Churches: Faith in Beauty

The rain pelted down on me and I scurried from the outdoor café table I had been luxuriating at into the closest public space I could find. Shaking my hair out I first noted the floor. Beneath my feet white marble soldiers slaughtered cherubic babies, my hair dripped onto the soldiers faces. Startled by the sudden violence of the image I looked up and above me arced a dramatic dome, decorated like the golden outside of a pineapple.

The closest public space had been Siena Cathedral, a strange, regal vision in striped white and dark green marble. But not a vision I had been planning to enter.

At 14 my parents kindly dragged me around Europe on what I called the ABC tour (excuse my language but it stands for Another Bloody Church). My interest was held by the solemn atmosphere of St. Pauls, by the royal tombs and brass rubbings at Westminster Abbey, the views from Sacre Coeur, the grizzly story of the ill fated hunchback at Notre Dame and flared up again due to the sheer size and detail of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but by the time we reached Siena I was suffering from a bad case of the cathedral-overkills. I began to grumble about knavish naves and drag my feet sullenly over 10th Century flagstones, and when I lay down in the coloured glass shadow of one rose window like I was Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man I was allowed to begin to developing my taste for sitting in piazzas people watching, while my parents visited what seemed to me every church in Italy.

But this unexpected entry via my own violation made me open my eyes wide. In front of me was a very narrow, very high space, made longer and higher by the horizontal zebra stripes. Though it was a grey day light poured into it from high windows and a huge rose window. I walked forwards, the entire floor was inlaid with pictures made of marble, passing an ornate pulpit held up by stone lions, on either side of which appeared chapels literally glowing with gold and guilt and paint and art. But why was it glowing so much? It was only then that I turned around and realised that light was pouring though a huge stained glass window over the choir which showed the apostles at their last supper. I spent the next three hours pouring over the detail of the place. It was truly remarkable.

I’m not at all religious, and neither are my parents, but they brought me up to appreciate beauty in art, and I would now add to that beauty in faith. No one spared any effort or detail when they created this masterpiece, even more incredible when compared to the houses most people would have lived in when it was being constructed. Now we can flip through a book or look at great art on the internet but then this was not only a place of worship but also the most beautiful place in the town. People probably felt privileged to come here. I certainly felt fortunate for having been able to enjoy it.

Let it be noted that I did not become a convert on the spot. But I did begin to poke my head into more churches and cathedrals, especially as I made my own way though Europe, and saw some wonderful things. The gift is in the choice. I didn’t have to go to church, so when I came upon a mass I joined in and when a particular church or piece of art transfixed I obeyed it’s calling. The thing with churches and cathedrals is that they’re usually free, contain some amazing works of art and are on one side of one of those beautiful open piazzas. The ones with the fantastic people watching vantages.

Some of the World's Most Beautiful Churches

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