church of All Saints, Windsor, were discovered hidden in the organ loft of that building. In traditional Western church architecture, a reredos is a prominent structure located directly behind the main altar of a church, which is usually decorated with carvings, mosaics, or paintings. Until now however, it was assumed that these were just some ideas by the young draughtsman which were never carried out.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, two members of the congregation at All Saints were recently exploring the historic church, looking for the original foundation stone that had been laid by the Empress Frederick of Prussia, daughter of Queen Victoria back in 1863, when they stumbled upon what appears to be Hardy’s completed reredos:

I said, ‘Let’s have a root around with a torch’, and he said, ‘I’ve always wondered why the panelling behind the altar sticks out a bit’,” said Tunstall. “I lay down, and shone my iPhone torch up the back. I didn’t see a foundation stone, but I saw a carved motive and a decorative panel.”

Tunstall realised the design on the altar-stone resembled a design hanging at the back of the church – the one, he said, that had been designed by Hardy. “The discovery shows it did exist, but that it had been covered over some time in the 1920s,” he said. “It’s every little boy and little girl’s dream, to discover hidden treasure.”

The church is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to remove the carved paneling that was used to cover over Hardy’s altarpiece about a century ago. It estimates that it will cost close to $12,000 to do the work, and of course no one knows how much restoration will be required once the paneling is removed. When exposed however, I suspect that this discovery will prove to be a major addition to our understanding of Thomas Hardy both as an architect and as an author.

In later life, Thomas Hardy wrote an essay entitled “Memories of Church Restoration” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member. In it, he recounted his experiences as a young draughtsman and architect working during the Gothic Revival period of Victorian architecture, when the influences of people like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin were at their peak. Hardy voiced his regret over the tendency of architects and designers of that time to try to make existing Gothic buildings even more Gothic-y, by ripping out their ancient interiors. 

In the case of All Saints however, since the church was brand-new when Hardy was working on it, he must not have felt such concerns. He was designing something new, for a new building, albeit evoking the architectural styles of the past. Hardy’s appreciation of historic architecture, and his understanding that there is much to be learned from it, ended up significantly influencing his work as a writer. 

Although he later abandoned the profession of architect, Thomas Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, nor lost sight of the importance that a building’s design can have on the life of an individual. Old buildings and the secrets contained within their ancient walls often played key roles in Hardy’s writing. All the more appropriate then, that a secret hidden in one of the few buildings that he himself worked on, may soon be brought back into the light.

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

A new exhibition at The Städel Museum in Frankfurt called “Heaven on Display” caught my eye in the art press this morning. Although the gallery is filled with beautiful works of art created over many centuries, as with any exhibition of this sort the visitor is cautioned not to forget the fact that such a show is something of a Frankenstein monster. Torn from the fabric for which they were created, and chopped into bits for the benefit of greedy governments, the objects on display provide a good opportunity for us to call to mind exactly why they were made, why they ended up as they have, and what we can learn from their story.

The centerpiece of the The Städel exhibition is the Altenberg Altarpiece, which was created in the 14th century for the Abbey of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Sisters in Altenberg an der Lahn. Its central portion consists of a well-loved statue of the Madonna and Child, which was placed in an architectural framework of Gothic tracery. This was flanked by hinged wooden wings, painted with lively, colorful images of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The entire ensemble stood on the High Altar of the Abbey Church for centuries, and was greatly admired by numerous visitors.

In 1803, Altenberg Abbey was secularized by the local princelings, in collusion with the secular French Republic led by then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters were forced to leave both their home and their religious vows, Altenberg was stripped of everything of value, and the Abbey’s contents were broken up and sold to the highest bidder. Today, the component parts of the Altenberg Altarpiece are scattered among municipal, regional, and private collections around the world.

The story of how the Altenberg Altarpiece ended up in its present state is a part of Western history which at best is usually glossed over in school. While England’s Henry VIII is certainly the most infamous of despoilers of the patrimony of Western Christianity, a supposedly “enlightened” Europe decided to match his efforts beginning in the late 18th century. Hundreds of abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, and buildings, land, and contents were sold off. This was done supposedly for the benefit of “the people”, but in reality for the benefit of people like the (Un)Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, an eternal embarrassment to the Habsburg family, and those who backed the radical destruction of Catholic culture.

This practice picked up pace under Napoleon, and continued well into the 19th century. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal for example, one of the largest pigs ever to achieve the feat of walking on two legs, is responsible for the fact that many works of Christian art and architecture were ripped out of Spain and sold to private collectors. When you see bits of frescoes from Catalan Romanesque monasteries or embroidered altarcloths from Burgundy in places like Boston or Philadelphia, the secularization process begun under the Enlightenment is most probably responsible for how they ended up where they are.

Understanding how these works of art came down to us is important, since they are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created. In seeing the Altenberg Altarpiece patched back together, we can be reminded that while an age of faith created this work of art, and built the Abbey that housed it, an age of secularization needed to destroy these things. The visual impact of Catholicism needed to be diminished or eliminated by secular forces in Western Europe, just as the communists needed to bulldoze cathedrals in Eastern Europe to show that there was no going back.

In earlier times, man’s creative energy was put at the service of God, cataloguing his blessings upon us all. Today, surrounded by contemporary art and architecture that catalogues and celebrates the self, which accepts no criticism of any kind, we may very well ask what such things portend. As we head into an increasingly perilous age for Christianity, perhaps in seeing what became of Altenberg Abbey and its beautiful Altarpiece, we have a preview of what may be in store.

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Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece

New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.

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