Introduction Interiors 1 Interiors 2 Churchyards Exteriors
Saint Iberius, Wexford

Interiors 1

Geoffrey Scott wrote that 'the art of architecture studies not structure in itself but the effect of structure on the human spirit'. The spirit can indeed soar on entering a place of worship and observing that all is seemly and admirable. Every church is unique and its interior bears testament to those who work and worship there now and those who did so in the past. Previous generations have left their memorials in stone or wood or more simply in the patina of age in the pew where they worshipped. A well maintained building is attractive and welcoming to visitors as well as to regular worshippers.

The interior surface of the wall in a historic church is usually of a soft lime plaster. It is an absorbent flexible material which allows the walls to 'breathe' particularly if used in conjunction with lime wash. The concept behind the construction of buildings erected before the mid 19th century is that moisture absorbed by the wall should be allowed to evaporate from the surface. Modern buildings, in contrast, rely on keeping water out by a system of barriers. It is important that the lime plaster is retained and not replaced with a hard mortar of sand and cement as this will upset the balance of the building and frequently leads to damp problems. Seek independent advice if you have a problem with damp and do not opt for a 'quick fix' solution which may leave future generations with greater problems.

Often churches are heated for a few hours on Sunday and this combined with the influx of people can result in major condensation problems. The heating of churches raises the temperature within the building in a relatively short space of time. This dramatic change of temperature can add to the condensation problems as when moisture laden warm air comes in contact with cold surfaces it is converted into water droplets. Damp surfaces rapidly lose heat, this encourages the growth of salts, which is the main cause of the deterioration of interior surfaces. Frequently windows are sealed to prevent draughts and after the service the church is closed up preventing a good circulation of air within the building. Many churches retain their hopper windows which open inwards and if these are freed and utilised they will provide adequate ventilation during the week when the building is closed.

While worshippers and visitors may admire the craftsmanship of the stained glass or the memorials few notice the care taken by generations of cleaners in maintaining the building. This essential service not only maintains the building for all to enjoy but is also the first line of defence in noticing problems. The cleaner who sweeps the church regularly will be the first to notice the loose plasterwork or the damp patch on floor or ceiling.

The vulnerability of historic buildings and their contents to damage by unconsidered action should never be underestimated. Apart from keeping the church clean and tidy, sweeping floors and vacuuming carpets keeps the floor in good condition; while a doormat at the entrance keeps out the abrasive grit carried in on shoes. Flagstone floors need to 'breathe', so the joints between the flags should not be filled with cement nor the surface sealed with wax or oil. Rubber-backed carpets can trap moisture underneath causing problems at a later stage. Washing stone floors can bring up salts from within the stone or the mortar in which it sits. Marble can be ruined by washing with water. Dust needs to be removed from buildings and not just moved around. Wax polish should not be applied unless the surface was previously waxed and then only sparingly; silicone sprays should never be used. A cloth impregnated with paraffin and vinegar both refreshes the polish and collects the dust effectively.

Pulpit

It is important to make a record of the church fixtures and fittings and to retain this information. Understanding the historic importance of artefacts to the church, parishioners and the locality creates pride in ownership as well as interest in local history. Parish registers, minute books, plans and account books all provide important information for research into the history of the church and its environs. Valuable items should be kept in a locked safe.

Some DOs and DON'Ts for the care of church interiors

DO:

DON'T:

This article offers general guidance only; for specific advice contact a conservation architect or other relevant specialist.
© Ulster Historic Churches Trust 2004