Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.
For this month’s Classical Comments essay, I am departing from the usual pattern of discussing a specific architectural feature or type and am devoting the space to a single building. I have selected Richmond’s Monumental Church not to promote an important historic landmark, but to explore the circumstances that can affect a building’s form and character. Monumental Church is also an excellent example for illustrating the use of symbolism to make a work of architecture meaningful. Too often we fail to appreciate the existence of the amazing repertoire of traditional symbols that we can draw from to lend expression and instruction to a design.
Monumental Church owes its existence to a tragedy. On the evening of December 26, 1811, many members of Richmond’s society were attending a performance in a theater originally on the site. A fire broke out in the second act, destroying the theater and killing seventy-two of the audience, including the Governor. Shock at the loss of life moved Richmond citizens to plan a suitable memorial. Following two days of mourning, the citizens of Richmond and the state resolved to erect a church on the theater site as a permanent functioning monument to the calamity. The competition for the design was won by the thirty-one-year-old Robert Mills, who was then employed in the Philadelphia office of Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Prior to working for Latrobe, Mills’ architectural proficiency had been shaped by two mentors: James Hoban and Thomas Jefferson. Mills became an apprentice to Hoban while Hoban was overseeing the construction of the White House. More significantly, Mills served as a draftsman for Jefferson, producing ink-and-watercolor drawings of Monticello and a rotunda house for him around 1803. During that time, Mills had access to Jefferson’s extensive architectural library. Unfortunately, Mills’ drawings for Monumental Church do not survive, but we have a record of the ambitious original concept in an 1812 engraving by William Goodacre. (Figure 2) The Goodacre image shows a domed auditorium church fronted by a porch-like portico surmounted by a sculpted figure of mourning. An elaborate, multi-tier steeple rises from the rear of the church. The steeple and the portico sculpture were eliminated from the final design.
As built, the church, nevertheless, can only be described as Avant-guard—a structure unlike anything ever before seen in Virginia, much less the rest of the country. In many ways, it is a synthesis of ideas learned from both Jefferson and Latrobe. From Jefferson, Mills gained an appreciation for domes and octagons, forms that intrigued Jefferson and informed many of his designs. Monumental Church’s saucer dome employs the de L’Orme construction method, which consists of laminated wooden ribs, a system that Jefferson used on both Monticello and the Rotunda at University of Virginia.[i] From Latrobe, Mills was introduced to the use of the newly fashionable Greek orders and details, as well as to non-canonical interpretations of classical moldings, primarily thin Grecian-type moldings in the inventive style of Sir John Soane.
Completed in 1814, the building has two distinct sections: the memorial and the church. The memorial is the front portico, expressed as a square shrine-like porch or reliquary sheltering the marble monument to those lost in the fire. The building’s main portion, the domed octagon, is the church, with side entrances framed by diastyle porticos.[ii] Instead of the sculpture shown in the Goodacre engraving, Mills applied a simple pediment defined by thin moldings on the raking angles and acroteria or “ears” at the ends. A long shallow panel is the only decoration in the tympanum. (Figure 3) With its ears, the pediment (and also the window lintels), echoes the form of the lids of Roman and Greek cinerary boxes, or containers for cremated remains. This form is more explicitly used on the interior as we shall see.
The order used for the columns of the front and side porticos is based on the Doric of the Temple of Apollo on the Island of Delos as shown in Volume III of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1795).[iii] This order’s distinguishing feature is the column’s smooth shaft, with fluting employed in short sections at top and bottom. Stuart and Revett conjectured that the main part of the shaft was left plain because it was covered with tapestry during ceremonies. (Figures 4 & 5) Most authorities now believe that the columns were simply unfinished, and that full fluting of the shaft was intended but never accomplished. Nevertheless, the distinctive appearance of the columns has inspired countless imitations on Greek Revival buildings.[iv] We might speculate that the unfinished character of the columns on Monumental Church may have been an intended reference to the unfinished lives of those who perished in the fire.
The church’s theme of mourning is continued in the portico frieze through the series of bas-reliefs of lachrymatory urns. (Figure 6) These are representations of the small glass vessels usually found in ancient Greek and Roman tombs, vessels into which mourners dropped their tears. The term derives from licrima, the Latin word for tear. Lachrymatory urns are normally in the shape of a small flask with a narrow neck and wide mouth for catching the tears.
Sheltered by the portico is the marble monument inscribed with the names of the seventy-two Richmonders who perished in the fire. With its sharply sloping sides and deep cove cornice, the monument is one of the nation’s earliest structures to exhibit an Egyptian influence. (Figure 7) The Egyptian reference is heightened by the bas-relief of the winged sun disk in the cove cornice. In Egyptian mythology, the winged sun disk is a symbol of Ra, the sun god, believed by the Egyptians to be the Sun of Righteousness having healing in his wings, a title later adapted and modified by the Christians. [v]
Symbolism abounds on the urn topping the monument. (Figure 8) The urn is in the form of an ancient cinerary urn, also a receptacle for human ashes. The flame issuing from the lid denotes the renewal of life. The downturned flaming torches on either side are ancient symbols of death, denoting the snuffing out of the flame of life. On the face of the urn we see a winged hourglass, a reminder that life is of limited time and speeds by quickly. It is encircled by a wreath of cypress branches, also a symbol of mourning. The theme of grief is reinforced by the two sculpted draped heads with their downcast eyes. The original marble monument and urn suffered extensive deterioration over the years resulting in serious loss of aesthetic and structural integrity. With the use of laser scans, an exact replica was crafted by the firm of S. McConnell & Sons of Lilkeel, Ireland and installed in place of the original in 2004.
Entering the church through the front portico, we are struck by the horseshoe-shaped galleries enveloping the space and focusing on the apse. (Figure 9) The apse is an acoustical as well as architectural feature meant to project the sound from the pulpit. The arrangement of the room is defined as an auditory or auditorium-form church, which is a pulpit-centered unified space. This form was favored by 19th-century Protestant denominations since the high point of the service was the sermon. Hence, it was important for the congregation to see and hear the preacher clearly. Monumental’s original wineglass-shaped pulpit that towered above the reading desk was removed in a late 19th-century alteration.
Looking from the apse towards the entrance, we see an intriguing optical illusion, created by placing the saucer dome on an octagonal base. The thin moldings of the dome’s base glide over the octagon’s reentrant angles forming shadow pendentives. In addition, the effect of the sweeping curved shadows makes the flat walls of the octagon appear as convex curves. (Figure 10) The interior receives additional light from the ring of shallow windows in the dome’s lantern.
More symbols of death and mourning are displayed in the capitals of the two Ionic columns flanking the apse. (Figure 11) Instead of the normal channels between the volutes, Mills placed carved drapery swags, a motif recalling the drapery swags used to ornament catafalques and hearses. As noted above, the downturned torches, seen in the capital’s neck are ancient symbols of death. The stars, on the other hand, are symbols of heaven and eternity, reminding us of the Christian belief of the promise of eternal life after death. The leaves and buds in the balusters (sides of the volutes) are stylized versions of the Mediterranean laurel, an ancient symbol of victory and sometime symbol of eternity. Topping the capital is a modified cinerary box lid with anthemions ornamenting the triangle
Figure 12. Monumental Church, gallery detail (Loth)
Figure 13. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates cresting, Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1: Chapter IV. Plate VI (1762) [detail][/caption]Mills’ creativity is particularly evident in the gallery columns as well as in the entablature blocks and railing pedestals above each column. (Figure 12) The columns are thin versions of the Delos Doric seen on the exterior, with short sections of fluting at the bottoms and tops of the shafts. The capitals are a Mills invention, consisting of a series of bands below a flattened echinus and an abacus in the form of a cinerary box lid. The entablature block above the capital is a unique composition. A patera, representing the shallow dishes used in the ancient ceremonies of sacrifice, ornaments the frieze. Any symbolism inherent in the curved motif in the architrave is undetermined. Individual too are the three bold dentils and the complex series of compressed moldings forming the cornice. The shallow recessed Gothic panel in the pedestal may be a reference to Christianity. However, the anthemion motif in the ornament atop the pedestal is taken from the cresting of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as illustrated in The Antiquities of Athens. (Figure 13)
Similar creativity and imagination is exhibited in the doorframes leading to the side vestibules and the gallery stairs. (Figure 14) Here the classical vocabulary has been abstracted to the degree that it resembles Art Deco ornament of the mid-20th century. With their sinewy lines the double stairs in each vestibule are masterpieces of design and construction. Each flight winds up the curved walls of the vestibule to a landing at the top. (Figure 15)
We must venture in the crypt to see the final piece of Monumental Church’s poignant history. Towards the crypt’s southern end, but not quite beneath the portico, is a large brick vault containing the ashes of those who perished in the fire, whose remains could not be identified. (Figure 16) X-ray examination of the vault indicated that the ashes are interred in two large wooden boxes.
Monumental Church was originally intended to be a non-denominational shrine available for community use. Practicality, however, dictated that it be an Episcopal parish church instead, in which capacity it served until 1965. The church is now owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation and has been undergoing long-term restoration under the foundation’s direction.[vi] The architectural lesson of Monumental Church is that its design is an effective (and indeed early) demonstration of the Miesian dictum that form follows function. In this case, however, its architect utilized traditional forms—an octagon, a dome, and porticoes, to create a distinctive composition for accommodating a particular programmatic use and a special symbolic function. He gave expression to the composition by employing various ancient symbols to both convey and memorialize its tragic history. Finally, using a fertile imagination, he created unique compositions of details that provoke lasting reflection.