• 30 October 2014
  • 10:45 – 11:15 am
  • British Museum

The thesis of this paper is that medieval church porches can be seen as a vital part of the mechanism by which architecture, in form and detail, developed through time, and can therefore inform our understanding of how invention and convention were played out in the built environment. Owing to their size, cost, and the length of time taken to build, porches have an immediacy which facilitated, even encouraged, experimentation to a degree seldom possible in larger building projects.

Porches are arguably the most fascinating and intriguing architectural elements of many medieval churches, engaged and engaging because of their location, size and function. The building type presents an architectural repertoire rarely surpassed in terms of diversity; it resists typological classification and maintains a formal freedom which demands understanding rather than explanation. Over the past century the 'church porch' has been seen as a 'later addition' - even the last vestige of the late-medieval building frenzy. This perception stems in large part from the formal and structural differences they display when compared to the accompanying church. Some porches were additions to existing structures, some rebuilds. Their architectural autonomy did not, however, result principally from the passing of time or changes in 'style', but from a cultural sense of a porch as an independent space with a specific phenomenological function. A mentality shared by masons and patrons permitted architectural freedom and enabled invention. The excitement and opportunity of such innovation is all the more remarkable when one considers the visual and spatial prominence of a porch.

In that architecture is self-imitative medieval church porches, as will be demonstrated, carry allusions to structures beyond the ecclesiastical or contemporary, most importantly to sepulchres and civic gateways, both actual and notional or imagined. Through the delicate blending of recognisable and significant forms, as is visually evident, porch designers invented uniquely powerful places. Sculpted imagery is inherent in this inventive negotiation. The use of facades and vault bosses perpetuated narrative traditions and created didactic programmes for visual and mental consumption - specifically lithic statements of Christian morality which conflate biblical and present time.

Given the paucity of documentation relating to these buildings, and by contrast the wealth of extant examples, the built fabric serves as evidence of human action and implicitly of thought and imagination. Broad in its chronological and geographical scope, this paper will use porches as a tool to question a particularly practical mechanism of design, planning and execution. Whilst it is recognised that 'design' must precede 'build', segregating the two activities can obscure the relationship between synchronic experiment and diachronic design. This paper aims to harness the architectural capacity of porches and offer a way of thinking about buildings as process as well as product, as experimentation as well as outcome.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Helen Lunnon

    Dr Helen Lunnon trained as a historian and art historian and holds academic qualifications from the University of Reading (BA Hons, History, 1998), University College London (MA, Museum Studies, 1999) and UEA (MA, Medieval History, 2008, and PhD, Art History, 2012). Helen's research is concerned with the making and reception of art and architecture in medieval England. She is particularly interested in the late medieval understanding of decorum and appropriateness and how such notions influenced the art and architecture made in the period. Helen is Senior Research Associate on the Leverhulme Trust funded project “The Medieval Churches of Norwich: City, Community and Architecture” and a lecturer in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia.