LIC Blog

Can we build in a Medieval style today?

The Thistle Chapel of St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, was completed in 1911. As can be judged from the photos below, it is an impressive feat. But is it successful?

There are features (particularly the incredible level of ornate detailing) which ask us to believe that this is the Medieval style in our own day. But to my mind, there is one crucial difference. Notice how dark this room is for a Chapel.

See how high the windows are and how the light only reaches halfway down the wall.

Notice how narrow the Chapel actually is.

The Medieval Cathedral was a vast open space. This required pillars which symbolised trees, turning the inside of the sanctuary into a symbolised garden, with the vaulted ceiling showing the branches. The Thistle Chapel has an impression of vaulting but with pillars against the wall.

Of course the Thistle Chapel has not the scale of a Cathedral. So a more suitable comparison would be with a Chapel such as the Royal Chapel in Conwy:

This Chapel is a fraction of the size of the Thistle Chapel. But see how the light fills the space. It has more in common with St. Giles Cathedral:

Medieval architects knew that a Chapel should be a place of light. The stone was chosen to reflect light. Large windows faced east to greet the rising sun. There was meaning in this design and also tremendous practicality. The image above shows a no-man's land of design. In a time when we have abundant electricity to illuminate the darkest room, the small candle-type lights give an impression of illumination but leave the Chapel dark. The windows are too high to flood the room with light. It is a small, gloomy place.

It is possible to build today in a similar way to the best Medieval architects but only if we think in a similar way. Emulation always descends into pastiche, just as much as if a modern artist should paint a Caravaggio or a composer should write like Purcell.

The Thistle Chapel's designer Robert Lorimer seems to have pressed the idea of Medieval ornamentation to breaking point at the expense of logical design. This does not make the Chapel exceptionally beautiful. I actually find it somewhat gross. Of course it still stands out because most buildings of the last hundred years underplayed beauty on the basis that such plainness would maximise practicality.

It is not the Medieval style of architecture we need to imitate so much as a way of seeing the world, art and beauty. In the Middle Ages we see the marriage of beauty and form to a remarkable degree. For instance, if this Thistle Chapel had been built for regular use to worship God (as every Medieval Chapel was), it would have been built very differently. The nationalistic touches of Scottish history, so lovely for tourists, would have been left outside by the Medieval architect. The beauty of the place would have come from its function as a place of worship, just as the worship would have made the place beautiful.