Thursday, January 23, 2014

Malcolm Johnson’s “St Martin-in-the-Fields”

One of my favorite places in London is a crypt. We had one of the best desserts we’ve ever had there – Victorian sponge cake. You can eat meals, have a snack, drink coffee or a glass of wine, and look down at the floor and read the memorial stones for the people buried there.

We’ve been to London on vacation twice in the past two years, and both times we’ve been partially anchored by St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On the northeast side of Trafalgar Square, it’s across the street from the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, a short two blocks to the Leicester Square ticket kiosk, a stone’s throw from Soho (if you’re so inclined), with a Charing Cross tube station entrance across from the back of the church. Covent Garden is close; a half-block walk and you’re in Whitehall or the Strand.

And it’s not just the restaurant in the crypt that’s the attraction (although the sponge cake is worth making a special trip for). We attended an evensong service there during our first trip in 2012, and a concert in 2013. And it’s magnificent building – a prototype for what we know in the United States as “the New England church.”

It’s also an institution, with a marvelously interesting history, once that includes the property now occupied by the national Gallery of Art.

Retired Anglican priest Malcolm Johnson published his history of the church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in 2005. It’s slightly dated, but it was on sale in the church’s gift shop and it’s hard for me to resist a book like this, particularly of a place I’m visiting.

And so I learned about the saint and the church named for him.

St. Martin was a soldier, born in 316 A.D. in what is now Hungary. He left the army when he was baptized (pacifism was strong in the church at this time). He eventually settled in what is now France, and established the first monastery, which lasted until the French Revolution. He died in 397, and was buried on Nov. 11, now marked as St. Martin’s Day.

The place occupied by the current St. Martin-in-the-Fields actually had two previous churches there, one from 1222 to 1540 and the second from 1540 to 1600. The current building was constructed from 1720 to 1723. It’s associated with Sir Christopher Wren, but it was actually one of his students, James Gibbs, who was the architect (Wren at age 90 died shortly before the building was completed). Gibbs produced something of a controversial design – a number of critics didn’t like the steeple tower sitting atop the Greek portico. Today that controversial design is rather commonplace, especially in America.

The church has been somewhat altered since 1723 – galleries added, clear glass replacing the Victorian stained glass shattered during the bombing of World War II. The area has also changed considerably – especially in 1832, when the Royal Mews (stables) across the street was abolished and replaced by the national Gallery of Art.

And the people who lived here and/or worshipped here sound almost like a Who’s Who of London history – William Hogarth, Thomas Chippendale, David Garrick, Thomas Gainsborough, and a long list of kings and queens (St. Martin’s is officially a “royal” parish).

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to the 20th century and the men who were the vicars. It was their vision and leadership that saw St. Martin’s through two world wars and significant changes in the parish and in society and culture at large. Today the church has numerous outreach programs, and continues to be a draw for tourists all over the world (including two Americans I know).

And, as my wife will testify, it has great spongecake.

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