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Alan Jacobs


The Mystery of Sarah Losh

Self-taught architect of a curious and beautiful church.

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But we are guessing here. Again and again Uglow comments that Sarah Losh's surviving letters and notes, of which there are many, tell us little or nothing about what she intended or even what she believed. Lacking authoritative guidance, we might do well to remember that the profusion of natural things in her church—or rather, representations in stone and wood of natural things, presented with restrained simplicity and yet lavish—arose in her mind in the aftermath of her deepest loss. The death of her sister is answered by a church dedicated to organic abundance, one that celebrates life, life, and more life.

The two stone railings at the back of the little church's nave are capped, at their inside ends, with stone pinecones: one enters the nave by walking between them. Their prominence is no more explicable than anything else in the building. Uglow notes that "the pinecone is an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility, and inner enlightenment," as well as embodying in its Fibonacci-sequence structure what natural philosophers of Sarah's time would have called "Sacred Geometry," and she thinks the image important enough to title her book after it; but whatever its public meanings, one has to wonder whether it had for Sarah a private one. It was known in the village that before William Thain died he had sent a pinecone from India to Wreay, intending it to be planted there. The villagers made as much of this as they did of the arrows; the idea of Sarah lamenting a dead lover has an obvious romantic appeal, even though there is no indication that she ever had or sought lovers.

But there is one further point to note. In addition to the church, Sarah had built for Katharine a tiny mausoleum, a strikingly and intentionally crude little building—"Druidical," some called it—made of unmortared and rough-edged stone with no ornamentation and a flat roof. But within it is a smooth white marble sculpture of Katharine. She sits erect, leaning slightly forward, her right hand crossed to her left shoulder. She contemplates an object resting in her lap, held in the folds of her dress by her left hand. It is a pinecone.

Alan Jacobs is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College and this fall will begin teaching in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, due in October from Princeton University Press.

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