It’s no secret that I have some pretty significant ideological problems with the Catholic Church. But when it comes to aesthetics, I find it completely inescapable. No other religious tradition of my personal acquaintance does beauty so well. I’ve been in dozens of catholic churches across Germany, and the sheer power and loveliness of it all always takes me by surprise.
At the same time, though, I find the physical beauty of the buildings themselves deeply unnerving. This splendor, decadence, theatricality–it blurs the line between art and religion, between aesthetic and spiritual experience. I grew up in protestant New England, going to Sunday services in tiny white clapboard churches–functional, lovely in their own way, but entirely lacking in anything that might be described as gorgeous. There were no candles burning, no stained glass windows, no towering organ, no gothic vaults hazy with incense. Just straight-backed wooden pews, a piano, a plain pulpit–stark perhaps, but refreshingly straightforward, not plagued with questions about the role of decadence and art in religion. And somehow honest: the congregation is not wooed into belief by the power of beauty.
How different it is here in Germany, where I go to a mass in the Frauenkirche in Munich and think, This is as good as a Wagner opera.
The cathedral in Mainz is one of the most stunning I have seen, and therefore also one of the most unnerving. It is sprawling, visible from almost anywhere in the old city, and dates originally back to 975AD. The building has been restored and rebuilt dozens of times since them, and features architectural components from nearly every Western stylistic period of the past millennium. Outside, there’s the marketplace and dozens of cafes and a really good H&M–inside, a whole separate, echo-y world of vaulted ceilings and stained glass.
I stand inside the main sanctuary, and I think, Who built this thing? Who paid for it all, who mined all that red stone and brought it here? So many centuries ago, in a tiny town of just a few thousand residents, what motivated those in power to dedicate so many lives and so much money to the Church? These cathedrals are the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke, really–equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped by aesthetics, politics, Zeitgeist, music. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.
Below, two of the entrances to the Mainzer Dom (Dom=cathedral).
Inside. The main sanctuary. The painted side panels tell the story of the life of Jesus, with Latin descriptions underneath.
Below, two of the many side chapels. The second chapel, with the very modern stained glass window, gate, and painting together with the traditional architecture, is a very common sight in Germany: after World War II, many churches were restored only partly to their original appearances, and thus feature this striking combination of old and new.
The amount of detail is staggering.
Alongside the focus on heaven and the Living God, the presence of death is heavily felt in the cathedrals I have been in. Skulls and skeletons are carved into many of the altarpieces and stone relief-work, and there is always a personified statue of Death somewhere.
…But when the sun is out, the whole building is full of light.