Abbeys and cathedrals: intrigue, love and hubris

I’m not a church-goer although regular Sunday services were a part of my upbringing. I don’t know if it’s that familiarity between heritage churches and childhood, but I love the feeling of peace and contemplation in the soaring spires, graceful arches and supporting buttresses of these historic buildings. The stories of the people who built them and those who worshipped, remain in the exquisite architecture and dramatic frescoes. The very stones are imbued with history and all its attendant intrigue, love, ambition and power.

Looking back over my photograph collection this year I seem to have visited many abbeys and chapels. It’s not something I set out to achieve but travelling in the UK and Europe has led to one after another heritage building with its own remarkable narrative. Common to them all are the skills and dedication involved in creating these magnificent edifices.

Risks were taken during innovative construction techniques and sometimes lives were lost. These were places of worship but also santuary during conflicts. War and peace, money and influence, and ultimately the power of architectural design and art on the human psyche. The latter lasting over centuries. They were also about power and prestige.

I’ve discovered that the decorative cathedrals of medieval England are a match for the breathtaking frescoes of Italian abbeys. The light falling on the imaginative patterns of brickwork differ depending on the season and time of day, and has often stopped me in my tracks.

“If, like me, you appreciate classical architecture, incredible gardens and exquisite frescoes the Abbey of Santi Nazaro and Celso should be on your list of places to visit.”

Whitby Abbey, a 7th-century Christian monastery and later a Benedictine abbey, sits high on the East cliff overlooking the North Sea. The setting is a wild and dramatic landscape and no wonder the Abbey inspired Bram Stoker to write his Gothic novel, Dracula, here.

Even when the buildings are in a state of ruin they still exert strong influences. The views from high up in the towers are jaw dropping. The soaring spires that can be seen for miles around speak volumes about their design and purpose. Today they remind us that elevated architecture was around long before modern high rise hotels. The sheer magnitude of the beauty, the skills and artistry in past times challenges the mind and emotions and remains long after you have departed.

Size isn’t everything when it comes to historical places of worship. The setting is all important though. I’ve visited a tiny St. Aldhelm’s Chapel balanced on the barren and wild Jurassic coast of England and miniature Church of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa beside the River Arno and they deliver a powerful impact.

In the Pas-de-Calais the Notre Dame de Lorette is located within open landscape and focusses the eye, and the mind, on approach. Also known as Ablain St.-Nazaire it is the world’s largest French military cemetery. The land was strategically important during WW1. The surrounding land is now green and lush once more but you can never forget the many who rest eternally here.

At Winchester Cathedral recently mortuary chests have been analysed and radiocarbon-dated and it is believed one contains the bones of Queen Emma, married to kings of England, Ethelred and the conquering Danish Cnut. The latter union was said to be a love match. Born in 980, Emma was a key political figure in her own right nd mother to two kings, King Harthacnut (reigned 1040-1042) and Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066).

There are nine Sacred or Holy Mountains in northern Italy, created in the late 16th and 17th centuries and nominated UNESCO World Heritage sites. The 45 chapels at Sacri Monti in the Piedmonte region are approached by cable car from the town centre. In autumn the mountain is hidden by heavy mists which add drama to the ascent.

The chapels feature fantastic scenes creating a virtual pilgrimage to the Holy City, for those who were unable to make the journey themselves. The setting and statuary scenes felt very Gothic.

The Abbey of Lucedio, founded in 1123,  is one of the earliest Cistercian monasteries in Italy. It has had many owners including Napoleon Bonaparte. Some of the buildings at the beautifully restored complex are protected historical monuments. The former monk’s dining room features the remains of frescoes.

The current owners are the Salvadori di Wiesenhoff family and the rice fields here produce Riso di Baraggia Biellese and Vercellese, the only Italian Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin. The Conte Paolo Salvadori di Wiesenhoff is very knowledgeable and is happy to share his favourite recipe for a good Italian risotto. There is also the occasional risotto-making workshop – check the web site for dates.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo (below) was built between 1486 and 1493 and features Gaudenzio Ferrari’s wall. A rich fresco decoration covering one whole wall it is a breathtaking work of art. It’s considered a masterpieces in the Renaissance painting in Piedmont and Lombardy. The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ told in the gospels, is recounted here in the 20-frame storybook.

Each building has its own story. There’s too much to tell every one here. If you have the chance to visit one of these wonderful buildings, or have already visited, tell me about your experiences in the comments. I’d really like to hear whether you feel the same as I do about these unique heritage buildings.

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