Masterpieces of Light and Space: Sultan Ahmet “Blue” Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, TurkeyComposing basically half of Istanbul’s distinctive skyline (exaggeration) the Blue Mosque is Iconic

Given the current political climate, I thought I would depart from my normal writing about Christian places of worship and instead write about one of the most beautiful houses of worship used by our Abrahamic brothers and sisters who practice Islam. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is (aside from the Hagia Sophia, which I feel doesn’t “count” as a Mosque or a Church, really…more as a museum now) the only mosque that I’ve ever entered.

Istanbul, TurkeyMosques share many features I appreciate about churches. You know, archways, stained glass, tile work

One of the cool things about the Blue Mosque is that it gets so many visitors of all faiths. So many that you’ve got to stand in line to get in, and the line basically moves through the cloisters around the worship space. Seeing the inside and outside of such a beautiful building close-up is always a treat.

Istanbul, TurkeyLooking up at the imposing “clamshells” that give the mosque its distinctive shape

The mosque appears to be a series of perfect domes and half domes, and frankly, it’s an architectural style for which I have no frame of reference. I grew up with steeples and stuff, so this building style along with the calls to prayer made me feel very far from home. Interestingly, though, I think just about anyone would feel welcome in the space.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Blue Mosque’s iconic dome

Inside the mosque I was somewhat surprised by how not blue it was. Of course there is plenty of blue, the place is literally covered with blue tiles. It’s just not overwhelmingly blue. I was not prepared for the detail of all of the Arabic script and the detail on every little tile. In an art history class, I learned that Islamic art centered largely around repetitive patterns perfectly executed. Walking into this space I thought “oh, yeah, I get it now.”

Istanbul, TurkeyThe stained glass reminded me of so many churches I’ve visited

The stained glass in the mosque was surprisingly similar to stained glass you would find in a church, except without the figures of the humans in the stories of course (my understanding is that Islam does not like graven images of holy figures, but my understanding of Islam is even lesser than my understanding of Christianity).

Istanbul, TurkeyThe symmetry! The symmetry!

Mostly, I found the differences between Mosque and Church to be relatively minor. One stark difference was the lack of pews. While liturgical churches tend to follow the format of “stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel sit – great workout everyone, let’s have a snack” Islamic worship seems to involve quite a bit more time on the knees. I found it interesting that you could see the very neat rows where people have been lining up for hundreds of years and kneeling worn into the rug. Also, the carpets in the Blue Mosque are the ORIGINAL carpets from when it was completed in 1616. I’ve certainly never walked across a carpet that old. They’re still beautiful, by the way.

Istanbul, TurkeyYou could just get lost in those arches, right?

So I don’t know, I really think that we’re all more similar than we would like to recognize, sometimes.

Istanbul, TurkeyNot sure what the deal with the lighting systems in this mosque and the Hagia Sophia is, but I like it!

I find it interesting that so many elements between the houses of worship are similar between these two religions. Maybe inspiration just all comes from the same place.

Istanbul, Turkey


Masterpieces of Light and Space: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

I’m just going to jump in today on one of the most intimidating churches to write about that I can imagine, and maybe what might be, in my opinion, the most beautiful church on the planet. I’ve been avoiding writing about it because I want to make sure and do it justice, but today is the day. I’m finally going to write about La Sagrada Familia, the still under construction masterpiece of Gaudi’s in Barcelona.

Barcelona, SpainI’m not sure how anyone ever gets a picture of this magnificent church without cranes, but whatever.

One of the things I found absolutely fascinating about La Sagrada Familia was the “rough” texture of the outside of the building. As you approach it looks like the building is furry or something, but once you’re close you see that it’s all relief carvings of bible stories and stuff. Every single surface was covered with some sort of artistic display or symbolism. I believe one facade of the church is the Nativity, and the other side is the Passion.

Barcelona, SpainThe entrance we used to the church was under the Passion Facade

Barcelona, SpainMore of the Passion Facade

Barcelona, SpainEven the floor you walk upon in the entry is used to tell the story

The exterior of the church is fantastic, but the real size of the place really smacks you right in the face when you walk through the doors and feel the upward vertical pull of the ceilings, and the brilliantly colored light from the massive stained glass windows wash over you. I wasn’t exactly religious at the time that we visited La Sagrada Familia, but I was definitely moved when we went inside. I did have to ask myself Where did Gaudí get such inspiration? because it plainly seemed supernatural.

Barcelona, SpainThe heights inside La Sagrada Familia are truly dizzying, and it feels so organic with the tree-like columns

Barcelona, SpainThe amount and variation of color in the light in this place is otherworldly

Barcelona, Spain
La Sagrada Familia is perhaps the brightest church I’ve ever set foot in

Barcelona, SpainThe very bright choir of La Sagrada Familia

Aside from the absolutely beautiful, bright, and airy design aesthetic, the building houses some amazingly beautiful art. Of course, Catalonia produced some of the best artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe you haven’t heard of them before. Guys like Picasso and Dalí. Oh yeah, those guys. Spain as a whole, and particularly Catalonia have such a rich art tradition that of course the art work in the most artful church on the planet would be amazing, right?

Barcelona, SpainEven Christ himself is beautifully artistically rendered in La Sagrada Familia

So in La Sagrada familia we have dizzying heights, beautiful light, and great art. Gaudí was clearly a masterful architect. He was also clearly a man with great faith that allowed him to still devote a huge portion of his life to the construction of a church, even though his own lifestyle was not accepted by the church. What kind of inspiration leads someone to so perfectly design every detail of such a huge space? I guess one of the things I love about church and cathedral hopping is that it always leaves me with more questions than answers.

Barcelona, SpainI mean seriously, that is a beautiful Chancel.

Certainly La Sagrada Familia is one of the most beautiful buildings of any type that I have ever entered, church or not, and it’s one that I would love to revisit – after construction is complete (if that happens in my lifetime). It’s also an example of architecture that for me, much like the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, raises the question “is this divinely inspired?”

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece
Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens, Greece

This old church stands on the ancient agora in Athens,  Greece; a beautiful little byzantine Chapel that has stood on this spot for basically forever (that is such an exaggeration but whatevs.) The Church of the Holy Apostles is in such an interesting spot. It’s literally in sight of the Parthenon, you know, the ancient temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos, daughter of Zeus.

Athens, GreeceOne of the Apostles, I’m guessing Matthew, Mark, John, or Luke.

One particular type of art I was really looking forward to seeing on our trip through the Mediterranean is mosaic. The images used in these old churches were heavily stylized so as not to be “graven” images or idols of false-worship and whatnot. I find the aesthetic really pleasing to the eye. I’d seen art like this in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but never “in the wild.”
Athens, GreeceI think a good ol’ Cupola is an architectural motif that really brings the concept of heavenly light to life

I think the image above is a good reason for the “Masterpieces of Light and Space” title. The whole point of sacred places is to make you feel that there is a greater presence, and the best architects over the millennia have been able to do that through the use of negative space and light.

Athens, GreeceChurch aside, something about this image captures the charm of Greece in general for me. Perhaps because some of my best memories of traveling through that beautiful country involve sitting in simple chairs at simple tables.

Athens, Greece Athens, GreeceThe Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Just outside the door of the shrine, high up on a bluff, is the defining characteristic of Athens – the acropolis. Isn’t it wonderful that you can see the visages of the old gods from the doorstep of a current one? To see the similarities in style that transcend religion altogether and join a past epoch to ours? The answer is yes. Neener neener.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Riverside Church, New York, NY

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I’m pretty sure my favorite neighborhood in New York City is Morningside Heights. It has a college-town feel, cool restaurants, and of course the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Tucked away on the other side of the university from the Cathedral is another gem, The Riverside Church. The church was designed to appear similar to Chartres Cathedral, which I think is quite obvious when you see the stained glass in the choir.

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Perhaps the most striking feature of Riverside is its bell tower. It’s visible from all around the neighborhood and notably from Riverside Park because it’s frickin’ 20 stories tall. It also kinda screams GOTHIC REVIVAL right into your face.

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I don’t know what it is about these Gothic Revival churches, but I really want to sit in one through a loud thunderstorm with tons of rain coming down. Something about the imposing angles and upward-jutting towers (which apparently add quite a bit of weight to the outer walls to help secure the arches for the roof) really makes me think it would be a delightful place to take refuge in a deluge that was huge. (rhyme intended, I am a dad, after all.)

So there you go, another masterpiece from good old NYC, The Riverside Church.



Masterpieces of Light and Space: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Hagia Sophia, Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum

One of the masterpieces of light and space that I most wanted to visit in the world, and one I would love to return to for another visit is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. I guess it doesn’t take a lot of explanation, but I also know that a lot of Americans might know that before Istanbul was Istanbul, it was Constantinople. They probably may also not realize that Constantinople was named after the Roman emperor, Constantine, who converted the empire from Paganism to Christianity. This early church had a massive effect on Islamic architecture after the Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire and became a design motif for mosques throughout the Islamic world, if I understand right.

Istanbul, TurkeyThese incredible mosaics were made because “graven” and realistic images were forbidden as idolatry

When the Turks invaded Constantinople and took the place over, the Hagia Sophia became a Mosque, and the beautiful decorative elements of a mosque (beautifully scripted quotes from the Quran, repetitive patterns, etc) were plastered directly on top of the existing mosaic decoration. After hundreds of years, some of the plaster has given way, so you get to see the ancient Christian art underneath as well. It’s really a beautiful mash-up of religious art. I particularly like the mosaics – the art style is like…alternatively realistic? Kinda ghostly? Not sure I have the vocabulary to say why it catches my eye so well.
Istanbul, TurkeyThe low hanging chandeliers make the area above seem endless

One design element that is particularly interesting is the chandeliers in the main sacred space. They are hung about 12′ off the ground, but given that the ceiling is like a million feet tall, they make you feel very grounded. It also creates the feeling that the space above you is absolutely endless. Heavenly even.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe bright, golden dome seems to glow in the filtered light

Looking up past the groups of lights, the main dome seems far, far away. I don’t believe that the decoration is original from the building’s construction, but it appears to be Arabic script, so I think it’s probably verses from the Quran. It’s beautiful. It’s also impossibly huge. There’s no way to take an adequate photo of it to convey its scale.
Istanbul, TurkeyWhere else are you going to see the Madonna and Child hovering between quotes from the Quran over a Mihrab? It’s like the biggest sacred art intersection on earth.

As I said, the decorations here are different than what you would see anywhere else. Christian and Muslim are side by side, and the Christian art is Byzantine, so it has an otherworldly look to it if you grew up in one of the western traditions.

Istanbul, TurkeyLooks like Dorne from Game of Thrones, right?

Istanbul, TurkeyI really can’t overstate the height of the dome. This is from the gallery on the 2nd floor looking at the main space.

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, TurkeyThe older Christian Mosaics are breathtaking. I get a backache just thinking about picking up the little pebbles to glue to the wall. Then again, my experience with mosaics largely involve macaroni.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)

From the Hagia Sophia, you can see the great Blue Mosque across the plaza. It’s pretty easy to spot some influence from Hagia Sophia in the architecture. There’s a reason that the Hagia Sophia is revered as a world wonder, a must-see sight in a country and region full of must-see sights. It’s truly beautiful and the interplay of the oooooooold Christian and Muslim art really illustrates the similarities more than the differences, I think. Then again, my opinions are based on like half a chapter of an art history book ten years ago.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France

Marseille, FranceNotre Dame de la Garde sits atop the highest hill overlooking old Marseille

High on a hilltop above Marseille lies a beautiful church. That sentence is so ridiculous that I’m leaving it in the blog post. Ha! Anyhow, it’s true, Notre Dame de la Garde sits high above Marseille on a hilltop. Specifically it sits high above the Vieux Port of Marseille, the ancient port. Given the decorative motif and the maritime history of the city, one has to wonder if the same hilltop played host to a temple of Poseidon in the Greek times, or perhaps Neptune in the Roman. I think you’ll see why in just a moment or two. First, though, let’s talk about getting there.

Marseille, FranceThe key direction is UP

Finding Notre Dame is pretty easy from the old city of Marseille. Start at the Citadel or Abbey of St. Victor and walk up the hill. Keep walking. and walking. and walking. and walking. It’s farther than it looks from the port, but you get to walk through fields of beautiful Provençal flowers and you’ll also get a stunning view of the port and Chateau d’If floating out there in the Mediterranean.

Marseille, FranceWait…there’s more climbing involved?!?

After the long trek up the hill, we didn’t really think there was a better place to start our visit at Notre Dame de la Garde but the bottom. Yeah. We started in the crypt.

Marseille, FranceThose candles put off a lot of heat. A different take on fire-and-brimstone.

The crypt was crowded, fairly compact for a church of this size, and full of the living. I thought the heat was being put off by the candles, but it could have also been the accumulation of body heat from the visitors. Certainly not the body heat of the residents I would imagine (yeah, I just said that.)

Marseille, France
The chancel from the crypt’s exit

After moving up from the crypt to the main level, it becomes obvious very quickly that this basilica is thematic. Thematic in the sense that all of the decoration seems to be nautical. Nautical in the sense that this is a place where sailors and fishermen would worship before heading out to sea. The colors and patterns are not that different from Marseille Cathedral or San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, but the ships, airplanes, anchors, octopi, and everything else nautical certainly sets it apart.
Marseille, FranceShips, planes, anything that could move cargo

The church itself is beautiful, and the ships and airplanes and basically all of the artwork are beautifully done, if a bit morbid. There is an entire wall of paintings of maritime and other transportation disasters. Kids getting run over by horse-drawn carts, sinking ships, plane crashes, etc. That’s a bit dark and contrasts in a strong and beautiful way against the otherwise ethereal surroundings.

Marseille, FranceSee, I told you. Transportation disasters.

According to Atlas Obscura, the miniatures and paintings are examples of “ex-voto” or rather, appreciations for the help of Notre Dame de la Garde in recovery from accidents, acts of war, or whatever might be depicted in the particular item. In addition to these crafted pieces are also life rings from boats, bandages, crutches, and other items. The site is a pilgrimage destination every Assumption Day (August 15) and people will leave ex-voto items to thank Le Bonne Mere for her assistance in the pilgrimage.
Marseille, FranceLe Bonne Mere herself

Between the nearly Arabesque gold leaf and repetitive patterns of the decoration, the marble from Florence laid in striated patterns, and its nautical ex-voto, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde is one of the most interesting churches I have ever visited. It’s definitely a treasure that we should all be glad was restored after it’s damage during the French liberation in 1944, and dare I say if I were a sailor in Marseille, this would be a regular stop for peace of mind.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Ruins of St. Paul’s church, Macau, China

MacauWhat remains of St. Paul’s, on top of a hill in Macau

I thought maybe for my next post I should get away from the super obvious stomping grounds of Italy, France, Spain, and you know, the entire western world. I was thinking back, when I realized that we had visited a very old church in China, on the formerly Portuguese island of Macau.

MacauNot sure. Could be St. Paul himself.

Truth be told, we ended up making our day in Macau all about the old churches and Portuguese food. I guess after a couple of years in Asia we were just craving some western culture. St. Paul’s is remarkable for it’s location overlooking the city, and the fact that aside from the facade, it’s not there anymore.

MacauDragons make me think Asia. Caravels make me think Portugal

The church was apparently at one time the largest in East Asia, burned down a few times, and finally completely destroyed in a typhoon.

MacauClear glass panels let you look into the foundation

St. Paul’s stood for about 300 years, and it seems that with nothing but the facade intact, there wouldn’t be much to see. However you can look down into the foundations through glass panels, and the crypt is still very much in one piece. It’s pretty crazy to see the bones of Portuguese explorers from the 1500s, but they are lying there, probably unaware that the once great church above them is nearly gone. Most interesting were the descriptions of the bodies, who they were, and how and where they died. Lots of violence, all over Asia. Apparently exploration was a tough business.

The only picture I took in the crypt, didn’t think it was respectful to photograph the dead, I guess.

So while St. Paul’s certainly has more natural light than just about any church I’ve ever been in, due to its lack of walls and a roof, I think it still merits a post in this series. I think the crypt alone merits a post. To see the reach of the European explorers who destroyed civilizations, wrought havoc, and created the world as we know it in such a dramatic fashion is enlightening. To see the interplay of east and west in the bas-reliefs on the remains of the facade makes you think that the Portuguese process of conversion was perhaps a bit more likely to incorporate the local traditions than the Spanish. But the bones. They tell the story without saying a word.