Visiting Historical Religious Sites: Two Gentle Pleas

I hesitate to post this article because anyone who is interested enough in history to visit a website devoted to historical fiction probably doesn’t need to hear this message. You are sensitive to the debt of gratitude we have to those who came before us and are therefore inclined in general to be sensitive to the world around you.

However, just in case this message does reach eyes and ears less in tune with the past and the past’s role in the present, I wish to share a couple of thoughts. (My particular lines of historical inquiry currently focus on Christian churches in Europe, but these sentiments obviously apply to the sacred buildings of any faith anywhere in the world.)

First, when you exit any aged church, turn right around and look at the condition of the stonework on the outside of the building. If it is in dire need of cleaning or repair from the ravages of time and weather and air pollution—and just about every old church I have ever seen is—please walk back inside and find the collection box marked for building maintenance or preservation. I honestly have no idea how important these visitor contributions are in the overall maintenance budgets of a church, but I do know it is important to contribute to the preservation of our shared heritage. I look at it this way: The admission fee for being enchanted by the past is shouldering some of the responsibility for the future.

Second, please remember that these old churches are in fact functioning churches, each with a complicated web of public and private meaning. Most churches do a good job of signposting service times and in some cases cordoning off areas reserved for worship during those times. However, my particular concern here is not with formal, public services, but with the individual people who seek solace in churches at any hour of the day. In recent visits to churches from Normandy down to Languedoc, I noticed people in several churches who were clearly in states of personal anxiety, heartbreakingly so in a couple of instances. It was dispiriting to watch tourists crowd right up near them, chatting and snapping photos of whatever architectural details caught their attention, as though the anguished soul in their midst was one more piece of statuary.

This can be a difficult request, I realize, because the interiors of churches are shared spaces. However, a few seconds of thought and planning can ensure a visit that is both rewarding and respectful. Upon entering, a quick look up and down the pews will indicate where you might want to plan your path. And when walking around the inside perimeter, pay particular attention in any small chapels off the side aisles and around the apse beyond the altar. These chapels sometimes have seating or kneeling arrangements specifically for prayer, and some have signs asking that visitors refrain from talking or taking photos. It’s really just a matter of being aware of one’s surroundings and making small detours if needed to give people some peace and some space.

Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, visiting a historically and architecturally significant church can be a wondrous, ennobling experience. If each of us approaches it with a bit of care and foresight, everyone can have the most fulfilling experience possible.

OK, end of sermon. Thank you.

Toulouse: St. Etienne

West front of St. Etienne; click to enlarge so you can appreciate the inspired disregard for symmetry and balance

The Cathédrale St. Etienne in Toulouse gets my vote for the most delightfully odd building in all of Christendom. In many of the great churches, later versions were constructed on the foundations or footprints of earlier versions. (The current Chartres cathedral, for instance, is at least the fifth church on that site.) Unlike most multi-strata churches, though, at St. Etienne it appears that little attempt was made to integrate new with old.

The western front is a creative amalgam of mismatched styles and misaligned structural and decorative elements, as though a blind giant took the rubble of three or four churches and tried to construct one new church from them. And moving inside only heightens the feeling of magnificent mish-mashery. The interior photo was taken just inside the twin doors shown in the exterior photo, in the older Cistercian-style nave. From there, one moves forward to a massive column planted almost but not quite on the center line of this earlier nave. At that point, one slides left about ten paces, where begins a rather normal Gothic nave that terminates in an outlandishly ornate Baroque altar (pardon that redundant description).

St. Etienne is an accidental museum of architectural history, showing evolutions and revolutions in building philosophy and visual styles over the course of hundreds of years. From what I was able to translate from various placards around the cathedral, the current stewards seem to view their unusual charge with deep respect and gentle good humor, which is the perfect way to look at this one-of-a-kind treasure.

The interior more than fulfills the exterior’s promise of architectural anarchy

Chartres: Cathedral (detail)

Cleaning port on the north side of Chartres cathedral

I wouldn’t have noticed this detail on the north side of Chartres cathedral in a million years if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by Malcolm Miller. This looks like it might be a drain, but it’s actually an input port, part way up the wall on the cathedral’s north side, near the western end. As with many old churches, the floor of the central nave slopes dramatically from the eastern end to the large entrance doors at the western end to facilitate washing out after being jammed with sweaty pilgrims and their ripe belongings.

Here at Chartres, however, the outer aisle on the north side slopes in the opposite direction, from west to east. Water would be hoisted up from a well below this photo and poured into this opening. When it sloshed down into the church, it would flow from west to east, hosing out the north aisle, then it would reverse direction and flow east to west, down the nave at the south aisle on the other side of the church. Of all the mind-blowing design features of this building, they actually sloped the floors in a circular fashion to create a whirlpool effect for cleaning.

Chartres: Notre-Dame (ceiling)

The ceiling above the choir shows the stunning transformation taking place

The cathedral in Chartres is undergoing a massive cleaning and restoration that will return the interior to its original color scheme, which includes boldly painted highlights such as the ceiling bosses above the choir shown here. It’s something of a shock to witness the transformation now taking place, as the heavy gloom of the smoky gray interior is slowly replaced by pale yellow paint with white (painted) faux mortar lines. (The interior surfaces are literally smoky, thanks to hundreds of years of smoke from votive candles, which have since been replaced with a smokeless alternative.)

Between the restoration of the interior color and the cleaning of the celebrated stained glass windows, the new/old look is going to be downright dazzling. I can’t wait to return in a few years to see the change.


Albi: St. Cecile

St. Cecile cathedral in Albi, France

Architecture as boot heel. The Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile towers and glowers over the town of Albi, which was thought to be one of the primary centers of the Cathar religion. Rome built this church as a warning after the long campaign to reform or eradicate the Cathar culture and to put the south under northern rule. The resemblance to a military fortress is not accidental.

I’ve had the privilege to stand in front of many of Europe’s great churches, and none distorts the time-space continuum quite like this creature does. And lest one think the camera angle exaggerates the perspective, these images actually underplay the gut-punch feeling of disproportionate scale.

If you’re in the area (it’s about an hour east of Toulouse), the charming town and its unusual cathedral are a must-see. Sacred Destinations has some more information and a number of striking photos.

The foot of the left front pillar