Elizabethan devices


Detail of Treshams Lodge windows

Elizabethan architecture displays an obsession with geometrical shapes. To some extent, this can be explained by the Reformation. The Elizabethan building boom was dominated by secular rather than ecclesiastical architecture: new types of buildings demanded a new ornamental vocabulary. Added to this was the Protestant dislike of images. Naturalistic sculpture and paintings were removed from churches and public places; instead patterns and symbols became more acceptable.  

The Reformation also cut off England from the main currents of European architectural development. Catholic Italy’s sophisticated Renaissance architecture, sculptural in effect and structurally innovative, was out-of-bounds to the Protestant English. Instead, printed books, especially those from Flanders, their images crude and two-dimensional, were the main means for English patrons and masons to encounter the new architecture.

The result was a delight in flat patterns – ‘devices’ – applied to plans, elevations and gardens on a micro and macro scale. Some were mere geometrical caprices, others more earnest expressions of learning and belief.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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