Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Psalm 24:9
During our month log journey in Europe my wife and I had the opportunity to explore literally dozens of historic cathedrals and churches, both large and small, grand and humble, crowded and empty. Some of them like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, The Duomo in Florence and Notre Dame in Paris are among the world’s most famous. Each church had a unique story to tell of its origin and conveyed incredible devotion and ingenuity by its design and artistic embellishment. Each took scores if not hundreds of years to build and had stood the test of time by their very existence up to a millennium or more after their completion. That for an American, where one celebrates any building older than 100 and venerates anything over 200 years old is mind boggling.
When I discovered that the Duomo, begun in 1296 took 140 years to build and that one artist, Lorenzo Ghiberti, took 27 years to craft just one set of doors for the Baptistery I was literally blown away. It is hard for me to imagine that kind of enduring devotion being poured into creating a building or work of art. One presumes or at least hopes that ultimately the motivation had to be God’s glory, but consider the impact of a similar commitment and devotion today, especially if it were translated into building the church of Jesus Christ which is His body and spreading the gospel. Bottom line, like so many things in Europe, an extravagant price was paid to build edifices of enduring value. The Duomo, by the way, with its external geometric designs in white, green and red marble is absolutely stunning to behold.
Sadly most of the churches we visited apart from being overrun by tourists were bereft of worshippers. At best, places for expressions of prayer and worship in the cavernous spaces, were typically reserved for a few devotees by cordoning off or curtaining a side chapel. That stark act of partitioning such small places for spiritual matters in the midst of a great cathedral originally designed to glorify God was heart rending. But the indictment is that the space allotted was all the space that was needed. One could not help but acknowledge that the glory of the true church had long since departed.
There were of course exceptions, and one of the most remarkable was Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. Outside the church hangs a banner which declares that for 125 years there has been a non-stop, 24/7 prayer meeting. That church, a relative late comer by European standards, was built in the 1870s with the express desire to foster spiritual renewal declaring “the hour of the Church has come.”
But the one thing that most impacted me about nearly all the churches we visited were the ceilings. Ah the ceilings. My initial impression was that an almost inordinate amount of time, creativity, energy and effort were invested in the ceilings. Coupled with the amazing domes and vaults, the ceilings, in frescoes or mosaics, invariably glittered with vibrant colors often accented with gold. Everyone far below on the floor are forced quickly to become accustomed to arching the back, craning the neck and duck waddling in a circle all the while gazing heavenward in an attempt to take it all in. Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is a case in point. How does one even begin to comprehend the vastness, the intricacy, the meaning of it all?