Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Spirituality: how not to. And, maybe, how to.

I hate Strasbourg cathedral.

I love the outside. A spider-thin network of lacy stone mouldings covers the entire facade, glowing orange at sunset, or blood-red on a snowy, overcast day. The ambitious openwork of the one finished spire, with its turrets and open staircases.

The interior is disappointing compared to that; a large parish church, rather than a cathedral, it seems to stop short after the nave, with just a stump of a choir.True, there's some fine stained glass, and some marvellous late Gothic work - a good pulpit, a rather ordinary 'Mount of Olives', and a well carved font - and there's the strange pillar of angels, with figures of the Evangelists.

Oh, and the Astronomical Clock. A very disappointing clock, really; none of its little mechanisms are particularly spectacular, though I like the little cock that crows at the end of the chime.

But that's not why I hate Strasbourg cathedral. What I really hate is the way it's been presented.

  • Every ten minutes or so there's a bingy-bongy chime like you hear in railway stations, and a sanctimonious railway announcer voice tells you this is a PLACE OF WORSHIP and you must BE RESPECTFUL and BE SILENT and NOT SHOUT. Bing-bong. "The next mass will be leaving at eighteen-twenty, calling at hymns number thirty-two and one-oh-four."

  • There's a huge TV screen next to the pulpit. Does it tell us something useful about the art? Does it tell us anything about the pulpit and what it means? No. It just says LA CHAIRE and then flips to THE PULPIT, perpetually cycling the two words. And it gets in the way of your actually seeing the pulpit.

  • The TV screens telling us THE PULPIT or THE CHOIR or THE MOUNT OF OLIVES must have a massive carbon footprint, and they must have cost a bomb - they are massive flatscreens. But if you want to see any of the things in the cathedral lit up, you'll have to pay for it. The cathedral has after all spent its entire electricity budget on the televisions.

  • There's no information on the art historical, or historical, aspects of the cathedral at all. There's loads of 'spiritual' stuff though. I couldn't work out who it was addressed to at all - it told you things anyone brought up in a Christian environment would surely know ('Christians worship Jesus', and there's also a hypothesis that bears defecate in afforested areas; 'the pulpit is used for delivering sermons'), but equally its affirmation of faith would offend any visiting Hindu, Muslim or Jew, who might need to know what a font is for...

  • Except that the font, which I think most Christians would agree is one of the most important places in any church, has no label at all on it. Odd - since its spiritual importance as the site of baptism is equalled in this case by the artistic merits of the Gothic sculpture.

  • And this SPIRITUAL place we are meant to RESPECT, in capitals since that is how the loudspeaker delivers those words, has a bloody great shop set up opposite the astronomical clock - not neatly hidden in a cloister or side chapel, but right in the middle of the place.  I can't help thinking: Matthew 21: 12-13 -  "My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves", in this case with the addition of modern electronic devices.

Ugh. It all left a nasty taste in the mouth. As did the fact that the cathedral is closed every day at 1130, not for mass, but for paying audiences to see a film about the clock, followed by the clock striking twelves. Den of thieves indeed. Sorry, but if what you see is a money-making machine, administrators of the cathedral, then what I see is not deep spirituality, and I am not inclined to respect it.

(Chartres cathedral, my local one, makes a good contrast. Nearly every ancient stained glass window has a board explaining the narratives and images in detail. And it's not sectioned off with little barriers, either. And... sorry to say it, but it is ten times a better cathedral anyway.)

I was happy, later on, to visit Saint Pierre le Jeune (Protestante) - that's the official title; there's a Saint Pierre le Jeune (Catholique) as well for an organ recital. It was an interesting recital, on a Silbermann organ, taking as its theme the Lord's Prayer, and featuring arrangments of 'Vater unser in Himmelreich' by Praetorius, Buxtehude and Bach. In between there were readings that took the Lord's Prayer as a starting point - but what was fascinating was that they could have been written by (and admired by) agnostics or even atheists; they deconstructed the prayer, questioned it, questioned even the existence of God. So that in a prayerful setting, we ended up not worshipping, or being invited to 'respect' a place of worship, but being invited to think. And to enjoy the good music, too (there was a cracking piece of Bach neither of us knew - and when your partner is an organist, that's definitely not usual).

Oh yes; the collection that was taken went not to the church, but to a charity fighting against torture. And when we wanted to take a look at the architecture afterwards, we were warmly invited to wander around. We actually felt welcome - something we hadn't in the cathedral.


1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, Andrea! Really enjoyable to read and echos some of my own frustrations and annoyances in church-visiting over the years. I've not been to Strasbourg yet, but I've definitely been to churches (more usually cathedrals) in which I'm at once hit over the head with the fact that this is a place of worship first, and tourist attraction only reluctantly, while at the same time the art and architecture that was created to be freely enjoyed for the former purpose is hoarded and controlled in the hopes of squeezing maximum money out of the latter. And I couldn't agree more with your praise of Chartres - unparalleled art and a peaceful, welcoming atmosphere make a wonderful combination. Another fine example in that vein is Gloucester Cathedral.