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Friday, March 13, 2015


Christ Church, Weems, VA
On a recent sunny winter day I went to Weems in Lancaster County, in the coastal area of Virginia, to visit Christ Church, one of several 18th century churches in the Tidewater region. While there, I had a remarkable encounter with a local resident and saw some fascinating details about the structure. The gentleman who shared this with me has studied all aspects of the church for over twenty years. He cited reasons why he believes that one day the design will be credited to Sir Christopher Wren.
But more on that later. . .

The first Christ Church in Weems, Virginia, founded in 1670, was a wooden structure built as directed by John Carter. The current the church, completed in 1735, is a one story cruciform or cross-shaped plan (equal sides). Its Georgian style with symmetrical layout and pediment facade is completely brick in Flemish bond style with a steep hipped roof.

Robert Carter Tomb
Robert “King” Carter commissioned the building of the current church. At the time, he was the richest and most powerful landowner and planter in Virginia and lived nearby at Corotoman, his plantation on the Rappahannock River. At his death, his sons completed the building project. There is a cedar lined walk that leads from the church to the former plantation site. Many Carter graves are located within the church walls.
cedar lined walkway

Christ Church Parish is one of the best preserved Anglican parish churches in Virginia. The craftsmanship and architecture of this brick church is stunning.

Two tablets that contain the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, frame the altarpiece. Canon Law LXXXII of 1604, the Church of England required that “the Ten Commandments be set up on the East end of every Church and Chapel, where the people may best be able to see and read.” Even the church at the Jamestown site contains the Decalogue.  

ox-eye window
Each of the churches three doorways has an ox-eye, or elliptical, window centered above them. Twelve large compass-head windows add considerable light to this beautiful church.

There is a museum staffed by volunteers that offers a history of the church and the Carter family to visitors.

It was almost five o’clock when I arrived at the church. Because there was work being done on the roof, considerable scaffolding surrounded it. Mr. Stewart was the lone gentleman standing outside. He asked if I was interested in learning more about the church. At his suggestion, I looked through the keyhole and could see the cross illuminated by the declining sun from the ox-eye window above the door. It was amazing. Mr. Stewart, a Horologist, one who studies the science of measuring time, spent the next hour explaining the connection between Wren and the Carters, and that the building was designed to act as a sun dial as well as a Christian church. Specific dimensions, the latitude of the church, as well as its siting on the property, were incorporated to achieve this purpose.

“Sunlight and shadows are used to indicate the time and the changing dates of the year, the progression of the seasons, the dates of the equinoxes and solstices, the 'cross-quarter' days (half way between the equinoxes and solstices), while the beam of the sun, shining through carefully aligned oval windows, enables a pool of sunlight to fall exactly on the tomb of one David Miles four times a year, and twice each year the sunbeam advances and retreats across the altar table and cross.” *

Sir Christopher Wren
National Portrait Gallery
            The architect for Christ Church is said to be anonymous. Sir Christopher Wren was an astronomer and geometrician as well as an architect. He was the architect of the Wren building at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, The Royal Observatory, and numerous other churches and buildings. Wren died in 1723.

I don’t know if Wren, or a student of Wren’s work, had anything to do with the design of Christ Church, Weems. But I do find it interesting that on Every Easter Sunday, light from the sun if it is shining, shine through an ox-eye window on to the alter. 

Below is a time compresses video showing the sun shining on the alter on Easter of 2012.

* Horological Journal May 1994 Vol136 No11 Pages 365-400

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