Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy – Part IV: The Art

So there’s probably close to a billion historically significant works of art in St. Peter’s Basilica, mostly by Italian renaissance artists who later lent their names to a ragtag group of martial arts knowing turtles. The former (unqualified) art history professor in me wants to show you some of the highlights, but I don’t really know in most cases who made what, nor do I feel like looking it all up on wikipedia and pretending I knew all along.

Unlike my previous posts, my comments about the art will appear above the photo. As if we’re on a tour and I’m speaking before you get a chance to look.

Here’s perhaps the most famous piece, Pieta by one Michaelangelo Buonarroti.

Rome, Italy

The Baldachino by Bernini…

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One of the Apostles, who appears to have just hurled something at you.

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Followed by another Apostle, who perhaps caught what the first had hurled.

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Another Apostle (I’m crossing my fingers now hoping I photographed all four…)

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Myriad statues popping their heads out and looking around. It’s like a whole city of the biblically famous frozen in marble…

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Throne of St. Peter:

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I guess I didn’t get a photo of the fourth apostle at the dome, so we will have to travel back to Rome one day. However, upon exiting St. Peter’s you run headlong into Swiss Guard with their Halberds. Their uniforms are artful AF, aren’t they?

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So this will conclude my 4 part series on St. Peter’s Basilica. I think that anyone regardless of faith would enjoy a walk around in this church. There’s literally so much to see. If you attend a mainline Christian church, you will appreciate it from a heritage viewpoint. If not, there are all sorts of curiosities to indulge your brain. Plus the scale is just overwhelming altogether. I’d say St. Peter’s Basilica is not to be missed.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy – Interior

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If you feel small standing in St. Peter’s Square, you’re only going to feel smaller as you get closer to the entrance of the basilica itself. As you get close to the many, many doors, you notice that the relief carvings on the doors themselves are as big as you are. Maybe bigger.

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Once you’ve used half of your camera’s memory card on the door frames, you step inside and immediately start clearing space so that you have plenty of pictures remaining. I think perhaps this building is 4 dimensional, in the sense that it certainly seems like it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. My favorite view is this one, looking straight up the Nave towards the transept, with the many domes and windows gushing in light.

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Once your glasses change from dark to clear (OMG I’m SUCH a dad!) you notice the myriad details. Saints and apostles leaning out from the wall to speak with you. Frescoes so high they might as well be actual images of heaven. Beautiful Latin text that you kinda understand but not totally lining the walls in gold. Windows and trimmings as far as the eye can see.

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Clearly when the interior designer was consulted on St. Peter’s, they didn’t go for a minimalist look.

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Frescoes from renaissance masters are overhead throughout the Basilica. I would imagine the density of art works from famous artists in St. Peter’s would rival the population density of Kowloon Walled City in the middle of the 20th century.

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The baldachin doesn’t actually have the high chancel of the church in it, because that is farther back at the end of the longitudinal axis of the cross on the throne of St. Peter. Apparently the baldachin, directly under the dome (not like the Stephen King story) sits atop the burial place of St. Peter himself.

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I think St. Peter is in that gold box!

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The main dome is massive. Much bigger than the Duomo in Florence. I believe you can donate a few Euros to climb up, but we didn’t do it. It was the end of the day and stairs probably weren’t happening.

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St. Peter’s “Throne” – where the high chancel of the church is. Totally looks like the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones to me. Quite an amazing piece of sculpture.

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I love this view of the transept – it gives you some idea of the scale of St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m pretty sure you could take off, circle, and land a small plane in this amount of space. This is one reason I titled this blog series “Masterpieces of Light and Space.” Sometimes the negative space where nothing hangs but air (and the holy spirit) is the most powerful part of a church’s design.

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Those frescoes, tho.

My goal with this post was to capture the size and general effect of the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. I hope the images I’ve chosen have done that to some degree for you. In future posts I will explore the art and the relics that I encountered on my visit to St. Peter’s, and if you didn’t read the first part of my St. Peter’s story, you can see my thoughts on the exterior here.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, New York, USA

St. Patrick's Cathedral

My first visit to New York was cold, very cold. I was there with my then-girlfriend (now wife) visiting her sister before we moved to Korea for a couple of years, in the middle of the winter, and our visit was bookended with major snowstorms making the streets a slushy, soggy, mess. If I remember the order of events right, we spent the morning at the MoMA, then walked back through mid-Town in the cold on our way to Koreatown for dinner. Frozen, tired, and in need of a respite, we ducked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a warm-up and sightseeing break. I was pretty certain at the time that this church was featured in Home Alone, maybe Home Alone 2, but in retrospect I think I was wrong about that.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

I remember that it was warm inside. There was a little music going, and it was very green. I guess that makes sense for St. Patrick. Anywho, I definitely remember it being beautiful and ornate, even more ornate than St. John’s, if a bit darker on the inside.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

When we lived in New York I visited St. Patrick’s again briefly, but it was totes under renovation and I don’t think I even took any pictures because it was all scaffolding everywhere. I would certainly love to go back and check it out again the next time we’re in New York, though.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

I just realized, when I took all of these pictures it was after sunset, in the middle of the winter, no wonder the church seemed dark inside.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

The Chancel was spectacular, though.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Something about the cloisters of cathedrals really piques my curiosity. I’d probably be disappointed to go on an exploratory expedition in one to find nothing but offices and broom closets, but I imagine there are all sorts of holy relics hidden in them.

So yeah, St. Patrick’s is big and beautiful, right in midtown Manhattan ready for you to walk in and snap a photo or two. If you visit St. Patrick’s though out of church hopping interest and not just because it’s close to Rockefeller Center and on your tourist map, you must head up to 110th and Cathedral Parkway to see the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, too. It’s worth the trip.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Hong Kong, China

Hong KongHong Kong, a city that truly never sleeps…pretty sure you could see it from space if you needed to. 

I knew that Hong Kong was a former British colony well before I ever had the opportunity to visit, but I guess I never realized just how British it would still be nearly two decades after the colony was handed back to the People’s Republic. I also had no idea at the time that Anglican churches and their histories would become very interesting to me – I certainly did not foresee my return to church, nor my return to church happening in a member of the Anglican Communion.

Hong KongBell tower of St. John the Evangelist in Hong Kong’s Central district

So today, looking through my old photos for a beautiful old church to write about, I came across the photos of this beautiful old church in Hong Kong, only to to burst with joy in my heart when I realize it’s the Anglican Cathedral in Hong Kong, the seat of the diocese of the Anglican Church in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The church I’m referring to here is the beautiful, understated, Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

Hong KongEven the interior of the church is stately, reserved, and beautiful

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a haven of calm in a frenetic, bustling city. Given all of Hong Kong’s glitter and glamour, a quiet, calm spot is a bit of an oasis. I guess it always seemed that way, as the were conducting mass in the church even as the Japanese were shelling the island during the second world war.

Hong KongThe Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is completely dwarfed by its more modern surroundings

It’s also a great contrast between 19th century British Empire and ultramodern Hong Kong/Chinese architecture. The contrast is stark. From any angle of St. John’s, a skyscraper looms in the background. The sound of taxis and the lift to the summit of Victoria Peak create a din in the background. The tropical environs clash with the British decorative-Gothic architecture of 1849.

What a cool old church, in a cool old/new city.

Found Ruins, They Old: Temple of Artemis, Selçuk, Turkey

The Temple of Artemis has been built in a far away land!

This is the rather frustrating message I often receive one turn before completing the Temple of Artemis whilst playing Civilization (you know, the computer game for nerds!). I never follow up to see who it was, but I always grimace at the amount of wasted turns. I mean I could have had the Colossus of Rhodes or some shit.

Temple of ArtemisI honestly expected a much more barren landscape

Anyhow, one of the “must see” items we had on our list for our stay in Turkey was to visit the ruins of the old city of Ephesus. Ephesus gets its own post. Enough about Ephesus. Anyhow, we woke up early and took the train from Izmir to Selçuk, had lunch, visited the little tourist information center where we picked up a book with info about ancient Ephesus, and started the 3-5km walk from Selçuk to the ancient city. The book mentioned the Temple of Artemis was on the way, so when we saw the sign (in plain english, BTW “TEMPLE OF ARTEMIS ->”) we took a right and headed down a little embankment towards a pond.

Temple of ArtemisThis is where the Temple of Artemis used to be, and where a couple parts of it still are

Standing there, in a kind of worn out, faded, weathered glory, was the one remaining column from the Temple of Artemis. Now, if you’re not familiar with your ancient history and Greek Pantheon, the Temple of Artemis was one of the most grand architectural pieces of the classical era…that is until it burned down. Also Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, who gave us the gift of bows and arrows and protected the woodlands. Or something.

Temple of Artemis

Clearly, there wasn’t much exploring to do, but to see what’s left of a 2,000 year old structure that once dominated the landscape is always a bit of a thrill, and considering that a huge “not quite as ruined” CITY of ruins sits another kilometer down the road. A city that is referenced in ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman literature, as well as the Bible. Well, I think whence surrounded by such archeological riches one really gets an idea of how long humanity has been trucking along.

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?”