My old friend and collaborator, Howard Goldbaum, a retired photojournalism professor now teaching in Italy, recently posted online a VR photo of Rome’s Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius. VR (or virtual reality) technology stitches together multiple images to produce a single 360-degree panoramic view of a subject: in this case, a floor-to-ceiling shot of the church’s vast interior in all its baroque splendor. Many of the tourists appearing in the photograph were looking up. Following their line of sight, it quickly became apparent why. On the nave ceiling was an immense fresco depicting the life of St. Ignatius that was painted in the late 17th-century by a Jesuit lay brother named Andrea Pozzo. Every exquisite detail of the ceiling and church were captured using nothing more than an iPhone camera, leading me to wonder why I even bother with the expensive equipment I lug around for my landscape photography.
Howard’s photograph managed to evoke in me the same sense of being simultaneously dwarfed and enlarged when I stand in any of the great cathedrals of Europe — dwarfed by their scale and yet enlarged because they lift you out of yourself. I marvel anew at the vision of these often-anonymous architects and artisans who built these magnificent temples.
How do you convey a sense of God’s grandeur to a population that was largely illiterate and whose lives were “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” to steal a phrase from Thomas Hobbes? One way is through sheer size, of course, which required the builders to marshal immense skill and resources over a period of many decades. And then there is also the light. Credit Abbot Sugar for having brought light into the interior of churches when he undertook the restoration of the Abbey of Saint-Denis outside Paris. Saint-Denis became the prototype of the great gothic cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries.· Through the use of heavy stone buttresses on the building's exterior, the interior walls could be raised on slender columns to unprecedented heights.· Because the weight of the structure was borne by buttresses rather than by exterior walls, he was able to install large stained-glass windows between the support columns to illuminate the sacred space within. For Sugar, the stained-glass windows in his church "kindle in us the desire to ascend from a world of mere shadows and images to the contemplation of the Divine Light itself.” ·
The contrast between the splendor of the great gothic cathedrals and life in the surrounding towns and villages could not have been more pronounced. Medieval houses — often little more than hovels — were cold, dark and dank. They were framed with timber, but the walls were made of bundled twigs and dried mud, with a thatched roof. They were not built to last. There was at most a single small window protected by a wooden shutter (glass windows were not common until the 17th century). The occupants slept on straw mattresses on dirt floors. There was, needless to say, no indoor plumbing. Sanitation and personal hygiene were unheard of. Consequently, deadly infectious diseases ran rampant: typhoid fever, dysentery, diphtheria, smallpox and measles. Rat-borne bubonic plague arrived in the 14th-century and killed an estimated one third of the population in Europe.
If anything, the contrast between Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and life in ancient Israel was even more pronounced. The temple, built by King Solomon in the tenth century BCE, stood on the highest hill in the city and served for more than 400 years as the center of Jewish worship until it was destroyed by Babylonian invaders. The temple was surrounded by an expansive colonnaded courtyard with a multi-story tabernacle whose interior was lined with gold. Within the temple was an inner chamber closed off by a thick curtain that only the high priest was permitted to enter, and then only once a year. This was the Holy of Holies, where the Israelites kept that Ark of the Covenant containing the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. To stand within this inner sanctum was to find oneself in the presence of the Lord God Almighty.
A psalm of praise written after the temple was built includes this verse: “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room….” This was undoubtedly true in the most literal sense but can also be understood as a spiritual metaphor. Solomon himself understood God did not actually dwell in his temple. When it was completed, he said this prayer: "Behold, heaven and earth and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!" ·St. Paul said essentially the same thing when he first laid eyes on the temples at the Areopagus in Athens dedicated to every god imaginable: "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man."
All of us live in little shrines we have made to the self. Unless we step outside our own little rooms, we will never discover that we actually inhabit the vastly larger temple of the Lord Most High that also encompasses the world and everything in it. Standing amid all the religious statuary at the Areopagus, St. Paul told the Athenians that his God could not be contained in any earthly temple, “for in him we live and move and have our being.” As a Jew and a Pharisee, Paul knew idolatry when he saw it. Even less did he approve of bowing down to the little shrines we build to ourselves. “It is no longer I who live,” he explained elsewhere, “but Christ who lives in me.”
1 Kings 8:27