St. Mary's R.C. Church, Sunderland
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St. Mary's R.C. Church, Sunderland

St. MaryÂ’s R.C. Church in Sunderland (1835) was designed in the gothic style by the important Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870).

St. Mary’s R.C. Church in Sunderland (1835) was designed in the gothic style by the important Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870). The gothic style of architecture was devised in the Middle Ages and used for the great cathedrals of northern Europe, but was revived in the Georgian era. St. Mary’s was only the second gothic church to be built in Sunderland and closely follows the precedent of Holy Trinity in its rectangular floor plan and overall symmetry. Outwardly, however, the building is a display of spirited medievalism. The spectacular face is rigidly symmetrical and arrayed with pinnacles, niches and quatrefoils. A central pitch in the broad tripartite façade alludes to the traditional gothic gable and three tall lancet windows are lashed together within a vaulting pointed arch. Tall buttresses are clasped to the surface, each accentuated by a sharp pinnacle. The naïve use of gothic forms is representative of the tentative beginnings of the Gothic Revival, a phase commonly known as ‘Georgian Gothick’.

Inside, the box-like nave is illuminated by lancet windows of clear glass. The flat ceiling is the antithesis of the soaring vaults typical of medieval gothic and the chancel, rather than being a separate space enshrining the altar, is merely a shallow recess in the west wall. Nevertheless, the chancel is furnished with an elaborate reredos – a many-arched wooden structure replete with statues of the northern saints. There is no great window, but the reredos is flanked by narrow stained-glass windows and the west wall is articulated with a framework of gothic decoration. Down the south wall are doors leading to the confessionals. Each terminates with a pointed arch containing sculptural emblems. A macabre theme is introduced by the image of a skull wreathed in creeping foliage. Typically for a Georgian church, there is a gallery at the rear. Galleries fell into disrepute later in the 19th century, but were essential for accommodating the large congregations of the era, swelling by Irish migrants who flooded into northern industrial parishes.

St. Mary’s is grand for a Catholic church built so soon after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The exuberant design is a testament to the increasing tolerance and prosperity experienced by Catholics after legal restrictions on their faith had been lifted. This grandeur, however, is reserved for the façade. The church was originally flanked by houses and only the frontage was visible to the street. The rest of the building was executed in rough local magnesium limestone. Eventually, the houses to the north were demolished and this permitted the addition of a transept, which is linked to the nave by paired arches springing from a single column. Two original windows were filled in to make way for the transept arches, and their outlines are just visible on the north wall of the nave.

St. Mary’s illustrates the genesis of the Gothic Revival. Victorian architects would become more adept at using gothic forms, but at this date the grammar of medieval architecture was not fully understood. Bonomi was primarily a classicist and St. Mary’s is essentially a classical preaching box hidden behind a gothic façade. The choice of style was significant, however. Gothic suggested continuity with the universal Catholic Church of the Middle Ages; St. Mary’s thereby provided a secure foundation for the resurgence of Catholicism in Sunderland.

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Comments (3)

So many of these architectual features can be seen in the churches where I grew up in Pennsylvania.

Excellent detailed presentation to the Gothic style. thanks for sharing

Another very interesting piece. It's very true to say that at the end of the nineteenth century, the Gothic Style was very much in favour and considered the style par excellence for church building. Thank you Michael for the visit, great work, my friend!