Now this is what God should look like…

…don’t you think?  A big grey-bearded white man, floating on a cloud up in the sky, ready to hurl thunderbolts down at you if you step out of line.  This is almost exactly the childhood image I had in my head after years of Baptist Sunday School.

Cartoon of a bearded God, with arm outstretched, on a cloud with angels and cherubs

Tiepolo cartoon of God on a cloud with some angels and cherubs

Actually I didn’t find this painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in a church, it’s in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it’s a preliminary sketch, made about 1760, for a finished painting that was commissioned for the cathedral at Este, near Padua, Italy.  So I think it’s OK to include it here.

I like Tiepolo’s drawings and sketches better than his finished works.  They have a lively freshness about them, and although this is oil on canvas, it’s more of a coloured brush drawing than a painting.  Technically, I suppose it’s a ‘cartoon’, and if Tiepolo was alive today, I think he would be a great comics artist.

Domes of the Cyclades

Throughout the Greek Cyclades group of islands in the Mediterranean, there are myriad small Orthodox Christian churches, and almost all of them have a distinctive blue dome, like these shown here, from Santorini island.

Looking across the hillside of white buildings with four domes close to each other

Four blue domed churches in the one shot, gives you some idea of how many churches there are on this island

Santorini alone has some 250 churches, almost all of them painted bright white to reflect the heat of the sun, although a few are partly or wholly painted in a soft dusky pink, which I think is a lovely colour combination.

wide view of a church with a blue dome, but with pink walls instead of white

This church is in a village, not on the rocky hillside, and is painted mostly pink rather than the usual white

Looking down on a pretty pink bell tower, next to a very dusty blue dome, against a backdrop of deep blue sea

A very dusty dome with its pretty pink bell tower. Santorini must have needed some rain.

Almost every other building on this rocky volcanic island is also painted stark white, so if you are in need of a quick pray, look for a blue dome, and you’ll have no difficulty finding the nearest church.

White buildings on the hillside of Santorini island, with a blue dome standing out

A blue-domed church on Santorini island, standing out from it’s white surroundings

Three bells in a bell tower, next to its blue-domed church

Blue domed Orthodox church with its bell-tower and three bells

I’ve tried to find out why the domes are almost always blue, but without success.  Anyone know why?

Another lovely rose window

I do like rose windows.  So here’s another one.

This one is at the end of the north transept in Reims cathedral, in northern France, and it tells the story of Adam and Eve.  In the 13th century, most people couldn’t read, and they wouldn’t have had access to any books, anyway.  All Bibles in those days were owned by the church and in Latin only, so the priests would recount and interpret the stories for their parishioners, and the windows in the church – like comic strips – would retell and reinforce some of the important ones.

The north transept rose window from Reims cathedral, France

The north transept rose window from Reims cathedral, France

In the centre of this window is God the Creator of all, and the Adam and Eve story is told clockwise in the panels radiating out from the Almighty.

Central panel detail showing God the creator of all

Central panel detail showing God the creator of all

At the 12 o’clock position, the story begins, with God creating the first people.  At 1 o’clock, we see Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  The other panels show other parts of the story, sons Cain and Abel, Cain slaying Abel, and so on, although the sequence doesn’t chronologically follow the Genesis story.  For instance, in the 10 o’clock panel, below left, we can see Adam and Eve with the serpent, and then at 11 o’clock eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, yet their banishment from the garden for doing this occurs in the 8 o’clock panel.

Top three panels, showing scenes from the story of Adam and Eve

Top three panels, showing scenes from the story of Adam and Eve

This window was made between 1231 and 1241, and it’s possible that when the panels were removed for restoration in the 17th century they were replaced in the wrong order, but somehow that seems unlikely.  It may be that the story of Adam and Eve was so familiar that narrative sequencing was not that important  in recognising the content of the images.  Has anyone got a better explanation?

 

Amiens Cathedral, northern France

The higher the ceiling, the closer to God.

Something like that idea must have been the motivation behind the medieval compulsion to make cathedrals taller and taller.   There were a few taller cathedrals built than Amiens, but only the never-completed one at Beauvais is still standing.  All the rest fell down, leaving Amiens as the tallest complete gothic cathedral.

So this fabulous church is the high point (literally) of the prolific church building efforts between the 11th and 14th centuries.  This one defines the limits of medieval engineering skills.  Which were pretty amazing, if you remember that engineers in the middle ages didn’t even have calculators to help them try to estimate stresses and loads, let alone computers.

And what a wonderful building this is.  It is the lightest, airiest, most soaring interior space you will ever walk into, and it is simply breathtaking.  Awe inspiring.  Which I guess was the point.

The nave of Amiens cathedral

The nave of Amiens cathedral

The interior of Amiens cathedral, looking up to the point where the transept crosses the nave.

The interior of Amiens cathedral, looking up to the point where the transept crosses the nave.

One of the reasons Amiens is so much lighter and airier than most gothic cathedrals is that most of the windows are clear glass, not stained glass.  This was not always so.  Amiens had fabulous stained glass windows once upon a time, but only a few now remain.  To protect them during the First World War (1914-18), the windows were all removed and stored.  The cathedral itself emerged from the war unscathed, but the studio where the windows were stored burnt to the ground, destroying most of the precious windows, including the oldest ones.

How sad.  But, however much I love stained glass windows, the lack of them here does give this church a very different and special feel.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque, Istanbul

Rüstem Paşa (Pron: Roo-stem Pasha) was the Grand Visier and son-in-law of Ottoman Emperor Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in the 16th century.  As Grand Visier, he amassed enormous personal wealth, and he commissioned this very lovely mosque for himself, which is rightly famous for its Iznik tile decoration.

Interior of Rüstem Paşa Mosque, Istanbul

Interior of Rüstem Paşa Mosque, Istanbul

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

Iznik tiles from Rüstem Paşa mosque

The town of Iznik in Turkey (originally named Nicaea), was a long established centre for glazed pottery.  The Ottoman court was very fond of Chinese blue and white porcelain, and in the 15th century, Iznik began to produce similar high quality pottery with cobalt blue decoration under a clear glaze.  By the time this mosque was built, the range of tile patterns had become vast and several other colours had been added, such as turquoise and a bold red.  

Rüstem Paşa spared no expense in decorating his mosque, and there are dozens and dozens of panels of different patterns on most of the interior surfaces, more than in any other mosque of that time.

Aren’t these tiles just beautiful?  Iznik is still famous for its pottery, and it still produces tileware and crockery with these types of traditional designs.

The Cloisters, Westminster Abbey

This square set of cloisters, in the very heart of London, are about as good an example of gothic monastery architecture as you will find anywhere.  Although not completely plain and simple, they nevertheless create a peaceful oasis and are still capable of encouraging quiet contemplation.

Unusually, these cloisters were completely enclosed with glazed windows, so even in the winter, with braziers burning, the monks of the abbey could still exercise and talk and meditate, and in good weather they could spill out onto the plain green lawn in the centre, and still be cloistered (kept separated) from the outside world.

The cloisters of Westminster Abbey, London

The cloisters of Westminster Abbey, London

The cloister lawn of Westminster Abbey, London

The cloister lawn of Westminster Abbey, London

Although it’s now a very important Church of England church, Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral, in that it is not the diocesan seat of a bishop.  Until the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation in the 16th century, it was a wealthy and powerful Benedictine monastery.  The core of it was begun before the Norman Conquest in 1066, so some of it is very old, although these French Gothic cloisters were built in the 13th century.

Gesuiti

The church of St Mary of Assunta, tucked away in a remote corner of Canareggio in Venice, is commonly known as the ‘Gesuiti’, because the Jesuit order took over the third church to stand on this spot in 1657, and subsequently completely rebuilt it, sparing no expense.  The walls of this most baroque church appear to be covered in highly patterned fabric, but that is an illusion, because the walls are in fact all inlaid marble.

Santa Mary Assunta (Gesuiti), Canareggio, Venice

Santa Mary Assunta (Gesuiti), Canareggio, Venice

John Ruskin, the Victorian English art critic, hated it, of course. “I hardly know which condition of mind is meanest, that which has pride in plaster made to look like marble, or that which takes delight in marble made to look like silk. Several of the later churches in Venice… rest their chief claims to admiration on their having curtains and cushions cut out of rock. The most ridiculous example is the Gesuiti…”  

That’s a bit harsh, John.  It might be a bit gaudy, a bit excessive, but it’s in keeping with its times and a lot less over the top than many of its contemporaries.  I admire the craftsmanship and effort that went into it (built entirely by skilled hands without power tools, by the way), and I think it’s rather lovely.

The Pantheon, Rome

‘Pantheon’ means ‘to all the gods’ and this is a temple dedicated to all of the pagan gods of Ancient Rome – Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and so on – and it was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa in 27 A.D.  The portico carries Agrippa’s name, but the original building behind it burned down and was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D.

The Pantheon in Rome. A very impressive portico.

The Pantheon in Rome. A very impressive portico.

Inside the Pantheon in Rome.  The oculus is open to the sky and the rain.

Inside the Pantheon in Rome. The oculus is open to the sky and the rain.

The inside is amazing.  It is a circular open space covered by a partially spherical dome, 43.3m in diameter, with an open skylight, or oculus, in the centre.  Incredibly, this huge dome was made of cast concrete, and it is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, almost 2000 years after it was built.  Clever engineers, the Romans, even if they didn’t manage to invent rebar.

Pope Boniface IV (the Pope was not the head of a separate Catholic church then, he was still one of five Orthodox Patriarchs, answerable to the more senior Patriarch in Constantinople) took possession of it in the 7th century, cleaned out the ‘pagan filth’ and dedicated it to St Mary and the Martyrs.  It is still used for Christian services.

Our Lady of Hope

Inside the Mare de Déu de la Mercè (Our Lady of Mercy) Basilica in Barcelona there are a number of different depictions of ‘Our Lady’.  This one is not the main one, sitting on the high alter inside a glass box, this one is much prettier, and she stands in one of the side chapels.

Mare de Déu de l'Esperança, in La Mercé Basilica, Barcelona

Mare de Déu de l’Esperança, in La Mercé Basilica, Barcelona

This is Mare de Déu de l’Esperança – Our Lady of Hope.  Don’t you like her superstar halo, too?

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Here is the magnificent Cathedral that dominates the centre of this great city.  Although their spires are often intended to be seen from a long way off, few cathedrals as a whole are as visible as this one, because over the centuries the surrounding towns have grown and encroached on the space they occupy and now obscure your view of them.  Notre Dame was built on an island in the middle of the river Seine in the heart of the city, so you can still see it clearly from almost every angle.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame, Île de la Cité, Paris

The Cathedral of Notre Dame, Île de la Cité, Paris

Isn’t this a gorgeous building?  It has proportions as appealing as any classic car, and a satisfying symmetry that so many of its contemporaries lack.   I love its massive twin-towered facade, balanced by the semi-circle of flying buttresses propping up its ambulatory at the other end, and the massive rose window in between.