OVER THE YEARS my wife and I have been very fortunate to have visited many of the great cities of Europe. One of the things we love best, and that we seek out in our travels, are the great sources of art, music, and architecture in those cities. Of course there are the museums, but they're all the results of the accumulation of art. If one wants to see and hear and experience art in the places where so much of it was born, and where it first lived, there is but one place to find it. One must visit churches.
I admit that, being an atheist and a humanist, and being just about as fallen a Roman Catholic as one can imagine, going into churches causes me a palpable discomfort. In so many ways, they are disturbing places when one reflects on the suffering and superstition and subjugation that underlie it all. I clearly remember recoiling when a tour guide in St. Petersburg, Russia, told us that we would next be visiting The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
But here's the thing: for centuries, the seat and the source of all power in Europe was the church. There was no aspect of life that wasn't dictated by the Holy Roman Church. And this is true in all parts of the world and in other religions. In India, for example, among the desperately impoverished living in squalor are Hindu temples and Muslim mosques that will take your breath away.
And so for many hundreds of years, if one wanted to build a magnificent structure, create a grand painting, or write a symphony, barring independent wealth one had to navigate the hierarchy of religion to gain approval and funds. If you needed money to enable your art, then a painting of Jesus or a nice hymn of praise was often the only option. Beyond that was the ever-present demand to please the ideals and the tastes of the benefactor. I often wonder, as I wander through magnificent holy sites full of art and beauty, just what might have happened had people like Michelangelo and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Fra Angelico and Joseph Haydn been left entirely to their own devices rather than being encumbered by servitude to kings and popes. We will never know.
Today, the churches and cathedrals of the world, despite our resistance to them, represent many of the very highest aspirations and achievements of humankind. I have stood in a crowd and looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. I have seen the South Rose Window of Notre Dame in Paris. I have stood before the San Marco Altarpiece in...