By Rose Killalea
|St Peters Church in Rome|
I find myself in Pakistan, the muezzin just outside my window calling Muslims to prayer on a cool and dark evening. I'm here to work with Medicine Sans Frontieres (MSF) in a hospital in Taliban territory. My personal mission in my down-time, suggested by a friend, is to write about art in the churches and mosques of Pakistan. I grab this idea of hers with both hands, inspired immediately by the art/church connection, and the challenge of writing. Little do I know I will be confined to quarters in Pakistan for security reasons, and will never get to explore beyond the walls of the compound.
But Pakistan comes to me instead, through the many locals I work with, and I see their love of beauty and art in the gorgeous fabrics of the shalwar kameese the women wear, in their handmade jewellery, in the superbly decorated trucks and tuktuks they drive, painted and gilded on every part visible to the naked eye.
I will miss visiting their mosques and the Christian churches that still exist here, for I am keen to do my assignment. Instead, now confined, I relax in the pretty garden of my Pakistani house, and start to analyse my growing interest in art, in churches, in beauty – all of which were ignited in a church - St Peters in Rome - where I saw the Pieta for the first time. I could have wept it was so beautiful, and it was in that moment I realised the value of beauty in my life, and the cost of its absence.
I've sought art out ever since and appreciate its beauty. And I’ve found myself with an ongoing attraction to churches and mosques too, not from any religiosity on my part so much as a centre, often literally, of the town, and a centre of community, history, architecture, as well as art.
I've had some great experiences in churches - of love, history, religion, music... from being in solitude in a tiny, intimately shadowed Christian Orthodox church in Romania redolent with lit candles and silver crucifixes and other iconography, only to have the heavy door push open and witness beautifully attired wedding guests move quietly into the church. The choir master indicated I could stay, and ushered me up narrow steep stairs to the choir loft, and from there I watched a fairytale Romanian wedding... the artistry of the setting, the solemnity, the promise of love and commitment, the soaring voice of the choir, a beauty all its own.
In another part of Romania in the centre of town stood an imposing Gothic church, blackened by the environment, the weather, insidious pollution, giving it a sinister foreboding look. It was juxtaposed in a deep and narrow valley, its spires dwarfed by the imposing mountainous spires on either side. The church itself intimidated the surrounding township, dwarfed in turn by the monolithic black building. Perhaps it was the proximity to Dracula’s castle, nestled as it was in the Transylvanian mountains, that lent the black church its mystery but my imagination knew no bounds as I entered its doorway.
I was having a love affair with all things Turkish at the time, living there, lapping up it history and language, reading voraciously, and learning about and buying old turkish carpets, themselves a work of art. And there, inside that church, two or three countries removed from Turkey, and a smorgasbord of political and ideological differences between them, the walls were adorned with over 100 Turkish carpets. My passion and curiosity immediately aroused, I explored and examined those carpets, looking for the symbolic tree of life and the motifs of fertility, the animals of Noah's ark, all painstakingly handwoven. And in a dull and uninspiring room at the back of the church - such a counterpoint to the majesty of the church whose only, and only necessary - adornment was the Turkish rugs - was a history of the area and how the rugs came to be in Romania...
The Greek Orthodox church on Buyukada (Big Island) in the Sea of Marmara off the coast of Istanbul in Turkey, on a high hilltop with my mother and an older friend who used to be a catholic nun...iconography and paintings she could tell me all about, interpret for me...
The cathedral in Budapest on a Saturday night, on the banks of the Danube, in the rain, a classical music performance there, musicians on the altar… beautiful music, reminiscent of my father who loved such music. I pictured him in his heaven watching me, pleased I was there…
St Paul's in London, with my teenage children, our first trip to Europe, me wanting to introduce them to the wider world before they flew the nest, they exploring, climbing upstairs into the dome, enjoying all with a sense of courage, discovery and adventure.
Visiting the AyaSofia in Istanbul many times, first a Christian church from c.400AD, then a Muslim mosque from the mid 15th century, and now deconsecrated, and a museum open to all. Some of the original Christian art work still remains on the inner walls, side by side with original Islamic art work, to me a marvel of respect and an acceptance of religious diversity.
And then there is Saint Schapelle in Paris, so close to Notre Dame, yet somewhat overlooked by visitors. A tiny chapel with three of its four walls made entirely of the most stunning, awe-inspiring stained-glass windows, soaring overhead in their gothic frames…another moment when I could have wept for such beauty, and I stayed till I had drank its beauty into my soul.
And in between times, my mind explores the nature of religion and wrestles with questions on the existence of God. And inquisitiveness has me reading philosophy for the first time. I start to learn that humans were born with a sense of morality; that philosophers were exploring the meaning of life and articulating our ways of being, long before Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I start to learn where Christianity sprang from, and that religion isn’t necessary to the teaching and development of morality.
I read Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists. He writes of the sanctuary offered by beautiful churches, their quiet and peace and beautiful artistry and architecture. This I can identify with. He writes, too, of the role of art in our lives, it's capacity to show and inspire love, tragedy, passion, compassion. How these emotions are embedded on the faces of Mary and other religious icons, and bring us succor. And he writes of museums and art galleries, notably the Louvre with its collection of art showcased by its country of origin, or by its historic period of origin, and challenges us to consider that art be laid out by the emotion it encapsulates, evocates.
Now, this concept stirs my soul. de Botton suggests that with the Louvre collection regrouped and relaid according to its emotion, we could go to the "love" room when our souls where in need of love, the "passion" room, or the "compassion" room when we needed to fill our cup, so to speak. He recognizes that churches can do this for people, but we don't need churches, per se, to fulfil us.
And I read Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. He doesn't talk of art, but I read in his words the beauty of science and evolution, and his argument that God doesn't exist.
It's an exciting and never ending quest for me now, to be provoked, to think, to ask questions, to seek out answers, to expand my mind, and it’s taken me to parts of the world that are new to me, and transformed my world view. I’ve since embraced this abundant life, recaptured my health, vitality, sexuality, happiness, and self-expression, and it started in a church in Rome, inspired by a beautiful work of art.