All that Glitters is not Gold: St. Paul's Cathedral in London

Yesterday’s exploration of London was focused on a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Let’s be clear: it is not pronounced Saint Paul’s. It is pronounced S(i)n~Pauls — no hint of “a” and certainly no “t” at the end. It was the first Cathedral built after the establishment of the Anglican branch of Christianity.  It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who I think might be a name known by Brits, but is unfamiliar to me.  His original design was in the middle/end of the 17th century; but it was not accepted by the authorities in charge of such things.  They felt its magnificence was far too Catholic: too reminiscent of the old Church from which this relative upstart was bent on distinguishing itself.

The dome is this Cathedral’s highpoint, both literally and architecturally.  It is a double dome — the internal one is smaller, so that its ceiling is not so high that one cannot perceive the art on it. A human perspective. And then an external dome, much higher, so that it can be perceived throughout the London landscape as the towering tribute to God it is intended to be — perhaps hoping to approximate a divine perspective.

I was drawn to the mosaics on the inside dome.  As one peers up at them from below, they glint golden and are exquisitely detailed.  There is one that depicts a garden scene with a stunning pool of water depicted to my eye as if it was flowing, yet it was made of tile stuck in place. One could almost confuse the scene for Paradise, it is so calm and beautiful. It would be a confusion because in it, there is Jesus, the pool of flowing water at his feet, yet he hangs on the cross. So strange to find this particular scene beautiful and attractive — an rather odd sentence to write and a perverse sentiment to have.  Though I am no a fan of the graphic crucifix, with its blood and gore, I find it more honest and ultimately more preferable to the whitewashed depictions.  That cross was a torture device of the occupying empire and I sense deception any time it is depicted otherwise.

Being in one European cathedral leads me to reflect on other European cathedrals I have had the privilege to witness, all of which happened when I was much younger (over a quarter century ago, which is nothing compared to the existence of these mammoth structures, but is a pretty significant chunk of my life). I remember my astonishment, untainted by cynicism (though informed by my ardent atheism), polished by my American unfamiliarity with truly old structures (not just American, but West Coast American!). I experienced authentic awe when viewing the cathedrals in Cologne, in Paris, in Trondheim (Norway). Breath-taking, kneel-inducing magnificence.

Either because their new-ish-found Protestantism misled the architectural authorities towards lesser ambitions, or because I am old and less-impressable, or because my spirit is now drawn towards simpler and smaller rather than ornate and gigantic, I was pleased to experience St. Paul’s, but I was not awed. If you are reading this and it has offended your sensibilities, as well as your loyalty to the cathedral or to England, I offer up my apologies.

I did take pleasure in walking the 257 stairs to the famous Whispering Gallery. I allowed myself to look over the edge to the very-far-below floor of the Cathedral where ant-like people walked about. I did not dare walking further up to the Stone Gallery, where my experience (some call it fear) of heights would have become more than a bit unpleasant and possibly public, which is to be avoided if at all possible.

From the Whispering Gallery, which is 30 meters (about 90 feet or 9 stories) in the air, I gained a new perspective. In particular, I could still see the mosaics, but now I was above them and they were below me. They no longer glinted golden — clearly that tilework used to that effect was reliant on a particular angle and perspective. From below, one only saw illumination, appearing as if it was essential to the nature of the materials, perhaps even the scenes and the stories they told. From atop, these mosaics still impressively detailed, were relatively duller. One might even chance suggesting dingy. The materials from which the tiles were made were coarser, more base — this perspective seemed to lay bare another essential nature and suggest that the view from below was if not completely, then partially, deceptive.

It would be easy to turn this into a commentary on the Catholic Church, that the then-new Anglican architectural authorities’ impulse to protect this cathedral from Rome’s influence was well-placed and not comprehensive enough. For here is a lesson in hierarchy and transparency, here is a moral on perspective and beauty. But this is not a Catholic lesson.

It is, however, a catholic lesson. Lower case “c,” which at one point meant “universal” but became so associated with a particular brand of Christianity, it lost that meaning, at least in the vernacular, which is where it is most important. (The same has happened with the upper case and lower case versions of the word, “Muslim/muslim.” Funny that.) It is a catholic lesson because any time we lose transparency, any time there is enormous distance of a hierarchical nature, illusion and deception enter in, sometimes of their own accord, often due to human mal-intent, and sometimes just plain laziness. Even in my faith tradition, with its deep and real commitment to congregational polity (having no religious hierarchy that dictates to congregations what they can and cannot do or believe).

I think of William Stafford and his injunction that awake people should be awake. So I will be awake, and I will know that those beautiful mosaics are golden, but not just; that they are dull, but not just.

This entry was posted in Travelogue, Unitarian Universalism. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.