238: The Lamp of Power–A Post Honoring Ruskin’s Genius on the Occasion of the Anniversary of his Passing, 20 January 1900.

Dear Friends,

Every year, early in its passage, the calendar brings us round to the anniversary of Ruskin’s passing. Not long after that – watch your inboxes!– arrives the anniversary of his birth (8 February 1819). On these days, I attempt to share some of the best of his passages in honor of his still profound ability to help us orient our lives for the better, a century and more after he first committed his almost always inspiring words to paper.

Of late I have been rereading, slowly (my regular practice)–his wonderful book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture in a small edition presented to me by my good wife, Jenn Morris, on Christmas Day 2020. Given that I spent much of my teaching life as an urban sociologist, it was not unusual for me to come in contact with the idea of the importance of architecture in our lives, a subject to which I believe we still accord much too little attention. Hence, when I began my Ruskin studies in earnest years ago, I was delighted to discover that he had written a book on the subject. For decades, 7Ls has remained among my favorites among his myriad of works, and I heartily recommend it if you have not yet read it–either for a first or a return reading, For Ruskin, it is blessedly short and accessible! One does not need to know much about architecture to enjoy it thoroughly and have your eyes opened to many things that, previously, you may have missed during your days in our built environment. To make that enjoyment greater, it is one of the pleasures of this digital age that, as you read along, you can easily call up excellent images of the buildings and spaces about which he writes, His own illustrations are lovely, but, given the date of the book’s publication (1849), relatively few.

He begins, on the first page of his first chapter, with this definition of architecture; a definition which remains, seven decades and more after it first appeared, unique in its simplicity and clarity. To this day, after reading many books on architecture, I am aware of no other that provides as succinct a definition and certainly of none which echoes his insistence, in his definition’s last clause, on the responsibility architecture bears, eternally, for enhancing the quality of our lives.

Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man, for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them may contribute to his mental health, power, and pleasure.

There are, he informs us, seven “lamps” of architecture: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience. His essential argument is that each of these qualities, when present in a building (or, by extension, a room or public space) serve to elevate it from the mundane toward the realm of the sublime and transportive (or, in other words, elevate the building, room, or space, closer to being a more perfect exemplar of the definition above). The more, and more elegantly presented each of these lamps are, the greater the building is in both architectural and human significance. It is an easily testable hypothesis. I used to test it with students in my urban sociology course early in a semester by taking them to a nearby space dominated by rise four buildings built at different times over the course of the last century. Then, without telling them more, I asked them to look at these buildings with care and decide, without consulting with one another, which ones they liked better and then, a little later, tell me the reasons for their choices. Invariably, they preferred the buildings that had more of Ruskin’s lamps on display. And that is just the point, he would say; he was not proposing in his book anything arcane, but rather was simply laying out the principles of what constitutes the features of distinctive or pedestrian architecture for all time, principles immediately apparent to anyone. And, (he would add), once we understand how important the lamps are in distinguishing our edifices, why would we ever choose to build anything without including them?

To fully explicate all seven of the lamps and how they function would be too unwieldy a task for this Post–and so, today, I limit myself to just one: the Lamp of Power.

Some buildings, or portions of them, Ruskin says, have a unique ability to impress themselves on our minds and, in a few cases, possess the quality to awe us over time. Present within them, in short, is a kind of impressing, intrinsic, power. In many instances, that power is mysterious, but, always, it is uplifting and we recall it with undiminished admiration long after we are no longer in the presence of the building or space. Often such power is associated with size. For example, the Cathedral of Amiens in northern France can be seen looming above the horizon while the traveler is yet far distant, and the immensity and intensity of the great church only increases as one draws nearer, as the two following images, the first from a 19th century painting by Sir Arthur Streeton, and the second from a more modern photograph, demonstrate.

Ruskin’s intent in 7Ls, however, is not just to impress us with awe-inspiring examples. Rather, and, as ever in his works, he wishes to teach us, his readers, how the Lamp of Power actually operates. The following selections from his chapter on this quality, coupled with some images I’ve selected hopefully will convey the essence of what he is trying to illumine about the subtler qualities of what gives any instance of architecture power, qualities which, without his instruction, we might otherwise miss. As always when reading him, concentration will be rewarded with greater understanding.

The square and circle are preeminently the areas of power among [buildings or spaces] bounded by purely straight and curved lines. And these, along with their relative solids–the cube and the square–and their relative solids of progression, square and cylindrical columns, are the elements of utmost power in all architectural arrangements. On the other hand, grace and perfect proportion require an elongation in some one direction, and a sense of power may be communicated to this form of magnitude by a continuous series of any marked feature such as the eye may be unable to number, while yet we feel, from their boldness, decision, and simplicity, that it is their multitude which impresses us, not any confusion or instinctive indistinctness of form. This expedient forms the sublimity of arcades and aisles, which, repeated as they are in all the meanest and most familiar forms of our furniture, it is impossible to weary of.

Now, it is evident that any architect has a choice of two types of form, each properly associated with its own kind of interest or decoration–the square…to be chosen especially when the surface is to be the subject of thought, and the elongated area–to be selected when the divisions of the surface shall be the subjects of thought. But these orders of form, as I think is true of nearly every other source of power and beauty, are marvelously on display in that building which I admire most among almost all others as the greatest, as the model of all perfection, the Doge’s palace in Venice. In general, it is an arrangement of a hollow square; its principal façade an oblong, elongated to the eye by a range of 34 small arches and 35 columns, separated by a richly canopied window in the center, into two massive divisions, whose height and length are nearly as four is to five; the arcades which give it length being confined to the lower stories, while the upper reach between its broad windows, is left as a mighty surface of smooth marble, checkered with blocks of alternate rose color and white. It would be impossible, I believe, to invent a more magnificent arrangement of all that is in building most dignified and most fair.

In the Lombard Renaissance, these principles are often fused into each other as, most characteristically, in the Cathedral of Pisa, where length of proportion, exhibited by an arcade of 21 arches above and 15 below and the front divided into arcades placed one above the other, the lowest of its pillars engaged of seven arches, the four uppermost thrown out boldly from the receding wall and casting deep shadows–the first above the basement with 19 arches, the second, with 21… 63 arches in all (!), all circular-headed, and the lowest with square paneling, set diagonally under their semicircles (a universal element in this style). The apse is a semicircle with a semi-dome for its roof, and three ranges of circular arches arches for its exterior elements, while the interior of the nave consists of a range of circular arches below a circular-arched triforium and a vast, flat surface–observe, of wall decorated with striped marble above. The whole arrangement (not a peculiar one, but one characteristic of every church of the period) … with, to my feeling, the whole exemplifying the most majestic and powerful, though not perhaps the fairest, the most mighty type of form the mind of man has ever conceived based exclusively on associations of the circle and the square.

Of course, as these passages make palpable, Ruskin wrote his book illuminating the 7 Lamps not only for the general intelligent reader, but for architects. And, of course, most such eminents dismissed his observations as unimportant, his analyses as useless, and his recommendations more or less out of hand–with the result being that, today (at least in my experience), as in most things pertaining to “Ruskin” we are not surprised to find that there are few practicing in the field of architecture who are even aware that such an innovative book as this exists, as these final, repetitive images of a few modern skylines shows. (I leave it to you to decide which skylines they are.).

The above, then, I offer as a tribute to the greatest of Victorian geniuses on the occasion of the day of his passing in 1900. I intend it as a reminder of the enduringly delightful fact that, wherever one turns in Ruskin’s works, these–in their various ways–constitute still brightly shining lamps in their own right, always fairly bursting with intellectually challenging and morally revivifying ideas.

Until next time!

Do please continue well out there!



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2 Responses to 238: The Lamp of Power–A Post Honoring Ruskin’s Genius on the Occasion of the Anniversary of his Passing, 20 January 1900.

  1. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    Dear Jim- Thank you for the post talking about The 7 Lamps…another book which I have not read. Ruskin’s powers of observation and analysis are so remarkable! Fancy counting all those arches and then simplifying much for us with the idea of the square and the circle. I did not understand everything and must read again, slowly. Oh there is so much yet to learn and understand! I try to wake with a sense of gratitude…it is so easy to take our gift of life for granted…when you consider the vast extent of the universe, to even just our own planet, how extraordinary is our consciousness, and how lucky we are to enjoy this brief spark. Well I cannot imagine it is one life only we have, but one or more, we all have to learn how to live it fully! Good wishes- Jonathan.


    • jimspates says:

      A lovely,thoughtful response, Jonathan‼️ You express such timeless issues so well 😃 we ARE gifted to have this brief moment in time. One of the things that I love about JR is that he did NOT take the moment for granted. Do let me know about your second reading. I wasn’t sure the quotes I selected really hung together well‼️ All my very best wishes jim

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