Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sacred Structures

            Man’s expression of faith takes many forms, and the physical church structures are no exception.  The following photos of cathedrals, churches, chapels and temples show the variety of this expression, and the different settings in which they were placed.
            Whenever I’m near a church, a magnetic pull compels me to view and photograph the details.  The photos are some of my favorites, and I provide a snippet of what impressed me at the time of the photograph.
Sacred Structures
photos and comments by
Gregory E. Larson, AIA

            What could be more special than to attend a summer wedding on the banks of the River Avon in England’s green and pleasant land?  Gretta and I jumped at the invitation, and were awed by the history of the site of ruins of the 8th century Benedictine abbey, and the 16th century Abbey bell tower, adjacent to the All Saints Anglican Church in Evesham, England.
Evesham Abbey, 16th century bell tower - Evesham, England
All Saints Church built in 12th century - Evesham, England

            Hidden in a corner of Shropshire countryside is the village of Acton Burnell.  The small St. Mary’s Church (built in the 13th century) is located adjacent to the ruins of Acton Burnell Castle, which was the site of the first Parliament of England.  Gretta and I visited on a cool, gray day, our heels clicking on the stone floor in the dark church.  I noticed a stone plaque which listed the death of a member of the prominent Smythe family in 1776, the same year as U.S. independence from England.
St. Mary's Church with castle ruins beyond - Acton Burnell, England

            St. David’s Cathedral, near the west coast of Wales, was constructed during 12th to the 14th century in a low spot of land, adjacent to a creek, so it is not visible from a distance.  When the large cathedral was first used, Pope Calixtus II declared that two pilgrimages to St. David’s were equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome.
St. David's Cathedral nestled in the hills - St. David's, Wales
Interior ceiling of the central tower - St. David's Cathedral
My favorite places are the smaller, out-of-the-way sites, surrounded by nature.  Such is St. Non’s, on the coast of Wales, just south of the city of St. David’s.
St. Non’s is located at the birth site of St. David.  The official story is that Llanon (now St. Non), while living as a nun at nearby Caerfai, was raped by Prince Sandde of Ceredigion.  She gave birth to a son, David, in approximately 500 A.D.  David founded the town which eventually became St. David's. He is the patron saint of Wales. The chapel seen here is a modern chapel built in 1934.  Adjacent to the chapel are the old chapel foundations and a holy well.
St. Non's Chapel overlooking the Welsh coastline
St. Non's Chapel is a place to contemplate nature and listen to the sea

            One of the more unusual holy sites in Wales is St. Govan’s chapel on the coastal cliffs near the town of Bosherston.
            The chapel was built on the site where a man named Govan hid in a miraculous opening of the rocks in the sixth century to escape pirates from Ireland.  The story is that he lived as a hermit in a cave on the site for the rest of his life.
St. Govan's Chapel set in the seaside cliffs

            Everything about St. Peter’s is massive: the square, the sanctuary, the basilica, and the dome.  I felt I was at ground zero for Christendom in Western Civilization. In addition to the sheer size of the place, the details inside and outside are almost too much for the mind to comprehend in one visit.
Morning sunlight filters into St. Peter's Cathedral
St. Peter's Square with view towards Cathedral and dome

            A Florence View was the name of the bed and breakfast establishment from which I took the photo of the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore. Another highlight was the tour of the dome which is the largest masonry dome in existence.

View of Santa Maria del Fiore from our room
Dome at Santa Maria del Fiore - Florence, Italy

            This Renaissance façade on the Cathedral at Orvieto, Italy is a jaw-dropper.  Gold leaf is included in the entry details, and on the mosaic murals which fill the façade.  We walked into the sanctuary and listened to the organ and choir on a Sunday afternoon.  I thought I’d walked back into the Renaissance period.
Street view towards Orvieto Cathedral
Mosaics fill the spaces on the Renassaince facade
            The Cathedral of Our Lady is located on the Ile de la Cite in the heart of Paris.  The gothic details emerge as gargoyles and grotesques.  A special treat was the exterior tour which allowed us to see the roof and tower details close up.  
The east side of Notre Dame Cathedral - Paris, France
Gargoyles, grotesques and other details - Notre Dame Cathedral
Eagle statue at Notre Dame Cathedral
            Sainte Chapelle is also located on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, but it is lesser known than Notre Dame.  The church was constructed in the middle of the 13th century, and at the time, the stained glass windows were the largest in the world.  The windows depict the story of the bible from beginning to end.
St. Chapelle - Paris, France
Interior side of stained glass window - St. Chapelle
            The vertical exterior of Heinz Chapel on the campus of Pittsburgh University seems to emulate the details of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The chapel is a popular spot for Pittsburgh weddings.
            Although I was able to tour the temple before it was dedicated, interior pictures were not allowed.  I was surprised there is no large sanctuary.  The largest room held fifty-four people.  On the tour, I learned that the temple is used for special religious occasions that are outside the functions of the local Mormon churches.  The interior was full of rich detail, with oak and marble trim, painted murals, sculptured carpets, and gold-leaf tracery on some of the ceilings.
The new Mormon Temple in Kansas City, Missouri

            The First United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, a church of modern design, was completed in 1961.  It is where I attended as a boy.  Much of my faith, as well as my interest in art and architecture began there.


            To me, the simple setting for this Christian Church at the cemetery near Elmdale, Kansas, moved my soul as much or more than the ornate churches.  The prairie wind washed over me and I felt God’s power and man’s temporal existence on earth.
Cemetery and church near Elmdale, Kansas
A church in the Flint Hills of Kansas