No Ordinary Churches: Pagan Symbolism, Occult Designs from Ancient Egypt, Flesh-Eating Gods, Masonic Cults, Jack the Ripper ... Charlie Furniss Explores the Bizarre Architectural Legacy of Nicholas Hawksmoor

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Businesspeople in the City of London may be alarmed to hear that they are working within an axis of evil. And not just an axis, but an entire web--a devilish network of ley lines, ancient highways and invisible paths that, according to author Iain Sinclair, conveys the spirits of darkness between sources of occult power scattered across the capital: temples and monuments, plague pits, ancient burial grounds and murder sites. And at its centre, the origin of its power, are five 18th-century churches.

These are no ordinary churches. In his fictional book Lud Heat, Sinclair suggested that their positions demarcate that most potent of occult symbols, the pentangle. He describes pagan symbolism in their architecture and how their designs relate to ancient Egyptian mortuary temples. Others, following Sinclair's revelations, have associated the churches with Atlantis, flesh-eating gods, Jack the Ripper and Masonic cults.

But these are sacred Christian buildings. Surely there is no place for 'pagan' symbols in their designs. Have they really been tattooed with a hidden code and infused with the mysterious powers of ancient Egypt?

The churches are the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor. A pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, he had a hand in some of our most famous monuments, including St Paul's Cathedral and Blenheim Palace. In 1711, he was appointed chief surveyor for a project to build 50 new churches around London. In the end only 12 were built, but Hawksmoor was responsible for half of these, six structures that continue to turn heads today.

Sinclair didn't conjure his occult fantasy from thin air. Built from striking white Portland limestone, Hawksmoor's churches have an awesome, rather unsettling presence that owes much to their antiquarian symbolism. In Greenwich, four Roman sacrificial altars guard the entrance portico of St Alfege, and Doric columns and pilasters decorate its exterior. The same altars reappear atop the tower of St George-in-the-East in Wapping. In a similar position at St Anne, Limehouse, there is a set of pyramids, while another pyramid some three metres high stands mysteriously within its grounds.

At St Mary, Woolnoth, located in the heart of the City, Corinthian columns embellish the tower, and twisted columns on the wooden reredos echo the Temple of Solomon. (Somewhat bizarrely, St Mary was omitted from Sinclair's pentangle --including it and excluding St Alfege creates a neat pentangle north of the Thames, while the opposite renders the pentangle undrawable.) Further north, Hawksmoor's masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields, has an ominous, pyramidal spire above an arched portico influenced by classical Etruscan architecture.

The most unusual and flamboyant of Hawksmoor's churches is St George, Bloomsbury. Its entrance portico was inspired by the Temple of Bacchus, built by the Romans at Baalbeck in Lebanon during the second century. And the incredible stepped pyramid of the spire is a reconstruction of the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Above this, a statue of George I stands proudly on another Roman sacrificial altar.

Several authors have reprised Sinclair's occult motif, most famously Peter Ackroyd in his chilling (fictional) murder story Hawksmoor. In From Hell, Alan Moore's graphic novel about the Ripper murders, the character Sir William Gibb suggests that the writings of the Roman architectural scholar Vitruvius led Hawksmoor to become a follower of the Dionysiac cult.

The Dionysiacs were the mythical master craftsmen of Atlantis, who founded Freemasonry and whose descendents built the great monuments of antiquity, including Solomon's Temple, the pyramids and the Tomb of Mausolus. Legend has it that they also worshipped a flesh-eating god, Dionysius (aka Bacchus), who was the original model for the horned, masked devil at the centre of the Black Mass. Gibb speculates that through his churches, Hawksmoor sought to perpetuate the occult teachings of the Dionysiacs. …