Aside from St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, few of London’s places of Christian worship top many visitors’ toPla-do lists. This is a great shame, not only because a number of the capital’s churches are architectural marvels, steeped in history and filled with stunning artworks, they are also free to enter, and (outside of service times, at least) blessed oases of calm amid the metropolitan clamour, whatever your spiritual bent. Gathered below are half a dozen ecclesiastical hidden gems, ranging from a Baroque masterpiece to the most minimalist of 21st-century chapels. Now, let’s go to church.
Church of Notre Dame de France, Soho
While Leicester Square is perhaps London’s most depressing tourist mecca (two words: M&M’s World), it’s worth navigating its crowds to reach the nearby Church of Notre Dame de France, which was established in 1868 to serve the city’s Gallic population, in a circular building previously used for the display of vast panoramic paintings, a popular Victorian attraction. Having sustained heavy bomb damage during the Blitz, the church was rebuilt in the 1950s by a team that included the seminal French artist, writer, filmmaker (and alleged Grand Master of the occult secret society, the Priory of Sion) Jean Cocteau. His contribution to the church was three gorgeous murals, which both showcase his bravura command of line and colour, and contain what some believe to be esoteric symbolism. Is the dark orb that Cocteau paints in his crucifixion scene a reference to the solar eclipse that the Bible tells us took place during Christ’s passion, or does it gesture towards the sol niger, the concept of a black, counter-sun found in medieval alchemy?
Church of Notre Dame de France, 5 Leicester Place, London, WC2H 7BX; ndfchurch.org
St Mary le Strand, The Strand
Designed by James Gibbs, architect of Oxford University’s world-famous Radcliffe Camera, St. Mary le Strand is often cited as London’s finest 18th-century church, so it’s something of a pity that this Baroque beauty is beached on a traffic island in the middle of the A4, like a hapless character from a JG Ballard novel. And yet, it’s precisely the limitations of this site that drove Gibbs’ invention. To proof the interior against the sound of passing traffic (evidently a problem even during the early 1700s), the architect designed its first floor without any glazing. The effect is to draw worshippers’ eyes up to twin banks of clerestory windows, which create a canopy of light over the congregation, and illuminate the extravagantly gilded coffered ceiling. The church’s exterior is no less spectacular. With adroit use of sculptural masses and voids, positive and negative space, Gibbs creates a structure that appears to get ever more evanescent as it reaches up into the sky, until its steeple grazes the heavens.
St. Mary le Strand, Strand, London WC2R 1ES; stmarylestrand.com
Holy Trinity Church, Chelsea
A stone’s throw from Sloane Square, the grand late-Victorian edifice of Holy Trinity was described by the poet John Betjeman as ‘the cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement’, not least because of its vast stained-glass east window, designed by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris & Co. Teeming with angels, saints and prophets, all framed by heavily stylized foliage, this jewelled and fecund vision feels like it belongs less in a parish church than in an Elvish hall from some absurdly costly Tolkien adaptation. The sense of being transported to a sumptuous, cod-medieval fantasy world extends to the church’s every detail, from the bronze relief sculpture of King Alfred the Great on the gilded organ chamber, to the towering Siena Renaissance-style pulpit, tricked out in red, green, and bone-white marble. Mounting its steps, even the humblest Anglican vicar must surely feel like a quattrocento cardinal.
Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London SW1X 9BZ; sloanechurch.org
St Pancras Old Church, King’s Cross/St Pancras
While St Pancras Old Church’s building is a pleasantly dainty faux-Romanesque confection, the real star is its churchyard. Not only is it the burial place of the foundational 18th-century feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and home to the brilliantly eccentric Regency architect Sir John Soane’s self-designed tomb (a structure that inspired the canopied form of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic K6 red telephone kiosk), it is also the site of a bizarre monument created by the novelist Thomas Hardy during his youthful employment as an assistant architect. Charged with the gruesome task of exhuming bodies from part of the churchyard to make way for a new railway line, the author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles found himself with hundreds of ancient headstones on his hands. Rather than break them into rubble, he placed them in a series of tight concentric circles around a great ash tree, which over the years has absorbed many of them into its swelling trunk, creating a gothic vision of the inextricable comingling of life and death.
St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, London, NW1 1UL; posp.co.uk
Church of St Saviour, Eltham
Looming like a holy fortress over south-east London since 1933, St Saviour’s is one the earliest Modernist churches built in the city, and it may well be the best. Designed by NF Cachemaille-Day, from the outside it is a brutal, if sculpturally dynamic brick bunker – perhaps appropriate given that its early parishioners included armaments workers from nearby Woolwich Arsenal. Step inside, though, and it’s an austerely lovely space, where the blue stained glass of the arrow-slit east windows seems to stain the interior brickwork purple, and a huge white concrete statue of Christ by Donald Hastings stands above the altar, cradling an orb. In Christian iconography, this motif is known as Salvator Mundi, or the Saviour of the World. When the church first opened in the 1930s, as the storms of global war once again began to gather, Hastings’ statue must have felt both like a warning of the coming conflict, and a promise that peace would one day out.
Church of St Saviour, Middle Park Avenue, London SE9 5JG; southwark.anglican.org/church/eltham-st-saviour
Lumen United Reformed Church, Bloomsbury
Behind its unassuming 1960s brick façade, the Lumen United Reformed Church in Bloomsbury hides a miracle of 21st-century architecture. At the centre of the building’s nave rises what at first appears to be a pure white conical mass, which tapers up until it pierces the vaulted ceiling. Walk around it, and you’ll discover it’s not a solid object at all, but rather a hollow “sacred space” intended for silent contemplation, whose featureless interior walls are illuminated by a single, circular hole at the cone’s distant tip, through which the pale London sun pours in like a divine blessing. The work of architects Theis + Khan (who rightly won a 2009 RIBA award for their efforts), its form is echoed in a minimalist baptismal font designed by the Turner Prize-shortlisted British sculptor Alison Wilding, creating a subtle, moving dialogue between water and light.
Lumen United Reformed Church, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RS; lumenurc.org.uk
Tom Morton writes about contemporary art for titles including Frieze and ArtReview