The inspiring and the bland of our churches

27 May 2009

By The Record

A tale of two glorious cathedrals.                                                               


Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on July 19, 2008. Photo: CNS.


By Tony Evans

The 30 or so Gothic cathedrals and minsters (churches) of England and Wales, and many more throughout Europe, are justly famous and of inexhaustible attraction to visitors. And the more those visitors know about the Faith of those that built them, the history of the times, and the subtle styles of the architecture employed in them, the more value they will gain from their visits. For many, too, the visit will prove a lasting spiritual experience.
Australian Catholics may be forgiven for feeling envious of those rich treasures which remain beyond the reach of us – except on rare and expensive occasions.  But this envy should not blind us to the treasures we possess closer to home.
The two monumental Catholic, Gothic cathedrals here in Australia, St Mary’s in Sydney and St Patrick’s in Melbourne, are every bit as important in the context of Australian history, and as awe-inspiring in size and structure, as many of the celebrated mediaeval cathedrals elsewhere. 
True, they cannot compete in age with their ancient forebears, being examples of Victorian Gothic, but they are superb examples of that style, much praised and treasured by architectural historians both in Australia and overseas.  
All Australian Catholics interested in their history and church architecture should regard a visit to St Mary’s and St Patrick’s as an essential part of their travels in Australia.  Those who know both cathedrals are doubly privileged.
It is given to few architects to design a cathedral, but here there are not one, but two cathedrals designed by one and the same man, William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899).
Wardell, a prominent Catholic convert architect and apostle of the Gothic Revival, left England in 1858 to settle first in Melbourne and later in Sydney.  Although he designed many other churches and buildings throughout his professional life, his two cathedrals were his crowning works which claimed his constant attention over the 40 years that he made Australia his home. 
He concerned himself with every detail – not only of construction but also the furnishing of both churches.  Since the building of both was carried out roughly in parallel, he engaged in an almost daily correspondence concerning points of detail, writing (by hand) simultaneously to Archbishop TJ Carr in Melbourne, and to Archbishop Roger Vaughan and later Cardinal Francis Moran in Sydney.  He could have been like a juggler, or some chess master playing two opponents at one and the same time. These, however, were not opponents but Wardell’s clients. In spite of occasional differences between the architect and the archbishops, mainly arising from Wardell’s refusal to compromise standards and the archbishops’ difficulties in finding the necessary money to avoid doing so, they remained on close, friendly terms.
On one occasion he countered a cost-cutting proposal by the Building Committee that the side-aisle vaults in St Mary’s should be of wood, rather than stone. He wrote to Vaughan: “The supreme consideration is not what is cheaper, but what is best, and if one method is better than another I venture to think that it should be adopted although it may take a longer time to complete.”  He won the argument and we can see the result today.
Those who are fortunate enough to know both St Mary’s and St Patrick’s take some pleasure in comparing the two and local loyalties are likely to intrude.  Generally, in seems, St Patrick’s has received the greater praise.  According to the celebrated architect and historian, the late Robin Boyd – a Melbourne man, it must be added – when ‘Viewed in the golden light of amber glass windows, the Cathedral’s interior presents a Gothic vision probably unsurpassed by any other building in the four hundred years since the great Gothic era.’ 
Externally, and on first inspection, St Patrick’s may not appear particularly impressive.  The undressed bluestone (Basalt) gives it a stern, unsmiling aspect.  It presents a somewhat dumpy appearance when compared to St Mary’s in Sydney. This is partly due to the transepts having externally-buttressed aisles (unlike St Mary’s) which adds to their width.  Another reason may be the extended height of the three spires, out of proportion to the rest of the building.  These were only completed in 1939 and were clearly unintended by Wardell; they lead the eye ever upwards – the  lateral line, in effect, minimised in favour of the vertical which again adds to the Cathedral’s slight dumpy appearance.  (It is significant that Wardell’s architect-son declined to accept the commission to design the steeples and enlarge the central tower because it was not true to his father’s design.) 
The real beauty of St Patrick’s is revealed when the visitor steps inside the west door.  The vista, when viewed on entry is immediately breath-taking.  The great length extends three hundred and forty feet towards the east end where the unusual apse comprising seven small chapels in the French Gothic style seems far in the distance.  The great height of the nave, at ninety-five feet – higher than Durham and Gloucester Cathedrals – is crowned with a timber vault with angels on the hammerbeams, and a barely visible carved frieze above the clerestory. 
The width of the nave is greater than that of Canterbury, Salisbury and Norwich Cathedrals. The simplicity of the nave contrasts with the rich decoration of the chancel and its elaborate vault.  There is no central, eastern window like St Mary’s, but a circle of smaller stained glass windows and behind, in the ambulatory, a half circle of richly decorated chapels which project outside to give the building its distinctive lozenge-shaped appearance. 
In contrast, the warm glow of the dressed sandstone exterior of St Mary’s in Sydney, particularly when viewed from the west across Hyde Park, is reminiscent of an English abbey church.  Like some crouching animal or sphinx, it lies in command, unassailable in its natural elevated domain. The external elevation and massing of St Mary’s has something of the character of the mediaeval Benedictine foundations with their cloisters and cells for monks.  When planning the original St Mary’s Polding had wanted a similar arrangement for his Benedictine priests and Wardell is likely to have had this in mind.
The interior of St Mary’s has an altogether different atmosphere from that of St Patrick’s.  In contrast it is darker, more massive in construction.  It is without the lightness, the French delicacy, and the youthfulness of St Patrick’s, but gives instead an impression of solidity, greater massiveness, of awe and maturity befitting the Mother Church of Australia.
The differences in the dimensions of the two Cathedrals are minimal.  The length of St Mary’s is 350 feet, while the length along the nave and chancery of St Patrick’s, excluding the apsidal chapels, is 340 feet. The width across the nave and aisles of St Patrick’s is just two feet greater than St Mary’s.
Wardell chose 14th century English Decorated style with minimal internal decoration, achieving an impressive unity throughout.  Here is an historically accurate model without being fussy or pedantic.  No one part conflicts in style with another and yet the whole remains uniquely Wardell.  On a dull rainy morning the prospect in the unlit nave is sombre and dark.  But more often when the sun catches the amber-glass clerestory windows and illuminates the bays, arches and triforium, and the aisle stained glass windows glow with rich colour, the scene is one of great splendour and visual delight.
Ultimately the claim of superiority of one cathedral over the other is misleading and unnecessary.  St Mary’s and St Patrick’s Cathedrals are two magnificent but differing examples of Gothic Revival architecture, two sides of the same Gothic coin.  They are supporting sisters, not warring rivals.  According to one of Australia’s foremost architectural historians, the late D I McDonald writing in the Australian Encyclopaedia, both St Mary’s and St Patricks are “notable for the purity of expression and richness of symbolism [they] rank among the greatest buildings constructed anywhere in that style.”
Without having known and visited these two Cathedrals, and getting to know something of their saintly architect, Catholics are missing out on an exciting and inspiring part of the history of the Church in Australia.