Sunday, March 25, 2012

Newell Street, London

The wisdom of Solomon

In the dappled green shade of the churchyard of St Anne’s, Limehouse (see previous post) is a 9-foot-high stone pyramid. It seems to mark no grave, has no obvious purpose, and stands there, looking mysterious. In 19th-century engravings it is shown mounted on a square plinth but now stands on the ground. On one face is the inscription, ‘The wisdom of Solomon’. The pyramid is part of a group of arcane symbols that seem to cluster around Hawksmoor’s churches – pyramids, obelisks, and other borrowings from ancient civilizations – that set them apart and contribute to the alien character of these massive buildings. The best guess about the surprising presence of this particular pyramid is that it was intended to top one of the corners of the church. No one knows for sure.

Such things arouse the interest of psychogeographers, those writers who have examined the lives of places and their effects on people’s psyches. Mappers of hidden cultural contours; those who exhume forgotten histories or find alignments between the past and the present; soakers in atmosphere; reclaimers of evocative desolation and pleasing decay.

Iain Sinclair, for example. A whole section of Sinclair’s book Lud Heat (part poetry, part prose, ‘a writing’ as that other great London visionary, David Jones, would have called it) concerns Hawksmoor’s churches. It includes a map with lines that join their sites, creating triangles and pentagrams and alignments with other highly significant sites and buildings such as William Blake’s house in Lambeth and Cleopatra’s Needle. Sinclair mines all kinds of allusions, myths, and significances from these alignments, connections that enable him to incorporate into his text references to such writers as Blake, Pepys, and Sir Thomas Browne, parallels with myths from ancient Egypt and ancient Britain, and sinister histories ranging from the plague to the murders committed by Jack the Ripper.

Who knows how significant all this is? It’s possible to make all sorts of sites connect on a map, especially if the scale of the map is small and the lines joining the points are thick, as critics of ley-line hunters have pointed out. But I’m not looking for literal truth or Ordnance Survey precision in the alignments between pyramids, obelisks, and plague pits. What is more important is that Sinclair has built absorbing and sometimes brilliant writing out of this hoard of images and myths.

And Sinclair nails Hawksmoor’s style. He says of the churches: ‘Certain features are in common: extravagant design, massive, almost slave-built, strength – not democratic. A strength that is not connected to notions of “craftsmanship” or “elegance”. They are not easy on the eye, and do not enforce images of grace. Metaphors inflate at their own risk. The mind is not led upwards to any starry nest.’ Sometimes Sinclair could almost be describing his own writing here, prose that has a strangeness and a solidity that is true to Hawksmoor’s buildings, large, ponderous, and weird as they are. Words that are arranged in a modern, collage-like fashion, and yet draw on ideas that have been around for as long as the pyramids of Egypt.


Karin Corbin said...

Used to be people could actually see the stars in the sky. There was no TV or books. The sky and pondering it was their entertainment and their education. Their scholar types had very little else to study. So alignment of buildings with the sun and moon was not unusual, that was their laboratory, their university and very much their church. That the historic precedence of aligning buildings passed on to the tradition of church buildings and other civic buildings should not be surprising to you in the least. It is not some alien mysterious thing, it was a very normal evolution of culture influenced by nature.
A recent film that explores the alignment of buildings in an ancient American society.

The only mystery is why modern people crave that feeling of everything needs to be mysterious and "special". Maybe they are just craving seeing the heavens?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you: very interesting. I wasn't commenting on the alignment of these buildings with the sun or stars, but on their alleged alignment with each other and with other London buildings. And on the quality of Hawksmoor's architecture which I've maybe not described very well, but which I think Iain Sinclair has.

Churches, of course, are usually oriented east-west, so the are very much part of this tradition you describe. People do indeed forget this - and it would do them a lot of good, I think, to get out in the middle of nowhere, where there is some clean, clear air, and look at the stars.

bazza said...

Absolutely fascinating! Is it not the case that many churches are built on the ancient sites of Roman temples and pagan places of worship which were in their turn built on Ley lines?
Although I tend to be very sceptical about some of these things (I loathe the books of Dan Brown and Eric Von Daniken, for example) it is intriguing to think that the ancients had certain knowledge which is lost to us.
I have noticed a strong feeling of 'something', I know not what, at places such as Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

George said...

In the Washington, DC, and as I recall in other cities I know here, the alignment of churches depends largely on the city lot the congregation or diocese managed to get, and generally the alignment of the city street grid. So, in a stretch of several blocks along 16th St. NW south of Oak St. one has

an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, aligned, as you say, east-west, doors east

a Baptist church (but built for a Presbyterian congregation) aligned north-south, doors north

an Episcopalian (i.e. Anglican) church aligned SW-NE, doors SW

a Roman Catholic church, aligned WNW-ESE, doors WNW

The AME and Roman Catholic churches are nearest the traditional alignment with altar toward Jerusalem; yet I have no trouble in thinking of examples of local AME and Catholic churches in other alignments.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: It's true, or very likely, that many ancient parish churches were built on the sites of pre-Christian places of worship. Some say that a circular churchyard is a sign of this, for example.

With regard to strange feelings at ancient sites, I discovered when I did a post a while back about the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire that a number of people said that they had feelings of unease at this place. I've not felt them there myself, but both commenters and friends remarked on this.

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: That's fascinating. Here in England it's probably generally true that ancient churches are mostly oriented east-west, but later ones, on crowded city sites, are often aligned in other directions. Just one example: at the moment in England we are marking the 50th anniversary of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. This building is aligned north-south, at right-angles to the ruins of the old cathedral, which was destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Peter Ashley said...

A lot of churches were indeed placed on the sites of a previous religion. Not so much perhaps to subjugate the old, but because these were recognised meeting places. Archaeology has discovered many pre-Christian remains, like the earth mother figure that sits propped-up outside at the west end of Braunston church in Rutland.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thanks for that. It would be good to see a picture of the earth mother some time.