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

Magical Siena

Il Campo in Siena

Correction: My traveling companion was indulging me and posted this for me after I’d written it on the train in another program. It didn’t occur to either of us that it would then bear his byline. This is Mimi Johnson writing, no matter what WordPress says.

My companion and I reached Siena in the midafternoon, hungry, tired and perhaps a little bit cranky. He’d asked me before we left the states, “Why Siena?” I’d told him I’d just heard it was a beautiful Tuscan city, smaller, without as many tourists as Florence. I thought it was worth a brief visit, a chance to kick back a little and not push the sightseeing quite so hard.

Siena is magical at night.

Our B&B was in an ancient, rustic building, the color of, well, sienna. It was just off Il Campo, the lovely center square of the city. After a little snack of bruschetta and a little rest at a sidewalk table, we felt better, ready to wander the narrow, steep streets. We spent some time at the Duomo, lighting candles for each of our families at a side altar. And we stopped by the Basilica of St. Domenico, because I couldn’t resist the chance to see St. Catherine’s mummified head looking down from the altar.

I’d read in several places that Siena is at its best at night, and while we were still in France, an acquaintance who’d been there confirmed, “It’s magical.” I wasn’t disappointed. After dark we sat on the cobblestones of the square, looking up at the artfully lit campanile, a half-moon lurking nearby in the starry night. When I looked over at my companion I could clearly see the young man he used to be, when he wooed and won me. Romantic. Magical.

Last night, I slept in a building that was built 800 years ago. As I lay in bed, my companion sound asleep beside me, I looked up at the dark wood beams of the dim ceiling far above me, and wondered about all the couples that had shared this room before us. The idea of 800 years of living kept me awake. (Or perhaps it was the espresso I’d had after dinner.) The drunken singing from a group below drifted up from the street, a faint, merry murmur through the ancient, thick walls.

The entrance to the Palazzo Masi bed and breakfast in an 800-year-old Siena building.