When peace came to Europe in 1815, Britain was in the unique position of possessing empire, wealth, and power, which would make possible a century of commercial and industrial growth and prosperity. There were disquieting signs, however. The capitalism that Mill and Ricardo would advance was entering a mature phase, so that the age of the impersonal enterprises, involving millions of pounds and pursued at arm’s length from any responsible person for nothing but profit, was unfolding. The life of man was passing from the land to the city. The way of making things was passing from the household or the shop to the factory. The Baconian project, the ability to master nature such that her secrets could be used for the comfort of mankind, was at last literally delivering the goods—the 1830’s being the hinge on which modern technology turns. If, at mid-19th century, England was giddy on the subject of religion, this was surely not the case when the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. There were just 29 Easter communions at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1809. Reform was in the air, with the implication that, if there were no reform, there might be revolution. So while, on one hand, there were the facts of commercial prosperity and a rising middle class, the increase of the culture of comfort, and the first hints that medicine could become a science, perceptive souls saw that all was not well in the heart of the civilization.

There were two obvious signs of malaise. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, while they destroyed the remnants of the old half-paternal civilization, did not spread their blessings abroad equally, a problem that Marx and the socialists tried to answer. Second, English religion had entered a decline from which it would not easily recover. The Tractarians and the Oxford Movement attempted to invigorate what had become moribund during the age of rationalism. On a deeper level, however, the society had asked the wrong question and gotten the right answer. Souls grew empty as pockets grew full. But everyone did not assume that the answer to the problem of the 19th century was economic. Some suggested that the reason the world was growing uglier and more cruel was rooted in the devastation of the human spirit, and chief among these prophets was Augustus Northmore Welby Pugin, who thought the answer lay in re-medievalizing the world.

Pugin considered the 15th and 16th centuries a calamity that could be compensated for only by returning to what had gone before. The causality was intermittently unclear. He was capable of writing, on one day, as though the Renaissance with its classicism was the villain and, on another, as though Protestantism had caused it all, but Pugin was sure that classicism and infidelity were somehow partners in the destruction of the medieval world. Before Pugin could have reached this conclusion, other themes must have fallen in place. Broadly, it was necessary that Romanticism should take another look at the past and reverse the judgment that the art and architecture of the Middle Ages was the work of a barbarian culture—for that was the studied implication of the adjective Gothic. It was easy enough to argue that the advent of an architecture of tall churches with pointed arches, crockets, and finials, and all manner of glorious detail and decoration had occurred just after the Normans settled in—Caen, with its tall naves and twin towers thrown up against the sky may have been the beginning—so, post hoc propter hoc, Gothic it was. The first use of the term is often attributed to John Evelyn in his diary for 1626, but it is notable that Gianlorenzo Bernini, when he spoke of medieval architecture, called the style simply “modern” or “German”—moderna, because it was not antica, and German, because it was always northern. But “Gothic” stuck, especially in England, and, throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the contrast between the architecture of the Enlightenment, a transformation of Renaissance style that the 18th century claimed to have been based on reason, and the architecture of the Middle Ages, presented as the product of superstition, was relentlessly urged.

In England, this renewed popular interest in medieval architecture had begun with streams of influence that converged. There had always been something that could be called medieval or castellated buildings in England—the occasional country house or church tower. The late-18th century saw the construction of at least two great Gothic country houses. About 1780, Horace Walpole, who had already established his interest in things medieval by writing the Castle of Otranto—perhaps the first chivalric novel featuring the feudal despot, the venerable priest, the virtuous but melancholy damsel—built Strawberry Hill near Twickenham; later, William Beckford built Fointhill Abbey. The novelists helped—especially Walter Scott, many of whose novels popularized the Middle Ages, often supplying imagery with a flavor of Gothic architecture.

In the 1830’s, an aesthetic of affect took its revenge on what had been supposed to be an aesthetic of more or less pure reason. At the same time, a philosophy of imagination, rooted in Kant’s Critique of judgment (a book protected from the popular gaze by a studied obtuseness), became academically respectable, and something similar to Kant’s theory was popularized in England by Coleridge, who, in the Biographia Literaria, defended imagination as a way of knowing.

Out of this brew came the sudden insight that art and architecture mean something. The criticism of art had been carried on since Longinus—indeed, since Plato—under the canon that great or even good art possesses certain objective qualities: unity, symmetry, claritas or radiance, and, in architecture, fittingness or usefulness. But nobody had suggested that the “Exaltation of the Eucharist” or Caravaggio’s St. Matthew meant anything other than what one saw. Then, suddenly, art, and especially architecture, became capable of telling significant stories about the soul of the society in which the particular work has been created. Of course, the magnitude and beauty of Chartres and Amien could be read as signs that Christianity was valued in Amien and Chartres, but the new theory, later called the expression theory, and its semi-theological English companion, called ecclesiology—not the doctrine of the Church but the doctrine of churches and church furnishings—would see such buildings as revealing the character of the God to Whom they were dedicated as well as the purposes of the architect and the heart of the society.

Everyone believes some version of the expression theory now; beauty is not to be had, but there is meaning enough. There is surely something to the theory that art expresses civilization, but its critics, who ask such questions as “How does the sadness get into the music?” have made their points as well, hi any event, about 1820, there was suddenly mind in everything. Wordsworth later wrote, “in all form of things there is a mind,” by which he meant not some formality, some pattern, as Aristotle would have had it, but a vital, living mind, more closely akin to Hegel’s world spirit who was wandering across the landscape having meanings. The result is that we attend to critics who tell us that the whirls and splashes signal the artist’s frustration with contemporary culture and that the painting is a critique of contemporary politics. We believe that Munch’s man coming out of the subway entrance does exhibit the despair of the modern age. When Pugin wrote, however, the theory was new, and he made it famous not so much by defending it as by assuming it. Gothic expressed Catholic Christianity.

What Pugin saw in French cathedrals, his original inspiration, was a certain undeniable beauty that had occurred in cultures that seemed to have what the 19th century lacked, hi fact, the world was changing in ways Pugin found frightening, and the Middle Ages, and Gothic as imagined, were a convenient foil for the bustling, commercial, increasingly godless England of the 1840’s. What Pugin wanted was a society conceived as communitarian rather than individual, in which the pursuit of holiness and beauty were more important than the pursuit of money, in which art was not alienated from life and work.

Pugin was born in 1812, a child of the postwar prosperity. His father, A.C., had immigrated to England from France and was an architectural delineator who not only published books but owned a school for delineators and architects. In 1835, at age 23, Pugin converted to Catholicism. The next year, he published Contrasts; or a Parallel Between the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

The argument in Contrasts was partly visual. Pugin juxtaposed Ely Place, Holborn, the London house of the bishop of Ely and a truly noble Gothic edifice of 1536, with the modern Ely House of 1836, an uninspiring row house on Dover Street. The Angel Inn in Oxford, a series of connected row houses, was contrasted with the Angel Inn in Grantham, a lovely medieval building with bay widows, an oriel and tracery. In 1530, the residence of last resort for the poor was the monastery, in which the poor were treated with some respect and, when they died, buried with the rites of the Church. The 19th-century English residence for the poor was the workhouse, in which inmates were to labor under discipline until they died, after which their bodies would be sold to medical students. Pugin’s visual masterstroke was his contrast between a Catholic town of 1440 and the same town in 1840. The Catholic town is a forest of spires set by a winding river, in 1840, the river is obscured by the brewery and the cotton mills.

In 1835, Pugin married for a second time—his first wife had died in childbirth—and moved into St. Marie’s Grange, a house of his own design. By then, he was set up as an architect and was beginning to have clients. Contrasts made Pugin famous, earning him enemies as well as admirers, in 1836, he was employed by Charles Barry to provide the Gothic finishes and details for the parliament buildings; what one sees now is mostly Pugin. In 1842, he designed Alton Towers, the country house of the Catholic earl of Shrewsbury, who remained a client and a friend until Pugin’s death in 1852. In Shrewsbury’s company, Pugin swam in Catholic sanguinity. Shrewsbury had given 250 acres of Charnwood forest to the Trappists, so Cistercians were always in the wings, as was Ambrose DeLisle Phillips, a wealthy convert who nourished the illusion of corporate reunion between Catholics and Anglicans by sponsoring, in 1838, the Society for Prayers for the Reunion of Christendom, an effort later condemned at Rome. In the heady atmosphere of this noble optimism, Pugin flourished. His St. Giles, Cheadle, in the town at the edge of Shrewsbury’s estates, is a distinctive masterpiece of proportion, texture, and color. His pen never stopped. In 1841, he published The True Principles of Christian or Pointed Architecture; in 1843, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England; and, in the same year, The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England.

One of his most interesting works was A Defense of Chancel Screens. Neoclassicism had no place for chancel screens, and even new Gothic Revival buildings often left them out. Pugin, however, understood the Church’s earlier desire to protect the Christian mysteries from vulgar gaze. Great churches such as Canterbury or King’s College chapel were built with a stone wall between the choir monks and altar and the ordinary worshiper; the Sanctus bell announced the most sacred moments in the Mass. Bringing the faithful into close proximity to the altar was a 17th-century Italian movement. Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale, Borromini’s San Carlino and San Agnese in the Piazza Navona, and, later, Inigo Jones’ Queen’s Chapel marked this tendency. Pugin detested this arrangement, seeing in it the beginning of the end of that hierarchical ordering of space that had marked the Christian universe since Saint Augustine wrote about form, measure, and order.

Pugin had already adopted the principle that architecture, especially the architecture of religion, expresses itself in church buildings: “There can be little doubt that the religious rites and ceremonies of these different people had by far the greatest influence in the formation of their various styles of architecture.” The corollary was that, if the architecture was judged debased, the religion must be false.

Architecture expresses the heart of the civilization. The architecture of Georgian England was a debased classicism that rose among cotton mills and breweries. It arose out of a set of beliefs (or unbeliefs) rooted in Protestanhsm or the Renaissance. The cure was the rejection of those wrong beliefs and a return to the ideas of the 13th century by rebuilding the material culture of the Age of Faith and abjuring the classicism that Pugin associated with Protestantism.

Pugin, and later Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, remained confused about the relationships among the Renaissance, the reprise of classicism, and Protestantism. It is easy to show that Protestantism ended a material culture of monasteries and brought in a culture of workhouses. That the revival of classical architecture was pagan is less easy to show. There was a strain of paganism in Renaissance thought, but the principal purveyors of the new style had hardly been neopagans. Bernini attended Mass every day and communicated twice weekly; Palladio was also famously pious; Michelangelo heard Mass assiduously.

In fact, the path to the classicism that Pugin so disliked was theological and moral: first, the denial that man is to be transformed by grace in this life; second, the rejection of good works; and, third, the attendant focus on getting ahead in this world in a situation in which God has given up its moral government and man has abandoned the pursuit of holiness. Pugin was right that the cause was Protestantism, and that the obvious solution was for everyone to become Catholic. But while being a good reactionary means saying things that are true although they are impossible of realization, being right is not enough, and the expression theory was overdrawn. If living among classical buildings makes one a pagan, then perhaps living among Gothic buildings should make one a Viking. In his short 40 years, Pugin had three wives, fathered seven children, and designed about 200 buildings. He died with a sense of frustration, having written that “My cause as an architect is running out. I have always told you when the tide begins it must run out.” His biographer said that Newman, who never accepted the thesis that Gothic meant Catholicism, killed him. Pugin never understood that Newman, who had founded Tractarianism on antiquity; had changed his mind and saw the revival of an outmoded architecture as a dangerous novelty. Pugin was too close to see what he had accomplished.

After Pugin’s death, leadership of the Gothic movement passed to his friends in the Cambridge Camden Society, who liked everything about the Middles Ages: architecture, hymns, vestments, church furniture—everything but the heart of the age, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure and the Mass. John Ruskin, also a great exponent of Gothic, wanted the implied political economy of the Middle Ages but without the Catholic Church, and finally with no church at all. Pugin left a landscape dotted by architectural questions. Cheadle Church stands there, a small place of incomparable beauty. Upon entering, any reflective person will ask, “Where did this come from and why?” If he attempts to answer that question, he will be led back down the same path Pugin followed to ask why the culture of the 13th century created this beauty. Pugin’s influence is found also on the main streets of tow US in Wisconsin and Texas, where, next Sunday, there will be boys, and perhaps parents, who, bored by the preacher’s words, will begin to contemplate pointed windows and tracery.