Friday, July 26, 2013

The Lamp of Sacrifice

I recently have enjoyed re-reading John Ruskin's extended essay, 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture'. It can clearly be seen from his writings that Mr. Ruskin was a thoughtful man, considerate of nature, art, society and sensitive to the connections existing between them as expressed in good architecture. The 'Seven Lamps' represented seven moral virtues that imbued architecture and craft with meaning and goodness. This work would establish the philosophical groundwork for what later became known as the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and Ireland and the Craftsman Style in the United States.


Mr. Ruskin introduces his essay on the Lamp of Sacrifice with a definition:
Palazzo Ducale, Venezia

Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contribute to his mental health, power, and pleasure.

Good humanist stuff! He quickly goes on to make a distinction between architecture as an art and building as engineering. What is architectural in a building surpasses its common use, to a great extent is unnecessary, rather is adornment, an offering or 'sacrifice' of what we find desirable.


Ruskin next proceeds to describe the act of sacrifice itself:
Staircase, Rouen Cathedral

it (sacrifice) prompts us to the offering of precious things, merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary.

He goes on to express how already by his time this type of statement was an anathema. Somehow the common wisdom of the day had determined virtue to be found in providing the largest result for the least cost, what today may be described as 'value engineering'. Specifically, this was manifest in church architecture. Ruskin attributes it to two prevailing notions that had arisen. First, the absence of ornament in particular demonstrates in some way evidence of restraint, self-control or propriety. Second, he describes a false piety that proclaimed a more honorable sacrifice be made in a ministry to the poor and extending knowledge of the Lord rather than “smoothing pillars or carving pulpits.”

Ruskin was quick to point out, “The question is not between God's house and His poor: it is not between God's house and His Gospel. It is between God's house and ours.” This was written in 1849, in the midst of an ascendent Victorian age when a British bourgeoisie lavished in the domestic luxury of tessellated floors, gilded furniture and niched statuary yet church architecture had been virtually stripped bare on the altar of economy and propriety.

It is clear that the worth of the church as a physical building was of questionable value; however, the sacrifice of the congregation in giving their best bestowed upon it nobility. This 'sacred' view of all architecture, not just of the church, was intrinsically understood by previous generations. Ruskin observes that “all old work has nearly been hard work”, even the work of children and barbarians was always their utmost. By contrast, he notes that ours “has the look of money's worth, of stopping short wherever and whenever we can.”

Ruskin continues by urging us to resist all temptation of this type of work, of thus degrading ourselves voluntarily, “let us confess our poverty or our parsimony (frugality), but not belie our human intellect.” Obviously, we each are of different means and there is the acknowledgment of being judicious with the use of resources. He offers pragmatic advice for working within our means yet still giving one's utmost: “if you cannot afford marble, use Caen stone (a French limestone), but from the best bed; and if you cannot stone, brick, but the best brick; preferring always what is good of a lower order of work or material, to what is bad from a higher.” This principle was put to use by Philip Webb in the design of the 'Red House' for William Morris, regarded as the first building of the Arts and Crafts movement and renown for its simple yet stately brickwork laid in English bond.

Red House, Bexleyheath by Philip Webb
Another piece of sage advice from Mr. Ruskin is “to place little where we cannot afford much.” He gives a fine example of the Basilica of San Zeno, Verona the façade of which is largely of tufa, excepting the two panels surrounding the door, exquisitely carved in bas-relief . Here the best or rather finest work is reserved for where it is most likely to be appreciated.

Basilica of San Zeno, Verona
Over the next few post I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Truth

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Contributed by Patrick Webb 

1 comment:

  1. Tell me, is it true that Ruskin was so appalled at the pubic hair on his new bride, that he could not consummate his marriage when compared to all those pure, white marble depictions?