A place to pray

Religious architecture is a record of the way people express their

Drive or amble around this gray Northern English city, and you continually catch fresh glimpses of its most prominent architectural edifice. In its elevated position, it magnificently dominates even the nearby Norman castle.

Durham Cathedral, acknowledged as one of the world's great examples of religious architecture, was begun in 1093 - not far off a millennium ago.

It was finished (though with subsequent additions, alterations, and renovations, as is the frequent lot of such buildings) a mere 40 years later. That's fast for a cathedral.

In the history of Christian religious architecture, Durham holds a highly significant place. On one hand, it is a culmination of the Romanesque style with its ambitious aims and vast monumental scale. On the other, it foretells the development of the Gothic style. Many believe Gothic cathedrals - think of Chartres or Amiens in France - to be the most splendid manifestation of architecture's endeavor to design and erect buildings "to the glory of God."

Others believe Romanesque buildings, also grandiose but rather more solid and sober, to be a higher form of the genre.

The question, though, is: Have public religious buildings always been single-mindedly "to the glory of God?"

Christian architecture inevitably has in it a paradox. The religion's founder significantly told his followers that the temple in Jerusalem would soon be destroyed (it was), and one of the earliest Christian martyrs cited ancient Jewish scripture when he said, "The most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands." The early Christians met secretly and in homes. Public buildings only started when the new religion was given official political status. And public buildings soon became places of ritual and pilgrimage, symbols of human power rather than simple sanctuaries of prayer and worship.

A thousand years after the Christian era began, Durham is a case in point.

It was primarily a shrine for the venerated remains of St. Cuthbert (the housing and worship of relics has been a potent and persistent raison d'tre of religious architecture throughout the world, Christian or otherwise). The first building at Durham, erected in 995, was "a little church of boughs of trees." A more substantial "White Church" replaced this, to be replaced in turn by the enormous Romanesque monument in stone we know now.

By the 12th century, Christian cathedrals were becoming ever more elaborate and highly colorful and decorated. Monkish, ascetic protests against the unsuitability of such gorgeous materialism - a revival of criticisms voiced by saints of much older vintage in the Roman Catholic church, fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, throughout the millennium, the pendulum continued to swing between ecstatic, over-the-top architecture, and calls for simple, plain places of worship. The debate even goes on in the 20th century, a period not notable for great religious buildings, with some honorable exceptions like Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, France (1950-1954), or a modernist interpretation of the traditional Islamic mosque such as the Sherefuddin Mosque in Visoko, Bosnia (1980), and the tiny place of prayer (1978) by the Iranian architect Kamran Diba in, of all places, the grounds of the Carpet Museum, Tehran.

The story of religious buildings - cathedrals, meeting places, synagogues, or stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines) - is often a thermometer of national and local history. Durham, for example, would never have been built except for the invasion of Britain by the French Normans in 1066. And the Norman King William deliberately used ecclesiastical buildings throughout the land as unmistakable symbols and emblems of his political power.

The king granted royal powers to the bishop of Durham, expecting him to be a military leader in the North as well as a religious one. The cathedral he initiated was therefore a political monument quite as much as a religious one. Christianity was not, of course, the only religion to fall into this compromise. From its beginnings in the 7th century, Islam was openly both religious and militant. It spread belief by military conquest. Large and impressive mosques signified temporal power and personal prestige while also being places of community and worship. Political pronouncements in Friday mosques were acceptable from the early days of Islam.

Durham, standing above a river virtually encircling it like a moat, seems to tower over its surroundings. Literally so, because, as the Christian pilgrims found who came to this shrine centuries ago, its towers were all that could be seen from below. Only when you climb up to it, do you see it whole. Then entering it, you see its true greatness. You are drawn down a long, high nave of extraordinary, monumental nobility. This nave unites mass and lightness, weight and elevation. The Norman (Romanesque) columns are of gargantuan girth. But the interior's loftiness and extent, as well as its fine stone vault - a technological marvel of its time - invest the interior with a superb sense of proportion and scale. Many cathedrals unashamedly intimidate and belittle the people who come to worship in them. Durham, in spite of its size, does not.

In the century when Durham Cathedral began, a large number of other remarkable Christian buildings were being built in Britain and across Europe. One building people often forget when they think of religious architecture is in the Italian city of Pisa. About 1089, a highly elaborate Christian church in white marble was begun. Over the next three centuries, a complex of neighboring religious buildings was constructed, all in the same distinct style. The bell tower that was started in 1174 has come to be known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In other parts of the world, different religions were constructing quite different forms of building. In Japan, just outside Kyoto, for example, a Fujiwara villa was, in 1053, being converted into a Buddhist temple. The Byodo-in has been described as "a symbol of resurrection and immortality." Human in scale compared with other mountain-like Buddhist temples, it still stands today reflected beautifully in its tranquil lake.

In India, in about AD 1000, the Hindu temple, Kandarya Mahadeva was being constructed. Based on the square, the Hindu image of the universe, the contours of this building, featuring multiple layers of cornices and projections, is modeled on Mt. Kailasa, the Himalayan peak. Its exotic sculpture makes this extraordinary building a veritable cornucopia of fertility symbolism. What could be further from Durham?

By the 11th century, the traditional forms of Islamic mosques were well established. Domes, minarets, calligraphy, colorful, richly patterned tiling, dominant and elaborate entrance portals, complex geometrical vaulting called muqarnas, and the mihrab niches indicating the direction of prayer toward Mecca are all unique developments of Islamic religious architecture. Today, more new mosques continue to be built than any other religious buildings.

Christian religious architecture, over the centuries since Durham, has been an ever-changing development of aesthetic styles and tastes. Basic function may not have altered much (though different branches of Christianity sometimes favor different styles), but the Renaissance, the High Renaissance, the Baroque, Neo-Classicism, Neo-Gothicism, and Modernism have all variously made their mark on religious no less than secular building. Today, in the face of militant secularization, religious buildings are only too often subjected to neglect. Architects are brought in to alter their use - to homes, theaters, arts centers, even night clubs. Tourism has no doubt been a great incentive to conserving ecclesiastical monuments, though many, in terms of simple worship, are white elephants.

There are those in the Christian world who now argue that it is high time the indescribable wonders of high church architecture were abandoned to their redundant past, and that Christians should worship as they did at first, in homes and houses.

On the other hand, will the world wide web become a new kind of cyber-architecture for global communal prayer and worship? Or will the evangelical mass rally in vast football stadiums, beamed by satellite to the rest of the known universe, become the excessive norm for public worship?

Or could the modest "upper room" in which Jesus and his disciples met for the Last Supper become the model for third millennium church architecture?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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