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Response to Review no. 589

My aim in writing this book was to give an account of the revival of the religious arts in the 1620s and 1630s, a revival that occurred as a result of the growing influence of the High Church movement associated with the names of Andrewes, Laud, Cosin, and Matthew Wren. Terminology is a problem here, as ‘High Church’ relates more to Victorian concepts of churchmanship, as does ‘Anglo-Catholic’, while ‘Anglican’ did not gain currency until after the Restoration. I have used the term Laudian to describe this movement because Laud presided over the Church during the period most favourable to the flourishing of the religious arts, and because he was responsible for the advancement of many like-minded churchmen into positions of authority, where they were able to implement schemes for the renewal of their churches. I acknowledge that much of the inspiration for this movement came from Lancelot Andrewes, but he died in 1626, and in any case, no satisfactory adjective can be derived from his name.

I wanted to demonstrate that there was a distinctive phase of religious art at this time that has not been hitherto fully recognized, and to offer a comprehensive account of its achievements, in the visual arts and in literary and musical productions. I describe the architecture, sculpture, woodwork, and painted glass that was designed for Laudian patrons, and give an account of the devotional prose and poetry written in the Laudian ethos; I also survey the music that was composed for cathedrals and colleges where Laudian values prevailed. One of my motives in writing this book was to enable readers to recognize the characteristic features of this Laudian style as they look at the furnishings of churches or read devotional works of the early Stuart period.

It is true that this book expresses a sympathy with the Laudian point of view, as far as the arts of the Church are concerned. I get a great pleasure from a well-appointed church, and admire those who tried to enhance the setting of worship by introducing painted glass, statuary, paintings, etc. as aids to devotion, and new screens, font-covers, and altar furniture to complement the changes in liturgical procedure. Those on the puritan wing of the Church who protested against these innovations and who wanted to maintain Elizabethan plainness had good reasons for their opposition; but they were not friends of the religious arts, and so, from the standpoint of this book, are not looked on with approval, for the most part. To be appreciative and responsive to the arts of the Laudian Church does not commit one to an approval of the Laudian regime, however, as the review seems to suggest. I remark on several occasions how harsh and uncompromising many of its leading figures were, and how the imposition of Laudian practices did much to alienate large sections of the community from a Church that was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

One of the challenges in writing this book was to distinguish between the ‘beauty of holiness’ tendency in the Church of England and full-blown Laudianism. The desire for a more decent setting for worship was widespread in the Church in Jacobean times, and prevailed across a broad spectrum of congregations; but the Laudian clerics introduced a distinct ideological element into their services, to which the devotional arts were allied: the especial holiness of the altar and the font, the hierarchy of sacred spaces within the church, the sacred status of the minister, and all the punctilios of ceremony and ritual of the kind we would now call Anglo-Catholic. I do try to distinguish between these two concurrent tendencies in the Church, both of which helped to ‘beautify’ the interiors of English churches in the 1620s and 1630s. I use Bishop Williams as a prominent example of a man of the middle way who encouraged the return of the arts to the Church but who was not dogmatic about his innovations, unlike, for example, John Cosin on the Laudian side. Whilst I agree that Williams’ ecclesiastical politics could be described as ‘serpentine’, I am sympathetic to his ideals of devotional aesthetics. His patronage of George Herbert and Robert Herrrick suggests he was a man of considerable sensitivity, while his chapel for Lincoln College, Oxford, remains as a monument to his restrained love of appropriate decoration. Figures such as George Herbert or Orlando Gibbons, who died before the full summer of Laudianism, need to be looked at carefully in order to understand how they fit into the complex religious scene of the 1620s.

I do make the point that there was no unifying style to the visual arts of the Laudian movement, and that they lacked a master designer who might have impressed his mark on the whole. This is one reason why the different aspects of Laudian art have not been properly recognized. But behind the creations in wood and glass and stone using a diversity of styles—gothic, mannerist and baroque—there is a common spirit, as I hope I succeed in demonstrating. In drawing attention to the characteristics of art created for the Laudian ethos, I have tried to make my readers aware of a distinctive body of work created for the particular conditions that prevailed widely in the Church of England in the two decades before the Civil War. I include a good deal of descriptive writing because I want to give my readers a clear idea of the artistic innovations of this time, and explain how and why they came about. Description is usually accompanied by interpretation, so that understanding may go together with appreciation.

My reviewer asks how wide was the appeal of the devotional art that was introduced into churches in this period? That was not an easy question to answer. This art was usually imposed on a congregation. The installation of a Laudian bishop gave a green light to rectors in his diocese to introduce sacred images and improve the lay-out of their churches. Individual rectors might take the initiative themselves, such as Christopher Wren (the father) at East Knoyle in Wiltshire. Wealthy lay-Laudians often paid for new furnishings in the churches where they had influence. But members of the congregation were often hostile to what was introduced, as the many petitions to Parliament after 1640, protesting against innovations, make clear. Parliament itself issued a number of ordinances against what were seen as the trappings of Laudianism. There is no doubt that the works of art introduced into churches in the 1620s and 1630s were contentious and deeply divisive.

Many vestiges of Laudian times remain in English churches, and I hope my book will make it easier to identify them. Not a month goes by without my making more discoveries, but I am not proposing to issue a supplementary volume!