RATHER more than half-a-century ago Bernhard Berenson, the historian and critic of Italian art, published a short essay entitled "A Word for Renaissance Churches". "Most of us" he wrote in it, "enjoy works of art indirectly, by association, by preparation, and above all, by finding in them what our education and general reading have led us to expect. How many good people of every possible shade of belief or unbelief manage to miss the point in Italian galleries, and come away scornful and disgusted because they have not found in a single picture either their own ideal of the Madonna, or the ideal they consider a Christian ought to have! Even those, however, who would think it crude to look for nothing in a Madonna but a type of woman worthy to be the Mother of God, are nevertheless proud of advertising their contempt for the Italian churches of the Renaissance 'because they are not religious." Times change, but history has a way of repeating itself, and no kind of history is more repetitive, more set in its pattern, than the history of taste. In the eighteen-nineties enthusiasm for the painting of the Italian Renaissance among English people who pretended to culture was de rigueur; yet the churches of that era were, as Berenson complained, ignored or despised. In the nineteen-forties the descendants of the same people, by force of circumstances more insular in their culture, will admire almost anything which by stretching the word to breaking-point and beyond can be described as Georgian; yet somehow, here again, the churches are left out of the picture.
Why is this? Partly, no doubt, it is because, as Berenson says, association plays so large a part in our enjoyment of, or willingness to enjoy, a work of art. We can see an English country house of the classical period as the setting for a certain kind of life, and a kind which across the years from a harsh present may appear almost paradisaical. But an English church of the same period conjures up no such agreeable picture. Few of us, I imagine, have ever experienced much desire to listen to an eighteenth-century sermon, even from the well-warmed and upholstered amenity of the squire's pew.
This is not to say that our Stuart and Georgian churches are deficient in human interest; they have their ghosts, some of whom will walk again in the following pages. But it is to suggest that these churches must be appreciated, if they are to be appreciated at all, as works of architecture, as works of art, as expressions of the human urge to mould matter and set bounds to space. And here the aesthetic spectator, as Berenson called him, "he who is neither an architect, nor an antiquary, nor a churchman"