The subject on which I am about to treat is one of far more importance than the generality of men may be willing to admit; it is not a mere question of architectural detail, respecting a few mullions and a transverse beam, but it involves great principles connected with discipline, and even faith, and it is a question in which all those who either wish for the revival of ancient solemnity and reverence, or even the preservation of what yet remains, are most deeply interested. The contest that has been raised by the restoration of screens in England is not altogether new; it occurred in France during the latter part of the last century, when a vile spirit of modern innovation appears to have arisen among a portion of the French clergy, chiefly in the capitular bodies, and more injury was then inflicted on the great churches of that country than was caused by the outrages of the Calvinists and Huguenouts in the civil wars of the sixteenth century. The traditions of the church, as regards the disposition and arrangement of ecclesiastical buildings in the northern countries, do not appear to have been much affected by the revived paganism of the sixteenth century; the details were debased and incongruous, but the things remained unaltered in principle - rood lofts were erected, choirs were stalled, cruciform churches, with aisles and lateral and lady chapels, and transepts, were the general type that followed, and screens for choirs, side chapels, and altars were universal. But gradually, from the adoption of the details of classic antiquity, the buildings themselves became objects of imitation, till revived paganism displayed its full absurdity in the substitution of a temple of Jupiter for a church of the crucified Redeemer in the huge room called the Madeleine. Designed by infidels, built by infidels, and suited only for infidel purposes, and then turned over, for want of another use, to become a church!...[A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts: their Antiquity, Use and Symbolic Signification by A.W.N. Pugin. London: Charles Dolman, 1851]
I have been induced to speak particularly of this edifice, as it is the beau ideal of a modern church in the minds of those who are opposed to screens; for the principles of these men, worked out to their legitimate ends, are subversive of every tradition and the whole system of ecclesiastical architecture. Screens are, in truth, the very least part of the cause of their animosity to the churches of their Fathers, for if any man says he loves pointed architecture, and hates screens, I do not hesitate to denounce him as a liar, for one is inseparable from the other, and more, inseparable from Catholic arrangement in any style, Byzantine, Norman, Pointed, or debased. We have now to contend for the great principles of Catholic antiquity - tradition and reverence against modern development and display. It is not a struggle for taste or ornament, but a contention for vital principles. There is a most intimate connection between the externals of religion and the faith itself; and it is scarcely possible to preserve the interior faith in the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist if all exterior reverence and respect is to be abolished.
There is no higher act in the Christian religion, says Father Le Brun, than the Sacrifice of the Mass; the greater portion of the other Sacraments, and nearly all the offices and ceremonies of the Church, are only the means or the preparation to celebrate or participate in it worthily. Such being the case, it is but natural that the place where this most holy sacrifice is to be offered up, should be set apart and railed off from less sacred portions of the church, and we find this to have been the case in all ages, in all styles, and in all countries professing the Catholic faith down to a comparatively very recent period, when in many places all feelings of sanctity, tradition, and reverence, seemed to have been superseded by ignorant innovation and love of change.
It will be shown in this work that the idea of room-worship, and the all-seeing principles, is a perfect novelty. Those indeed who would make the Mass a sight, are only to be compared to the innovators of the 16th century, who made it essential to be heard; those who compiled the Book of Common Prayer converted the Mass into all-hearing service; this was the great object of the vernacular change, that people might hear the priest; they were to be edified by what he said, more than what he did; the sacrifical act was merged into the audible recitation of prayers and exhortations; for this reason the altars, in the reign of Edward the Sixth, were to be moved down from their eastern position to the entrance of the chancel, to enable the people to hear; this led to the demolition of the stone altars and the substitution of tables. For this reason, in large parochial churches, the chancel has been often entirely cut off, and a portion of the nave glazed in and reduced to such a size that the people could hear the clergyman; these were all natural consequences of the change of principle consequent on the translation of the Mass, and the altered nature of its celebration. That churches are now built after the old tradition for the service of the separated portion of the English Church, is purely owing to an internal revival of Catholic feelings and traditions in that body; the effect is the erection of churches in accordance with those feelings. It has been a charge and reproach made by Catholics against their separated countrymen, that the old fabrics were unsuited to their purpose, and unquestionably, on the principle that it was essential for every one to hear, they were so. But I will ask these new-fashioned men: if it is indispensible for every one to see, how much better are they adapted for modern Catholic rites? They become as unfit for one as the other, for it is unquestionable, that comparatively very few persons in these cruciform churches could obtain a view of the altar, and this independent of any screen-work, the disposition of the pillars intersecting and shutting out all those who are stationed in the aisles and transepts.
I have always imagined that one great distinction between the Protestant and the Catholic services was this, that the former was essentially a hearing service, at which only a comparatively few persons could assist, while at the latter many thousands, or, indeed, hundreds of thousands could unite in one great act of adoration and praise, concentrating their thoughts and intentions with the priest who is offering at God's altar, although he is far shut off from their vision.
Real Protestants have always built rooms for their worship, or walled up their old churches, when they have fallen into their possession, into four or five distinct spaces, as in Scotland. But the separated Church of England, though Protestant in position, in name, and in practice, has retained so much of the old traditions in her service, and is linked by so many ties to older and better times, that she naturally turns back to them with affection and reverence, and seeks, as far as her maimed rites and fettered position will admit, to restore the departed glory of the sanctuary. Few persons are aware that the choirs of three of the English cathedrals were completely restalled, and after the old arrangements, by the munificence of churchmen in the seventeenth century; moreover, the completion of some towers and extensive works date from the same period. It is a consoling fact that the cathedrals of England retain more of their old Catholic arrangements and fittings than most of those on the continent: and as regards the fabricks, they have suffered less injury, and have preserved their original character most wonderfully. Architecturally, we must certainly admit that the Anglicans have been good tenants of the old fabricks; we must not test them by the works of preceding centuries, but by the corresponding period; and when we reflect on the debased state of design and art that prevailed, even in those countries which were nominally exclusively Catholic, we may be thankful that our great religious edifices have been so well handed down to our times, when the recognition of their beauty and grandeur is daily increasing. I have dilated upon this subject, for if the lingering remains of Catholic traditions which have been so imperfectly preserved since the separation of England in the sixteenth century, have yet produced such edifying results, how much more have we reason to expect from those who should possess them in all their fullness! and how heart-rending, how deplorable, how scandalous is it to behold even priests of the very temple combining, by word and deed, to break down the barriers erected by ancient reverence and faith!
But to return, I cannot too strongly impress on the minds of my readers that the very vitals of Catholic architecture are assailed by the opponents of screens.
Those who complain of not being able to see in a Pointed church should have assisted at an ancient service in a Roman basilica; the altar surrounded by pillars sustaining veils and curtains, and covered by a ciborium, was placed in front of the celebrant, of whom nothing could be discerned by the congregation except an occasional glimpse of his head; the space behind the altar was reserved for the bishop and his presbyters, while in front was the choir for those who sung, walled round to a considerable height, averaging five feet, wnd within, or occasionally outside, this space, were the amboes for th epistle and gospel, marble rostrums, ascended by steps, and usually of large dimensions; moreover, the basilicae were constructed with aisles, like pointed churches, so that not one-tenth part of the congregation could have seen either the celebrant or the mensae of the altar. And although it does not appear that the Latin Church has purposely excluded the sight of the altar from the people, yet from the beginning the canonical arrangement of her sacred edifices has had the practical effect of cutting off its view from a very large portion of the assisting faithful.
Christians of the present time have but little idea of the solemnity of the ancient worship of the Catholic Church; ordained ministers were alone permitted to fill the humblest offices about the sanctuary, every object connected with the sacred rites were considered deserving of the most loving care; even in the very early ages, the vessels of the altar were usually of precious metals, and studded with jewels. the books of the holy Gospels were written in golden text on purple vellum, bound in plates of silver encasing ivory diptychs, and deposited in portable shrines, like relics. Though all this should fill us with admiration, there is nothing to excite surprise, when we reflect on the very sacred nature of the Christian mysteries - no sign typical and prophetic, as under the Mosaic law, but our blessed Lord truly present and abiding in the temple in the holy sacrament of the altar - it is by no means wonderful that the Christian worship should assume a form of solemnity formerly unknown, and we are only astounded that with the perpetuation of the doctrine the practice of external solemnity should have so lamentably become decayed in the latter times; indeed, so sacred, so awful, so mysterious is the sacrifice of the Mass, that if men were seriously to reflect on what it really consists, so far from advocating mere rooms for celebration, they would hasten to restore the reverential arrangements of Catholic antiquity, and instead of striving for front seats and first places, they would hardly feel worthy to occupy the remotest corner of the temple. The form and arrangement of the ancient churches originated from the deepest feelings of reverence; the altar, or place of sacrifice, was accessible only to those who ministered, it was enclosed by pillars and veils; the sanctuary was veiled, the choir was enclosed, and the faithful adored at a respectful distance. All this, and the custom of every succeeding century, is in utter opposition to the modern all-seeing principle, and which, if it is carried out, ends in an absurd conclusion; for if it be essential for every worshipper to see, even a level room would not answer the purpose, and the floor must be raised like an ampitheatre to elevate the receding spectators, for unless the people be thus raised, they form a far greater barrier than any screen-work..... If religious ceremonies are to be regarded as spectacles they should be celebrated in regular theatres, which have been expressly intended for the purpose of accomodating great assemblages of persons to hear and see well. It has been most justly said, that there is no legitimate halting-place between Catholic doctrine and positive infidelity, and I am quite certain that there is none between a church built on Christian tradition and symbolism and Covent Garden Theatre with its pit, boxes, and gallery. It is only by putting the question in this forcible contrast that persons can really understand the danger of these new notions, or the lengths to which they may eventually lead; and I trust it may be the means of raising a feeling of the greatest repugnance to them in the hearts of every true Catholic.