Thursday, 4 September 2008

Some Interesting Churches of Europe

Some of the greatest works by the Old Masters are to be found in cathedrals and churches round the world, but I am always enchanted by the unusual and interesting things that are to be found in them apart from the magnificent artwork.

One of my favourite churches is the St Bavokerk in Haarlem, near Amsterdam. Frans Hals lived in Haarlem all his life and is buried in St Bavo.

The church boasts a magnificent organ, built in 1735 by the famous German organ builder Christiaan Muller. He was to the organ what Antonio Stradivari was to the violin.

The organ has five thousand pipes, the smallest the size of a pencil, the largest ten metres (three stories!) high. It is gilded and embellished with exquisitely carved wooden statues: a life-size King David with his harp, Asaph the Psalmist holding a scroll, and a whole host of angels and seraphs.

Twice a week professional organists give free recitals during the day, as they have done for upward of two centuries. It is a sought-after privilege to play the St Bavo organ, and organists from all over the world book sessions months in advance. Handel travelled from London to Haarlem to play the organ, and during their concert tour of Europe in 1763, the Mozart family made a special overnight trip from Amsterdam to Haarlem so that ten-year old Wolfgang Amadeus could try it out. I wonder if his little legs could even reach the pedals. However, three years later, in 1766, he was back to have another go. This time he stayed three days, so he must have liked it.

St Bavo is a huge church with lots of side chapels, the most interesting of which is the "Hondeslagerskapel", or Dog Whipper's Chapel, beautifully carved with reliefs of dogs. Members of the congregation brought their dogs to church with them. The dog would sit at its owner's feet. Should a dog bark or fidget, the official Dog Whipper, employed by the Church Council, would emerge from his side chapel and chase the dog out. If the Dog Whipper was absent or the position wasn't filled, the chief choir boy was the pinch hitter and had to do dog chasing duty between hymns.

Sadly, in 1813 they banned dogs altogether from the church. I reckon the Dog Whippers' Union would have had something to say about that - I hope the incumbent got a good retrenchment package.

In Gouda, there is a really lovely chapel in the St Catharina Gastehuis, which may be called a "gastehuis" or guest house, but is in fact the city museum and was formerly a hospital and before that an orphanage, but never a guest house. I failed to find out why it is called a guest house, but I found the large, beautifully proportioned chapel on the ground floor extremely interesting when my daughter and I visited the inappropriately named Gastehuis.

The chapel was used by the 17th century French Huguenots, who fled Catholic persecution. They found sanctuary in the Protestant Netherlands, from where many of them went on to the Cape and became my ancestors.

The chapel now houses a collection of religious art: a bit light on the Mother-and-Child and heavy on the Martyrs - I moved briskly past the 2 depictions of St Cath chained to the wheel, one of St Lucia carrying her eyes on a little platter as she is wont to do, and three of St Sebastian, each with different numbers of arrows and different amounts of gore. I daresay the hagiography is not clear on the finer details of St Seb's death, so the painters had to add blood and arrows to taste.

There were various other martyrs whose particular sufferings I could not immediately associate with a name, not being of the Catholic persuasion and less than au fait with the Saints and Martyrs. I think the one being grilled over a bed of charcoal is St Lawrence, but I may be wrong. That may have been St Barbie.

Continuing the House of Pain theme, on the far side of the chapel there was a door which intriguingly said "Cells and Torture Implements", so we pushed it open and peered in. It gave onto a narrow spiral stair which misleadingly didn’t look too sinister due to lots of whitewash and good lighting. At the bottom, however, we discovered a row of really nasty little windowless cells furnished only with leather handcuffs fixed to the walls by rusty chains and, across the corridor, a well-equipped torture chamber complete with all the tools one has heard about, plus a few pointy implements that I couldn't put a name to, but which no doubt came in handy when dealing with a difficult case. All thankfully pretty rusted now and obviously in disuse.

Makes you wonder who the customers or torturees were, considering the place was occupied over the years by (a) hospital patients (b) orphans and (c) devout Prostestants on the run. Maybe the orphans were very naughty.

Still in the Netherlands, Jan Vermeer is buried in Delft, in the Oude Kerk, which dates from the 12th century. There he lies, under a worn paving stone with only his name and dates on. You can walk on it. Five yards away, there is the ornate and imposing gilded marble sarcophagus of the Dutch naval hero, Admiral Tromp: the Netherlands' answer to Horatio Nelson.

I am always indignant about Vermeer getting a mere flagstone and Tromp a tomb fit for a pharaoh. They should swap places. Oh, well … the paintbrush has turned out to be mightier than the sword, hasn't it. Admiral Who? We all know who Vermeer is.

The Protestant churches in the Netherlands are full of interest, but if you really want more bang for your buck, the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe is where you will hit the jackpot. Each of them is home to priceless masterpieces in paint and sculpture.

Apart from the conventional works of art, I am always fascinated by the contents of the "Treasure Chambers". You pay an admission fee to these Aladdin's Cave-like crypts but it is invariably worth every penny. The vestments, the gold and silver chalices and the reliquiries are stunning. Often they are embellished with jewels the size of postage stamps. Many of them are centuries old. Some of those jewel-embroidered bishops' vestments are better than the Royal wedding gowns you see in Palace museums. The designs and the fine hand-stitching are unbelievably beautiful.

The jewelled reliquiries are real works of the goldsmith's art, although I tend to be dubious about their alleged contents, many of which are said to have been brought back from the Crusades. The Crusaders must have spent more time shopping than fighting.

In the Domkerk in Cologne they have a large gold sarcophagus purporting to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men, brought back from the Holy Land, of course, by Crusaders. Silly me, I always took it that the Three Men were Wise enough to go back home after they had made the "gold, frankincense and myrrh" home delivery, but no, I was wrong. Obviously they stayed on till they died, and were all buried together in a clearly marked grave, so their bones could be retrieved by a Crusader a thousand years later.

The sarcophagus is a very beautiful work of art. It was designed by the famous medieval goldsmith, Nicholas of Verdun, who began work on it in 1180 or 1181. It has elaborate gold sculptures of the prophets and apostles, and scenes from the life of Christ.

Most relics consist of the fingers, toes or vertebrae of some venerable abbot, bishop or saint, but in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in Germany, I also saw a lock of John the Baptist’s hair (Germanic blond, strangely enough for a Semitic middle-easterner), as well as the armbones (radius and ulna both) of Charlemagne. The bits of the Baptist and Charlemagne are the star attractions in the Aix cathedral, but they have heaps of supporting-act relics there too: pieces of bone and body parts of assorted holy men, all in gorgeously bejewelled golden reliquaries.

The question that leaps to mind is: how did they obtain the bits of skeleton? The mind fairly boggles. It could have been a nice little earner for a medieval abbey, mind you: the minute the venerable abbot dies, the ‘phone starts ringing off the hook:

"Hallo, this is Father Baldwin calling from St Marzipan’s in Tuscany … I hear the abbot passed … deepest sympathy … any chance of a relic?"
"Yes, certainly, Father, they are boiling him down in the backyard as we speak. Shall I put you down for a nice femur?"
"Oh, dear no, we can’t afford a femur! I was hoping for something more modest – maybe a few vertebrae or a finger?"
"No worries, Father, I can give you your choice of an index finger or two metacarpals."
"That is very kind, we’ll take the index finger. Is the right one still available?"
"Half a sec, Father, I'll just check the allocation register … OK, the entire left hand went to St Lenin's. We'll FedEx the right index finger to you as soon as your cheque clears."
"Many thanks, Brother, I'll have Brother Benvenuto make a start on the reliquary right away. Pax vobiscum to you and the lads."

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