The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism & Architecture in Colonial South Carolina

By Louis P. Nelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
BEAUTY OF HOLINESS

A large venetian window illumines the shallow semicircular and arched chancel of Charleston's St. Michael's Church (1752–61) (FIG. 6.1). While the decorative stenciling, Tiffany window, and other ornamental work dates from the early twentieth century, the form of the chancel and its elegant wrought-iron rail survive intact from the colonial period. A genteel, freestanding pulpit rises before the chancel, elevating both the minister and his sermon. A panel-fronted gallery supported by fluted Ionic columns stands on three sides of the chamber and elevates an organ to the west, opposite the eastern chancel and pulpit (FIG. 6.2). Scores of boxed pews fill the floor of the church, while a tray ceiling—a broad flat plane with deep coves on all sides—soars high above. From the elegance of its pulpit to the full resonance of its organ and the bold Greek fret of its tray ceiling, St. Michael's was an exemplar of grace and beauty in the colony.

St. Michael's was also a harbinger of change. The cherubs ornamenting the interiors of earlier churches disappear from the sanctuary of St. Michael's and all later churches as explicit representations of the supernatural fell out of favor among later Anglicans. At the apex of the genteel pulpit, a pineapple replaced the traditional dove, shifting the symbolically loaded finial from a representation of the third person of the Trinity to an icon of Charleston hospitality.1 “Pineapples which are in great perfection and abundance from the West Indes,” one eighteenth-century visitor noted, “are the common desert of this season; whenever I dine out they appear on the table.”2 St. Michael's was also the first church in the province to reject the barrel vault in favor of the more fashionable tray ceiling. The barrel vault's sacred geometries, which had so powerfully animated early eighteenth-century church interiors, waned over the course of the century. The vast majority of the colony's churches erected after St. Michael's installed a tray ceiling instead of the older barrel vault.3

St. Michael's Church is rightfully described as the epitome of Georgian architecture in South Carolina, and it is in this context that the building is often described. Making clear visual reference to London's St. Martin-in-theFields, St. Michael's is frequently enlisted to articulate the derivative nature of elite British architecture in the American colonial context. By extension, its meaning is rooted in the politics of emulation—colonials seeking social

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