Friday, 6 July 2018

The Church of Gold - by Philippa Linton

Basilica di San Marco - Pixabay
Have you ever had a visceral reaction to a building?

I was in Italy in late May.  The holiday included a day trip to Venice, my first ever visit there.  The heat was sweltering, the crowds were overwhelming, the city was dazzling.   The sea was a milky green: St Mark’s Campanile and the Doge’s Palace were bathed in the colours of a Canaletto painting.

Arriving in the Piazza of San Marco, I got my first ever glimpse of St Mark’s Basilica.  My jaw dropped.  I’ve never seen a church like it.  Chiesa d'Orothe Church of Gold.   It took my breath away. 

St Mark's is not as massive as St Peter's in Rome, but I found it startling.  It's so baroque, so ornate, so fantastical, so … Venetian.  With its statues and angels and warrior saints, its gold-and-blue mosaics and lunettes and arches, the winged lion standing guard and the ancient bronze horses prancing over the balcony, its five round-arched portals with their bronze doors protected by multiple marble pillars, the Church of Gold crouches over the square like some great, multi-coloured, multi-legged, mythical beast.   It’s a church of staggering beauty, yet the exotic vibe emanating from its opulence struck me as being almost pagan.   

I've never seen a church which fascinated, yet disturbed, me so much.  The amazing facade of St Mark’s seems to be very much about Venetian power and wealth and hubris rather than about spirituality.  ‘Ha, just look at us, we conquered Constantinople!’  Yes, indeed – during the Fourth Crusade the Venetians ruthlessly plundered Constantinople, the capital city of their Greek Orthodox brethren, and took the priceless, antique treasures of that city back to Venice.  Like the wondrous 10th century icon of the Archangel Michael.  I’d seen this gorgeous jewelled icon at the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009, and I’d hoped to see it in St Mark’s – but, alas, the queues to get into the Basilica were too long.  Next time, I’ll book online …

I’m not pointing fingers.  Church history is a mixed bag, and when the Church has become a powerful institution, the results have not been pretty - but that includes some of my Protestant forebears, who also abused their political and religious power.  My point is that I found St Mark’s completely surreal, as if it came from a weird and wonderful dream.  It jarred me.  It thrilled me.  It inspired me.   The Church of Gold could feature in a fantasy novel, and in that story it could be a benevolent place … or not.

What sparks your imagination off?

What unexpected reactions have you had, to a building, or a place, that made you want to put that place into a story, or use that reaction in some way in your writing? 

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