All the people you live among will see the Lord’s work, for what I am doing with you is awe-inspiring. Exodus 34:10
Lavenham church was completed in 1525 immediately before the religious upheavals of the 16th century.1 As a parish church, it’s enormous. The benefactors were rich and building the church wasn’t a simple act of piety, it was a demonstration of wealth. As a religious building it’s intended to be a physical embodiment of God’s presence on earth.
Lavenham church has a nave which is 48 metres long – 156 feet – and 21 metres wide whilst its highest point stands at 42 metres.2 It was far and away the largest building in Lavenham. Even the houses of very wealthy wool merchants were much smaller. The poor lived in hovels.
“…[hovels are] made out of straw and many other things, including dung and mud. The houses were very simple. A fire in the middle of the house is where all the people would cook. They would have a couple of pots and pans. The furniture was normally a small wooden table and a little stall that they had made themselves. They would have a wooden bowl and spoon to eat with. The floor below them was not floor it was the earth.”3
The poor lived in houses, which were dark throughout the day because “….glass was expensive….. therefore glazed windows of any size were something that only the very wealthy could afford.”4 Merchants too, couldn’t afford large windows, and their houses were, by our standards, gloomy because the windows were small. A large glazed window was a symbol of wealth.
Lavenham Church has an enormous altar window. It dominates the nave (see photo above) as the congregation approached the altar5 it was increasingly impressive with its size and colour. This was especially the case when the sun poured through, which exaggerated its magnificence. The altar window was probably the only window the poor were familiar with, it was ‘awe-inspiring’. It expressed God’s presence.
Tudor religious architecture was part of the lived experience of God. The majesty of Lavenham church is a wonderful experience and in Tudor times was a physical reminder of God’s eternal presence in the world. Architecture was a major part of people’s contact with God.
1 Those upheavals saw England cease to be Roman Catholic under the Reformation of Henry VIII.
2 Even in the 21st century this is impressive and we’re used to gigantic buildings. The ‘Shard’ is London’s tallest building at 310 metres high by way of comparison.
5 “…Mass is a sacrifice. It teaches that the sacramental bread and wine, through consecration by an ordained priest, become the sacrificial body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ as the sacrifice on Calvary made truly present once again on the altar. Mass in the Catholic Church – Wikipedia