I recently spent a week in Portugal where, among other things, I saw a bunch of churches. Portugal is after all a deeply Catholic country which, together with Spain, has created some of the most magnificent religious buildings in the world. In my extensive travels in Europe I have seen many of the greatest hits: St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster in London, Durham Cathedral in Durham, the iconic Notre Dame in Paris, the Duomo in Florence , Saint Mark’s in Venice, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, as well as large and small churches too numerous to count, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. I am in my sixties. I have travelled a lot. But with this latest adventure in sunny, warm and lovely Portugal, I think I can say with some confidence that I’m done.
Or at least I’m done with the magnificence of Catholicism as written roughly in marble, stone and soaring buttresses. The towers, the bells, the sculptures, the crypts, the royal tombs, the bloody Jesuses, the stained glass windows, the arches, the mosaics and, at least in Portugal, the gold. So much gold that we could pave the streets of Jerusalem with it, and still have some left over to make a few trinkets.
Look, I love having my eyes dazzled as much as anyone, but all that excess high-grade shiny gold covering the walls and blazing from the ceiling… that and the ivory carvings, the jewel-encrusted saints, and the chalices in silver and gold – disgusted me. I was surprised by my visceral disgust, not only because in my many travels I have seen countless exaggerated buildings dedicated to God without rudeness, but also because I know enough to know that this which looks like gross excess to me is an expression of a much earlier age. Even so: all that bling. No wonder when the Puritans came to the New World from England, they had had enough and chose to make their places of worship as simple as milk.
At one point in his marvelous The Talmud and the Internet, Jonathan Rosen describes his negative and, according to him, very Jewish reaction to the encrusted splendours of the cathedrals of Europe, pitting his own moral repugnance against that of his wife – a rabbi – more open mind. and accept the answer. Suffice to say that when I read it, I was on his side.
Not anymore. Was it the Jew in me who finally flipped my switch? My age?
The increasingly frenetic state of the world at large, the getting and the spending, the need not just to own things but to own time itself? I’m talking here about the endless snap-chatting, Instagramming and Facebooking of the experience, something I don’t like. At all.
I don’t know what bothered me so much this time around. All I know is that after a few days of visiting some of the most magnificent churches in Portugal, my guts, overloaded with what my eyeballs had absorbed, rebelled. There’s nothing like discovering a city via its public toilets, but there you have it. With me, when I don’t obey my instincts and intuitions (like the voice in my head screaming, “please, no more churches”), my guts come to a standstill.
I don’t think it was my knowledge of the history of Catholic anti-Semitism, including the Inquisition (which lasted, in Portugal, until 1821) that got my guts going, although such knowledge is never in abeyance. I don’t think it’s how the popes got rich selling indulgences, or that under the guise of God the Church went from corruption to corruption. After all, the Church isn’t alone in channeling its (ill-begotten) wealth into buildings and art. Carnegie Hall in New York was financed by one of the greatest robber barons of all time. Leland Stanford – described as the “most visible criminal of the century” – founded Stanford University. Without Medici money, some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance might never have been created. And so on.
Rather, I think my deep distaste for the precious metals that line the interiors of the churches I’ve seen has more to do with my deep distaste for our own times, particularly in the United States, where the gap between the rich and everyone else continues to widen. exponential, and where society as a whole (or at least those who make the decisions, like Congress) seem to have abandoned the idea that those who have more are responsible for those who have less. It’s individualism on steroids, and it’s sick.
As is (in the opinion of this Jewish girl) the profusion of wealth on buildings meant to turn the minds and hearts of men and women to the Holy. I simply cannot imagine or intuit any sort of Divinity that would accept such vulgar displays of wealth.
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven fiction and non-fiction books, including The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition. His journalistic and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Newark Star Ledger, USA Today, Salon, The Jerusalem Report, Commentary , Moment, and many other publications. She is also a painter.