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When cathedrals are art products

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Last week, the Blantyre Synod of the CCAP celebrated the 125th anniversary of the St Michaels and All Angels. The church has an important place in the political, religious and economic history of the country. It is also hard to ignore the aesthetic richness of the structure which is protected by the Department of Antiquities. We republish here an article, written by CHARLES MPAKA, which our sister paper The Daily Times published in 2009 during the centenary celebrations of David Livingstone’s arrival in Malawi

St Michaels and All Angels Church in Blantyre sits heavy and commandingly on a flat land, looking ancient in everything but modern, at best timeless, in taste and expressive appeal.

The triple of Holy Cross emblems extend from dome-like sacred places, sacred because the crosses stand on a white ground on top of very solid towers.

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From top to bottom, the church is a sturdy detail of a finely organised pattern of columns and vaults and pointed arches and a dedication of windows in all manner of shapes and sizes.

Among them are circular rose windows. In the ancient European form of architecture on whose concept St Michaels Church is based, a rose window used to be a stone frame containing a pattern of lines of stonework that was glazed, at times with stained glass, to complete the dimension of ornament.

The artisanship in the general bricklaying, for lack of a more precise description, to create the arches and the towers and the thickness of the buttresses make the entire church stand in the ground with great balance and great authority. The message the church seems to be sending is that this building will never fall, not even in the raging currents of Noah’s flood. (After all, scriptures tell us that the world and everything will come to an end but the word of God never will.)

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Even to folks not inclined to art, St Michaels and All Angels Church is an attraction because it is an aesthetically powerful structure, complex in detail but skillfully sculpted to give it the glorious façade that it is.

And in the way the building stands today, majestic in presence and aesthetic in expression as it does, it can never cross anybody’s mind that this architectural wonder is actually a product of trial and error.

David Livingstone had beaten the path for Scottish missionaries when his second expedition to Africa led him into the land now known as Malawi. Various parties of missionaries were to trail his footprints soon after his death in 1873. Clement Scott was one such missionary. He came to Malawi, then Nyasaland, in 1881, a few years after Henry Henderson had identified the current grounds of Blantyre CCAP Mission as suitable for a mission station.

In 1883, Scott was joined by another Scottish fellow, Alexander Hetherwick. None of the two, according to the Department of Antiquities, had any training at all in architecture and building. But by trial and error, they laid out the plan of the church.

Construction of St Michaels and All Angels church started in 1888. The church was built of locally made bricks shaped in more than 81 different varieties to fit in the architectural conception. All the bricks were crudely designed and moulded using hand-made wooden moulds. Construction finished in 1891. And 117 years after, St Michaels and All Angels is a spectacular piece of design still capable of inspiring as much admiration as it may have been the case when it had just been built. The timelessness of taste owes largely to the type of its architecture.

Gothic architecture

St Michaels and All Angels Church is only one among the churches in the country with Scottish missionary connections that are unique in their architectural design.

St Peters Anglican Cathedral on the Likoma Island, Livingstonia, Ekwendeni, Nkhoma, Embangweni and Zomba Mission churches were constructed by the early missionaries in that pattern — even if diminished in some cases in comparison with St Michaels’.

They are all versions of Gothic architecture which developed from Romanesque structural design and taken on by Renaissance architecture.

Gothic styles of building came into fashion in medieval period and are said to have originated in France in the 12th Century. The outstanding feature of the design was pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, according to various references.

Some secular monuments such as town halls and universities were constructed using this design but this kind of architecture became popular with cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches.

“It is in the great churches and cathedrals and in a number of civic buildings that the Gothic style was expressed most powerfully, its characteristics lending themselves to appeal to the emotions,” Wikipaedia says.

In these cases when the Gothic style was used in church buildings, emphasis was placed on light and on vertical structure. The towers, the columns and the narrow and tall windows that characterise the churches of the early Scottish missionaries in the country for example were to give vertical shape to the building.

According to Wikipaedia, Gothic cathedrals and abbeys were before 20th Century generally landmark buildings in their locations, standing taller than all the domestic structures. Their loftiness was completed by one or more towers and pinnacles and sometimes tall spires.

Apart from glossy wooden ceilings and brightly coloured panelling, Gothic cathedrals were also richly decorated with sculptures, wall paintings and stained glass. The stained glass often depicted various biblical motifs.

And in all their complicated patterns and exterior and interior art finishing, Gothic cathedrals were not necessarily about this world. The solidity of their structural design could be interpreted as a figurative expression of the solidity of the word of God. But in general, they were meant to represent a complete and perfect world of their own, a microcosm.

Different sources agree that the loftiness and huge dimensions of the structure, and hence their spaciousness, were intended to pass on an ecclesiastical message of the greatness of God’s glory.

Like St Michaels and All Angels, the Livingstonia Church, the headquarters of the Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP, is also a product of Gothic architecture, or at least a modest expression of it. It is an edifice of buttresses and arches too, solid and imposing on the Livingstonia plateau in Rumphi. Its tower gives an access to a better panoramic view of the surrounding nature of evergreen forests, the vast expanse of Lake Malawi and the rolling mountains.

The interior is as solid as the outside. Well ornamented. Above the main entry is a tainted glass depicting David Livingstone, his servants Susi and Chuma and some people. The finesse of the image is achieved by a collaboration of a background of the lively Lake Malawi. It is a story of Livingstone’s travels in Malawi and Central Africa.

Nkhoma Church is also evidently an artwork of Gothic influence. Equally sturdy in structure, the church also has a stained glass depicting Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles as one of the outstanding interior features. In the ancient Gothic architecture designs, the stained glass was not just for some biblical motifs but also to add a dimension of colour to the light within the building.

Churches at Ekwendeni and Embangweni in Mzimba, Old Bandawe in Nkhata Bay, Chilanga in Kasungu and Zomba are certainly diminished versions of this style of building. But they have that distinctive architectural touch of sturdy and majestic facades and a delicacy of windows –all not to be distanced from Gothic design. All about them is that air of beauty because they are generally works of great sculpture.

A great number of ecclesiastical buildings of the Gothic architecture era in Europe are listed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Culture Organisation (Unesco) as world heritage sites.

Here at home, the churches are under the Department of Antiquities which is mandated to conserve these rich relics of history. They are national treasures. Thus, the department does not allow repairs that would damage their glorious classical characteristics. If congregations have to make the repairs, they are not allowed to do that without the permission and supervision of the department.

The churches are a lot of mathematics and geometry. They are a lot of science and engineering. They are a lot of stories.

They are great works of art; expressions of ancient exotic designs and priceless relics not commonplace in Africa. In fact, these secondary features seem to enhance the purpose of the buildings as centres where one can commune with God. Malawi must be proud to have them.

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