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

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

I think St. Peter is in that gold box!

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

Rome, Italy

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.

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: Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, SpainCathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, from just down the street

The first truly Gothic cathedral we ever visited was the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, in Barcelona, Spain. Throughout the rest of this post I’m going to refer to it simply as Barcelona Cathedral. It’s named after Eulalia, a woman of Barcelona who was stripped naked in a public square during Roman times, and when a miraculous snow fell to cover her junk, the put her in a barrel, stabbed it with knives, and rolled her down a hill. Pretty graphic stuff.

Barcelona, Spain
Front door of Barcelona Cathedral

I was really amazed at the contrast between Barcelona Cathedral and the nearby La Sagrada Familia, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. One was completed in 1448, the other is still under construction. The sharp spires and dark interior of Barcelona Cathedral were essentially the opposite of what you can find a few blocks away. Then again, this city has literally been on the map for thousands of years, so you probably should see some striking differences in architectural design and technique.

Barcelona, Spain
It looks a bit bigger on the inside

We didn’t get to stay inside the cathedral for too long, as people were queuing up for mass and they were kicking the tourists out. We had too much to see throughout the gothic district to spend an hour watching mass, but we totally thought about it.

Barcelona, Spain
I’m guessing architectural limitations at the time of construction are responsible for the relatively small cupola

Barcelona Cathedral was a bit musty on the inside, but that could have been incense, I guess. We made a quick tour of the perimeter before their ushers showed us the door. Wait, that makes us sound rude. The ushers showed probably a couple of hundred people to the door so they could start mass in peace.

Barcelona, Spain Stained glass filtering out the brightest rays of the light

Barcelona, Spain Chancel and stained glass of Barcelona Cathedral

I really enjoyed the art style of this cathedral as it had a very “quest for the holy grail” type feel, which I guess makes sense. Apparently the choir stalls feature the coat-of-arms of the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Barcelona, Spain Wikipedia tells me that this photo I took is of the Chapel of St. Olegarius, and that the cross was carried at the Battle of Lepanto

The side chapels at Barcelona Cathedral contain effigies or maybe sarcophagi of St. Eulalia and St. Olegarius. I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in these posts, but I really do get a little thrill from having historical figures, even if I’ve never heard of them, being, uh…present. I’m not sure exactly what it is that gets my excitement going about it, but it might just be the fact that in the U.S. there is very little that is ancient and intact, but in other places even the ancient people are on display. I dunno.

Barcelona, Spain
These chandeliers make me think of Beowulf

The whole look and feel of this Cathedral is appropriately medieval. As much as I would have enjoyed to explore a bit more, it would have been rude to just pretend not to understand that mass was about to begin and stick around. So we headed out to the cloisters.

Barcelona, SpainThe cloisters look like Dorne from Game of Thrones, heh.

The cloisters couldn’t look any more Iberian. It basically summed up the Spanish vibe in one enclosed area for me. Except for the geese. I really dislike geese, they’re rude, loud, and unfriendly. Those words don’t describe the parts of Spain I’ve visited in the least.

At any rate, Barcelona Cathedral was an amazing and old example of Gothic architecture to visit, and I’m so very glad I’ve been there.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Marseille Cathedral, Marseille, France

Marseille, France

Marseille has been populated on the Mediterranean coast of France for thousands of years…literally. It was once a Greek city-state, a Carthaginian trading hub, and then a Roman port. The old city of Marseille is for lack of a better word, ancient. The city’s economic importance throughout the middle ages kept it populated and hell, people still live there along the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, eating at very specific times throughout the day…not eating in between (can you tell what stuck with me most about France?) We were well aware of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (which I have yet to write about) before visiting, but hadn’t given much thought to any other major churches in Marseille. The Abbey of St. Victor was amazing, but the Cathedral of St. Mary-Major (Marseille Cathedral) was essentially what I expected to see from my not exactly perfectly understanding of the essence of France.

Marseille, France
Marseille Cathedral, right on the waterfront

Marseille Cathedral itself is a beautiful and imposing edifice with striated patterns in the bricks and very, for lack of a better word, French features. I don’t know how else to describe the shape of the domes and the decorative motif.

Marseille, France The Nave of Marseille Cathedral

We walked in just about 30 minutes before they were going to close up for the day (yes, we were THOSE people) and it was very quiet. I was immediately struck by the large, beautiful banners. I felt like I had walked into a coronation scene from some sort of medieval movie.

Marseille, France
Organ Trumpets at Marseille Cathedral

I’d really like to have had the opportunity to sit through a service here because the organ was imposing (heheh…that makes me giggle.) The stained glass was very French looking. Almost as if it had been made in a rococo style, but that’s not at all the style I mean. I guess it wouldn’t look out of place in the background of a rococo style painting. For what it’s worth, I do not at all like the rococo style, but I like the stained glass. I’ll let you interpret that.

Marseille, France Illuminated statuary

It may have simply been a function of the time of the year that we were there, or the time of day,or whatever, but the windows seemed to illuminate certain statues in a very holy way.

Marseille, France
Altar and Chancel

Even the altar and chancel of Marseille Cathedral were adorned with colorful, ornate banners. I really feel like the textiles of this church were among the most impressive textiles I’ve seen anywhere, what with the amount of drapery and whatnot. Clearly the church was designed in such a way that the amount of drapery would not interfere with the design of the natural lighting.

Tucked down below the wall of the old city, a bit of a walk from anything really, Marseille Cathedral should definitely be on your “hit list” if you’re going to visit France’s “second city.”

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy
Vasari’s Final Judgement is the centerpiece of Santa Maria del Fiore

If there is one old church that every visitor to Florence has most likely visited, it is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is known to those of us who visit with tourist guidebooks a bit more simply as Il Duomo. The cathedral towers above the rest of the city and the surrounding countryside, and is topped with a ginormous dome. It’s also a set piece for one of the greatest climbing puzzles in the Assassin’s Creed video game series.

Florence, Italy
Looking down from the dome in Santa Maria del Fiore

Of all the churches I have been in, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in NYC where I’ve been to the rafters, I think Santa Maria del Fiore capitalized the best on verticality. After climbing an ancient staircase for what seems like forever (longer if you’re at all susceptible to claustrophobia, I’m sure) you come out on the inside of the dome. If you don’t like heights (as I don’t like heights myself) this can be a bit of a challenge, but boy is it worth it.
Florence, Italy View of Firenze, in direction of Santa Croce from the exterior of the dome.

Climbing into the Tuscan sunshine on the top of the dome, you can literally see the entire city of Florence and the surrounding countryside. It’s beautiful. You can also see the tourists who chose the route up the bell tower rather than to the dome.

Florence, Italy
The bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore just a few yards away from the dome.

For the sheer sake of verticality and the stunning frescoes and surrounding  scenery, I give the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore 9/10 Bell Towers (Ha! I don’t actually have a ratings system, but maybe I should!) Additionally, the well-lit interior is a refreshing change from many of the other churches one might visit around the world with they’re more mysterious dark confines.


Florence, Italy
You know a church is big when the surrounding Piazza isn’t large enough for you to get a photo of the facade

When in Florence, one simply must make a stop, preferably their first stop, at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.