Lessons learned from visiting old cathedrals

Written by Josh Tiessen

This summer I took a course in Orvieto, Italy on art, religion, and theology. I travelled around parts of Europe and Israel—all to better understand how Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have engaged the arts over the centuries.

One of my goals was to see how our theology of art, whether we are conscious of it or not, has real-life relevance. For instance, is the church building you worship in used for its functional utility (such as number of seats, visibility of stage) or for its visual beauty and rich acoustics? Are there paintings or sculptures of Jesus in the sanctuary, or does your church have an auditorium where Christ’s life is represented through a simple wooden cross?

My first stop was Iceland, a country where Christianity was introduced around the 10th century. While Iceland’s state church is Protestant Lutheran, my atheist taxi driver told me most people only attend church for weddings and funerals. More Icelanders believe in the existence of elves than in God.

In the country’s capital of Reykjavik, an epic cathedral looms. However, unlike the gothic-style Notre Dame in Paris, Hallgrímskirkja Church is minimalist and austere; its interior has little to no art. This is reflective of 16th century Protestant Reformers influenced by John Calvin, who banished art due to its distraction from the preached Word.

Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo credit: Josh Tiessen.

Next stop: Barcelona, Spain to see 19th century La Sagrada Família, the most visited cathedral in the world. This temple of light was conceived by devout Catholic architect Antoni Gaudí. It features the Nativity and Passion stories carved in stone on the east and west facades, a crucifix over the altar, tree-like columns, and a plethora of animals and biblical symbols.

Travelling back in time to the Holy Roman Empire in Italy, I witnessed lavishly ornate Catholic duomos (cathedrals). Renaissance architectural style with soaring vaulted ceilings overflowed with gold mosaics, frescoes of biblical scenes, and icon paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

I witnessed pilgrims flocking to relics like the mummified hand of St. Stephen in the Basilica of Budapest, Hungary. The 8th century Second Council of Nicaea clarified that icons and relics should not be worshipped, only honoured.

Art in the Church, while meant to be a window to the Divine, often became an idol, with parishioners praying to icons to achieve salvation. Indulgences (certificates of forgiveness of sins) were sold to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. This precipitated Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and sparked the Protestant Reformation—arguing that salvation is by faith alone.

In Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. Fellow pilgrims knelt, placing their crucifixes and rosaries on the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, in order to soak up its magical power.

Christ Church stands in contrast, the oldest Protestant (Anglican) church in Jerusalem, intentionally sparse on art in deference to the Jewish community that takes seriously the second commandment to not make any graven images of God. Instead, the stained glass windows feature an olive tree symbolizing the family of God—made up of Jews and Gentiles. If you look closely, one of the golden branches forms a cross.

Reflecting on my travelogue, I recognize both the dangers of art being turned into an idol and the struggle of my own evangelical tradition to affirm the role of beauty in the local church. We prize efficiency, frugality, and utilitarianism in our architecture. While these seem admirable, our pragmatic churches are turning into big box stores.

Perhaps contemporary Canadian churches have something to learn from Europe’s celebration of cultural heritage, as expressed in its cathedrals. However, contrary to European edifices which have often devolved into tourist attractions, may our churches reflect the beauty and glory of God as a holistic plan for active spiritual formation—engaging eyes, ears, minds, and hearts with the story of God’s ongoing redemptive plan.

Josh Tiessen is a fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. Read more of his columns.