On June 10, 1926, an elderly gentleman on his way to evening Vespers in Barcelona, Spain, was run over by a trolley. He laid unattended for quite some time as passerby’s avoided him because of his disheveled appearance. Finally, someone put him in a cab, and he was taken to a nearby hospital in grave condition. A local priest tending to him was shocked to recognize the dying man as Antoni Gaudi, the architect who had devoted the final forty years of his life to the design and construction of the Sagrada Familia Catholic Church. Gaudi died forty years into the project, and amazingly the church is not yet fully completed as of this writing. The hope is that the final work will be completed on the one-hundredth anniversary of Gaudi’s death, i.e., in 2026. [The church is open for tours if you are in Barcelona.]
Sagrada Familia was conceived and begun in the 1880’s as an attempt to stir the faithful to greater devotion. Gaudi undertook the project with the idea that its completion might take 200 years [most likely, it will be 150 years if completed in the 2020’s.] Gaudi knew that he would not be alive to see it finished, and thus he constructed the main steeple to a remarkable height during his lifetime so that later builders were forced to remain faithful to his master plan. When my wife and I visited the Church on April 29, a crane was at work high above us, working faithfully to Gaudi’s design.
Margaret and I returned from a month in Europe early last Sunday morning, and I am still sorting out my impressions of what I saw in the six countries we visited. [Spain, France, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy.] Sagrada Familia was the first church we visited, but we entered many more over the next twenty-four days. In fact, the Cathedral in Barcelona, which we visited on the evening of our last night in Spain, was very compelling as well. It was a rewarding experience to pray in so many settings. Each seemed to inspire a different direction of spiritual zeal.
I had been to Rome in 2013 where I made it a point to visit the four major churches of the holy city—certainly St. Peter’s, to be sure, but St. Peter’s was built in the late Medieval and early Renaissance era [post 1500 A.D.], funded in part by the sale of indulgences, which touched off the Protestant Reformation. The other major churches date from antiquity: St. Mary Major, St. Paul Beyond the Walls, and St. John of the Lateran Hill, or simply St. John Lateran. St. John’s was the mother church of Rome until St. Peter’s was completed; it was there that Church Councils took place. St. Francis of Assisi received permission to start his Order from Pope Innocent III at St. John Lateran. A funny aside: our tour guide said that the “old families” of Rome still worship on Sundays at St. John’s, and not at the “new church,” St. Peter’s.
My impression of the three oldest churches was their resemblance to ancient temples, which in fact is what they were, until the Roman Emperor Constantine [280-337 A.D.] awarded them to the Christians in the fourth century. Consequently, subsequent designers of Churches in Western Europe were left to develop their own unique styles, and thus the structure and style of the churches we visited were the products of the developing consciousness of theology and spirituality from the late Dark Ages through the high Medieval Era. I found the Medieval churches to be a different experience entirely, raising for me both spiritual and psychological ponderings about our ancestors of the Faith.
The Barcelonan Gaudi was the last of the true Medievalists, though he began his work in the nineteenth century. He entered his project with the full understanding that he would not be alive to see it completed. This was a common experience of all the craftsmen and builders of medieval churches—construction of a typical city cathedral could extend over several centuries. Implied in this is a very profound theology of the meaning of life—that one might devote his most productive years into a work he would never see completed.
Consider the medieval Christian mind: a belief in afterlife so intense, so real, that an artist would freely give of his earthly life to participate in a project that would profit generations he would never live to see. This expanse of years in the construction of the medieval cathedrals is not fully appreciated and it is part of the religious thrill of taking in a cathedral today to appreciate the intense faith of those who helped fund the construction along with those who crafted the buildings.
Typically, the major churches of the medieval era attempted to capture in size and art the immensity of God’s world and the full story of salvation. I was overcome by many of the cathedrals, but in particular “The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia” in Barcelona [not to be confused with Sagrada Familia] the Duomo in Florence, and, not surprisingly, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. These buildings were built to overwhelm, to inspire, and—an important point for catechists—to teach. These structures were built before the invention of the printing press and the gradual shift from the visceral to the intellectual.
Upon walking into a major church, one feels small. This is a good thing. We worship our egos. But step into an edifice that is far longer than a football field and arches so high overhead that it is hard to make out the artistry at that distance. One can get dizzy. We get a visceral sense of humility in this atmosphere which brings home the true relationship of God to his creatures, as well as our sense of belonging to something that is more massive than we can imagine. The term “basilica” comes from the Greek basileus, which can mean either a kingdom or a king.
The great churches were built to inspire, and I mean no disrespect when I say that there is “something for everybody” in the major churches I visited. One feature of medieval design is the large number of “side altars” along the walls and in niches throughout the buildings. Today we would not design a church in this fashion, but in medieval times, before the introduction of the concelebrated Mass, each priest offered a private Mass and there was necessity for multiple altars. A second consideration is that each side altar space was dedicated and decorated with the theme of a particular saint or mystery from the life of Christ. If you visit such a church, be sure to pay attention to these side altars. I should add here that these altars were often funded by rich benefactors, that Mass might be offered in perpetuity for their souls.
The art in the churches can seem cluttered to the modern eye, but it is not superfluous. Again, in a time before printing when sermons were poor and there was little or no common education, the faithful learned about the bible, the life of Jesus, and the saints through the visual media. This would include stained glass, statues, and icons. In some places bas relief or carvings would play out a full panorama of biblical stories, such as creation or the Passion of Christ. In Florence, Italy, the baptistry is across the street from the Duomo, and the bronze doors are exquisitely detailed with biblical figures.
I am continuing to process my reactions to what I saw and experienced. Most of these famous churches are physically deteriorating. St. Mark’s in Venice is settling into the sea. At all my visits there were requests for funds for restorations. In his commentary on the City of Venice, travel guide Rick Steves observes that Venice is losing over one thousand residents per year, and within the next generation its total population will be under 30,000, basically untenable for a city of islands. The city would become essentially an environmentally endangered tourist attraction like Disneyworld, where most of its treasures—including the artwork in the Doge’s Palace—is of a highly religious nature and history.
Can this religious heritage be preserved? Should it be preserved? Notre Dame in Paris is being restored after its 2019 fire at an estimated cost of 600 million Euros with a timetable of twenty years. Despite a drastic decrease in the practice of Catholicism in France in the last century, there seems to be a sense of national pride which evidently maintains the funding to push on with the restoration. Whether cities like Florence, Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona, and dozens of others will be able to maintain their venerable treasures in the fashion of Notre Dame is hard to say. If I had to guess, the financial support for the maintenance and restoration of the great cathedrals and churches would come equally from the arts and humanities communities than from the local church communities themselves. [A few years ago, a rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York told me that the actual parish community of St. Patrick’s was about three or four hundred families. The primary source of income for the Cathedral was the purchase of candles to burn in the sanctuary by tourists and guests.]
The financial lifeblood of many of the medieval masterpieces seems to be tourism. Forbes Magazine focused upon St. Mark’s Venetian financial crisis last year. I scanned my credit card frequently to enter the churches. But this raises the question of whether a great church can function as both a liturgical community and a tourist site. My traveling companions agreed with me that even a church like Sagrada Familia will be hard put to serve for the reason it was built, as a focus of worship unity. It will always be a tourist attraction like Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower. [It is packed now with tourists, even though it is incomplete.] An atheist would find Sagrada or any of the great medieval churches an attraction on artistic and historical grounds alone. It is true, though, that Gaudi had something of an ecumenical spirit in his inspiration for Sagrada Familia. Perhaps the atheist might be moved to consider the inspiration behind this massive edifice.
There are some who would argue that in the twenty-first century we should not be allocating funds toward the restoration of the medieval shrines, that to paraphrase Judas, “This money should have gone to the poor.” I would reply that it was the poor who most profited by the classic cathedrals. It was there that they experienced their most visceral encounters with the divine, where they were able to visually absorb the mysteries of Christ and the Bible, where they were able to express their pious outpourings to the saints.
It would be the height of arrogance to argue that human beings—even in the twenty-first century—do not need sacred space and sacred time. How our generation will meet this need remains unclear. But I can say that after a month of visiting the historical churches across Europe, I have come to a better understanding of my need for a broader religious experience than just reading books and teaching doctrine. The medieval churches were physical and visceral—and who is to say it was wrong? And are we any better off today for having lost this artistic sacramental expression of our faith?