“Really!?! More of those religious paintings! I’m sick of seeing them…can we just go get a coke?”
Most tourists quickly find that touring Europe means traipsing through a myriad of old cathedrals, with the highlight being dark glimpses of art from long ago. Many can’t relate to this art, and find no connection to their own religion other than to marvel at how rich and powerful the Catholic Church must have once been to amass such a vast quantity of gold, bronze, jewels and art. While these cathedrals were built as places of worship, today they are often simply another local site on a tour, for tourists to stoically check off the list of “been there, done that.”
Like many Americans, I worship at a small protestant church that meets in a building that is also a primary school during the week. There are no shining displays of gold, other than when a small Christmas tree is placed on the stage during the holidays. Rather than pictures of saints and the Virgin Mary on the walls, there are often posters or art work from the children who attend the school during the week. Once there was even a small hamster cage in the back of the room where the animal ran tirelessly on the squeaky wheel during the sermon. The mood for these gatherings is informal, a “catch it if you can” type of spirituality. While I enjoy this type of worship, at times I crave a stain-glass window or a quiet chapel where I can glimpse both the majesty and the power of God.
During my traipsing through at least twenty churches and cathedrals on my recent visits to many of the great cathedrals of Spain and Italy, I made it my priority to stop, find a quiet place to sit, and to reflect on God, my life, and my future. In short, I tried to worship at these places of worship—an effort which seemed at odds with what others were trying to do.
I often had to jostle through crowds determined to take another picture with their iPad, or to skirt around large groups following a guide explaining the type of wood used in a carving. The focus of most people seemed to be catching a view of what the guide books told them to look at. When I did find a quiet area set aside for meditation it was likely to be empty. I rarely found a religious service being conducted, and if so it was likely to have only a few sparse attendees, most appearing over the age of 80.
It was clear from some of the signage that I saw that earlier tourists had behaved in ways that were less than worshipful—in one small church in Venice I was greeted with a sign at the door in English, saying “this is a place of worship—please do not do indecent things here.”
Despite my frustrations at the tourists and their boorish behavior, I could find God in many of the places of worship, and there were three where I felt his overwhelming presence, each for a different reason.
Old Style: Toledo, Spain
This cathedral is shoe-horned into the center of town, and is simply huge. It is primarily Gothic style, but since it took more than 250 years to build (1250-1495) it is a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical styles. It has elaborate wrought-iron work and lavish gold and wooden carvings. There is also a world-class collection of nineteen El Greco paintings as well as masterpieces by Velazquez, Titian, Caravaggio and Bellini.
Toledo was the first city to be recaptured in 1085 by the Reconquista Christian forces, marking the beginning of the end of Muslim domination of Iberia, when they were slowly pushed back into Africa. Many of the carvings celebrate the retaking of the towns around this area by the Christians, culminating in the final victory at Granada in 1492. The carvings of the clothing, armor and weaponry are so detailed and accurate that historians have studied them to learn the evolution of weaponry. This cathedral was clearly meant to tell the world who was in charge.
Despite these absorbing scenes, the cathedral is also known for “Transparente,” which is actually a quiet and subtle feature. In the 1700s a hole was cut into the ceiling to bring in more light during services. The hole is surrounded by angels cavorting and full of energy.
While most tour groups walked by and looked up to view the hole, few lingered. I found a seat nearby and watched the stream of light pour in through the opening, and hit the floor below. The sunbeam played upon the faces of the people, and sparkled on various sections of the gold in the side chapels. I could imagine the poor and marginalized people of years in the past coming here to soak in the glory of God, and to seek the beauty and good that is found in God.
As I sat there I was reminded that God is light, and that his illumination into the world can bring clarity and peace. It was in this busy chapel, full of hundreds of gum-smacking, photo-taking tourists, that I heard the first small whisper of God.
Modernista: Sagura Familia Barcelona, Spain
This Cathedral caught me entirely by surprise, because it is very different in style and execution from the historic Cathedrals and churches that dot Spain. This space will simply take your breath away.
Conceived by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi in the 1880s, the style combines Gothic and curvy Art Nouveau forms. Some critics (and locals) consider the building to be in bad taste, and to others it looks like “sugar loaves and anthills.” Other words used to describe it include “sensual, whimsical, exuberant” (NY Times) and “one of the strangest-looking serious buildings in the world” (James A. Michener). The exterior has angular stone depictions of the nativity and crucifixion that appear to come straight out of a Picasso painting. And the interior—well, it is just too shocking to be prepared to see. There are colors everywhere you look that reach in and literally grab your heart.
I visited this Cathedral late in the day, and caught the final rays of the sun shine through the wall-length sections of bright colored glass. There are no scenes in this glass, only color. Strong, pure and passionate color. Across the length of one side is red bleeding into fiery orange, and on the opposite wall is brilliant green flowing into tranquil blue. Upon my first view of the windows my thought was “now, here truly is God.”
My heart soared as my eyes soaked in the colors and my brain reacted. I was so overwhelmed with sensory reaction that I became dizzy and had to sit down. From a vantage point in the far back wall, I stared at the walls, almost as art lovers stare at a Rothko painting. As I gazed from one side to the other, I understood the power and passion of God, who wants to communicate with his creation in this place of worship.
But the sensory impact didn’t stop with the windows. Gaudi designed the interior pillars to resemble trees in the forest, twisting, tilting and reaching for the sky. They take the eye to the middle of the nave, where Jesus hangs from the cross in the sky, while an intense light from above shines down to remind everyone of his divinity.
One of the beautiful things about this Cathedral is that it is not yet finished. When Gaudi first penned the architectural concept in 1882 he knew that he would not live to see it completed. In reality, most of the work has been designed and completed by other artists who have built upon the ideas of Gaudi. The roof was completed only in 2010 when the Pope came to Barcelona. There are plans to complete the final spires by 2026, but in many senses this creation will never be finished.
I stayed in the Cathedral until closing time, reluctantly leaving only when shooed out by the guards. I watched the bright windows slowly dim and fade as the sun set. I could hear the sounds of a lively worship service from a room under the main chapel. This is a neighborhood church that actually has a regular congregation. As the people from the service poured out, they chatted and smiled—they had made a personal connection with their community and their God.
My heart felt bruised at the sensory overload that I had received from this building, and I knew that without a doubt that I had heard the next whisper of God.
Into the Future—San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice Italy
Sitting across the lagoon from Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Cathedral, it is easy to miss visiting this wonderful Cathedral. Most tourists come because the bell tower provides a wonderful panoramic view of the lagoon, and the waiting line is shorter than for the main bell tower near St. Mark’s.
The Cathedral has clean lines and a no-nonsense approach to worship. Walking into the nave, the most striking feature is a large golden globe. This was placed in the church in the early 1500’s, to demonstrate to the people that the church supported the “new” concept that the world was indeed round. However, the placement of Christ over the globe gives the clear meaning that the message of the gospel is universal and must be spread across the world. How brave the designers of this church were to understand that church doctrine would not be challenged by the discovery of the New World and other groundbreaking scientific advancements of the Enlightenment!
While the Cathedral has many wonderful old paintings (including Tintoretto’s Last Supper”), the highlight of my visit was the surprise of finding modern art integrated into the space. As part of the yearly international art exhibit called Venice Biennale, an artist from Spain named Juane Plensa had installed two large pieces that worked in harmony to elevate the religious impact of the nave.
The first, positioned directly at the entrance, was a soaring wire “face” of a young girl. Sitting directly on the floor and reaching at least twenty feet high toward the ceiling, it seemed to shimmer and change depending upon perspective. The front was facing the altar, and the expression on the face was serene and calm, seeking the peace of God.
Directly opposite the wire face, near the altar but hanging up above the seating area, was a large golden “hand” of a priest, bent in the traditional pose of a blessing. The shimmering hand was formed from letters from languages spoken all over the world.
These two pieces of art, taken together as a whole, were a stunning statement on the place of religion in modern society. Upon seeing the face of the child, a child-like seeker of God will find peace and joy within her face. It speaks to humanity as it relates to worldly spirituality. The priest’s hand showed me that organized religion is there to join people in a common language, perspective and faith.
However, it was the juxtaposition of these modern art pieces in a century old Cathedral that made the most impact. Religion is not the foolish efforts of people long ago to understand their world. Religion is not a way to demonstrate power, prestige or wealth. Rather, religion is a way to share with the world the peace and joy that comes from a knowledge of God.
Each of these three unique experiences gave me a deeper understanding of the history of Christian worship and man’s efforts to express a desire for a relationship with God. I realized that while the Cathedrals were often financed by the wealthy to demonstrate their authority, it was really the “regular people” who came to the space to rest, learn, and find peace who understood the divine.
When I viewed an ornate carving or garish painting, I began to see the artist behind the work. His goal had been to share his God-given artistic genius to express the majesty and power of God. As he labored on the creation and completion of a work of art, often for years or even a lifetime, he was opening his heart to the divine, and then willing his work to speak to the masses. I opened my mind, and my heart, and heard the whisper of God.
On my last day in Venice, I took a boat to the small island of Murano, which is primarily known for hand-made glass. The island area near the docks is one glass gift shop after another, all bent on enticing the tourists to spend enough to tide the island residents over during the harsh winter. I passed the shops without regret and wandered deep into the island, into the areas where the locals lived, shopped, and congregated in small courtyards to discuss the gossip of the day.
I found a small church there, and went inside to rest. I was the only visitor while I sat for almost an hour, gazing at the simple altar and enjoying the solitude.
As I got ready to leave, I looked down at the floor, and saw how worn the rock tiles were. Not only was the decoration worn off in spots, but many of the rocks had depressions from millions of feet shuffling through silently for mass.
It was at that point that I deeply recognized the value of organized religion. I was only one of many pilgrims seeking peace down through the centuries. While my everyday life couldn’t be more different than that of a pilgrim in the 1300s, there were commonalities.
We all worry about our livelihoods, our children, and our future. I found peace in knowing that those pilgrims came to this building to find answers, and that I could as well.
I felt one with the ages; one with those who had come before me, and those who would follow me. Seeking God, and finding solace and peace within his arms.
Once again, God whispered to me.