Can you tell the story of Christianity through its churches?
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The closure of some churches during the emergency in Covid and the restriction of access to other churches have even reminded agnostics that fewer and fewer people attend church regularly, but it is something we may miss if they weren't there. The reality, however, remains that in more normal times, especially in secular Europe, these historic buildings are often considered the best museums with little symbolic or political significance left.
But not in a corner of Europe. Last summer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which spent its first thousand years as a Christian church, would become a mosque again and, more recently, a museum for which it would once again become a place of worship for Muslims . This latest turn in its checkered history is in some ways not surprising, explains Allan Doig, Anglican chaplain, art and architecture historian at Oxford University and author of this ambitious study, since Hagia Sophia was always intended as a "declaration of power". . The original church, built by the Roman Emperor Constantine on a massive promontory overlooking the Bosphorus, was primarily intended as a symbol of the god-sanctioned imperial power in his new capital. When it burned down during the riots in 532, his successor Justinian I wanted something even bigger to strengthen his authority so that he would build the largest cathedral in the world for the next thousand years. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the city's new Ottoman rulers signaled their arrival by covering up the mosaics of Mary and her baby Jesus, adding four minarets around the incomparable dome, and declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque.
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And then, in 1935, when he deliberately swept away this Ottoman past with his new secular Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk purposefully turned the building into a museum. By now publicly repudiating Erdoğan Ataturk's legacy, he is simply riding the wheel of history and, to the apparent delight of his followers, positions himself with Hagia Sophia as an advocate of a broader Islamic “renaissance”.
This tangled story is just one of twelve Doig tells in his well-illustrated tour of the base's greatest landmarks in the Christian world, earthly instincts entwined in such heavenly buildings. All the obvious candidates are there, starting with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, supposedly at the point where Jesus died on the cross of Golgotha and was resurrected. The building was built in the fourth century as a memorial to the Christian claim to a city considered sacred by three major faiths simultaneously. The current structure dates from the time of the Crusaders.
With St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Doig moves closer to our time by examining the motives of another strong man, Mussolini, who brutally walked the narrow, crowded streets of the Borgo in the 1930s after making peace between Italy and the Vatican The destroyed one had led up from the Tiber and hurled revered pilgrims into the spacious embrace of Bernini's colonnade in front of St. Peter's Basilica. The broad, great artery of the Via della Conciliazione that he built in its place and that led to the mother church of Catholicism was Mussolini, who claimed that his reign was somehow blessed or ordained from above.
Beyond the usual suspects, more humble and less familiar church buildings are included in Doig's argument, such as God's house in Ewelme, Oxfordshire. It was founded in 1437 by Chaucer's granddaughter Alice and her husband William de la Pole, who later became Henry VI's chief advisor, and was typical of the era of combining a school for local children and an almshouse for the local poor - both laudable and divine projects - with a chapel suitable for such a charitable but great family. Faith and worldly wealth could then easily sit side by side in one building.
There is a powerful final chapter on postwar Coventry Cathedral emerging from the ashes of its predecessor as a symbol of peace and the role of the Church in spreading it in the modern world. But overall, this is a book that doesn't live up to the high promise of its title. It is, at best, a sketchy and partial history of the global Christian church. The cast list is too short to make such a universal claim, as Luther's Reformation, despite its profound influence on the way churches were furnished and decorated, hardly deserves a mention.
What it lacks most, however, are appealing, descriptive passages. Doig has an impeccable artistic and architectural pedigree, and he has clearly visited all of these churches, but strangely enough, there is little place sense for a book on places. Except in passing, he fails to combine the often overwhelming amount of detail he gives about history and location with a picture of what these churches look like inside and out.
The result is that he inadvertently makes most of his subjects appear like museums - at least I assume it's unintentional since he's a priest. But even the most modest English village church is possibly a living, breathing treasure house on our doorstep, whose origins and peculiarities not only reveal the worries of those who once worshiped there. They also tell us something about where we come from and who we are now.
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