The charm and power of old churches

It is somewhat more easy, at least it feels like it for me, to dismiss religions and beliefs when faced with the kind of architecture in which are hosted most of the church congregations in Australia, functional buildings that in their structure resemble the local library or pawnbroker shop.
But one can’t help but experience a certain feeling of awe and even respect for the achievements of a cult like the Christian one, when one comes to stand before one of their European cathedrals. I walked to Bremen’s St Petri cathedral this morning and took some photos, and it’s a different vibe than what I get from those fairly recently erected impersonal and architectonically worthless church buildings that we have in Australia.

Check out the powerful and artful depiction of the dead Jewish carpenter above the entry to Bremen cathedral. It’s by the way these days a Protestant church, but used to be Catholic since it was built in the 11th-13th century, with some redoings in the subsequent centuries. But essentially, this cathedral was built around the time that celibacy was introduced, the Inquisition was not invented yet, and people could pay off their sins through obtaining indulgences. And it’s still there in 2011. One does not wish to inquire as to what kind of depraved acts were committed in the name of god in the market square in front of the cathedral, or how many witches and unbelievers, roasting slowly and agonizingly on the pyres, the stones of St Petri witnessed over the centuries.

All this architectural achievement, all the art and craft and skill, it makes me feel awed everytime I am in a place like this. But we also must not forget that these ancient places of worship were just means of retaining and ascertaining the power and influence of a clique of priests and their religious bureaucracy, that brought scientific progress to a halt for over 1000 years during what we now call the Dark Ages, and that helped spread the Plague and other diseases with its insistence to gather the faithful to pray for god’s mercy, thereby spreading the bugs in the confined spaces of the church pews.

I think it’s important that we are aware of the feelings that architectural marvels like old Christian churches stir up in us, feelings I never experience from any church in Australia, for example, but we can see the architecture, the paintings, glass windows and the organs as fantastic human achievements, while at the same time rejecting the message that comes with them, which is “see here, how beautiful this house of god is”. The house, yes, but no god has ever called it home.

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