- Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin
In 1836, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin published his first book: “Contrasts: Or a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day.” It was a bold move to say the least. He was 24, and, while he had already been working as a draftsman for a decade at this point, he remained a mostly unknown architect. In Contrasts, he pictorially juxtaposed medieval buildings in all their splendor with their modern, drab equivalents, many of which were designed by some of the biggest names in architecture in England at the time – and he called them out on their principles as well as their productions.
Pugin was a convert to the Faith and he approached his work in the Gothic Revival as an integral part of a broader Catholic and societal restoration. He championed not only a renewal of architecture, but a renewal of Gregorian plainchant and of clerical and religious life in England as well. Pugin’s deep devotion is evident in all aspects of his life as well as his many literary, educational, and architectural works. Not only was he beloved by the craftsmen he worked with and taught, he was also a devoted husband and father of eight children. In the monastery church he personally designed, financed, and built next to his home in Ramsgate, one can still see his personal chant book and the chantry chapel where he and his family are buried.
The impact of this man on our work is hard to express adequately. His devotion led him to pour himself out in this work of revival within the Church – working long hours designing everything from the details on the chalice to the cross on the steeple of the church, and everything in between (it should be noted that Pugin made it quite clear that he despised the gaudy colors, wallpapers, and painting that his customers later added in the churches he had designed. He pointed to his own St. Augustine’s at Ramsgate as his ideal, and it doesn't have a bit of the gaudy wallpaper that has unfortunately come to be associated with Pugin’s work).
His devotion further inspired him to insist that his churches be built, as far as possible, in the same way as the churches of the Middle Ages, by human hands with traditional techniques. This led him to revive many of these techniques which had fallen into extinction and to teach them to his craftsmen.
“I seek antiquity, not novelty. I strive to revive, not invent.” These words of Pugin encapsulate our philosophy. We are concerned with reviving beauty, and through beauty, reverence. It’s not about making names for ourselves, which is to say, our work is not about self-expression or creating something new and exciting. We think often of places like the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, designed by an unknown architect, built and decorated by unnamed peasants, standing centuries later as an object of incredible beauty and devotion, giving glory to God and lifting minds to Him. This is due largely to the use of highly developed traditional symbols and design elements and allowing this flower of Gothic architecture to bloom from those traditions - rather than being concerned with novelty or expressing the esoteric views of the artists. The latter would have left the building entirely without relevance to anyone except those who built it. Such a building might have survived as an oddity of antiquity, but more than likely it would have been demolished to build something more fitting for Our Lord and the precious relics of Our Lady that are housed in Chartres.
Believing that proper development can only happen when the branch is grafted into the vine, we do not seek to find remedies for our present ills in novel solutions drawn from sources that do not share the living, developing tradition that has both enlivened and been invigorated by the Saints that have gone before us. The appetite for novelty that gave rise to the idealization of ancient pagan art and symbolism during the Renaissance as well as the increasing abstraction and fluidity of Modernism is not the source of true revitalization. It is neither an inordinate love of antiquity, nor an insatiable desire for novelty, but an engrafting into the dynamic tradition of truth, beauty and goodness that will serve the restoration of Catholic life in any age.
Pugin claimed that the paltry nature of modern ecclesiastical architecture was due to a lack of religious devotion – that it attests to an apathy toward the worship of God. The great cathedrals had been born of the Age of Faith, both the fruit and nourishment of the devotion of the people and the clergy. That the structures of the modern epoch pale in comparison to those of the middle ages, despite the general increase in wealth, luxury, and technological advance concomitant with modernity is, in Pugin's perspective, a damning indictment indeed.
The Contrasts aimed for, then, are not just material. It is not only the noble edifice that we would see restored to proper dignity and beauty - it is predominantly the renewal of the soul that we desire to see contrasted with the general apathy and coldness of heart we find in the world around us. While we aim for marked Contrasts in churches and chapels at the finish of any project – that is, a noticeable increase in beauty as the result of our work – this material contrast is a means to an end that will bring greater glory to God than any building ever could.
The great temples of Christendom have been, predominantly, the product of the devotion of the people who built them. Their unfading beauty, however, has also been the source of numerous conversions, for Beauty is one of the great transcendentals by which God, Beauty Himself, often breaks through the confusion and coldness of minds and hearts to reveal Himself. That we at Contrasts Woodcarving get to play some small part in this restoration of beauty is an indescribable and humbling honor.