Quarr Abbey by Dom Paul Bellot

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Quarr Abbey by Dom Paul Bellot, West front        Photo: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose via Flickr

This week I turn my attention back to UK to write about one of my favourite places of worship in this country, a church which I have had the great pleasure to visit less than a year ago: Quarr Abbey by Dom Paul Bellot.

Educated in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts towards the end of the 19th century, Bellot was influenced by Auguste Choisy and Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas of structural rationalism, truthfulness to materials and belief that architectural order could drive social order. After deciding to take up the final vows of the Benedictine habit, he joins the monks of Solesmes in exile on the Isle of Wight, where insufficient accommodation and lack of an appropriate place of worship determined the Abbot of Solesmes to give Dom Bellot the task of designing the new abbey.

Either through a providential gift or a happy coincidence, the new monastery was built near the site of the dissolved 12th century Cistercian abbey at Quarr. Built in three phases on a traditional monastic plan, the architect chose to retain some of the existing Victorian buildings on the site and added during the first stage the cloister enclosed by monk’s cells, refectory, library and chapter house on three sides.

The construction of the fourth side of the cloister, comprising of the church itself, started in 1911 and it is the finest building of the entire complex. It displays a simple structure and a linear east-west arrangement of sanctuary, choir, public nave and portico. Some of the discipline of this plan can be attributed to the use of a construction material at that time highly disregarded in France yet in the use of which Dom Bellot has shown masterful precision and skill. He chose to use Belgian brick not only because of financial considerations and his familiarity with the material but also due to its superior aesthetic quality and the diversity of colours it reflects in changing light.

Quarr Abbey

Quarr Abbey interior, choir and altar       Photo: Mike via Flickr

The building is as remarkable in total spatial effect as it is in plan and elevation, showing grandeur and restrain simultaneously. The low arches and the obscurity of the portico are contrasted by the soaring height and gentle, subdued light of the choir. The public nave is separated from the rest of the church by a wide staircase leading to the monk’s choir. This is enclosed by diaphragm walls which conceal the buttresses supporting the transverse arches. The plainness of these walls is impressive, reflecting something of the sobriety of the Benedictine habit. Their thickness can be perceived only by looking at the clerestory above: the tall slender windows are recessed about a meter, making it difficult to locate the light source from the public nave and thus amplifying the mystery of the internal space.

The sanctuary is surrounded by much taller windows and poetically encloses a cubic volume of platonic clarity with sensitive proportions. The High Altar is crowned by lofty, interpenetrating diagonal arches made of brick which support the lantern tower above, simulating a magnificent baldacchino. This larger tower is counterweighted by a taller bell tower toped by a conical spire which makes the building easily recognisable from the distance.

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Quarr Abbey interior, Sanctuary       Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew via Flickr

Two significant recent alterations show that the abbey, sadly, has not escaped the post Vatican II modernisation fever. The removal of a substantially ornate  communion rail and the lowering and shifting of the altar from the west wall towards the centre of the sanctuary were two of the changes which tried to respond to the largely misinterpreted statements of the documents of the council.

Despite these alterations, there is a peaceful, silent, conducive-to-prayer atmosphere always present in this beautiful space enclosed by the simple brick walls constantly shrouded in mystery. The clear hierarchy of this sublime and ascetic interior shows that through humility and respect for eternal truths, the architect can achieve a compelling unity between physical and spiritual.

Throughout the entire building complex, Bellot proves great discipline and obedience to the material used, succeeding to make brick appear a malleable, organic construction material. The stylised and refined geometry of Quarr Abbey makes one think that modern architecture can successfully emerge from the old in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way.

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Quarr Abbey interior, view from public nave       Photo: Steve Elliott via Flickr

Bibliography

1. Ellis, C. (1997). The Abbey in exile; Architects: Paul Bellot. Architctural Review, 202(1206), 64-70

2. Pearce, M. (2012, Autumn). Paul Bellot at Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight. Brick bulletin, 18-12

3. Pevsner, N. (1967). Quarr and Bellot. Architectural Review, 141, 307-310

For more information about Paul Bellot and the wonderful Benedictine community at Quarr, you can visit the abbey website.

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