Sunday, May 17, 2009

One for the Collection

The cathedral of St. Louis was founded in 1720. The current building dates from 1792. I think that argues, actually, for some architectural stability. The first archbishop is buried beneath the altar, with 47 other people. I was kind of horrified to learn this, but then discovered that most of these are prelates, and they didn't just wind up there in some sort of sarcophagus accident.

Despite being a non-Catholic, I collect cathedrals, and that's one of the first places I seek out in a new city. I have prayed in cathedrals from Pittsburgh to St. Augustine, my favorite being St. John the Baptist in Savannah, because of the brightly painted interior.

Cathedrals are designed to draw one's attention to God, particularly to the majesty and greatness of God, something that we Protestants tend to miss with, say, the Porter's Bottom Holiness Tabernacle and Upholstery Shop. In a cathedral, the world is hushed. The ceiling soars away at the top of columns that are themselves reminders of the necessary vertical element in our relationship with the divine. In the days before printing presses made the Bible accessible, the stained glass of the cathedral illustrated the stories of the faith for a largely illiterate population.

St. Louis is a beautiful cathedral wrapped in a rather humble exterior. The narthex, particularly, is grim and brown, and like everything else, watermarked. Once inside, though, the cathedral is bright with paintings on walls and ceilings, and wonderful windows. The clerestory windows are geometric designs, refreshingly plain, while the main windows depict scenes from the life of Christ. The altar is an elaborate baroque creation dating from 1852. It's interesting that the church's literature about its architecture and ornamentation stresses, repeatedly, its compliance with Vatican II. Not sure what that's about, really, but I enjoyed standing in the reverential atmosphere, breathing the cathedral-smell of candles and incense.

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