Cathedrals and Basilicas

In the late 70s, The International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy used to hold summer schools in Plasma Physics. These were meant to help increase the interaction between scientists from developing and developed countries. I attended a few of these along with a large number of Indian colleagues. We would spend the weekends taking a 4-hour train ride to Venice, spending the day there and returning in the evening. My first visit to the Basilica of San Marcos happened in one of these trips.

St. Mark’s basilica is a prime example of Byzantine architecture. The signature of this style is the opulent marble floors and luminous gold mosaics. After the fall of Constantinople, Venetian crusaders brought back gold reliquaries, making St. Marks wealthy beyond imagination. The 4000 odd square meters of impressive mosaics highlight St. Mark’s life as well as religious scenes from the old and new testament. Today, St. Mark’s Basilica is Venice’s most important monument, housing the apostle’s remains, a great symbol of Christian faith.

Venice is built in the middle of a lagoon. After the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century which led to a general lawlessness, the farmers from the mainland fled to the marshes and sandy islands of the Venetian lagoon to escape rampaging barbarians. Battered by tides, they built houses on stilts. Their settlement grew into a city, which grew into the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean—with the whole thing built on stilts. But in the last century, extraction of groundwater and natural gas caused the city to sink faster, while the Adriatic Sea level rose.

When Minnu was with me in Vienna during my assignment at the IAEA, we decided to visit Venice in December 2002. We travelled by train – journey lasting about 8 hours through the scenic Alps. I could not help compare the changes after twenty years. Floods for example. San Marcos was flooded during our visit. The northern Adriatic region has strong tides, unlike most other Mediterranean regions. Thus, floods usually occur for a few hours at high tide.

The Campanile di San Marco was first built in the 12th century and rebuilt in its current form in the 16th century. It is an impressive 99-meter-high tower in the centre of St. Mark’s Square. Originally, it used to be a lighthouse for ships as well as a watchtower during wartimes. Today visitors can climb the Campanile to its very top. While admiring the largest of the tower’s five original bells, they can enjoy a breathtaking view of the city.

During our stay in Vienna, we made Stephanplatz surrounding the St Stephen’s Cathedral, a regular haunt. This is the parent church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and is one of Vienna’s most culturally significant landmarks. It is a lively crowded place with English spoken more than German and we enjoyed the visits during weekends.

The cathedral is an icon of Vienna. Its stunning mosaic roof and the sheer height of its south tower makes it one of the most recognisable attractions in the city. The construction of the original church began in the 12th century, on a site believed to have been an Ancient Roman burial ground. The first building, completed in 1160, was destroyed by fire in 1258, leaving only the stone foundations. The church was rebuilt in 1263 and consecrated. Since then, St Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom has continued to evolve and grow over time. Large sections damaged in the World War II got rebuilt along with various towers, extensions and decorations.

The towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral pierce the sky with their mottled, ornate spires. Inside St Stephen’s Cathedral, Gothic columns supporting the roof tell stories of the Christian saints. Their solemn stone faces peer out from high up the walls. The cathedral boasts of 18 altars. The High Altar portrays the stoning of Saint Stephen. Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of France and a host of prominent people found their last abode here.

In 2008, my son Joseph moved to Switzerland to take up his assignment at the Roche Diagnostics at Rotkreuz, near Zurich. We visited them during the summer of 2009. During our stay, we visited the Einsiedeln Cathedral which contains the Chapel of Our Lady. The town of Einsiedeln stands on the bank of Alp Stream. Einsiedeln grew around the 10th century Benedictine abbey, which became a principality of the Holy Roman Empire in 1274 and belonged to Schwyz after 1386. Its wooden statue, the “Black Virgin” became a sacred object of European pilgrims from the 14th century. This has been one of the most significant pilgrimage places in Europe.

During another visit to Cham, Joseph suggested a road trip to Camargues through Leon in France and Aix en Provence. This was 800 odd kilometres taking about 12 hours. We decided to break the journey at Aix, stay overnight and drive the next day to Camargues. Aix is my camp during visits to Cadarache to attend the ITER meetings. I wanted my family to pass by the site where the ITER tokamak was under construction.

The chief attraction of Camargues is the village of Saintes Marie de la Mer, Maries of the sea. This is a place for pilgrimage for believers of the legend of the Maries: Mary, sister of the Virgin, and Mary, mother of St. James and St. John. Together with their black servant, Sara, they escaped persecution in Judaea about the year 40 CE and landed in the Camargues Coast in a frail craft. There are legends that a pregnant Mary Magdalen also travelled in this group, which formed the staple of the Da Vinci Code, a novel by Dan Brown. Today, the statue of St. Sara, a major figure of the Gypsy cultural tradition, is in the crypt, to the right of the altar. One can also see a pagan altar from the 4th century B.C. in the church.

Once a year on the second half of May, the Gypsies gather to venerate their Saint Sara-la-Kali — “Sara the Black” who is the patron saint of the Gypsies. Thousands of Gypsies reach the place which makes the town look as if it has gone back in time to the Middle Ages.

The genius of the Gothic period was the invention of the pointed arch and the corresponding ribbed vault to create openings in the wall without weakening the structural integrity of the building. This solution led to all the other developments in Gothic architecture, including flying buttresses and the ground plan of the piers. A cathedral built in the Gothic style was designed to embody the celestial harmony and beauty of heaven itself.

I have had a nodding acquaintance with many other cathedrals as well. The Cathedrals stand as monuments to human spirituality and ingenuity, creating sacred spaces that bring heaven down to earth. Though not a deep believer, I find contemplation sitting in a corner of a cathedral deeply peaceful.


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