If, through your entire life, you’ve been surrounded by modernity and newness, it is a mind-boggling thing to be plunged into what is old and historic. For someone accustomed to the appearance of the North American city and suburb, the look of Europe is surprising in unexpected ways.
The ornateness of everyday things reminds me of what Chesterton said. Modern efficiency “which makes the utmost possible uniformity over a large space merely gets further and further from mediaeval inspiration, which made the utmost possible variety in a small space.” (His quotation was about modern German efficiency but nowadays this approach is everywhere.)
In Europe, one encounters the spirit of the medieval approach, where so much craftsmanship went into the most everyday things. The door handles, the grates on windows, the wooden shutters, were exquisitely done. I took a photo of the little circular peep-hole on our apartment door because I loved how it had a tiny matching circular disc that you could swing to cover the opening again. It was as delicate as the workings of a watch.
And so much was made out of solid materials from nature. The buildings were made of stone, or at least bricks or blocks covered with the plaster and there was a lot of marble. There’s enough visual pleasure in even the most mundane of places. The first stairwell I climbed had white walls and white marble steps and the light poured into it from a window etched with delicate patterns. I was mesmerized.
In a lot of North American cities, the materials used are so cold, both to the touch and on the eyes. Metal, plastic, glass, drywall, exposed concrete: it’s all so manufactured and hard, and yet brittle and temporary looking. In the architectural sketches, they always have to add full-grown trees, just to soften the lines.
Give me any day the warmth of wood and stone, and if you must use iron and brass, then mold them into shapes that are serviceable and yet beautiful. And as for glass, it also used to look more interesting a long time ago, when it had imperfections and waves like water.
As I walked through streets and open squares, the architecture and all these rich details were offset by the beauty of the sky and all the colours of spring in the grass and the budding trees. There’s that expression, ‘a feast for the eyes’ and truly, seeing such beauty gave me the sensation of being physically fed. It was as if I had been starved for so long and now I finally was able to consume as much beauty as I could handle.
And I wonder if anywhere there is an equivalent to the sound of church bells ringing? We rarely hear that sound in the suburbs of North America. But it’s a sound which has the solidity of earth and yet the promise of something so lofty and meaningful. It makes me think of Chesterton’s description of man. Chesterton was explaining how St. Thomas Aquinas views the nature of the human person:
And for him the point is always that Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.
The Catholic church in Europe is almost always something to behold, even from the outside. Some of them have gigantic doors, twenty, thirty, forty feet tall. It’s as if you’re entering the house of a giant. You are being put on notice that something here is different, and it’s like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk or Alice in Wonderland: either I’m really small or else something else is really big.
And entering inside, you are suddenly in another world. It’s cool and quiet and your eyes are adjusting to the different quality of light, which is more diffuse and manageable. You have all of a sudden left behind the tangle of streets, the noise of people and the mix of building sizes and purposes. You enter a place where all is ordered towards the same thing.
You don’t know where to look first; the floor is covered in tiles which make patterns, there are columns in alternating colours of marble (there’s so often proof of the humour of the designers), and over there, some candles are glowing. The windows sometimes are made of stained glass, and the ceilings are usually adorned in some jaw-dropping way. There are paintings and statues. Carved wood and marble is everywhere. Some churches have large swaths of gold mosaic, and other churches have colorful frescos, sometimes vivid, but sometimes soft, perhaps with age.
I remember looking at the floor in one church. It was made of stone tiles, that were cut pretty small, about 2 inches by 3 inches or so, and they were arranged into a pattern by colour: pink, amber, green, white and black. The stones weren’t just flat; they were smooth but each stone was slightly convex, so that if you were to touch the floor, you’d find it to be undulating. I thought to myself that the craftsmanship on one square foot of that floor would be worthy of one hour of consideration and admiration. And that was just one square foot! You can’t help but think back to the unknown artisans who were obviously so proud of their work and at the top of their game.
Some churches are extremely ornate, and some are more spare, but there’s always order. All of the man-hours of all of these artisans, spanning decades or centuries, is all directed at the same thing: of giving one’s best for the sake of creating a beautiful place of worship. And it struck me as fascinating that as Europe turns its back on its Christian past, the tourists continue to arrive (from all countries and even from all faith backgrounds), and they, like me, are so happy to drink in all the beauty found here.
It’s how a church should be. As you stand there in that place, whether it’s the first one or the tenth one you’ve seen, you recognize pretty quickly that it’s more than you can absorb and appreciate. It’s just impossible to digest it all, and you surrender, admitting that it’s beyond you.
You recognize that indeed, you really are very small, and you know that truly, you are in the house of somebody much, much bigger than you.
[May 17, 2015]