Yep, that would be my rapidly balding head bowing for Mass at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice where….you know…the gospel writer Mark’s body resides.
We visited several Basilicas during our two week stay in Italy. Each was utterly magnificent in scope, packed with architectural and artistic testimony to the glory of God. Of course many of these churches were built pre Reformation, before Mr Gutenburg, Luther and others put the Bible into the hands of the people. So before widespread Bible distribution, the good news of God was told through art and architecture.
I thank God for it and yet I never could get settled with it. This dichotomy never left me every time I visited a basilica.
They used gold leaf, stained glass, paint, canvas, marble and stone all together to invoke awe and wonder and, in many cases, to present a clear message of the gospel.
A prime example is one of the paintings at the Vatican that stopped me in my tracks. Carracci’s “Dead Christ in the Arms of the Trinity.”
Here it is:
I must have stared at it for several minutes (until, you know, one of my kids asked when we could get gelato.) I pondered the mystery of the trinity, the “waterwheel” relationship of Jesus, The Father and the Spirit, the angel with the spikes, the love and grief captured in that picture. It made me reflect in a way that words never could, which, I suppose, is the power of art. I left many Basilicas grateful to the artists, often from the Renaissance era, for putting so much effort into displaying God’s character in artistic form. I also walked away struck by how the architecture forces you into an awe and respect that is very much lacking in our modern evangelical churches.
“How is that church up the street?”
“Well, the music’s pretty good. The preacher is a bit long, but he’s relevant. Coffee is decent.” Said no one ever after visiting one of these Basilicas. Because the design speaks to the holiness and transcendence of God. Coffee suddenly doesn’t matter, nor does your musical taste. Everything in the building says, “you are on Holy Ground.” No running. Silence please. No exposed shoulders. Skirts and pants must go below the knee, even for a tourist on a Wednesday morning who doesn’t believe in God, because God is holy.
God is awesome in every sense of the word, before we hijacked it to also describe our latest pair of running shoes or that movie.
So I think the Italian architecture exposes a lack in the western evangelical church culture – too much familiarity, not enough consideration of the holiness of God. I’m not kidding here, if our church served bad coffee we would lose members. Maybe we should start.
And to be fair these basilicas also expose a modern lack of budget! How in the world would anyone pay for such a building today without a patron, or selling indulgences, or government money? Unfathomable to me. Our church members sacrificed tremendously to raise money for a simple steel prefab barn. A barn, I might add, that I’m deeply proud of and that I find to be beautiful. Here it is for you out-of-towners. Beauty on a budget:
But no gold, or marble or expensive artistic elements. Casual church, for better or worse. A huge contrast to the magnificent Basilicas of Italy.
I was grateful that the contrast is making me consider the Holiness of God and what we lack in our more casual approach, but all the same, I came away from every basilica with two thoughts in direct tension:
1) How amazing that the medieval followers of Jesus chose to display the gospel through art and architecture. How incredibly moving to take in all the symbolism and interpretation all over the walls and ceilings.
2) There is no way Jesus had this in mind when he came to launch a love revolution! Just. No. Way. I hesitate to write it so plainly, but having seen the Vatican, my primary thought was, “Jesus couldn’t possibly have this in mind.” Too opulent, too rich, too much like a temple, too much removing access to God from the people. I just can’t see the divine peasant rabbi Jesus signing off on gold and glass and marble and untold amounts of money to reflect his simple message of love for all, no exceptions. The medium of the building seems opposite of the message. And I suppose, if I were being completely fair, my house church brothers and sisters could well say the same about our barn. They could equally point to our barn and make a similar statement. But my beef isn’t the building, and it especially isn’t the art, it is the opulence. The opulence of the basilica doesn’t fit the message it is carrying.
Every basilica, the same two thoughts. Gratitude and concern. I never could reconcile them into one cohesive thought. I still don’t quite know what to do with it.