Saturday, June 27, 2015

Take Me To Church

When I travel, there's usually a spiritual element in the works.  I didn't really plan for it in this trip, but I guess at this point, I don't really have to anymore.  Still, Orthodoxy and Catholicism aren't exactly my cup of tea.  I haven't been into that many Orthodox churches, but I remember the Catholic churches I visited in Paris and in Venice on my first go-round, and after the first one or two they kind of blurred together.  Maybe it's the fact that I've never had much of a taste for crucifixes, or the fact that painting the same scenes over and over kind of robs the artists of their creativity and keeps things from being interesting.  Or it could be the fact that they're too close to what I believe myself - so they don't have the exotic appeal of other traditions.

Whatever the case may be, I didn't give too much thought  to the churches I would see, other than St. Basil's, and yet, as it turned out, there was nothing I loved in St. Petersburg more than the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood.  Not only does it have a fantastic name (it was built by Emperor Alexander III as a memorial for his father, who was killed on the site) and a delightfully whimsical exterior, the inside's a knockout as well.  I walked past this thing several times before I went in...not because I didn't want to go in, but because I was savoring it.

I'm not as well-versed in Russian art as I should be.  I'm familiar with icons, and that's about it.  So when I saw the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood it actually blew me away.  The people were so much more lifelike than I was expecting.  In icons, the saints tend to look more like a symbol than a person.  The mosaics in Spilled Blood - and the entire ceiling and all the walls were covered with them - looked amazingly realistic, considering they are made out of bits of tile.  As a work of art, the smaller depictions of saints were balanced by larger murals, which showed scenes from the life of the Savior, and the artists used patterns as accents and framing motifs, which broke up the space.  And the colors - oh man, they were amazing!  I do love me some color.

I hadn't really intended to visit any other churches in St. Petersburg, but I was wandering past Kazan Cathedral and decided to check it out.  It was free and the sun was finally out, so I appreciated the shelter.
There's a difference between a church that is a museum and one that is not.  The Spilled Blood is now simply a museum.  Kazan Cathedral is not.  The smells of fire and beeswax hovered in the air to meet me at the door.  There were tourists, you can rest assured of that, but there was much more reverence.  And there are places to sit and contemplate the power of God.  It was a nice change.
My first stop in Moscow was the Kremlin, which (amazingly) opened before St. Basil's.  I've seen enough diamonds in my day that I didn't care to spend an extra $14 on the armory, so I just saw Cathedral Square.  Dem onion domes (you might not like onions, but you can't help loving onion domes).  It's possible I've been reading too many of the Dresden Files books in a row.  As I sat in the Assumption Church (and you know I hate to make an ass out of you and umption) I tried to feel the passing of all the people come and gone through here over its history.  It gave me goosebumps.  I also tried to imagine my life without Chinese tourists.  If they hadn't been there, it would have been a much quieter, more reflective visit.

Anyways, so I'm in the cathedrals, and when it's just me I have impulses to check out the acoustics.  I have a decent voice - some have even called it amazing -  although I guess there could be a more appropriate choice than Hozier.  Still, it makes me think about organizing a flash-mob, choir-edition, for our next school trip.

Finally I made my way to St. Basil's (aka Sankt Vasily, which appeals to me because I KNOW a Vasilis!)  Anytime I have thought of Russia, its acid trip onion domes are the image that come to mind.  Sadly, the main chapel was undergoing work and I didn't get to see it, but the smaller chapels and their bits and pieces - the tomb of Vasily among them - were just fine with me.  It is as strange on the inside as it is on the outside - there were passages at elbow-height scattered throughout the chapels on the first floor, and I wasn't sure what they were for.  Air?  Light?
The decorations (frescoes, unless I'm mistaken) on the inside were bright and colorful and patterned to.  As I was exploring the second story a group of male singers performed, and I was right about those acoustics - they're pretty gucci.  However, this is one of those times when I think the sequel was better than the original; the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood was designed with St. Basil's in mind, but I was drawn back to it in a way that its predecessor didn't.  Which is weird, since I really hadn't really known about it before I got to Russia.
Well, that's it for Russia (I think), but I have one more church to talk about.  When I started to plan the final leg of my trip, I told myself that I would only do things here in Venice that I hadn't done before.  I visited a LOT of churches when I was here in 2001, but one that I'd learned about in art history and was really excited about, the Scrovegni Chapel, was under renovation, and we didn't get to see it, so it was definitely on the list this time.

The thing is, the Scrovegni Chapel is in Padua, so it was a little bit of a side journey for me.  Last time I was in Padua we took a boat up the Brenta Canal, visiting Palladio's villas along the way.  I loved that ride, but I took a more straightforward approach this time - six euro and 26 minutes on the train got me to the city of Romeo's exile.  The chapel is not far from the train station, and I remember walking past it on the way to the train station then - I remembered it was set down a little from the sidewalk, and that there was some kind of wall around it - an old Roman arena, as it turned out.  The Scrovegni family built their palazzo (which is long gone) and chapel there.  It was Scrovegni, Jr's work, in order to give a little push in the "right direction" to the soul of Scrovegni, Sr, who was apparently the usurer (money-lender) who inspired Dante to place them in the seventh circle of hell.

I have no pictures of the inside for you; you'll have to visit the website or run a search for them, but they won't do it justice.  The barrel vault is blue, spangled with stars, and there are religious scenes three-deep along both walls.  Here's the thing, though: this is Giotto's masterpiece and it's famous because he does something different.  He makes Mary, the Magdalene, John - all these people, into REAL people.  They're more than just characters in stories.  You can see the anguish and even the tracks of tears on the faces of the women whose children were slaughtered by Herod's troops as Christ and his parents escaped to Egypt.  Before Giotto (and even to a lesser extent after), religious art was lifeless, merely symbolic.  He made the stories relateable.  Standing in that room, experiencing it firsthand, was well-worth a little side trip.

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