Home » Public History / Heritage » Dragons, Romanesque and Parliament: Medievalisms at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as expressions of power

Dragons, Romanesque and Parliament: Medievalisms at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as expressions of power

Situated in the heart of Toronto, Queen’s Park has been the site of the Ontario Legislative Assembly since 1893. If you stand in the centre of the park, with the Legislative Building in front of you and the University of Toronto all around you, you find yourself in what is arguably the most medieval-esque area of the city. Medieval-esque is a frightfully vague word, but in its vagueness describes that feeling we get when we sense that something is inexplicably medieval. Then again, maybe it’s not that inexplicable.


A medievalism is a number of things. The way we think about the Middle Ages changes as we change, so even when we study the Medieval period that is a medievalism, because we have to interpret the past through our own eyes and our own version of historical events. However, it is also a medievalism when we use elements of what we think the Middle Ages were to create something new. Likewise, we can also call it a medievalism when elements have continued on from the Middle Ages and we use those elements in our own, modern way. A medievalism is anything where the Middle Ages is being interpreted and transmitted to a more modern audience. All of those versions of medievalisms are present at Queen’s Park.

There was no European Middle Ages that occurred geographically here in Toronto, so the medievalism we encounter all around us in the architecture at Queen’s Park is where people use symbols from the Middle Ages to create something new. We’re next to the Gothic structures of U of T, including the awe inspiring Trinity College.


Gothic and Romanesque are two quintessential Northern European Medieval Architectural styles. At Queen’s Park the central figure is the massive Romanesque Revival structure. So, built in 1893, why did Canadian Victorian society decide to refer to medieval precedents when constructing their civic structures?


In the early Victorian era medieval and not classical elements are sometimes chosen in Canada to emphasize the Britishness of the cultural influence, which is in opposition to their U.S. neighbours, who want to skip Britain and go back to classical or continental roots (see some of the conclusions reached in the project Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier). That is in play here, especially in the structures of U of T which are referencing the medieval university traditions at places like Oxford, or Cambridge with their Gothic style. But I don’t think that is the whole explanation. I think in this time, approx. 1870-1885, they use a medieval style of architecture only in part to emphasize Britishness, but mostly they see this as an appropriate symbol for power. It can’t be wholly to separate themselves from the United States because this is a uniquely American form of Romanesque.

Richard A. Waite, British-born Buffalo architect, was given the contract to design the building. This was after as a member of the selection committee he had decided that the Gothic design (the other most recognizable medieval architectural style), proposed by Darling and Curry was unsuitable. The architectural style Richardsonian Romanesque was developed by Henry Hobson Richardson , and it was perfected in New England. When they were designing the civic structures in Toronto they favoured this Richardsonian Romanesque style. E.J. Lennox designed Old City Hall in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, and R.A. Waite chose the style for these, the Ontario Parliament Buildings. These buildings are associated with power. So at that time Richardsonian Romanesque, this Medieval style tempered with American influence, was how Torontonians, as well as New Englanders, expressed power through a structure (City Hall, Ontario Legislature).

The carvings on the building reflect the Richardsonian Romanesque style. They are largely floral and whimsical, though there are some allegorical. For instance, the building is covered in gargoyles. Some of them look like they should be spouts,which would have been part of their function on Romanesque cathedrals, but is not their function here. They reflect the medieval tradition of the gargoyle, which adorned medieval Romanesque and gothic structures of power. Gargoyles protect the building, and keep evil from it, while at the same time they are whimsical.

 

The rose window with the Gothic tracing that can be seen on the southwest corner of the central structure of the building was not part of the original plan. Originally it was supposed to house a clock, but during construction they ran out of funds and so the clock was never built. But the carving around the window reflects the original intent to put in a clock and reflects an homage to medieval traditions. The signs of the zodiac were placed around the circle as they were in medieval calendars. It shows a conscious effort on the part of the architect R.A. Waite and possibly chief carver William McCormack, to build a Romanesque building while referencing the Romanesque roots and time period.

A Romanesque cathedral might have figures of apostles or saints, figures which are meant to lend power to that location, and give that power spatial representation. Here it is no different. On either side of the building are important political figures who, in a very similar way, give power to the activities that go on here. These figures say that Canadian politics is represented here in this building. What they give to the abstract concept of politics is a spatial representation. Politics and civic power has been represented as having monumental importance.

Dragons recur throughout the building, inside and out. Here are the dragons at the base of the pillars on the first floor of the east wing. In the Middle Ages the dragon represented the ‘other.’ The knight defeating the dragon was conquering the other – restoring order. In this case the placement of the dragons at the base of the pillars shows, in a similar way, the wild creatures being subdued. Likewise, the tops of those pillars, on the third floor east wing, have dragons adjacent to the ceiling, so that dragons appear on both ends of the pillars. Not to take away the element of whimsy, but in British culture the dragon has special meaning because of St. George, patron saint of England who slew a dragon, and is it is pervasive as a popular symbol in keeping with the medieval style of the building. The moral is: Victorians like dragons! But there are reasons as to why they like dragons.

For the art and architecture a medieval style was chosen, but when we look at the debts and carry-overs in the parliamentary tradition from the Middle Ages we can see why medieval symbols are appropriate to help represent a British Parliament.  For instance, there has been a perceived continuity to the British monarchy since 1066. In fact, our concept of Britain, the nation, as we understand it took shape during the Middle Ages.

The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 made the King subject to the law and redefined where authority was derived from (that is a basic statement, since as one of the West’s favourite documents it is also one of the most debated, but for arguments sake lets take this classic view). It was signed by King John, but it was King John’s son Henry III who first referred any matter to a ‘parliament,’ meaning he is the first British monarch to also use the word ‘parliament.’ Parliament is related to the French word parlement (remember the French origins of Britain’s rulers since 1066), from the Latin parliamentum. Basically it means discussion. He was also the first king to ask his subjects for regular taxation, as the revenues from Crown lands were no longer enough to run the realm. Many of the first members were barons, who were asked for taxation, but eventually they had to ask for taxes directly from representatives of towns, clergy and counties. Length of sessions were based on need. Most of the time they met in Westminster, but they could meet anywhere. The commons emerged in the 14th century as a group distinct from the barons, but they were still usually knights and burgesses. The parliament was also considered the highest court, as people could bring their issues and petitions that they would like to have answered. (For more information see the BBC’s History of Parliament).

The medieval borrowings in the building and the Legislative Chamber are then really appropriate, because it is from those traditions that our modern form of government has developed. If you look around the Chamber, in addition to inheriting the parliamentary traditions, there is again a conscious use of medieval style.

 

 

 

 
For instance, there are actual gargoyles around the Chamber being subdued or contained at the base of pillars. We could interpret this as representations of power, in addition to forces of chaos or nature being subdued.
 

 

 

 

 

Resting under the Clerk’s table is the Legislative Mace, which is placed on the table when the House is in Session to symbolize Ontario’s Parliament’s authority to make it’s own laws. But, as young grade fives are quick to point out, the mace starts out as a medieval weapon, carried into battle by fighting members of the clergy who are not permitted edged weapons. Its use by important people causes it to be used as a symbol of authority.

By the 1200s, the times of the first real parliaments, the mace is being carried by the sergeants-at-arms who protect the king. In time it comes to stand for the authority of the monarch. All British/Commonwealth parliaments still have them. The mace conveys authority, derived from the monarch, to the parliament.

In the Chamber there are examples of heraldry, standards derived from the Middle Ages. For instance, the Royal Coat of Arms behind the Speaker’s Chair, which includes the three lions of England, the harp of Ireland and the lion of Scotland, is derived from the symbols used during the Middle Ages. For instance, the three lions go back to the symbol used by Richard I and has endured as a symbol of England.


The question is do we still perceive those symbols as something medieval? I do, but I study medieval things. Do most people just see it as tradition, from a non-descript past?

One thing that is striking is that medievalisms at Queen’s Park – the parliament, Romanesque, dragons, the mace – all incorporate the medieval as symbols of power. The parliament is the decision making body, the grandeur of the Romanesque is seen as appropriate to be associated with sites of power, the mace confers authority on the parliament, and the dragons are both a power that has to be subdued and represents the power of Britain. So the sense that we get that we are surrounded by the medieval is because we are, though we are also well aware that this is an interpretation both by Canadian Victorian society as well as by modern society. The medieval elements we decide to use in our culture tell us a lot about how we view the medieval, but they also show how our distant medieval past influences our present.

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1 Comment

  1. Denise Jacques says:

    Dear Writer of Dragons and Romanesque,

    Following on my doctoral research on the Toronto firm Jacques & Hay, I am following up an interest in the carver William McCormack. McCormack received his training at Jacques & Hay as an apprenticed carver. He was a artist of enormous ability, but almost completely forgotten, and I wondered if in your research on medievalism you encountered more information on McCormack’s work in Toronto.

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