Sunday, September 2, 2018

Buildings of faith

The black pulpit contrasts
starkly against the all-white
interior of the Theatine Church 
of St. Cajetan in Munich.
My humanities professor would have been thrilled.

Prof. Carmelo Tamayo is the reason images come into my mind when I hear the words Baroque, Rococo, Romanesque and Gothic architecture – which he used a lot when he took us on a tour of churches in the south of Cebu.    

I remembered him  when my family and I had the chance to visit churches in parts of Germany and Austria recently.  Would he have remained articulate in describing and explaining the influences on the architecture and design of the churches in that part of the world, or would he have been rendered silent by their magnificence?

Because I was struck dumb. There are no words. It’s all feeling. The first few minutes inside the church doors are spent trying to take it all in. There’s just so much happening at once and it’s all beautiful.

The towering alter piece called
Fall of the Angels(1782) by Karl Georg Merville
inside St. Michael's Church in Vienna.
The altars are majestic, and not just the main one that you walk into, but even side altars. There is just so much detail – in the floors, columns, walls, ceiling, doors, pews, etc. The amount of painstaking work that must have gone into building these cathedrals and churches when mechanized construction must have been nonexistent is mind-boggling.

I do not know how many churches there are in Europe, but we were able to visit 18 churches and three chapels during our two-week stay in parts of Germany and Austria.

This view of the Old Town of Salzburg reveals as many as
three churches in one area: Kollegienkirche (Collegiate
Church), Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church)
and the Salzburg Cathedral.

Most of these visits were unplanned. We simply walked into these churches because they were in the vicinity of tourist spots and within walking distance of each other.

In Germany, there was the St. Nikolaus Church in Muhldorf am Inn; Theatine Church of St. Cajetan and Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady) in Munich; Shrine of Our Lady of Altotting or the Chapel of Grace, Basilica of St. Ann and Brother Konrad Church in Altotting; and the Parish of Maria Himmelfahrt Partenkirchen in Garmisch- Partenkirchen.

Inside the Hospital Church of the Holy Ghost
in Innsbruck, Austria
We made stops in Austria that included the St. Jakob Parish Church in Burghausen; St. Michael’s Church, Schottenkirche (Scots church) and St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna; Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church),  Kollegienkirche (Collegiate Church) and St. Sebastiankirche (St. Sebastian’s Church) in Salzburg; the Evangelical church and the Catholic Church in Hallstatt and Hospital Church of the Holy Ghost and Hofkirche (Court Church) in Innsbruck.

Charming and smaller were St. George’s Chapel located inside the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, St. Barbara’s chapel (it was more an image protected by a structure) on the way to the salt mine in Hallstatt and the Maria Heimsuchung chapel on the slopes of Zugspitze.
Taking of photos is not allowed inside the
Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Grace), seen
here in the middle of the square in Altotting.
Behind it is the Church of St. Magdalena

I ask my 14-year-old daughter who tuned out by the third? fourth? (“see one, see all Mommy”) church which ones stood out to her and she shrugs.  “The small one that had this silver stuff on the walls and was very dark, and where people were praying.” I ask why and she says, “It was the most quiet and holy. And it was small.”

She is referring to the Chapel of Grace that houses the “Black Madonna,” a wood carving of a standing Mother Mary carrying the child Jesus, whose miraculous healing power draws over 1 million pilgrims each year to Altotting.

Votive offerings line every
available space on the chapel's
exterior ceiling and walls.
When I ask my husband the same question, he ruefully confesses that the churches are all one magnificent blur, but reconsiders. “Okay, the one with the hearts.” Like my daughter, he picks the Chapel of Grace.

It is easy to see why he remembers the silver urns containing the hearts of the Bavarian dukes, kings and prince-electors that stand in the wall niches of the chapel, “placed as a princely guard of honour” opposite the image of the Black Madonna.

He explains his choice further. “I like all the votive offerings outside the structure.” Framed drawings and pictures offered in thanksgiving to Our Lady for prayers granted line every space available on the exterior walls, posts and ceiling of the chapel.

Outside St. Stephen's Cathedral
in Vienna
For wow factor alone, I choose St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. It is massive at  107 meters (351 ft) long, 40 meters (130 ft) wide, and 136 meters (446 ft) tall at its highest point.

The mind struggles to catch up with the eye that wanders from the Giant’s Door dotted with dragons, birds, lions, monks and demons, the two spires above it, the colored roof covered by glazed tiles, the Gothic south tower which soars above the city, etc.

Inside, it is even more beautiful with giant sculptural columns soaring high over the three-aisle church. We could not enter the main section which had been closed off for an event or see the High Altar, which was covered by a gigantic projector screen. Still, there was enough for the eyes to feast on. Among them, the pulpit that spirals around a column and side altars which include the Wiener-Neust├Ądter Altar.

The Wiener-Neust├Ądter Altar inside
St. Stephen's Cathedral
I don’t think I have ever seen a winged altar in the Philippines, none of this magnitude at least. The altar piece has a fixed main shrine, but its wings (think cabinet doors) can be opened and closed, with each side featuring a painting or a sculpture or a relief, in color and gilded with gold.

We did not have enough time to explore the entire church, but I remember thinking that the beauty and splendor of St. Stephen’s Cathedral also makes it the most tourist-infested.

There are very few of us
inside the St. Peter's
Abbey Church in Salzburg.
There were not that many people inside the other churches, and the few we found praying inside also took pictures.  It makes me think that there are more tourists than the faithful in that part of the world.

There is material online that says a number of churches in Europe has been closed down or re-purposed because they are too expensive to maintain. The numbers of the faithful have dwindled over the years, with less and less people going to church.1

I find this a pity because I come from a country where it can be difficult to find a seat in Church if you don’t come early to mass (and not just on Sundays), and where you can always find people inside praying, lighting candles, standing in line to pray before miraculous images and even walking on their knees all the way to the altar while praying the Rosary.

If only these churches were in the Philippines, professors like Mr. Tamayo and the country's dominantly Catholic population (80.3 million or 79.5 percent) would have a blast. 2

1 Europe's church creatively rethinks as numbers plummet (

2 Source: 2015 Census of Population (POPCEN 2015) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority