This beautifully produced book is not only a celebration of the architectural splendours of many catholic churches in England and Wales but also a fascinating insight into a part of British social history about which many people have no knowledge. It is not a religious book. It is not just a book about architecture but a thoroughly researched and wonderfully readable account of the rebirth of Catholicism in Britain and its expression in the building of many new churches from Victorian times onwards - many churches from earlier times are also featured.
You may not read it cover to cover but you will dip into it regularly and in the process learn more and more fascinating facts. Full marks to the author for his presentation of a fascinating subject in a wonderfully readable text, to the photographer for the stunning illustrations and to English Heritage for their support of this project.
This book will not disappoint.
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This book was a revelation. Although I knew about the glorious Catholic churches of London and in Yorkshire, where I live, I had no idea of the amazing architectural gems elsewhere, particularly in Lancashire. My eyes have been opened and I can foresee many visits around the country in the near future.
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The Irony and The Ecstasy12 May 2011
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The irony, briefly acknowledged at the start of this book, is that, prior to the early 16th century, all churches in England and Wales were Catholic. The great medieval Gothic cathedrals we've all seen either in person or in books, movies and tv programs were united with Rome from their very cornerstones. Then Henry VIII's libido and desperate need for a male heir met up with the anti-cleric Cromwell and the apostate archbishop Cranmer. Add to this the blatant greed of certain members of the nobility, and the eventual result was the wholesale rape and/or outright destruction of the Catholic properties, the persecution and forced "conversion" of much of the populace to Henry's new religion, and the execution of many, prominent and otherwise, who chose to remain Catholic.
Even today, in 2011, the last vestiges of Henry's reign (and that of his daughter, Elizabeth) are still evident in some ways, including the fact that anyone in the line of succession who either marries a Catholic or converts to Catholicism immediately becomes ineligible to ascend the throne.
The ecstasy, as illustrated and described in the book, is the resurgence, beginning in the early 19th century, of the construction of Catholic churches. The persecution laws had been relaxed to a degree (initially allowing Catholics to build churches as long as those churches included neither steeples nor bells!), and the churches began to appear in response to the growing Catholic population. "A Glimpse of Heaven" documents, in both words and photographs, the origins and continuation of this revival. It is full of bits of arcane trivia, architectural details (some of which are best understood only by architects), and brief histories of each of the churches featured.
"Proper" church architecture, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Not all of the examples shown in the book will be met with pleasure, depending on one's personal taste. That, however, is part of the panoply of styles displayed - from traditional Gothic abbeys (yes, even abbeys have returned or, in a few instances, been reclaimed and restored) to typical "country churches" set in stone in the middle of a churchyard, to the Byzantine riot of the Catholic Cathedral of Westminster (whose lavish mosaic interior is still being painstakingly put in place, tile by tiny tile) - all variations are covered.
I quibble with one aspect of this otherwise fine book: too few photographs. Those that appear are excellent, but too often the written description of a church gives myriad details of both the exterior and interior while the accompanying pictures don't include those details - leading the reader to fall back on the imagination.
Overall, however, this is a revealing book, exposing a part of the U.K.'s religious and architectural history otherwise overlooked. It does a service to anyone interested in either topic.