The other day in Switzerland, I finally finished a book by R. A. Scotti called Basilica – The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s. Now before you stop reading on the pretense that this will be a boring book review and a rehashing of Wikipedia facts, St. Peter’s is notthe ultimate subject of this post. The other question which may arise is what this post will have to do with drinking. Here at itsabrewtifulworld the drinking experience is the angle, but the core of this blog is the love of travel. To even have a “4th dimension” (as related to my Welcome statement), you have to have the other three. Once in a while, I will share a personal experience involving the first three dimensions, like this one. For my eventual revelation of my personal favorite ‘cathedral’ (hint: it is not a building), please read on…
Traveling in Europe will certainly guarantee that you interact with Europe’s great cathedrals. They usually dominate the skyline, lie in the very heart of the city, and are the centerpieces to the culture and history of both the city and country. In fact, they have so much influence on the overall European experience that into the 2nd week of your Italian vacation, you may begin to suffer from what I call Over-cathedralization. This travel malady is a numbing of one’s senses due to the endless supply of beautiful churches and cathedrals. However, the main cause of this ailment is not really the quantity of these beautiful buildings, it is the repetition of strolling thru each edifice without purpose hoping something will leap from the walls and connect with your mind and soul rather than seeking out that connection thru reading, audio guides, or guided tours. It is simply the walking thru it because it is on the to-do list mentality that propagates this affliction. I can only imagine the amount of digital memory taken up by photos of tombs, sculptures, altars, paintings, ceilings, confessionals, pulpits, organs, doorways, spires, and buttresses which will never see the screen of a computer, tablet, or phone again. Traveling is about connecting with the people, culture, and the environment in some way. Try to avoid walking thru Europe’s great cathedrals just for the sake of the to-do list, unless of course simply being in the cathedral is your 4th dimension of travel. For me it is not, therefore I need the stimulation of history to appreciate them. Otherwise, I too suffer easily from over-cathedralization. Figure out its place in local and/or world history. Some will exist in a smaller bubble than others and the history may not register with you. The good part is after a while you start to figure out how history connects and overlaps. That is when you really start to jive with your to-do list.
Reading books is one way to colorize your travel experience. One book I can recommend is the aforementioned book by R.A. Scotti. It is a good read in the vein of Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome – not overdone with details or complicated scholar-talk. It is a fascinating look at not just the building of St. Peter’s, but of the personalities of several popes, artists, and architects. While St. Peter’s may be one of the few examples of a cathedral which will astound you regardless of your knowledge of history, it has the distinction of having a history which is linked to European and World history like no other. As you explore Europe, you are often confronted with concepts such as The Reformation or Protestant Reformation and The Renaissance. Most people have heard at some point the phrase “Sack of Rome.” You may not be sure who sacked it, but for sure you know it was sacked. While most people cannot remember which Pope is which (I am amongst you), the names Martin Luther, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini are more or less household names. Needless to say, if you even have a general understanding of St. Peter’s, you will find this information helpful throughout Europe. For instance, it was the expense of building St. Peter’s (began in 1506) that led to the creation of indulgences – a way for people to buy reduced sentences in Purgatory. These indulgences infuriated Martin Luther and led to his protests which ultimately helped spark the religious wars and eventually the revolutions which changed the face of Europe and the New World.
Another fascinating but disturbing result of the building of St. Peter’s is that it caused the city of Rome to be razed to the ground in 1527. At the same time it’s women were ruthlessly raped and it’s men sometimes hung up by their testicles. All of this was done by a people you wouldn’t expect to perform such debauchery over a Catholic church… namely, Catholics. More precisely, an angry army under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V seeking recompense for lost backpay which couldn’t be paid due to the expense of the construction. You think we have it bad now.
But the good news is that visiting St. Peter’s brings you in contact with not one, not two, but several Renaissance masters. Not only the masters you know about (Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini), but also ones that you should know about like Bramante and della Porta. All of the aforementioned names were at various times architects of St. Peter’s. The famous dome itself was started by Bramante, added on by Michelangelo and completed by della Porta. It took 120 years from the first stone until the consecration. That’s right. 120.
Now as impressive as the building is in terms of human ingenuity and impact on history, what is the end result of all of this? A place to worship? A place to see the frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo? A place to study 120 years of changing architectural ideas? See, this is where the beauty of travel comes in. Each of us gets something different out of it and no matter what, traveling broadens our minds and deepens our souls. However, while there are many great things about St. Peter’s, it also has all of the evil human character flaws weaved into the molecular structure of its stones. Greed. Murder. Hate. Envy. Each of us will have our own response to this. We may condemn religion. Or we may be humbled by it and acknowledge our own flaws. We may simply not consider it that deeply and choose to just admire the beauty. In any case, make a connection. Perhaps on the day you arrive to St. Peter’s, you may find a portion covered in the dreaded scaffolding, and definitely when you walk into the Sistine Chapel, you will be told to put away your phones and cameras because some Japanese company owns the copyright to all its images. These things remind me that the building is temporary, fragile, and commercial. So as impressed as I am for what a human being can build, for me the most pure, spiritual place is in nature. If I were standing in front of St. Peter’s and someone were to ask me which cathedral is the most beautiful, I might surprise them and tell them it’s St. Lauterbrunnen of the Valley in Switzerland. And when they look at me quizzically, I will tell them “Yeah, you gotta see it. It’s U-shaped not cross-shaped and has a nave and choir 8km long.“
The place I am talking about is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is a roughly 8km U-shaped valley lined on both sides by sheer cliff walls (the side facing west is called the Lauterbrunnen Wall) – the bottom of the U (or the apse in this analogy) is to the south and are called the Grosshorn and Breithorn mountains. On the map, I have marked a spot which I find to be the best place to stand in awe of this valley and to be grateful and contemplate things of a more grander scope. During the summer, it is particularly special in the morning or around 7pm when it is likely you will have several minutes alone in this spot without a single person in sight and the setting sun will still be hitting the tips of the mountains on the west-facing side. When (not if) you visit, start from the campground and follow the road marked as “Spiss” and “Buchen” on the map. Some things you will notice along this road. First, you’ll always hear the sound of water, whether it is coming from a waterfall, a bubbling brook feeding off of one of the waterfalls, or the Weisse Lütschine river running laterally thru the valley, called “Weisse” because it is moving so briskly over its rocky underbelly as to always be in a foamy, cloudy state. The valley is not used for growing crops but for the grazing of a few bell-clinking cattle which can softly be heard over the din of the water. What about the smell? The aroma is a mixture of the over 150 species of wild flowers in the area, fields of grass, hay, fresh pure alpine air, and the subtle unobtrusive presence of cow manure. Walking along the valley road, one will encounter scant structures which will either be a dark wood-planked home with decorative eaves and flower boxes full of red flowers, real honest-to-goodness farm structures with silos and evident farm equipment, or mysterious solitary sheds with rusted hinges and evocative doors which give the impression of hundreds of years of disuse but are betrayed by elegant stacks of firewood or fence posts. Regardless, every structure makes you long to see the interior and even the most rudimentary shack invites the imagination to conceive giving up the modern world and living there.
Standing in this valley is revitalizing, especially at the spot I’ve marked on the map. There is no scaffolding, no agent watching what I am doing with my camera, no history of bloodshed or greed in its construction, no need to memorize who’s who, no cost to get in, no tour guide bartering for my business, no tourists bumping me with their backpacks and blocking my view. Just tranquility and a deeper spirituality than I would ever find in a building. This is my world’s greatest cathedral. At the spot marked on the map, I have taken a video facing south and swiveling east and west. Watch the below video and let me know if you agree. If there is one flaw, it is a smidgeon of envy for the people living just behind those flower boxes. But since they are human beings just like me, it is quite possible they look out their windows and wonder what it would be like to live closer to civilization. We are all explorers, searchers, pilgrims, and travelers deep down inside. Get out there and connect.
3 thoughts on “St. Peter’s Basilica is Not My Favorite Cathedral”
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Matthew, it brings tears to my eyes. I understand why this would be your favorite post and St Lauterbrunnen, the most beautiful cathedral in the world. I too find spirituality in nature over buildings. Your writing is lovely and inspiring. Take care 🌷
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Suzanne, you always humble me. Thank you for your uplifting words 😊
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