Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Tendency of Churches to Accumulate

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Rome.

Architectural History was my undergraduate major and in Rome, I wanted to show Mr Tabubil all my favorite churches.
            We started with Santa Maria Maggiore –  one of the Churches in Rome, if not the church, until the completion of the new St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in the 16th Century.  She was built in the 4th century AD as a traditional Roman basilica – long and rectangular, with narrow side aisles, and coffered beams on the ceiling, and she has been a work in progress ever since.
The coffered ceiling is original, but now there are glittering Byzantine mosaics to go with it, as well as measured Renaissance arcades, belligerent Baroque cupolas and even a late-Victorian neo-gothic bell tower, pasted onto the façade like of the after-dinner deliberations of a drunken board of directors.  And everything is gold, gold, gold- painted, gilded, encrusted and smeared on like bird-lime.
            I suppose that when you have a millennium and half of artists and patrons going hammer and chisel at one building, things would tend to build up and overlap - like calcium carbonate in a limestone cavern, or salt damage.
            And yet somehow, I couldn’t summon sarcasm.  It was so seriously and sensuously Glory to God in the Highest that I took it at its own valuation and it was... just.... wonderful.

From Santa Maria Maggiore we walked across town to Santa Maria Vittoria, the church that houses Bernini’s great sculptural work -  the Ecstasy of St Theresa.
            The Ecstasy of St Theresa is a most perfect union of word and sculpture.  Natural light is used to spotlight the narrative, and forced perspective pulls the viewer into proximity with the drama.  You don’t admire the art, you act as witness the visitation.
            I love it. I have loved it ever since I saw it in an art book when I was six and could not understand how stone could be made flesh, squeezed like water wrung from a cloth, given breath and a pulse.
            Stone is stone, isn’t it?
            But Bernini did it – he made the marble live.

Santa Maria Vittoria is another Baroque church where the blinding dazzle of the glamour could put an eye out.  There are dusky and mysterious oil paintings on every single wall, gold and bronze reliquaries by the bag-load, frescoes hidden by showers of painted rose petals, and inebriated plaster cherubs dribbling off of bronze garlands and parti-colored marble swags.
            The five-dollar plastic Virgin next to the door with her electric halo blended right in. You would think that Saint Theresa’s expression of overwrought emotion were the hammering of a celestial hangover, but once again, the tack is so sincere that I can’t wax sarcastical about a particle of it.
            Well, about almost every particle.
            Possibly the gold gilt on the Corinthian capitals mounted on the tops of the fluted green marble pilasters that lean over the carved red marble balustrades supporting the bronze angels that brandish five-armed candelabras holding three-foot candles  - possibly THAT is just a little bit excessive.
            And possibly the bronze sunburst behind the altar that is loaded high with nineteen gold baseball bats and framed by four hefty bronze incense burners that hang above bronze gates set into carved marble balustrades  - perhaps it doesn’t lend quite the right attitude to the “Please help us fund our ongoing restorations” box.
            So much genuine, high-minded gilt. 
            Gaud with provenance and pedigree.
            Mr Tabubil gawked. "WHAT a Victorian attic!"
            Diplomacy and sincere admiration struggled for supremacy in my breast, and then I saw, underneath a large oil painting of the risen Christ (hazy with sfumato and the breath of dipsomaniac cherubs) a lace bordered linen altar cloth, covered firmly and pointedly with a plastic table runner - the lace, at the very least, should not be grubbed by human hands!
            We swung wildly away, hysteria bubbling, and met the eyes of a seventeenth century stone Virgin.  She, the Christ Child and requisite coterie of hiccupping Cherubs all stood luminous with limpid tenderness – ringed by a circle of naked electric light bulbs.
            Compared with the awesome bronze sunburst of the monstrance (lit by subtle stained glass, candles and very discreet electric mood lighting) the lack of subtlety was almost endearing.

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