Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Church Architecture

A couple of days ago I noted how I rather distrust established church ritual and bureaucratic structures. Nevertheless, I love church architecture, perhaps because these physical edifices will often outlive the institutions themselves. When I travel, I'm prone to yanking the car off the road for interesting churches, particularly when those structures are from the 18th and 19th centuries, or represent the focal point of a community.

Indeed, one can learn a great deal about a town and its residents from the kinds of churches it builds. What are its priorities? Along what socio-economic fault lines is the community divided? How prosperous is a community and what's the source of that success (or failure)? What are their aesthetic sensibilities? Churches often function as the physical raiment with which a community adorns itself for the rest of the world's judgment. "Look at us," a church can say, "we're a spiritual, god-fearing people who have constructed this church to the glory of god." Of course, it's also about the glory of the people who had the church built. This was certainly true in medieval Europe when towns and cities actually competed with each other to see who could construct the largest cathedral, the tallest towers, the most robust buttresses, and the most expansive stained-glass windows.

Perhaps oddly, favorite church destinations for me are the abbey ruins that dot the English landscape, a legacy of the Henrician Reformation and the dismantling of England's Catholic hierarchy. These empty shells - like my favorite, Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales - speak volumes about the strength of the medieval church and its rapid demise thanks to Henry's matrimonial and geo-political designs. I'm also fascinated by those more ancient religious edifices - Iona, for example - that chronicle the history of Christianity's introduction to Britain in the 6th century. There's something to be said for the fortitude required to pile heavy stones into an abbey on the edge of civilization in an age in which civilization itself held on by a meager thread.

Here in New York City, however, we obviously don't have those ancient points of reference. Still, we do have a host of architectural gems, Trinity Church being the most famous. Grace Church (Episcopal), pictured here, was founded in the early 19th century, although this Gothic Revival complex wasn't completed until 1846. I was attending a barbecue on the church grounds last night, hence the photos. The interior is pretty spectacular, particularly the stained glass. There's even a memorial on one wall to parishioners who went down on the Titanic. Sitting on Broadway just below Union Square, it's a popular stop for tourists in the neighborhood.

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1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

I'm going "back home" this weekend and may have to visit St. Francis Catholic Church, the church that found me perched in a pew every Sunday morning of my growing-up life. It's an old, old church with beautiful architecture nearly as impressive as what you've shown here. I'm no longer a practicing Catholic but there is something about sitting in that church...