A few days ago, the picture of a ballot box in front of Westminster cathedral – the metropolitan Catholic cathedral of London – evoked some sneering twitter remarks about “mosques” from a member of the nationalist British UKIP or UK independence party. The jeering response from social media has drawn attention to contemporary debates on prejudices and xenophobia, but perhaps it would have been more fruitful to raise the question what particular deficit in historical knowledge has made this confusion between a mosque and a cathedral possible.
Due to its name the Westminster Cathedral is regularly confused with Westminster Abbey, the Medieval coronation church of the British monarchs, but it is of a far later date. In the mid-19th century, when the episcopal hierarchy of the Catholic church had just been restored in England, proposals were made for the building of a new metropolitan cathedral in London, and in 1895 work began on the grounds of what had been a state prison.
The question of style presented the commissioners and architects with a problem. The historicist tastes of the 19th century made the imitation of a gothic or baroque model likely, but it seemed unnecessary to add to the tentative confusion with Westminster Abbey, or to take up competition with St. Paul’s. Byzantium appeared to be the only source of inspiration that would allow the new cathedral to stand out on the same time as it could be identified with a long historical tradition – indeed much longer than any existing church in the city – and there were notable precedents for similar imitations in Europe at the time.
The exterior, with alternating stripes of red brick and white stone (popularly known as “bacon architecture”) does indeed present the viewer with a common stylistic feature of Islamic architecture whose origins, however, are Roman and Byzantine. The flat domes and indirect light sources from the gallery windows make for a strong resemblance with San Marco in Venice (although the absence of mosaics due to lack of funds have left most vaults rather dark and barren), one of the most notable examples of Byzantine architecture outside of the core areas of the Byzantine Empire.
That Islamic architecture has drawn a considerable amount of inspiration from Byzantine models throughout the ages – from the seventh-century Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to the sixteenth-century mosques of Sinan in the Ottoman Empire – is nothing new, but in light of the recent controversy it becomes yet more puzzling why Byzantium remains so absent in the consciousness both of the contemporary nationalists that like to emphasise the Christian roots of Europe, and of their critics who are going to similar lengths in their efforts to stress their affinity with the cultural heritage of Islam.