Places to Visit in Scotland
- Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Only Church
Queen's Cross Church at 870 Garscube Road in Glasgow was commissioned in 1896 by the Free Church of Scotland as St Matthew's Church. It was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was at that time working as an employee of Honeyman & Keppie. It opened for worship on 10 September 1899.
Although he designed an Anglican Cathedral for Liverpool, as part of a competition, it was never built, so St Mathew's was the only Mackintosh church to be completed (although he did design and build the Free Church Halls at Ruchill Street in Glasgow). It was started at a time when Mackintosh, although not yet a partner in the architectural firm, was able to take projects through from start to finish without a senior partner removing at least some of his distinctive design elements. The work on the church was started soon after submitting the company's entry for a competition to design another Glasgow building - the School of Art, one of Mackintosh's greatest buildings.
Many churches in Glasgow and elsewhere have tall soaring spires, so the rather squat tower of this Mackintosh building, looking a bit like a Norman castle, is a complete contrast. "Modern gothic" is the name given by architects to the style used. The main south-west tower was modelled on one at Merriot in Somerset which Mackintosh visited in 1895.
The church is located on a tight corner site, but Mackintosh manages to pack in a lot of different elements in a design which is totally asymmetrical. Looking along the side facing the main road, there are at least four different structures on view - five if the stair turret growing out of the tower is included. But it is often the Mackintosh detailing in the sculptured stone which pleases the eye. In many of his later designs, Mackintosh often created stylised birds' heads, flowers, leaves and seeds. St Mathew's gospel tells the parable of the sower, so having such elements in this building is entirely appropriate.
The illustration on the right is from the east porch of the church. It is surprising that the strict Free Church of Scotland (the so-called "Wee Frees") allowed the sensuous styling of Mackintosh's representations both outside the church and inside. Perhaps they didn't see them that way? On the other hand, it was the Free Church which had commissioned the monumental "Solomon's Temple" of St Vincent Street Church by Alexander "Greek" Thomson 40 years earlier. And it has to be remembered also that in the late 19th century the Free Church were regarded as the trendy ones (more so than the Church of Scotland), both theologically and in the introduction of hymns and musical instruments into worship.
If the exterior of the church is almost a confusion of structures pushed together, internally there is unity - achieved largely by the most striking timber-lined barrel vault roof and a steel tie-beam, which spans the entire width of the nave. This was modelled after a church by Norman Shaw in London. A Mackintosh architectural drawing suggests that he originally intended to have it clad in wood. The rood beam is a pre-Reformation style element and is said to be unique in Scotland. The roof itself looks rather like an ark, turned upside down. The church was designed to accommodate 820 worshippers, largely from the surrounding district of Maryhill.
The inside of the church has a lot of Mackintosh's detailing and, unlike some other preserved Mackintosh buildings (Hillhouse in Helensburgh, for example, owned by the National Trust for Scotland), visitors are free to take photographs - a great bonus which, as you can see, I put to great use! The large windows certainly help to provide a lot of natural light (and on this visit the sun was shining outside).
Dr Thomas Howarth, Mackintosh’s first biographer, wrote of the church, "the building possesses a warmth and charm conspicuously absent from many churches of the period due largely to the traditional simplicity of Mackintosh’s architectural forms and to the mysticism and spirituality of his decorative motives."
As church stained glass windows go, those in Queen's Cross Church are perhaps not particularly impressive (see left and right) but they are distinctively Mackintosh and tie in with the other internal elements of the church. The illustration of the window on the left is of the liturgical west window behind the pulpit at the front of the church which is also to be seen in the illustration above.
Mackintosh designs adorn the pulpit, the focal point of the church. The pulpit (see graphic on the left) rises high above the congregation and one motif (see picture on the right) is repeated five times round the front. It has been suggested that it represents a bird's wings embracing and protecting young plant shoots; perhaps these are the seed which was sown on fertile ground? Echoes of the parable of the sower, which comes from St Matthew's gospel, abound in the church - at one stage the church was going to be called St Mathews and Mackintosh may have been responding to this.
The Church Today
In 1929 the Free Church was reunited with the Church of Scotland which took over the Queen’s Cross building. In 1976, however, following a decline in church members, the congregation merged with that of nearby Ruchill Church and vacated the premises. Many churches in the same situation have been reduced to becoming warehouses, converted to housing or demolished entirely. Fortunately, the growing interest in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh had given rise in 1973 to the formation of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society which took over the Mackintosh church. This organisation promotes greater awareness of the work of this unique Scottish architect.
The Society set about restoring the church which had been allowed to deteriorate over the years. They have set up the headquarters of the Society in Queen's Cross Church and there is a reference library and meetings and lectures are held there.
The church is open during the day - Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm and on Sundays from 2pm to 5pm.
In addition to the main church, there is an adjoining church hall, also designed by Mackintosh. It is startling to find chairs designed by Mackintosh for the Willow Tearooms lining the walls - but these are replicas (originals are worth a small fortune).
The Society has a good collection of Mackintosh-related books on sale - some at a bargain price! Many of the books are aimed at serious Mackintosh enthusiasts but as you can see from the graphic on the right, some also for younger readers!
The final graphic below is of internal double doors with typical Mackintosh detailing, leading to what is now the book shop.
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