Visit to a Gothic church – St Mary’s Catholic Church, Derby

For the visit for this assignment the destination was to a Gothic or Victorian Gothic Church or Cathedral and for this task I was incredibly lucky because  a leading  figure of the Victorian Gothic revival style was Augustus Pugin who is the  architect of St Mary’s Catholic Church!

The origins of the church however date back to before the Norman Conquest.  It seems that after William I was crowned he effectively divided up parts of the country by rewarding his various Barons and Knights but for some reason he decided to keep Derby for himself and also gave the Abbot of Burton Abbey one of the 6 churches and this church was St Mary’s – the latter gift was later confirmed in a Papal Declaration by Pope Lucius III when he also confirmed and noted all the lands and privileges that had been granted to the Abbey. However it seems that St Mary’s ceased to become a parish church by the late 13th century and from the reign of Henry VIII until 1791 there was no public Catholic worship allowed.

As someone who has lived in Derby for nearly 15 years I know All Saints Church very well as it is now more commonly known as Derby Cathedral but shamefully although have always seen St Mary’s in the distances I have never actually been in it – I say shamefully because I am Catholic (albeit lapsed  – due to the memories of 1970’s sermons of my childhood!).  The reason I mention All Saints Church will become further apparent later in this blog but firstly the original site of St Mary’s was almost opposite it.

The reason for the move to a new location and a new building was primarily due to increasing attendance (and a high wall being built around the original chapel to keep the local somewhat feisty Protestants out).  A school had also been started under the Priest of the time who was a Reverend Chaloner and after a local estate owner decided to move his household Rev Chaloner purchased one of the building plots with the help of Bishop Walsh of the Midland District.  This purchase came at a time of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 which removed the oppressive regulations that dated back to the reign of Henry VIII.  When Rev Chaloner died a Rev Thomas Sing took over who immediately, bearing in mind an influx of Irish migrants making it more urgent, started to develop the plans for the new much larger church.

The image below is the original chapel: (all non-photographic images courtesy of

st marys 1

Lord and Lady Scarsdale of Kedleston Hall were amongst St Mary’s congregation and A.W.N. Pugin’s work had started from his newly found Catholicism  and as well as Oscott College he also knew the aforesaid local Lord and Lady.

A.W.N. Pugin was an architect of some repute who, during the course of his career, was appointed to the staff of Oscott College as Professor of Ecclesiastical Architecture and Antiquities.

After arriving in Derby on 5 September 1837 he met with Rev Sing and after 3 inspections of the sites over 3 visits he drew up the plans for the new church – originally it was due to have a 100 foot spire on the tower on elaborate North extension but this was unable to happen due to financial restrictions (personally I like it without the thought of the spire).

The image below is Pugin’s original design:

st marys 4

The church is on a different axis to most Christian churches as they tend to face East-West but this church faces North-South and this is purely due to the narrow width of the site  but there is an unexpected gem in this axis as I found out when I spoke to a Nun of the attached convent and she informed me that on the day of the Summer Solstice (21 June) the sun comes in through the window in the tower and directly lights up the altar at exactly 12 noon as it does on other days too. The Nun takes great delight in this sunlight on the altar and apparently on one occasion a priest was at the altar as the sun light shone at the perfect moment – the priest himself was lit up in glorious light which obviously can be seen as very symbolic and must have been a wondrous sight.

Pugin had many critics about the building being on this North-South axis and responded his book “The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture” written in 1843 and in it he explains that he explained how the light from the  windows would have been affected by proprietors either side if built on the traditional axis and also how the building would have been too short for the nature of its purpose i.e. the size needed.  Pugin clearly through his own Catholic faith had the greatest respect of the traditions of the Catholic Church but he had no option on the design due simply due to that aforesaid width and now when you approach the church it is across the bridge, (presuming there was an earlier bridge too at the site or close by before the current one seen in my photo), you get a wonderful view of the church which can be seem from some distance.

Originally there was a small volume of the designs and plans for the Church but sadly this was sold to an unknown American buyer in 1987.  However two of these plans are shown below – the left hand side being the interior and the right hand side the modified plan for the exterior:

st marys 2


st marys 3


The final design has, as my own photos back up the above images, a Church that has supreme elegance and literally takes your breath away as you walk in – I know Lincoln Cathedral well through my childhood which is beautiful Gothic architecture in itself but this building although smaller has a beauty, an elegance and stunning elaborate decorations that in some ways for me surpasses Lincoln.  Lincoln Cathedral is almost a statement of wealth but this from the outside is demure and beautiful but then you walk in that door and you reveal the diamond itself that epitomizes all the qualities of Gothic architecture in all their glory – is known apparently as ‘Pugin’s Masterpiece’ and after yesterday I can assure the reader it is well worthy of that title.

As a point of note the style of Gothic architecture Pugin used was the perpendicular style which first emerged in around 1350 and is characterized on  emphasis  of vertical lines – this style was the third form of Gothic architecture.  At the same time of this style of architecture All Saints Church was  rebuilt  and believed to be to the size of the original medieval building and just this year renovations have found part of one of the original walls of which none was thought to exist – I cannot photograph this as yet because the renovations are on going but there is hope that this wall will be preserved in such a way the public can see it.  Between 1510 and 1535 the tower was added and built in the perpendicular Gothic style of the age.  In 1725 however the tower was kept but the church was demolished and rebuilt in the classical style by James Gibbs – the difference in styles  between the front and back can seen in my photograph below:

Besides the origins of the churches and their styles there is another link that is a nat ional first in the fact that during the current renovations of the protestant/Church of England Derby Cathedral daily masses during the week are being held at St Mary’s Catholic Church.

So back to St Mary’s and the features of Gothic Architecture:

  1. Grand, tall designs – as in the perpendicular style with soaring vertical lines;

2. Flying butresses which helped reduce the need for thick walls common in Norman/Romanesque architecture – these were often elaborate in design and swept around the building; (in St Mary’s these are missing but instead the height of the tower is supported by the sides of the church either side of the tower itself even though they are slightly set back)

3. Pointed arches – the most easily recognisable feature and one which further supported heavier ceilings and also by reaching upwards supported more vertical height in the process.

4. Vaulted ceilings – this followed on from the pointed arch and also due to the distribution of weight within this vaulting enabled different shapes and sized vaults to be built (see the difference below between the vault in the nave of St Mary’s in my photographs and the sanctuary vault). As a point of note the blue ceiling in the nave has literally hundreds of beautiful gold stars painted on it.



5. Light and airy interior – this is  a major feature and one that is immediately apparent on walking into the church as the quality of light is emphasized by a combination of the amount of windows and also the white walls.  This interior light and the use of windows was created by treating only narrow sections of walls as load bearers and the combination of vaulted ceilings and pointed arches was key to this construction.  When you add in the stained glass windows this is why St Mary’s is so breathtaking as the light from the glass bounces off the white walls so beautifully:

6. Gargoyles – a fact I didn’t realise was the practical purposes of these ugly little creatures, that personally I love, is that they serve as water spouts so that rainwater drains off the roof and gushes through their mouths to reach the ground and protected the stonework (guttering is a recent invention in terms of architecture).  On the other hand they were also intended to originally scare the poorly educated peasants of the community into seeking sanctuary from the demons outside (bearing in mind the historical times when the Church had such a powerful influence on the daily lives of the population and  the gargoyles would have been a sign of the evil in the world if you didn’t attend church). The gargoyles can be seen right at the top of the tower just below the ornate central section and this evidence of the evil outside the church is further emphasized by the angels either side of the main door that invite you in to the protected sanctuary of the church (there are an additional two either side of the tower at the same level as well):

7. A difference in style that showed that architectural no longer had to be purely functional – Decorative and Ornate – this is very evident throughout the church but in particular in the sanctuary.  The ornateness in this area of the church is hard to capture with my camera but the detail is just astonishing considering the tools that the sculptures and stone masons had available to them and the skill involved is just phenomenal and this was repeated across many centuries of Gothic architecture and in many different churches so you begin to get a small understanding of the level of craftsmanship of these workers.



NOTE: The term ‘gothic’ was in reference to the Goths from Germany who invaded Italy to break up the Roman empire and the Italians then used the term ‘gothic’ to mean ‘barbarian’ and the Gothic architectural style was first used in the Middle Ages as a reaction to the preceding Roman style.  In addition this Gothic movement was saying that God should be praised and no longer featured and hence the soaring heights of the style that seem to reach up in worship.

So before I answer the questions posted in the course material what about the rest of the church and some of the details:

In a later development a small side chapel was developed from a sacristy (which would have been originally used to hold sacred vestments or vessels) and this is my personal favourite section of this church.



The entrance to the chapel is through these beautiful and very ornate ironwork ‘gates’ and as you look through you are greeted by the Pieta above the altar – a Pieta is work of Christian art, usually sculpture, where Virgin Mary cradles the lifeless body of Jesus.  I have never seen one before and is so perfectly framed with the pointed arch above and the dark background with the white and gold that symbolize so much in Christianity (Gold is apparently to symbolize both the brilliance and splendour of God and the divinity of the Lord and white symbolises purity, virtue, innocence and also holiness). The blue of the iron gates is also representatives of the life giving qualities of air and the sky and hope, healing and also the Holy Spirit as well as obviously being commonly attributed to the Virgin Mary.   When you look through this chapel you are struck both  by the Pieta but also a feeling of awe which is obviously the intent of the design as you stand in awe before God.




The altar itself has religious art paintings of angels at the base who strike as paying homage to the scene above and I admit I wish I could have got closer to see them but without permission did not want to intrude on the sanctity of this chapel but none the less they are done very much in the style of medieval religious paintings. What is interesting to note is the red detailing on the roof of the chapel as apparently red is the colour (liturgical) of martyred saints.


Even the tiles of the floor are symbolic – the Fleur de Lis is a stylised version of the lily and is representation of the purity and so often associated with the Virgin Mary and also in Christian art it is also associated with the Archangel Gabriel particularly where the Annunciated is represented.  An alternative meaning is due to the 3 petals and 3 sepals it can also represent the Trinity.

At this point in the blog I do have a feeling of ‘I didn’t know that’ as I look up each meaning because my realisation with this special building is nothing is done by accident and every thing is very deliberate and as I write this before reading the medieval art section it is giving me a real understanding of my own Catholic roots.

During an alteration to the church in 1853 with the addition of the Lady Chapel 12 stone Stations of the Cross were added along wit the carved stone Blessed Virgin and Child that is at the left hand side of the Nave and close to the altar steps.  It was sculpted by a sculptor called Swayle and to the reputed design of Pugin himself.


Later a Mrs Sarah Gibson gave the gift of the Sacred Heart statue to the church and her initials on two shields at the base but the date of installation is unknown. A patron often used to pay for either a window or statue or other aspect in Gothic churches and in return their initials or names were added to the piece in question – this was an old way of raising funds.


There were other changes during this time as well not least the changing of the plain glass windows in the sanctuary to that of stained glass representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Genealogy of Our Lord and also the Blessed Virgin and Child and St Thomas of Canterbury as well as two Saxon saints associated strongly with the neighbourhood – St Werburgh and St Alkmund.  My photo is not the clearest for the detail but the decision to change these windows is one that makes a clear impact on the sanctuary – it must have been a source of wonderment when they were first unveiled. A point worth noting is the decoration of the walls further enhances the detailed carving and gives added elegance.



Directly in front of the sanctuary there can be seen what would originally have been called a ‘rood screen’ which separated the nave from the sanctuary  and the full versions were elaborately carved and decorated.  In Old English ‘rood’ means cross or Crucifix and rood screens date from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance and were most common between 14th and 16th centuries.  In St Mary’s Pugin has kept the rood screen but seemingly used it in the pointed arch of the Gothic architectural style and in turn this leads to the pointed vaulted and elaborately decorated ceiling of the sanctuary:


When you look up towards the rood screen you look up at the Crucifixion scene as you look heavenwards.

With apologies for the fuzzy photo the photo below is of the Lady Chapel that was the major alteration that took place in 1853 and was designed by a Mr Hanson (of cab fame) and the altar within was designed by Augustus Pugin’s son Paul.  This chapel is reputed to be the largest Lady Chapel in England and the reason for the fuzzy photo is that a mass due to take place within it on the day of my visit – the services that usually takes place in Derby Cathedral daily as said early have transferred temporarily to St Mary’s.  Like the sanctuary the windows within the Lady Chapel were originally plain glass and were replaced in 1931/2 by Messrs. Hardman of Birmingham – the ‘red’ windows show the 6 Derbyshire martyrs and the ‘blue’ Apparitions of Our Lady in different places and times – I will visit again but earlier in the day so that I can see these properly as I view the chapel.



I looked around I was struck by the nature of the paintings and sculptures within – very much in a medieval and traditional Christian art style and the sculptures reminded me of small Greek friezes but with ornate gold highlighting of angel wings and similar aspects. The sculptures are the aforementioned 12  Stations of the Cross are are quite simply stunning in their simplicity of use of colour but obvious highly skilled technicality was needed to execute the carving.  As my knowledge of History of Art through the ages increases I will no doubt be coming back to the paintings in a later blog as I understand the period or the style that the artists portrayed of these religious works.







Again as you look around the building you appreciate the pointed arched windows and the way the design of this architectural style enabled the roof to be supported and the buildings to be taller whilst allowing more light into areas that previously had been dark and oppressive.  For the Victorian Gothic style in particular as the prior regulations dating back to Henry VIII were removed this light and airy interior would have been very symbolic of new freedoms to worship.   After Henry VIII it was illegal to worship openly as a Catholic for over 250 years until the Relief Act of 1791 but there is evidence of Catholic worship in Derby 25 years prior to that albeit in a private house so the fact that there is mention of St Mary’s as a small Catholic Chapel as early as 1815 seems significant.  For that small chapel with humble origins to be effectively moved and St Mary’s Church was almost reborn, figuratively I guess, as this masterpiece by Pugin must have had a major impact on the Catholic community here in Derby who, as said previously, had been swelled by the influx of Irish Migrants.   To see these stained glass windows must have been truly incredible for the community and there is no doubt of the fact that building of the church would have provided much labour too.

The photos below are just two of the stained glass windows within the church and depict various religious scenes – again I would like to go back and study these further and with a little more time and I am seeking permission to go if necessary in the afternoon when it is normally closed (provisionally apparently this will be allowed happily) as I would also like to study this church further with a view to sketchbook work for textiles inspiration too as well as trying to learn more about the history of the art work within in more detail.




Lastly I could not go on to the course questions without a photograph of the font as again this is in typical Gothic style:


The font is ornate whilst, for me, seemingly simple in design at the same time and this may be to represent the purity of a newborn child – I am seeking more information on the font but at this point presume it was made by the same stone masons as the church itself.

So for the questions posed in the coursework:

  1. I was asked to study the structure, engineering and decoration and was the building appropriate for its purpose and all aspects worth reflection, its use as a place of worship and the conflicting aims of visual delight and devotion.  The engineering itself I feel is breathtaking because we are going back to an era that did not have the machinery we have today and relied on a combination of skilled craftsman/stone masons and also labourers who did not have the benefit of modern scaffolding or safety equipment.   The decoration is the perpendicular Gothic style that Pugin excelled at.  For use as a place of worship I feel that the church answers this question itself – Pugin was a devout Catholic and his whole design is around this worship and somehow he marries the usually conflicting visual delight and devotion into one. Derby Cathedral feels very much like a public building until you go through the rood screens but St Mary’s Church is a sanctuary of worship and the decoration and design of it that encompass the aforesaid visual delights are all with a view to the devotion of all that is Catholicism.
  2. The second question is concerning considering the place of commemoration in churches whether in the form of tombs or other memorials and also which elements of Gothic architecture have been incorporated and which left out and why the architect has made these changes.  What did strike me with St Mary’s is the lack of tombs or memorials inside – there is reference to the parishioner is gifted the statue of the Sacred Heart in that her initials are inscribed on two shields at its base but other than that there is very little.  I am aware of the cemeteries within Derby city and can only presume that there has been a conscious decision to not alter the interior of the church through adding tombs or other commemorative plaques etc and perhaps this is a combination of the fact that it is an exquisitely designed Pugin masterpiece and the relatively young age of the church.  By contrast Derby Cathedral (only became a cathedral in the 1920’s) has several tombs and many plaques and did in fact have a family crypt belonging to the Cavendish family of Chatsworth House – it has the memorial for Bess of Hardwick and amongst other bronze plaques one dedicated to Georgiana Spencer (a wife of one of the Dukes of Devonshire). However Derby Cathedral in its previous life as All Saints Church dates back much further to the 1500’s and unlike St Mary’s Church was a Protestant Church – bear in mind St Mary’s Church was not a parish church from late 1300’s and was then mentioned again in 1815 as Catholicism was banned under Henry VIII’s reign in the 1500’s.

For the elements of Gothic architecture that were left out or incorporated please see my points listed near the start of this blog where I described the elements of the Gothic style and illustrated with photos of what Pugin had incorporated and in what way he did so.    Pugin incorporated them all except the flying buttresses and this I can only assume is due to the restrictions of the space of the building plot available.  He was not able to build elaborate sweeping buttresses and instead relied on the side of nave itself which were lower than the tower to support the height of the tower – although financial constraints meant the spire he originally designed was not incorporated eventually.  In considering what Pugin states in WHA regarding the parallels between architecture and contemporary morals he is very clear about each detail having a meaning and that there should be no features that are not necessary and in St Mary’s, as I have stated above, there is nothing included that is not symbolic in some way and every detail of the building has been considered in its entirety and relation to one another.

I would argue that any contemporary debates with architecture do reflect modern morals because modern buildings are designed to be built to be functional rather than aesthetically pleasing although I appreciate there are exceptions.  We are in a fast moving society and functionality is key to the majority of buildings and in some ways this does reflect modern morals with a ‘throw away attitude’ and very functional attitude but also there seems to be a move towards  statement buildings that are reflective of an architects skill or a statement of wealth rather than what Pugin tried to do that was almost a moral protest in the fact that Catholicism had become legal again in very recent decades. The Gothic style was very much a statement about that legalisation in the fact it was elaborate and elegant and St Mary’s was built in such a way to entice the local population through its doors and making a statement that the Catholic Church was here to stay.   Modern society is now a mix of cultures and the Christian religion is not as prominent as it once was so there is less emphasis on the morals of the church but in Pugin’s time he wanted not just the Gothic style to be revived and copied but it to be understood in all its principles and if this was not done it was therefore immoral. Now because of the fact that Britain is a more secular country with a mix of religions architecture does not need to reflect morals within the style of the building but that by this nature it reflects a society which is a less regimented era than the Victorian times.


Finally unlike many churches St Mary’s is not a mix of styles but an incorporation of all aspects of the perpendicular Gothic style  and is a place of worship that Augustus Pugin would justifiably still be proud of today.



I have included a photo of a rood screen to give clarification to my definition above – this photo I took very recently at St Bartholomew’s Church in Elvaston, near Derby.  I was only able to go in very briefly as I have never witness the Church open other than for services – it was even more brief due to the existence of a large swarm of bees in a window just to the right of the screen!  This church dates from the 13th Century and has many early Gothic style features but it was the screen itself that I wanted to focus on – the carving is exquisite and it clearly shows how the rood screens were used to separate the sanctuary from the nave.



Art History Journal. (date unknown).  The role of light in Gothic art and architecture [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia Britannica. (date unknown).  A.W.N. Pugin British Architect and author [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2015].  Available from:

Fleming, J and Honour, H. 1984. A World History of Art. Seventh Edition. London.  Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Head Hand & Heart.  (date unknown).  Pugin and the Gothic Revival [online].  [Date Accessed: August 2015].  Available from:

St Marys Church & Parish Derby. (date unknown).  Welcome to St Mary’s Church & Parish [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2015].  Available from:







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