A Christmas trail around Cambridge: finding England’s religious history, by AHA alum Helena Roy

After considering art’s relationship with religion versus secularism (and with Christmas fast approaching) I decided to take a closer look at Christian art in my surroundings. Perhaps my location was too biased for an average survey – in Cambridge, where 31 colleges each have their own chapel, Christianity’s influence on art and architecture seeps through the city.

Starting with my own college – Pembroke. Pembroke was the first college in Cambridge to have its own chapel. Tucked between two courts, placed next to the church-like library, with its imposing bell tower, the chapel carries its own, having been the first building of Christopher Wren – the impetus behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Built after the Civil War, it breathed vitality into the tired late Gothic architecture of seventeenth century England.

Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge, as designed by Christopher Wren

Pembroke is not alone in being built from pockets of Wren’s vision. The view that greets the visitor in Emmanuel College‘s first court is another Wren chapel framed by classical archways of a long gallery.

The view of Emmanuel College Chapel as you walk into the first court

Perhaps the most famous chapel in Cambridge is King’s College. With a world-famous choir and towering façade abutting Cambridge’s Market Square, the chapel is an inescapable figure on the city’s skyline: it is impossible to take a mediocre photo of it. Its magnificence is undeniable; with a delicate, lace-like beauty which complements its solid, immovable stone foundations. The chapel was built in phases, by a succession of Kings of England, from 1446 to 1525 – a period which spanned the War of the Roses.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, viewed from the side, and the famous Backs perspective

Stepping out of the sandstone structures that pervade the collegiate system, there are snippets of religious architecture from other periods. St Bene’t’s is one grey example, while the Round Church is a geometric exception.

With origins dating back to 1130 AD, the Round Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Plumped up at a busy junction, it is covered with visual idiosyncrasies. In building the church, the architects were influenced by the style of a notable church in Jerusalem built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.

The Round Church, Cambridge, in the snow

 

The Round Church is beaten in age by St Bene’t’s Church – which is also the oldest building in Cambridge. Previously the chapel of Corpus Christi College, St Bene’t’s is now a mélange of Anglo-Saxon starkness and Victorian grey. The tower, built between 1000 AD and 1050 AD gives way to a beautifully monochrome interior, with deep chocolate wood and creamy plaster that belies pockets of light intricacy and stained glass.

The interior of St Bene't's Church, Cambridge

Alain de Botton argues that by focusing so much on the beauty of their buildings, religion was recognising that as humans we inherently ‘suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon.’ Religious architecture can be admired by worshippers and atheists alike – that it holds a different meaning for each adds, rather than detracts, from its power.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.