Religion, monuments and the common man

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This post was inspired by visits to some impressive monuments to religion, both on large and small scales, and the all-pervasive religiosity of the area in which we are staying. I have had difficulty however in writing it. The problem is I started out being super-impressed by the bigger monuments, and still am. However, I have had second thoughts, as you will see below.

On the larger side, the Duomo in Milan is probably the most impressive church I have seen. The vastness of the internals are reminiscent of an Escher painting as shown here:

On the smaller side, the little streets and alleys in our little town of Menaggio are dotted with small grottos (or is it grotti?) which bear religious artifacts such as madonnas, and which provide a place of worship for local gatherings of neighbours:

What strikes me about the Duomo, for example, apart from the obvious reverence in which it is held by followers, is the magnificent human achievement to construct it in the first place. 

An inevitable conclusion is that without the impetus of religion, such beautiful structures may not have arisen. It required a vision, and a need produce grandeur which presumably would appeal to a god. Without the desire to approximate heaven, would the grand flying buttresses, essential to holding up the ceiling, have been designed? Maybe, but perhaps religion formed the ‘perfect storm’ which allowed the necessary elements to combine to produce something which harnesses the scientific, engineering and artistic disciplines so impressively.

However, while admiring the Duomo in particular, I trod on one of the many tombs embedded in the floor and was struck by something – these magnificent monuments were more for the powerful and wealthy than for the ordinary townsfolk. Those remains buried under the huge slabs and in ossuaries in the Duomo and other similar places were no ordinary townspeople.

Clearly, there has been a cost for that ‘human achievement’.  The local communities have paid this cost for hundreds of years, while all the time all they really needed was to worship at their local grotto.

Yes, we later generations have ended up with magnificent examples of architecture, art, and engineering at which to marvel, but we should ponder that for every noble buried within, there will be thousands more who paid heaven-tolls all their short lives, and who probably ended up buried in the local fields covered in pig shit.


3 thoughts on “Religion, monuments and the common man

    neutralturn said:
    October 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I think religion is essential to the building of monuments like the Duomo; but I don’t think the personal religious inspiration of the people who actually conceived and built them is the critical ingredient. A belief in the worth of what they were doing would doubtless have aided the commitment of the bulders but they would not have worked long if they had not been paid. These works were enormously expensive and the cost was distributed one way or another across the entire community. This burden had to be borne not just over years but over generations or even centuries. It is difficult to conceive of any factor other than commonly held religious belief capable of motivating the vast majority of individuals in a society to accept such a lifelong burden, one offering no prospect of tangible reward. One could perhaps then see these works as wonders of ordinary human skill and imagination funded by religion.

    There seems to be more to it than that though. Much of the beauty of secular human structures, buildings & so forth lies in their perceptible conformance with constraints imposed by natural laws in the achievement of their function. A long span suspension bridge is beautiful because we can see the elegant simplicity with which it manages gravity. One senses that Leonardo da Vinci would have recognised a Lockheed Super Constellation on the ground as a flying machine. So whence came the conception of the function of the Duomo and what constraints other than those of physics had to be accommodated in its achievement?

    Would the function and beauty of these buildings be recognised by a cultural alien? If not, they presumably have something to do specifically with Christianity. If so, they are art, appealing to some universal human susceptability. I think art can be defined as a product of any human activity that is both deliberate and gratuitous. The silhouette of a human hand against a spray of ochre on a cave wall is the simplest, earliest and purest example I know of. It is a bit of a stretch but could the Duomo be considered a similar thing?

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