Cathedrals: St Peter’s Basilica

I just finished an excellent book called A Pilgrimage to Eternity, a memoir about one pilgrim’s walk along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury Cathedral in England to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The book is just my kind of thing, a mix of history, theology, travel writing, and personal memoir, all by a fellow Cascadian to boot.

In the spirit of the pilgrimage, then, let’s take a trip to Rome and go on a tour of St. Peter’s.

The church is named after the St. Peter, the disciple and apostle, whom we consider to be the first pope. But it’s not just the name that bears significance; the chosen location is also important, because it’s the traditional site of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in 67 AD.

The Vatican is situated on the outskirts of ancient Rome, outside the walls, in what began as a mosquito- and malaria-ridden marsh. None other than Caligula built a circus stadium here. It was in this circus that Nero martyred many Christians after the Great Fire in 65 AD.

Our best evidence has it that St Peter and St Paul were both martyred here by Nero in 67. St Peter, famously, was crucified upside-down, considering himself unworthy to die in the same way Jesus did. His body was buried alongside other undesirables in the nearby graveyard. St. Peter’s Basilica is built exactly here, on the traditional site of St. Peter’s tomb.

Here’s a sketch showing the possible outlines of Nero’s Circus overlaid onto a map of Old St Peter’s (black lines) and the current basilica (dotted lines):

Skeptical? Many are. But recent archaeological digs actually support the tradition!

In 1939, Pope Pius XII opened the ground beneath the crypt of the basilica to archaeologists. Amid the remains of several early popes they found a small shrine (pictures to come, keep reading!) which contained several bone fragments, wrapped in expensive purple cloth and decked out in gold. This would indicate someone of great importance, buried in a graveyard for convicts and rejects. Archaeologists who analyzed the bones think they belong to a man who was in his 60s, about the right age for St. Peter.

Good enough for me—and good enough for the Catholic Church, who proclaimed them to be authentic relics of our first pope.

At the top of the page you can see St Peter’s as it’s approached from the east, along the Via della Conciliazione. The basilica looms larger as you walk west, and then, all of a sudden, the space opens out onto St Peter’s Square. The piazza is, according to travel geeks, the best public square in all of Europe.

A view from above, atop the basilica:

A panorama from ground level, looking toward the basilica:

In both images you can see a large obelisk at the center of the square. I had always wondered what this was when I’d seen pictures. As it turns out, the Roman Emperor Caligula had the obelisk shipped to Rome all the way from Egypt (where it had stood since the orders of an unknown pharaoh). It’s called “The Witness” because Caligula had it erected in the Circus of Nero, which makes it quite likely that it “witnessed” St Peter’s crucifixion in the year 67! The obelisk was moved here after the current basilica was constructed in the 16th century.

By the way: the construction of the basilica took place in the same century as the Protestant Reformation, and that’s no coincidence. The two are historically linked! The building was expensive to build, and much of the funds came through the sale of indulgences: basically, the deal was, you give a little money to help build St. Peter’s, and that buys you or your loved one a ticket out of purgatory and into heaven. The practice was the cause of enormous scandal, and it was against the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther directed his famous 95 theses in 1517.

So as grand as St. Peter’s is, it’s hard not to remember that it was financed by simony. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to just renovate the old building, rather than lose half of Europe to scandal and revolt.

Here’s a closer view of the building’s facade and front entrance. At the top, in the middle, is Christ carrying his Cross, and around him are eleven apostles. But St. Peter is missing: you can find him to the left of the stairs in the bottom left-hand corner. St. Paul (also martyred in Rome) is opposite him on the right:

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A couple years ago I heard a priest describe St. Peter’s as the architectural equivalent of a flexed bicep, and that’s certainly true from this angle. The basilica is a testament to the power and primacy (and, certainly at that time especially, the ego) of the papacy. The inscription in the center reads:

In Honor of the Prince of the Apostles, Paul the Fifth Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the Year 1612, the 7th of His Pontificate

Like I said, ego.

Let’s take a look inside. Here’s a photo of the nave, the central part of the church where the congregation usually gathers:

By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5,

The nave guides you forward to the central dome, designed by Michelangelo himself:

Encircling the dome are Christ’s famous words to St Peter: “You are Peter (Latin petrus), and on this Rock (petram) I will build my Church . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The keys of the kingdom are symbols of authority. Peter (and by extension, the each pope) is like the man in the parable who is left in charge while the master goes out on a journey. His job is to take care of the master’s territory until the master’s return.

That’s also why the papal insignia features two crossed keys (one for loosing, one for binding):

The keys of the kingdom also show up in a bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s (I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but am I the only one seeing this?):

Maybe this is just my imagination, but doesn’t that kind of look like an old-fashioned key, pointing upward? The round piazza is where the user would hold the key, and it’s also where the building “holds” its visitors upon entry. And the basilica itself is the locking mechanism that opens the doors of the kingdom, of God’s mercy.

Sorry for that brief diversion—let’s head back inside and look underneath Michelangelo’s dome. The central altar is placed underneath a solid bronze baldacchino, which sets apart the altar as a canopied, boundaried, holy space. I like the twisted columns, which are modeled after those of the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The whole thing is nearly 100 feet tall and it’s thought to be the biggest chunk of bronze on the planet (for scale, you can see the altar at the bottom of the picture):

This is the absolute center of the basilica, the axis around which everything else was planned and constructed.

Now I’d like to head to the very back of the church, to the Chair of St. Peter. The chair (Latin cathedra, where we get the word cathedral) is a symbol of the pope’s authority to teach. It’s odd: I think we usually think of someone standing to teach, like a professor or preacher, but I noticed in reading the Gospels that Jesus typically sits down in order to teach—probably cross-legged on the floor, but perhaps using a chair. When I used to teach and preach as part of my job at a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle, I started sitting to do so. For some reason I found that I was much more effective this way. I felt more grounded, and being closer to the earth also put me closer to eye-level with the people who had gathered for chapel every evening. Maybe there’s something to it.

As with many (but not all!) relics, the authenticity of this one is debatable, but we do quite possibly have the chair of St. Peter. Most scholars date parts of the relic to the 6th century at the earliest; on the other hand, the Catholic Encyclopedia sees no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The chair is, of course, elaborately enshrined. This was done by the Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a contemporary of Michelangelo who also built the baldacchino we just saw over the altar. Check it out:

The chair itself is hidden inside Bernini’s reliquary. Here’s a photo, from the last time it was taken out:

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives more description:

[T]he oldest portion . . . is a perfectly plain oaken arm-chair with four legs connected by cross-bars. The wood is much worm-eaten, and pieces have been cut from various spots at different times, evidently for relics. To the right and left of the seat four strong iron rings, intended for carrying-poles, are set into the legs.

The original chair was elaborated and decorated over the centuries until Bernini finally placed it inside his sculpture, where it remains to this day.

A note about the rings for carrying poles: before the dawn of the “popemobile”, the tradition was to carry the pope during formal processions in a chair not unlike St. Peter’s original. It looked like this:

Pope John Paul II discontinued the practice, part of an ongoing emphasis, beginning with Vatican II, of showing a more humble papacy. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pope Francis being carried around like this. He can’t even be convinced to wear fancy shoes (and good for him!).

Having seen the nave, the altar, the dome, and the chair, we’ll take one look at the tomb of St. Peter, in the crypt of the church, directly beneath the dome and the altar:

It’s quite likely—as we discussed above—that this is the burial site of St. Peter.

Clearly, there’s a lot to see at the Vatican! Finally, we will head up and outside for some fresh air, to get a good look at the church at night:

Come to think of it, this post has been a pretty good introduction to the papacy, from its humble origins in the fisherman from Galilee and his plain wooden chair, to the ancient veneration of his tomb in the early years of the Church, through all the prestige and hubris of the papacy in the medieval era, and finally to this man, the Successor of Peter, still wearing his orthotics as he trudges around the Vatican:

Cathedrals: Church of the Nativity

Merry Christmas to all of my followers and subscribers! Since it’s Christmas, I’m bringing you a feature on the Church of the Nativity, one of the best-attested of all Christian holy sites. Christian worship has taken place at this location since at least the second century, making it quite likely that this is, in fact, the location of the birth of Jesus.

I had the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity as part of a broader tour of the Holy Land back in 2010 (where I also saw the Basilica of the Annunciation).

Since it’s Christmas and we’ve all got things to do today, this post will be brief.

The main entrance to the church (you can see it in the top picture as well) is called the Door of Humility. I remember going through it and having to bow to enter, it’s only 4 or 5 feet tall. You can see how the original entrance was much larger, but later filled in. The idea is that you couldn’t ride in on horseback, and even noblemen and kings would have to pay homage to come inside:

Once you pass through the Door of Humility, you’re in the main part of the basilica. The original floor was installed by order of Constantine himself. Most of it has been covered with flagstones, but they’ve opened up portions of it and you can see the original floor below the current one:

A view of the main part of the basilica:

One unique feature of the sanctuary is the abundance of hanging lamps:

By Bukvoed – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

What’s really special about the Church of the Nativity is that you can go beneath the main altar, into the cave itself, and see the very spot where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born. It’s a very small space, but I remember feeling brushed by that sense of the holy. Here was the place where heaven invaded earth:

The star on the floor marks the spot:

The building is unfortunately in desperate need of restoration. A major contributor to the problem is ongoing disunity among different Churches. This building is managed through a tenuous agreement between the Catholic, Greek, and Armenian Churches, but it’s proven difficult to address basic problems like water damage. Though the site is currently a bit rough around the edges, it is of course a must-visit during any trip to the Holy Land.

So there you have it: the place where the first Christmas came to pass.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Cathedrals: Basilica of the Annunciation

Since it’s Advent and we’ve been talking about Mary quite a bit, I thought I’d jump forward a few centuries and share about the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the traditional site of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I had the privilege of seeing this basilica with my own eyes in 2010 as part of a general tour of the Holy Land run by Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian activist organization.

(Fellow nerds will chide me for including a basilica in a series about cathedrals, since they are not technically the same thing, but I’m going to go with a very loose definition of a cathedral as “big, important church building”, so there.)

Nazareth, you’ll remember, is Jesus’ hometown, set into the hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful location, very lush and green by Middle Eastern standards, and probably more so in Jesus’ day. I can see why God chose it as the place to grow up. I mean, just look!

There’s a running joke in the town that every little business and shop is on the site of some event in Jesus’ life. “Oh, this is the place where Jesus first had ice cream.” “This is the very spot where Jesus first played soccer.” And so on and so forth. It’s a very funny joke the first fifty times you hear it.

Tradition holds that this site is the location of Mary’s home and the place where she was greeted by the angel Gabriel with the first “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It is thus, possibly, the place where Mary said “yes” to God and became the Mother of God, and also the place where Jesus was conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is the entry point of God into the world of flesh and blood.

The present structure is quite recent, completed in 1969, but there’s been a shrine of some kind here since the fourth century. Different buildings have come and gone over the centuries as the city of Nazareth, like all of the Holy Land, has been taken and re-taken by different forces: Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, and finally, Israelis in 1948. Today, Nazareth is one of the only Palestinian-majority cities in the state of Israel, and it remains an important center of Palestinian Christian life.

Let’s take a look at the front entrance!

The Latin script contains two quotes from Scripture, the upper from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation (“the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary”) and the lower from St. John’s prologue (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”).

Entering here takes you to the lower level of the church, which feels very cave-like. It’s here that you can see the remains of previous buildings as well as the site itself where, it is said, the whole thing happened:

A closer look from the lower level:

I suppose it says something about me that I’d really like to hop over the fencing and walk under the canopy, there where the Word became flesh, where the angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady.

There’s something challenging about places like this—about the entire Holy Land, really—because it reminds us that the Christian claim is that these stories really happened. The Christian story is not a fairy tale, an allegory, or a novel. It’s a claim about the nature and fabric of reality. The doubt sneaks in as you go around visiting different holy sites, and it usually shows up in the question, “Did it really happen here? Sure, I believe it happened, but here?” The particularity is what scandalizes.

But it’s God, not the devil, who’s in the details this time. Maybe it didn’t happen here, but it happened somewhere. There is a here and a when that are the place and time where it came to pass. The particularity is what is necessary for the Christian story to count.

The canopy above the home makes that clear: this is a holy place, a place where heaven and earth came together in the body of a woman.

After lingering awhile to consider all of this, you can take a little stairwell off to the side up to the main part of the basilica. This looks more like the churches we all know:

As you approach the altar you see that they’ve cut a hole in the floor, beneath the dome, through which you can see down to the site below:

Along the walls are images of Mary from around the world:

When you are satisfied with your visit, you leave through an upper door which takes you out to the side of the basilica and into courtyard with more images of Mary from around the world. These are all mosaics:

I wish I had had more appreciation for the significance of the Annunciation and for Our Lady when I visited ten years ago.

If I do ever go to the Holy Land again, I think I would plan a week branching out from here in Nazareth, which is more low-key and well within reach of the Sea of Galilee, and then a week in Jerusalem, much more intense but packed with holy sites and close to nearby Bethlehem, where (spoiler alert) we’ll go together next week.

Cathedrals: Santa Maria Assunta

In 1263 in the small town of Bolsena, an itinerant priest was having some doubts about the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation: that despite its appearance as bread and wine, the Eucharist really was the body of Christ. While celebrating Mass there, he looked down to discover that one of the consecrated hosts had begun to bleed onto the altar cloth beneath it.

Construction on Santa Maria Assunta began 22 years after the miracle at Bolsena in the nearby town of Orvieto. The site was built to be the home of for the relics of the miracle. Because of the beauty of its western façade and it’s two frescoed chapels, it’s regarded as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Christendom.

It’s certainly the most striking of any we’ve looked at so far.

At the top of the façade is a mosaic depicting the coronation of Mary, Queen of Heaven:

By Georges Jansoone (JoJan) – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The rose window beneath it is surrounded by statues of the apostles and prophets, and in the corners are mosaics depicting the four evangelists:

By Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The four columns depict, from left to right, stories from the Book of Genesis, Jesus’ ancestry, the New Testament, and Revelation. Here’s Adam and Eve on the leftmost column.

I don’t know much about the decorative pillars here but I love the design:

Photo credit: fortherock, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Finally for the outside, these bronze doors are quite recent and were installed in 1970. You’d never know they weren’t original to the building:

The façade is my favorite part of the cathedral—it’s amazing how much unity the art has taken together even though it’s been worked on over seven centuries.

Let’s go through the doors and look at the nave.

I think the striped pillars are so unique here and I’ve never seen them anywhere else so far!

Here’s a shot of the altar and reliquary where the blood-stained altar cloth is kept. Every year on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the relic is removed and paraded around Orvieto as part of a city-wide processional. (In fact, legend has it that Pope Urban IV may have establishes the feast precisely because of what happened at Bolsero!)

But we haven’t even looked at any of the frescoes yet! Here’s just a small sample:

I really like this one below, depicting the resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgment:

If I ever get to go to Italy, I’ll definitely find a way to see this one in person. There’s a thousand details that I could never capture in a few images, and besides, it seems like it’s one of those things that needs to be taken in as a whole.

Cathedrals: Notre-Dame de Paris

By sacratomato_hr – DSC_0732, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Today’s cathedral is an international favorite, the Notre-Dame, second only to the Eiffel Tower as the symbol of Paris.

Construction began in 1160 in the presence of both the King and the Pope, on a site where, supposedly, there was once a temple to the Roman god Jupiter. It took 100 years to complete construction, although many modifications have been made over the centuries.

Can you imagine any country today starting a project that no one would live to see to completion? That’s a remarkable amount of resolve.

On the right in the picture above, you can see a few of its famous architectural features: its “flying buttresses”, which (as I understand it) keep the walls from collapsing under the weight of the stone roof; the central spire which was burned down last year, and the large, circular rose windows.

Let’s approach the western entrance:

By Peter Haas, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Under the central portal is the Tympanum of the Last Judgment:

By Philippe Alès – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

More detail:

By Chriskaridis – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

After nearly a thousand years, the cathedral has seen a lot of history.

One of the most dramatic episodes in the life of the cathedral was the French Revolution. Angry (with good reason) at abuses of power by the Catholic Church and the French monarchy—Notre-Dame was a symbol of both of these—revolutionary forces killed or jailed many priests, and mobs stormed churches and cathedrals around the country, stripping them of religious elements and appropriating them as state property.

In 1793 the cathedral, stripped of its statues and artwork, became the site of the Festival of Reason, part of a broader attempt by the government to create a new civil religion in line with Enlightenment principles. Statues of philosophers replaced those of saints, the “congregation” sang hymns to the Goddess of Liberty (who replaced the Virgin Mary atop several of the church’s altars), and the site was re-consecrated as the Temple of Reason.

It didn’t stick, however. Napoleon restored Catholicism in France in 1802, and the cathedral underwent restoration throughout the mid-nineteenth century.

Let’s look inside!

By Peter K Burian – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The height of the interior is unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The vaulted ceiling is made of stone and held up by the aforementioned flying buttresses on the exterior. This frees up the walls of the interior to be thinner, higher, and to hold windows, which let in all of that natural light.

One of the famous rose windows:

Here’s a view of the high altar, with King Louis XIII and XIV kneeling before Our Lady:

By Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

You may remember that Notre-Dame made headlines last year, when a structural fire broke out in the cathedral’s roof. Damage to the cathedral was extensive. Here’s a pic:

Notre-Dame de Paris aflame during the recent fire, photo taken at 7:17 pm on April 15th, 2019.

The building’s central spire collapsed and the roof was almost completely destroyed.

Numerous relics are housed in the cathedral, including the Crown of Thorns, a sliver of the True Cross, and a nail from the crucifixion. That’s about as precious of cargo as you can get! This rooster, which once flew at the cathedral’s high point, miraculously survived the spire’s collapse during the fire:

The rooster could have been remade, of course, but the real treasures were inside: a small piece of the Crown of Thorns as well as relics from St Denis and St Genevieve, patron saints of Paris.

May they fly over the city again soon!

In the meantime, renovations are underway:

Cathedrals: St. Etheldreda and St. Peter

After spending the last few weeks on the Mediterranean, today we’re going to England! (It’s nice to travel during COVID season, isn’t it?).

Today I’d like to feature the Cathedral of the St Etheldreda and St Peter, which was the name of the building up until the English Reformation. It’s widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in all of Britain, and its story certainly reflects the long history of Christianity in England.

The origins of the cathedral go back to 672, when St Etheldreda founded an abbey church in Ely. Who is St Etheldreda? I’d never heard of her either, but she was one of the most important female saints in pre-Reformation England.

Having taken a vow of virginity as a young woman, Etheldreda was married for political reasons to a young prince named Ecgfrith. Ten years later, Ecgfrith became King of Northumbria and began to pressure her to give up on her vows in order to bear him children. The conflict became so intense that she feared she would be forcibly violated by the king, so she fled to Ely and there founded an abbey.

Legend has it that Etheldreda’s body was dug up 16 years after her death by her sister, who found her body perfectly incorrupt and, apparently, endowed with miraculous powers. Her relics were moved inside the church. Over the next three centuries St Etheldreda became known as a powerful intercessor, and the abbey became a popular pilgrimage site.

In 1083 work began on the building we know today, and continued until its completion two centuries later. Here’s the west entrance:

If it looks asymmetrical and a little “tippy”, it’s because there used to be a matching wing on the north (left) side, but it collapsed some 500 years ago. You can see the broken wall in the picture above.

Let’s take a look inside in the nave:

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

From east to west, the cathedral’s scale is enormous, more than 160 meters long. But easily the most stunning feature of the Church of the Holy and—er, the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter—is the central octagonal tower. It’s a jaw-dropper for sure:

A view from up inside:

Another look from ground level:

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Passing under the central tower, here’s a view looking toward the altar in the east end:

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Continuing east, a closer picture of the high altar:

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It’s a gorgeous building, but I’m struck by how sparse the ornamentation and iconography is here compared to what we’ve seen down on the Mediterranean. Part of this seems to be a genuine difference in style, but the primary reason is the iconoclastic frenzy that swept over Protestant lands during and after the Reformation.

After the Act of Supremacy declared King Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church in England, much of the English hierarchy went into schism with the pope. Every Catholic parish and cathedral (that is, every church) in England was appropriated by the Crown. Monasteries and convents were dissolved and all of their assets liquidated as income for the government. And the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter was renamed as the Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, which is its official title today.

Caught up in the spirit of the Reformation, English clergy quickly set about destroying images, statuary, relics, and other cornerstones of medieval Catholic piety. For example, all of the niches here originally displayed the statues of various saints:

By Andrewrabbott – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Because of the instability and uncertainty of the early Reformation in England, the building fell into disrepair and disuse. Henry VIII wasn’t even sure what to do with cathedrals at first, so the building was left vulnerable to iconoclastic vandals. Its stained glass was smashed out, and almost all of the remaining statues were beheaded:

By Francis Helminski – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As you can tell from the earlier pictures, the cathedral has since been rehabilitated. Yet the building itself bears witness to the hollowing out of medieval piety that took place during the Reformation.

As for St. Etheldreda? Her shrine was destroyed along with the others. The relics were scattered, destroyed, or hidden away by the faithful. This is all that remains of her memory at the parish which she herself founded, and which once bore her name:

By Francis Helminski – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cathedrals: St. Mark’s

This week’s cathedral brings us to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. The closest I’ve ever been to Venice, unfortunately, is watching that heist movie The Italian Job. Someday, God willing, I’ll get a closer look.

The basilica was completed in 1096, back when the city was the major commercial and military power of the eastern Mediterranean. Considering what it looks like now, its origins seem pretty humble, probably looking something like this:

As you can see below, the original brick has been covered over and nearly every part of the exterior was, over time, given an upgrade:

Let’s head inside. Here’s a view from just under the central entrance (there’s St. Mark at the high point):

The interior reflects the enormous wealth of Venice during its heyday, and features eight thousand square meters of mosaics.

The floor:

photo: Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The ceiling:

That’s a lot of gold. The cathedral is stuffed with treasures and works of art, a lot of it, unfortunately, stolen from the Eastern churches during the Crusades. Venice was the major port city for the crusader armies, and they were particularly indiscriminate in their looting of Constantinople, even sacking last week’s feature, the Hagia Sophia, in 1204. This event sealed the deal on the East-West schism and led directly to the fall of the Byzantine empire to the Ottomans.

We should probably put all that stuff back where we found it, but for now it remains at St. Mark’s.

On a lighter note, the cathedral is home to the relics of St. Mark, not stolen but smuggled out of Alexandria with the help of a few Greek monks in 828. According to legend:

The body of Saint Mark was taken out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, the relic being substituted by another and less eminent saint.  It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage.  When the Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they cried out ‘Kanzir, kanzir’ (Oh horror) at the sight and smell of the pork. . . .  Thus the evangelist was safely conveyed to Venice, but not before a number of miracles eased his passage across the Mediterranean.

So, St. Mark was smuggled out of Egypt in a barrel of bacon grease. Here’s his resting place behind the high altar:

This mosaic, part of a sequence telling the story of Noah’s Ark, seems an appropriate conclusion.

The rising tide represents the biggest threat to St. Mark’s cathedral so far. Last year Venice saw its highest watermark in 50 years, and with no end in sight to a warming climate and melting ice caps, events like this one below are only becoming more frequent.

If things continue, St. Mark might need to be shipped away again soon, perhaps back to Alexandria. And why not return to the Eastern churches some of their relics and icons while we’re at it?

Cathedrals: Hagia Sophia

I’m really happy to be sharing today about a cathedral that I visited in person ten years ago, the Hagia Sophia (pronounced “Eye-yah Soaf-ya”, Greek for “Holy Wisdom”).

The building is 1,483 years old, if you can believe that, and she remains an absolute stunner. The scale of the building is impossible to describe. When I visited Istanbul in 2010 I stood under the central dome and just couldn’t believe how high up it was. This is one of those places where heaven and earth seem to brush fingertips.

Here’s a panorama looking up at the dome. If you’re looking on a computer, you can open this image in a new tab and zoom in to look up close:

I imagine that, back in the Byzantine days, the liturgy here—incense, altars, songs, icons—was heaven. The site was home to some of Christianity’s great saints (St. John Chrysostom) and heretics (hello, Nestorius!). It was here, also, that the tragic schism between East and West opened up in 1054, when papal ambassadors slapped a bull of excommunication on the altar, just before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. To add injury to insult, Crusaders from the West sacked Constantinople and carried off many of the Hagia Sophia’s sacred objects during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

So, that’s one reason many Orthodox aren’t big fans of the Romans.

Throughout this period, the building served as the cathedral of the East from its consecration in 537 until the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman (Turkish) forces in 1453. On May 29th of that year, Sultan Mehmet II performed Friday prayers in the Hagia Sophia, officially converting it to a mosque. The Turks immediately set about converting the building into a proper worship space for Muslims, destroying the church’s relics, covering its many icons in plaster, and adding (admittedly beautiful) calligraphy from the Qur’an.

Below you can see a floor-to-ceiling view of the eastern wall all the way up to the central dome. Check out the Islamic calligraphy around the top of the dome, the two round plaques on either side of the apse, and the Virgin Mary, Seat of Wisdom, between them:

Just layers and layers of history here.

When I toured the cathedral I was struck by the different tour groups walking around speaking many different languages. I managed to eavesdrop on a conversation between a few families of Gulf Arabs being led around by a European tour guide. They argued more or less amicably about the legitimacy of the Ottoman conquest and to whom the cathedral rightfully belongs.

You can see the competing claims in the very decor of the place.

Personally I think it obvious that the Ottomans put an Islamic overlay on top of a foundationally Christian building.

You can see here what I mean. The Byzantines built the cathedral so that worshippers facing the altar are also looking toward Jerusalem to the southeast. Muslim prayers, however, invariably face Mecca, nearly 1,000 miles south of Jerusalem. As a result, the worship space had to be awkwardly reoriented at a slight angle from the original. This picture gives you a good sense of it. You can see how the platform and mihrab (the ornate niche in the back) are a little “off”:

This is so Muslim worshippers could properly face Mecca in a building that was designed to look toward Jerusalem.

During the cathedral’s time as a museum, many of the old icons were uncovered and restored. Here’s Mary, Seat of Wisdom again in the apse, this time up close:

Another, of St. John Chrysostom:

Last thing: the Hagia Sophia made international news recently when the Turkish Prime Minister announced that the basilica would be converted back into a mosque. So this year marks the beginning of a new chapter in the building’s already dramatic history. Here’s a recent picture (you can really see the odd angle here):

If you ever find yourself in Istanbul, this is a place you have to see for yourself. The mosque, I’m told, will remain open to tourists outside of the usual prayer times.

Cathedrals: Sant’Apollinare in Classe

I’ve gotten a wide range of responses to my conversion story, but one of my favorites was that of my brother-in-law, Tucker, a Calvary Chapel pastor, who was so happy for me that he gave me two books about cathedrals!

So in his honor, I’ll be working through one of the books and sharing photos of some cathedrals from around the world.

Today’s feature is Sant’Apollinare in Classe, consecrated in 549 in Ravenna, Italy. Here’s the interior:

A closer view:

The apse is a Byzantine mosaic depicting the Transfiguration of Jesus. The giant cross at the center contains a portrait of Christ (the blue field symbolizes the opening of the heavens). The cross is flanked by Moses and Elijah, and the three lambs represent the three disciples who accompanied Jesus up the mountain. It’s a very peaceful pastoral scene:

Thanks for this wonderful gift, Tucker!