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Christ Church Gallery takes visitors back in time

Historic Christ Church in Irvington, Virginia welcomes visitors with a new spin on an old story.


As rich in history as it is, the Northern Neck quite naturally has a number of museums, telling their own part of 300 years of European settlement and thousands of years of Indian culture. One of the newest museums drawing visitors to the area is the Christ Church Gallery, which opened in April 2009.

The new gallery is actually an expansion of the old one, part of a major renovation on the Christ Church campus, near Irvington, Va.

“We've doubled the size of the exhibit,” said Camille Bennett, Executive Director of the Foundation for Historic Christ Church.

Visitors to the gallery start their tour in a replica Christ Church Pew, watching a 10 minute orientation film narrated by former CBS Newsman and History Channel host Roger Mudd. Once they get the overview, they begin to put the history of Christ Church, the Northern Neck, and the Virginia colony into perspective. A large time line dominates one wall, showing events happening here as well as around the world.

“The time line allows people to put events into context,” Bennett said. “While Robert Carter was planning his church, they can see what else was happening in the worlds of politics, science and music.”

The first Christ Church was built around 1670 at the direction of a wealthy planter, John Carter. In 1730, his son Robert “King” Carter, at the time Virginia's most powerful planter, proposed to build a much grander church at his own expense.

Finished in 1735, Christ Church was the most finely crafted Anglican parish church in all of colonial Virginia. The church’s detailed brickwork, particularly the molded-brick doorways, had few rivals in Virginia and perhaps colonial America.

The classical, full entablature was among the most sophisticated produced in the colony. With towering brick walls, vaulted ceilings, and large compass-headed windows, Christ Church cut an imposing figure in a Virginia landscape dotted by small, frame, earthfast buildings.

On the interior, the superb high-backed pews, triple-decker pulpit, walnut altarpiece, and stone pavers gave the church a character unique among colonial houses of worship. No doubt it was one of the most astonishing buildings many colonial Virginians would see throughout their entire lives.

“By that time, the Virginians wanted to make a statement of parity with their cousins back in England,” Bennett said.

And it was quite a statement. The size and scope of the project, and the excellent craftsmanship that went into it, is a testament to Carter's wealth, and his ability to draw of resources in England and beyond.

“It's amazing when you think about it, but they were living in a global economy in the 18th century,” Bennett said.

Not all the exhibits are behind glass. One section of the gallery contains examples of 18th century building materials and designs. Visitors may pick up replicas of bricks (they're not nearly as heavy as the real thing) and lay them in patterns.

Audio visual displays throughout the gallery not only tell the story of Christ Church, but also the story of America. The Anglican Church was the official church of England, and as such, was supported by everyone's tax dollars. All were required to support the church whether they wanted to or not, one of the grievance leading to revolution and a break with England.

After the war the Anglican Church became the Episcopal Church. Though it remains strong in the Northern Neck to this day, it suffered a backlash elsewhere.

“After the Revolutionary War, it wasn't a very popular thing to be an Episcopalian,” Bennett said.

Christ Church itself fell on hard times over the years, as the dwindling congregation was unable to keep up the large building. Fortunately it was rescued in 1958 with formation of the Historic Christ Church Foundation, which maintains it today.

Visitors may also tour the Church, which is open daily during the spring, summer and fall. From December through March the Gallery and Church are open Weekdays and by appointment.

What's near by:

White Fences Vineyard
The Tides Inn
Hope And Glory Inn
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