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Sanctuaries in Stone

St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The genius of the Gothic period was the invention of the pointed arch and the corresponding ribbed vault to create openings in the wall without weakening the structural integrity of the building. Many developments in Gothic architecture sprang from this solution. Cathedral constructed in the Gothic style represented celestial harmony and heavenly glory.

St. Mark’s basilica is an excellent representative of Byzantine architecture. The signature of this style is the opulent marble floors and luminous gold mosaics. After the sack of Constantinople by crusaders, gold reliquaries brought back by them made St. Marks wealthy beyond imagination. The 4000 odd square meters of mosaics represents highlights from St. Mark’s life and stories from the bible. St. Mark’s Basilica is Venice’s most important monument, housing the apostle’s remains, a significant symbol of Christian faith.

In the late 70s, The International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy used to hold summer schools in Plasma Physics. These helped increase the interaction between scientists from the north and the south. I attended a few of these, along with many Indian colleagues. We would spend the weekends taking a 4-hour train ride to Venice, spending the day there and returning in the evening. My first visit to the Basilica of San Marcos happened on one of these trips.

When I was in Vienna for my assignment at the IAEA, my wife and I visited Venice in December 2002. We travelled by train — journey lasting about 8 hours through the scenic Alps. I could not help compare the changes after twenty years. Floods, for example. San Marcos was flooded during our visit. The northern Adriatic region has strong tides, unlike most other Mediterranean regions. Thus, floods usually occur for a few hours at high tide.

In Vienna, we made Stephansplatz surrounding the St Stephen’s Cathedral, a regular haunt. Vienna’s most culturally significant landmark is also the centre of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna. It is a lively space with a crowd of English speakers.

The cathedral is an icon in Vienna with its mosaic roof and the stunningly high south tower. Construction of the original church began in the 12th century, on a site believed to have been an Ancient Roman burial ground. The first building, completed in 1160, was destroyed by fire in 1258, leaving only the stone foundations. The church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1762. Since then, St Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom, has continued to develop and grow. Large sections damaged in the World War II got rebuilt along with various towers, extensions and decorations.

On a visit with my son in Zug near Zurich, we visited the Einsiedeln Cathedral which contains the Chapel of Our Lady. The town of Einsiedeln stands on the bank of Alp Stream. Einsiedeln grew around the 10th century Benedictine abbey, which became a principality of the Holy Roman Empire in 1274 and belonged to the city of Schwyz after 1386. Its wooden statue, the “Black Virgin” became an object of veneration to European pilgrims from the 14th century. This has been one of the most significant pilgrimage places in Europe.

Joseph suggested a road trip to Camargues through Leon in France and Aix-en-Provence. This was 800 odd kilometres, and we broke the journey at Aix. Aix is my camp during visits to Cadarache to attend the ITER meetings.

The chief attraction of Camargues is the village of Saintes Marie de la Mer, Maries of the sea. This is a place for pilgrimage for believers of the legend of the Maries: Mary Magdalene, Marie-Salome, Marie-Jacobe. Together with their black servant, Sara, they escaped persecution in Judaea about the year 40 CE and landed in the Camargues Coast in a frail craft. Marie-Salome and Marie-Jacobe became, in time, objects of veneration to the local people. St. Sara, an important figure in the Gypsy cultural tradition, is represented in the crypt, on the right side of the altar. Once a year on the second half of May, thousands of Gypsies gather to venerate their Saint Sara-la-Kali — “Sara the Black” who is the patron saint of the Gypsies.

The church at Kottayam that I and my wife occasionally visit is the St. Mary’s Cathedral at Manarcad, a suburb of Kottayam. This is the Global Marian Pilgrim Centre, which celebrates the feast of the Nativity of Virgin Mary on September 8. September 1 to 8 is the historic Eight Day Lent at Manarcad for which all roads lead to this holy shrine and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throng here seeking favours and blessing from the Holy mother.

The stone inscriptions in the ‘nanam monam’ script of Malayalam claim that the church was built around 910 AD, first with bamboo and later in the 16th century in stone in the Portuguese tradition. A dozen Nasrani christian families who fled the Vadakumkoor king settled in Manarcad near Kottayam. They had an intense desire to have a church to conduct services and apparently prayed for eight days when they had a vision of a white cow with a calf. They went searching for the cow and found them in a cane forest nearby, where they built the church. The eight day lent, which is still a glittering event inviting hundreds of thousand believers, is a remembrance of this.

The heritage churches are the real showpieces of Kerala Christianity. Living far from the major centres of Christianity, the early Christians looked at temples for inspiration in building churches. The cross seemed to be the only popular icon among St. Thomas Christians until the 15th century. The ancient churches and temples looked alike, except for a cross on top of the church.

Ancient churches used building materials which were not durable and hence have not survived the ravages of time. A few artifacts, such as St. Thomas’ crosses and baptismal fonts, survive to this day. They were made by carving granite, which is very durable.There are also a few other architectural elements such as open-air granite crosses which trace their allegiance to the indigenous traditions of the land.

Timber is the prime structural material that demands accurate joinery and clever assembly. There were also highly skilled carpenters and woodcarvers, as is clear from the architecture and sculptures we see in the temples. Places of worship during the CE first century were not vast constructions. Churches were meant as meeting places for small communities. The elaborate carving of the wood for columns, walls and roofs frames is also unique to Kerala architecture. The preferred structural material is laterite instead of granite.

It was easier for the Christian missionaries to get a painting done on the wall in the place of a retable, as there was an active tradition of mural painting in Kerala’s temples. The same techniques were employed in decorating the sanctuary of the churches with mural retables.

Though not a deep believer, I find contemplation sitting in a dark corner of a cathedral deeply peaceful. I have had a nodding acquaintance with many other cathedrals as well. They stand as monuments to human spirituality, architectural imagination and engineering ingenuity, creating sacred spaces that bring heaven down to earth.

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