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Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic

Longitudinal Section<br /><br />

Figure 8. "Longitudinal Section" from George Lewis Heins and C. Grant La Farge, Description of the Design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (Privately Printed) (Philadelphia: Globe Printing House, 1891), Drawings Section.


St. Columba&#039;s Chapel

Figure 9. St. Columba's Chapel, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. From Seymour B. Durst Old York Library. New York, NY : Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

One thing that is immediately apparent in the design submitted by Heins and La Farge is a strong differentiation between the plans for the interior and those for the exterior of the cathedral. The interior (with its round arches, domes, and mosaics) harkens back to Romanesque basilicas and Byzantine domed churches--in other words, to the earliest forms of Christian architecture. The exterior is predominantly done in the Gothic style of the Middle Ages, with the chief anomaly being that the central lantern or tower is more massive than in any Gothic precedent.[1] This mixture of styles is one of the seven features that Heins and La Farge had enumerated, in their "Competitive Design," as being essential to their plan.

In Description of the Design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Heins and La Farge explain the logic of their eclectic design proposal. They write:

“The Protestant Episcopal Church in America traces her descent from the Early Apostolic Church, through the Church of England; and it seems proper that her history and lineage should be recognized and expressed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

If a design is to be based upon this conception, it seems best that the Interior should follow the Architectural Traditions of the Early Church, while the Exterior follows those of the Church of England.”[2]

Architectural design is thus conceived of as a means of storytelling and of controlling the experience of those who use the cathedral. Worshippers would proceed from the exterior, which expressed the national traditions of their church, to the interior, where they would be surrounded by the earliest forms of Christian architecture.

Veneration of the early apostolic church was already being expressed in the fact that the cathedral itself was dedicated to Saint John the Divine. Such veneration was emphasized as well in the masthead of the leading Episcopal periodical The Churchman, which included at that time as the periodical's subtitle: "The Faith once delivered to the Saints" (Jude: 3). The early apostolic church was considered more or less to be the gold standard for authentic Christian faith. The idea that worshippers would be inhabiting the designs and structures of the early church once they stepped inside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine might thus have held a strong appeal.

While it may have been conceptually appealing, the idea of a Romanesque and Byzantine interior with a Gothic exterior remained open to criticism from a purely architectural standpoint.  An unnamed author, writing in Architectural Record in 1891, critiques the designs of Heins and La Farge for lacking integrity and authenticity. “Certainly these drawings represent a wide departure from the accepted notion of a cathedral. In the medieval cathedral the exigencies of vaulting control the entire plan. . . . In the disposition of parts there is no room for artistic caprice. Everything is as it must be.”[3] For this critic, the beauty and integrity of Gothic style lies in the way that its practitioners responded to common structural challenges through shared traditions of formal ingenuity.

In the light of such critiques, it is hardly surprising that questions surrounding the cathedral's style and historical precedents should have remained at the forefront of the architects' attention long after the design competition had ended. C. Grant La Farge begins a 1907 article on the cathedral by acknowledging that the questions most commonly asked regarding it are: “’What is its style?’” and “why can it not all be referred to some precise moment in the historic past.”[4]

In addressing the question of stylistic integrity, La Farge acknowledges that key formal features of Medieval Gothic architecture developed as a means of resolving challenges in the area of structural engineering. The most prominent of these challenges, in his view (as in the view of his critic in Architectural Record), was the need to support heavy stone vaulting. La Farge points out, however, that this cathedral has avoided that engineering challenge from the start by using a less demanding vaulting method. This is the relatively lightweight “Tile-arch Construction” system utilized by the Guastavino Company. There is no reason, he argues, to insist on the consistent employment of Gothic forms when the engineering challenges they were designed to meet have disappeared.[5]

Heins and La Farge had from the outset justified their mixture of styles through an overall concept of the evolutionary nature of architecture. Since Gothic evolved out of Romanesque, they had argued, it must necessarily retain general characteristics in common with it; and this evolutionary link should allow architects to deploy the two styles in a meaningful manner in one building.[6]

La Farge, in his Scribner's article, aims to convey this same idea by means that are less discursive and more rhetorical. Skeptical questioners had asked, La Farge states, for a "precise moment in the historic past" that provides the precedent for this cathedral. He finally does specify a moment; but it is a moment that (like every historical moment in these architects' evolutionary schema) is populated by a myriad of transitional forms. "So far as the cathedral, in the larger sense, is Gothic," he writes, "it is the Gothic, then, of a very early period; the time of transition from the simpler Romanesque to the more complex organism."[7]  In his emphasis on the transitional and the organic, La Farge is questioning the concept of definitive boundaries between historically related architectural styles.

Even if it were possible to isolate and imitate a fully evolved Gothic style, it would not, in La Farge's view, be of interest to do so. He writes: "In the works of the mediaeval past it is not the few finished examples, in which the last word has been spoken to the point of dryness, that most excite our imagination. It is rather those in which successive styles appear together, in which incongruities even are manifest, in which experiments are tried."[8]

Ultimately, La Farge's architectural eclecticism is philosophically grounded in his perception that the modern architect cannot truly work from within any tradition of the past. He writes: "We may as well realize that the continuous tradition is broken, dissolved into thin air; that our work to-day must be a conscious groping among the outward evidences of long-vanished schools."[9]

While Heins and La Farge, in their jointly authored plans, were careful to defend design choices under the rubric of of "historical appropriateness," La Farge, publishing simply under his own name, manifests a more restless sensibility. He pictures the architect as a Romantic wandering amidst inscrutable ruins.  Since it is no longer possible for the architect to work from within traditions that have broken and dissolved, there is no logical reason to avoid the eclectic mixing of different traditions. One might say that La Farge here is situating himself as a postmodern architect.

Heins and La Farge had explained their design in terms of a simple contrast between interior ("Early Apostolic Church," Romanesque and Byzantine) and exterior ("Church of Egland," Gothic). One might speculate that, in drawing this stark duality, they were deliberately oversimplifying their ideas in the interests of making a strong coneptual appeal. In the same "Competitive Design" article in which they make this simple interior/exterior contrast, they also argue for a more pervasive and unbounded eclecticism. They write: "There is in the exterior of the present design a gradually increasing verticality of composition proceeding from the chancel to the facade . . . thus giving a Norman Romanesque character to the chancel, growing into Gothic in the facade. The object of this is to secure some of the interest and variety which is so characteristic of transitional architecture."[10] The interest and variety of transitional architecture, of successive styles appearing together, was thus planned to be built in to the cathedral's exterior itself. 

As for the cathedral's interior, it is not consistently Romanesque and Byzantine but also admits admixtures of Gothic. The best example of this observable in the cathedral today is the Chapel of St. Columba (fig. 9), one of the two apsidal chapels that Heins and La Farge designed and built. The basic style of the chapel, with its thick single decorated columns and round arches, is Romanesque. Yet the three grisaille windows at the east end of the chapel are modelled after 13th-century windows in York Minster.[11] Those three large windows in close proximity to one another are characteristic of the liberal use of decorated glass that Gothic structural design made possible. A larger scale example of their "transitional architecture" aesthetic was observable inside the main body of the cathedral itself at the time of its 1911 consecration and will be discussed further on our next exhibit page.



















[1] On the unprecedented massiveness of the central tower, see C. Grant La Farge, "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York)," Scribner’s Magazine, April 1907, 392.

[2] Heins and La Farge, Description, 17.

[3] "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine," Architectural Record, 2 (1892): 45.

[4] La Farge, “Cathedral,” 385.

[5] La Farge, “Cathedral,” 401. On “Tile-arch Construction,” see Heins and La Farge, Description, 13. On the work of the Guastavino Company in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, see: Janet Parks and Alan G. Neumann, AIA, The Old World Builds the New: The Guastavino Company and the Technology of the Catalan Vault, 1885-1962, 53-54.

[6] Heins and La Farge, Description, 17-21.

[7] La Farge, “Cathedral,” 401.

[8] Ibid. In this article, La Farge discusses examples of famous Gothic churches in which "successive styles appear together": the cathedral at Alby (394-96) and the abbey Church at Cluny (398-99).

[9] Ibid., 401.

[10] Heins and La Farge, “Competitive Design,” 875.

[11] On the Chapel of St. Columba and the York Minster model, see Howard E. Quirk, The Living Cathedral: St. John the Divine: A History and Guide (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), 117. On the range of architects and architectural styles involved in the seven apsidal chapels, see Episcopal Church. Diocese of New York. Cathedral League. Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York: St. Bartholomew's Press, 1916), 31-37.


Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic