European churches are glorious, but whom do they glorify?

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, known locally as the Duomo.

Something bothers me when viewing the magnificent churches of Europe.

I have great respect for the artistic and scientific talents of the architects and builders. I admire the painstaking work of the masters who created the paintings, statues, columns, sarcophaguses, murals, mosaics, cornices, tapestries and frescoes that seem to decorate every available space. The reverence of these ancient people is touching and I respect the expressions of faith that these churches and their art represent.

But it also feels at times too much.

As my companion and I walked away from the glorious Duomo in Siena, Italy, we passed a group of English-speaking teen-agers getting their first glimpse as they rounded the corner. “How many, like, insanely beautiful churches can there be in one country?” a youth asked rhetorically of his peers.

Indeed, beautiful and plentiful. But on some level insane.

As a visitor to Italy centuries after the Renaissance artists, I am thankful for their contribution to art and beauty. That they elevated humanity is, to me, beyond question.

My father enjoyed painting. While his favorite subjects were sunsets and other landscapes that celebrated the beauty of creation, a few had religious themes. Some of his works hang (or did at one time) in the churches where he served as pastor or perhaps in some he visited. I grew up appreciating the talent and inspiration of the artist.

I’m grateful for the Medicis and other wealthy people who fostered an appreciation of art here. While I’m proud of Dad’s artwork, I recognize the difference between a hobby artist and a master. To become a master, one must work full-time for years. That requires support of wealthy people or wealthy institutions such as churches, either to buy the work or to sponsor it.

As I noted in an earlier post from this trip, I was in awe of the vision and execution that created the David. Sunday we saw the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and marveled again at the beauty and the talent that created it.

Michelangelo’s genius did not grow from nothing. He and Leonardo da Vinci were the greatest artists of a culture that also produced masters such as Botticelli and Donatello (both of whose works we’ve seen on this trip) and lesser masters whose names I’ve already forgotten but who produced magnificent works we viewed in the museums, cathedrals and basilicas we’ve toured. Their work grew from the generosity of the Medicis and other patrons of the arts and from a culture that honored and elevated art.

It’s the cavernous cathedrals that strike me as too much. While I know they were built as tributes to God, I wonder how much they really are statements about the money and might of man. Wouldn’t the savior so often depicted in these statues and paintings have preferred that the church spend more of its wealth following his commandments, such as feeding and clothing the poor, and less building such grand palaces of worship?

I don’t wonder that in a condemning way. I know I don’t contribute enough to helping those less fortunate. And I’m certain the inspiration provided by religious art and architecture helps change lives and drives – directly or not – many of the countless acts of generosity by the faithful.

But as I admire the artistic gifts of the masters, I wonder if the popes and bishops who built these grand cathedrals weren’t glorifying themselves at least as much as the master they served.

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

An ideal day in Lyon

Here’s an ideal travel day: Sleep in. Enjoy a pleasant breakfast in a French bistro. A friendly cabbie explains why Lyon has the world’s best cooking as he drives you to a silk shop. A charming clerk helps you make your silk purchases. Walk down the quaint narrow streets of the Presq’île district to catch the parade of a Renaissance festival. Ride a funicular up a hill. Enjoy spectacular views of the city and the snow-capped Alps beyond. Browse the historic Basilica de Fourvière. View ancient artifacts in the Gallo-Roman Museum. Wander through the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. Enjoy a glass of wine outdoors, with views of the Alps in the distance. Sniff your way through the food stalls of Les Halles and buy some macaroons for the relatives you’ll be visiting the next day. Get back to your hotel for a brief afternoon nap. Accompany some new friends to dinner for melt-in-your-mouth seafood with more fine wine. And write a blog post. That was the Saturday my traveling companion and I enjoyed.

My traveling companion and I enjoyed a fabulous day in Lyon, including a walk across the Rhòne.

The quaint streets of old Lyon are more fun to walk, I’m sure, than they are to drive.

Where people in Lyon go when they’re feeling les miserables?

We happened upon a parade that appeared to be part of a Renaissance festival, starting in Place Bellecour.

I was not quick enough to catch the flag twirlers when they tossed their flags in the air.

The most amazing part of the parade was these women on stilts.

A huge statue of Louis XIV dominates Place Bellecour.


My woeful ignorance of the French language kept me from reading what this garden honors, but I did appreciate les fleurs.

The basilica towers above Lyon.

Basilica de Fourvière

Inside the basilica

The basilica ceiling

Huge mosaics cover the basilica walls.

Views of Lyon and the distant Alps from the basilica are breathtaking. That round tower in the center is our hotel, the Radisson Blu.

My companion enjoys fish art. Apparently the Romans did, too. The Gallo-Roman Museum displayed antiquities more than two millennia old, from the Roman city of Lugdunum, on the site of present-day Lyon.

The Roman faces captivated me most in the museum. This was Emperor Caracalla.

Roman gods (and planets, for that matter) are well represented in the museum’s faces. Here’s Mercury.

And Neptune

And, of course, Jupiter

These were apparently a mother and daughter.

The Roman museum is built adjacent to the ruins of an amphitheatre. Some theatrical masks are among the artifacts that have been found.

Yeah, the masks are kinda creepy.

Even creepier were the funeral masks. This one’s a cyclops.

Another funeral mask

And another

I told you they were creepy.

This mask is sad, apparently from the funeral of a young girl.

This container is huge. With walls that thin, could it have held water. If not water, what would you use an urn that large for? It had no plaque to explain.

I wonder if Red Rocks will hold up as well in 2,000 years as the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls. With the view of the city and the mountains, it reminded me somewhat of Red Rocks, which we visited in October.

Friends, Romans, countrymen …


Flavorful Lyon

There is a feeling when you travel, that you must not waste time. Certainly, that can serve you well. There are sights in every city that shouldn’t be missed. But then again, sometimes we miss the flavor, the tenor, the actual heart of a city because all we see are the sights.

I’ve been lucky while in Lyon, France. We’ve put off most of our sight-seeing until my companion is finished with the three day conference he was invited to attend here. That has left me on my own to wander, not bothering with the main tourist attractions, knowing that we’ll get to them on the weekend. I’ve enjoyed just taking in the city.

My first morning here it took me nearly until noon to get myself together and shake off the jet lag. That’s much too late to watch the city’s top chefs making their purchases at Les Halles de Lyon, an indoor market of gourmet food shops. But Les Halles is easy walking distance from our hotel, so I strolled over anyway. I’m so glad I did.

Enticing offerings at the charcuterie

The place was bustling. Customers shopped with purpose, filling the large shopping bags on their arms with the best of the best. Unobtrusively as possible, I stalked one humpbacked dowager as she made her way from stall to stall, gathering ingredients. She picked new spring peas at green grocer and fresh tagliatelle from the homemade pasta booth. After a stern debate at the charcuterie, she added a lovely, thick slice of pancetta to her bag. I left her picking through bottles at the wine booth, jabbering at the seller, no doubt haggling for a good price.  Assuming she had eggs and lots of pepper at home already, my mouth watered at the thought of the carbonara she’d soon make.

Not surprisingly, I suddenly realized I was hungry. But ordering food in a country where you know nothing more than bonjour and merci can be tricky. Surrounded on every side by wonderful gourmet food, I had no idea how to ask for any of it. Grunting and pointing seemed so crass. A kiosk with posted pictures of sandwiches and salads was crowded with lunchtime business, and again I lurked off to the side, observing. The sandwiches looked marvelous, and every single diner had a small glass of wine by their plates.

My awesome croque madam

At last a barstool opened up, and I shyly snuck onto it, noticing as I did that the young man next to me had just been served what appeared to be a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. When the very busy clerk stopped in front of me with a “Bonjour,” I pointed to the young man’s plate and said in English, “I’ll have that, please.” The clerk smiled with a, “Oui,” and bustled off. The young man turned to me and said in English, “It’s called “croque madam,” you know, because of the egg. It’s very good here.” We went on to have a pleasant conversation, him telling me the things I should be sure to see in Lyon, and asking if I’d seen the White House when I told him I was from the Washington, D.C. area.

When my food arrived it was even better than I anticipated. The wonderfully textured French bread was charred just enough along the grill marks to give a twinge of bitterness, pleasantly offsetting the rich egg and what could only be a Raclette cheese filling. Twice the waiter stopped, pointing to my plate and raising his shoulders in gallic question. I would nod, and say, “It’s very good.” He’d nod back. The third time he paused, I looked over at my dining companion, unsure how to reassure the waiter I really was pleased with my meal. They exchanged a few words, and then the young man leaned in to whisper, “He’s hoping you’ll say it’s awesome.” Turning to the waiter, I said in my best Midwestern twang, “This is just awesome.” The waiter grinned and pumped his fist in the air. We all had a good laugh and he brought me a small strawberry tart on the house.

Before I left on this trip, a young friend told me if all I did was sit in sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and watching people, it would be time well spent. He is wise beyond his years. Yesterday, I did just that, and found the people of Lyon friendly, happy, well-dressed and deliciously fed.