Ayla Lepine – Manifesting the Rule: Designing for Monasticism in Victorian Oxford

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)


Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950

Living in Institutions

Material Cultures

Ayla Lepine (Courtauld Institute): Manifesting the Rule: Designing for Monasticism in Victorian Oxford

The Rev. R. M. Benson established the monastic community of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Oxford in 1866. Men who joined the organization were subject to its strict and ascetic rule. The forming of religious institutions such as these was a consequence of the Oxford Movement – a product generated from within the intellectual culture of the University – and its members’ advocacy of a controversial return to pre-Reformation theology and rituals in the Anglican church. This paper seeks to consider the Order’s buildings and liturgical vestments designed by the architect George Frederick Bodley from the 1866-1905 as strategic extensions and reflections of its institutional identity, taking its surroundings and social contexts into account.

G. F. Bodley’s church, cloisters and textiles for the Society of St John the Evangelist attempt to provide a cohesive sacral aesthetic to describe the relationship between God and humanity. These materials are therefore manifestations of conviction: they enclose, enwrap, protect, deflect, and most importantly proclaim. The blurring of simultaneously inward and outward tactics will be explored through analysis of Bodley’s designs with reference to Benson’s lectures on monastic life from 1870-74 and recent scholarship on architecture and theology, especially Timothy Gorringe’s understanding of dwelling as assertion of corporeality and Jean-Francois Lyotard’s analysis of the domus in urban modernity. The discussion will pair Lyotard’s argument for a fluidity of being where ‘it is in passing that we dwell’ with Benson’s assertion that, ‘the religious life is not a mere kind of spiritual aristocracy…But [it] is a real dedication of the soul to God, parting with all that is in the world’. Consequently, this paper will investigate the emergent Victorian negotiation of anxious tensions between corporeal desires and spiritual aspirations in a semi-cloistered homosocial community.





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