What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
I once heard a professor say that these few lines were the ultimate statement on the Renaissance. It was a time when human beings–their creativity, ideas, power–were beginning to come to the forefront as inherently worthy of study and awe. But behind it all was still this pressing knowledge of mankind’s fragility, his limitations, his very smallness in the face of God, nature, death. It was possible to be both infinite in faculty and a quintessence of dust.
I think the churches here are fascinating reflections of the passage. As I said, they seem to be as much celebrations of human creativity and power as places of worship. But even amidst the walls of stained glass and stone, amidst the breathtakingly beautiful organs, frescoes, alters, columns, and statues, there is still this pervading feeling of quintessence-of-dust.
Schönbornkapelle, Dom St. Kilian, Würzburg