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  • Vasileios Marinis

Façades of Faith: Reading Church Architecture

Vasileios Marinis on Allen Doig

Church histories are rarely concerned with ecclesiastical buildings. Those of us who peruse such books have certainly noticed that, if buildings appear at all, they are usually included because they are big or pretty or somehow impressive, indicative of the attitude that images are subservient to primary sources. But in this attractive volume, Allan Doig turns this traditional approach on its head.

He arranges his material chronologically, attempting to write a history of the Church in twelve buildings. Unfortunately, the reader is left guessing exactly which church history he attempts to record. The geographical scope is limited: England and Rome are disproportionately represented. The ecclesiastical architecture of the Americas is severely underrepresented in the text. The Church of Santiago in Arequipa, Peru receives only a single sentence, despite its fascinating facade, which mixes the Baroque with indigenous architectural language. Also absent are groundbreaking contemporary American cathedrals, such as Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, and evangelical megachurches, which have been the subject of several recent studies.

But on the whole, the book serves as an excellent introduction to particular buildings, especially those that are not normally taught in the context of a university in the United States. While this is certainly not “a history of the Church,” it is an episodic account of the wonderful, weird, and glorious aspects of ecclesiastical architecture and its patrons. Professional art historians will likely be disappointed by the lack of serious engagement with the buildings themselves; nevertheless, it is a book worth reading. In Doig’s experienced hands, the chosen sites make for scintillating and colorful stories.

Allan Doig, A History of the Church through its Buildings. Oxford University Press, 2020. 392 pp. $39.95

In the chapter on the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, readers will learn something about the spread of Christianity in Russia, the notion of the “Third Rome,” some political history, and Soviet attitudes toward religion. Or as Doig himself notes in his chapter on Aachen, “[a]ll these remarkable characteristics [of the Palatine Chapel], their dating, and how they relate to other periods are full of significance for understanding developments in the western Church and its relationship with a renewed empire, a weakened papacy, the advance of Islam, and an embattled Byzantine Empire.” The usefulness of such a comprehensive approach is undeniable.

Writing with both gusto and clarity, Doig illuminates for the layperson local and royal religious foundations in Late Medieval England, the theology and function of chantries, the intricate connections between lay patrons, royal patrons, universities, and the church, the fate of such foundations after the Reformation, and much more. Equally fascinating, at least for a Byzantinist, was Doig’s treatment of Jesuit missionary activity in Asia in connection with the church of Sant’Ignazio in Rome, and his discussion of the competition to rebuild the Coventry Cathedral. However, the greatest strength of the book is that the general public will find it a rewarding reading—dare I say a page-turner? In this one book, any interested reader can learn about Constantine and Putin, about Aachen and Istanbul, about medieval English chantries and mosques turned to cathedrals in Spain.

The chapters themselves are a joy to read, with the opening pages developing context for the building addressed. In the chapter on the Holy Sepulcher, for example, Doig begins with the passion narratives from the Gospels, discusses early pilgrimage and liturgical practices in the Holy Land, and underscores the importance of religious unity for Emperor Constantine I. Doig often refers to contemporary markers—avenues, hotels, other landmarks—to orient readers visiting the site with the book in hand.

Unlike comparable studies, he discusses the history of each building to the present, along with what it looked like at the time of its construction. He also offers sensible and thoughtful comments about the present moment. Doig’s notes on the revitalization of Orthodox Christianity in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union, the current situation with the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and the recent controversies concerning the use of the cathedral/mezquita in Cordoba, are particularly astute. Even Queen Elizabeth II makes an appearance to explain the concept of the divinely ordained ruler in Byzantium.

In this way, Doig walks the line between scholarly and popular tone. He quotes extensively from a range of documents, including Josephus, the Byzantine Book of Ceremonies, and the Preservation and Restoration of Monuments of Architecture in the USSR. Sometimes, however, a text is used to make a minor point or it is left to speak for itself, accompanied with only minimal commentary. Doig neatly summarizes thorny scholarly debates, such as that concerning the location of Peter’s tomb and makes the stakes of each argument clear to the reader. He delights in the presentation of archival research, as in the section based on the correspondence of William Burges, the architect of the Crimean Memorial Church. The endnotes show familiarity with current scholarship and the inquisitive reader who turns to the back of the book will be rewarded with incisive observations.

Doig’s book underscores the patently important role that church buildings played and continue to play in Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian societies. Readers will appreciate the accessible treatment of the monuments; their contextualization through the use of primary sources; and the author’s apt and intelligent commentary. In the middle of a pandemic, with severe travel restrictions still in place, Doig’s lively descriptions and unbridled enthusiasm for these buildings allowed us to travel, and he reminds us that what is built for worship and wonder is worth its own story.


Vasileios Marinis is Associate Professor of Christian Art and Architecture at Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Divinity School, whose numerous publications include Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople: Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries and Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium: The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Literature, and Art.


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