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. Sernin (detail)

Brick insert in a stone column in the nave of St. Sernin

Here’s another story trapped in stone. This is one of the nave columns in St. Sernin in Toulouse. I would love to know why the interior of the stone column has this bricked-in repair job (it looks like a repair, anyway). The jagged but continuous vertical edge of the stones on either side of the bricks suggests to me that the space was hacked out of the original stone after the column was built and then filled in with the flat bricks at some later date, perhaps after the space was no longer needed. Maybe some sort of wooden or stone crossbeam was inserted into the column? That might explain the narrow keyway at the bottom of the brick pile, but this is pure speculation on my part.

Toulouse: St. Sernin (nave)

The nave of St. Sernin, showing the solid Romanesque (pre-Gothic) style

Unlike its quirky uncle St. Etienne, St. Sernin is a model of geometric harmony. It is also yet another medieval church that was later “enhanced” with a Baroque altar. The original altar is a work of simple beauty.









St. Sernin's original Romanesque altar (this is a replica; the real original still exists but is off limits to visitors)









Detail of the replica—itself a stunning work of art

Toulouse: St. Sernin (east)

The chevet of St. Sernin, showing the rounded form characteristic of Romanesque

The chevet (from the Old French for “head”) at the eastern end of St. Sernin manages to be complex and visually harmonious at the same time. Gothic gets most of the attention, but this Romanesque beauty is a thief of hearts.

Toulouse: St. Sernin (north)

Toulouse St Sernin north side

The Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France (north side)

With its red brick construction among the many buildings that contribute to Toulouse’s nickname as “La Ville Rose,” the Basilica of St. Sernin is one of the finest examples of the city’s relatively unknown and underappreciated architecture (at least relative to the architecture of Paris).

I would love to know the story of the masonry change you can see in the nave walls directly below the tower, where the all-brick design gives way to the marriage of brick with white stone accents. I confess I don’t know much about the construction of this church. (Click the image for a larger version.) Does time move from left to right in the photo, suggesting that the brick-only buttresses and window frames in the nave are newer, or from right to left, suggesting that the brick-only sections are older?

If I had to invent a story to explain the change, I might say that an Italian master builder was brought on board after the nave was largely complete, and he began to interleave white stone with the red brick from that point on, continuing three bays eastward to the crossing and then outward to the arms of the transept and the side aisles. (This builder character would be Italian because the stripe effect of brick and stone echoes architecture I’ve seen in parts of Italy, Florence in particular.)