Category Archives: Castles & Cathedrals
Let me start off my apologizing for having two cathedral posts in a row. I know not everything is obsessed about them as I am, but there was supposed to be a blog about the Antwerp Central Station in there, but Alex hasn’t gotten around to writing it yet because he’s off somewhere in the concrete jungles of South America.
So here we are. The Cathedral of Our Lady is a Catholic church in central Antwerp, and although construction began in 1352, it’s never officially been “completed.” Unlike the basilica in Brussels, this one IS the very traditional gothic stone and marble construction that one would expect. It’s a bit hard to see while you’re wandering around Antwerp though, because it’s smack-dab in the center of town. You can never really get far enough away from the church to get a good view OF the church! The pic below kind of shows this, and also how the surrounding buildings cling right up against the walls of the church. I think that’s a pub! It seems to be the opposite problem from the Basilica – that was too separated, while this is too crowded! Maybe I’m just being a Goldilocks today.
It’s church is unique because it only has one spire, whereas it seems more common to have either two spires, or one tower, but this is a bit oddly shaped. The other predominant feature of the Antwerp Cathedral is the white space. The ceiling is white, the stone has been white-washed, and it has a very pure (and pious) feeling to it. This constrasts with the very dark wood that was used in the choir stalls and for the giant hanging crucifix, which dangles in mid-air. (I’m probably going to hell, because my first though was “wow, it’d be cool to see that start to sway in an earthquake!”)
The spire is the highest in all of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which probably sounds more impressive than it is), and it has frequently been compared to lace because of the delicate stonework. Looking up into the spire, there is a beautiful painting at the top. This is the first time I’ve seen a work of art at the top – normally it’s just a decorated ceiling with geometric patterns. I quite liked this treatment, even though it’s so far away you can hardly see the subject of the painting (I am assuming, contextually, that it might be God?)
If you’ve been reading this blog for more than 5 minutes, then I’m sure you know that I’m a total cathedral-nutter. (Yes, that is the official term.) Which is odd, I admit, because I am also an atheist. But I find it fascinating to visit places of worship, regardless of the religion, and the bigger the better. So when we had 4 hours to kill in Brussels before catching the Eurostar back to London, we decided to take the Metro (to satisfy Alex’s lust) to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (to satisfy my lust).I wish I could say that it was an amazing experience, and that I felt the spine-tingling sensation of greatness. Instead, I have to use the very American expression, and say that it was “interesting.” I quite liked the exterior, with the two towers standing at the front, and the copper dome. It sits on a slight hill and overlooks the city. Unfortunately it is surrounded by a giant traffic circle (very French!), and I find that really odd. It really cuts off the building from the surrounding area – I really love the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as a structure, but I detest that it’s isolated all by itself in a sea of traffic!
As you can see from the pic above, the structure is most definitely NOT the traditional gothic architecture of stone and marble. Instead, it was intended to be an Art Deco church, and I think that perhaps the intentions were good, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. It’s impossible to know how much events during the time of construction changed the building though, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge too harshly. The first stone was laid in 1905, but it wasn’t finished until 1969 – interrupted by two World Wars and countless changes in style, I think the Basilica lacks an artistic soul.
I have a bit of a foible about brick that is hard to explain. I think brick is perfectly well suited to small buildings – homes, schools, structures that are no more than 3 or 4 storeys tall. But I really can’t stand it when brick is used in tall or big buildings – I hate the British Library for example, and I hate the brick used here, as well. The copper dome is lovely, but it would have looked so much better against a different texture for the cladding! Maybe that is the best way to describe all my problems with this church. I found the textures to be wrong! The shapes are interesting, the shadows arresting, and the space is certainly inspiring, but the whole time I felt that they used the wrong materials.
It’s not too clear from this pic, but the entire interior of the church was done in terracotta. Yes, terracotta. The material traditionally used in elementary school bathrooms and Chinese warrior figurines. The worst part is that they used the very traditional, piss-yellow terracotta. So when first looking at the pic above, you probably thought that my camera has terrible color settings. But no, it doesn’t, the whole inside of the church is cast with an insipid, urine-like glow. Not helping my elementary-school-bathroom mindset! If you look at the columns along each side of this picture, you can see one of the other problems. The grout that they used between the terracotta tiles is black, or maybe dark grey, so that the separation between tiles becomes really accented. The tall columns, that are supposed to reach up into the sky with grace, end up chopped up horizontally. It breaks the eyes movement, and you lose the effect of the column! It really brings the whole thing “down” in many ways.
I mentioned earlier that the shapes are interesting, and I think this picture is a good example. The strong geometric patterns are quite striking, and the concentric circles, combined with the arches, leading up to the blue tiles at the top are lovely. I can definitely see the strong Art Deco influences here. I almost wish they had done a Pantheon thing at the top and left the hole in the middle open to the sky. That is so obviously what the blue tiles are trying to do, they should have put in glass or something at the center to really pull you up into the heavens.
Alex thinks I’m quite funny with my cathedral obsession, and most of the churches we visit are protestant, so I was excited that this one was a proper Roman Catholic church, because that means confessionals! I thought these were quite odd, because the priest is hidden in the center compartment, but the confessors are out in the open! Maybe there are curtains or something that are hidden? The best thing about them though is the absent sign, below, which is done in a lovely 1920s font!
I think cathedrals and big churches are quite odd about their front doors. They almost all have something big and grand and amazing …. and no one ever uses it! They always have some pokey little side entrance, where you may or may not have to pay a few Euros to enter. The basilica was no exception. The front doors were grandiose, but didn’t look like they’d been opened in decades (if ever!)
One cool thing was that there was a fancy lift going to the top of the church. It was even an automated system, were you pay your few Euros into the machine and then get a ticket to scan on the right, which then opens the lift doors! Alex thought it was the best thing ever.
As far as churches goes, it’s not my favorite, but I’m quite glad that we went to see it. It makes an interesting contrast to the more traditional religious buildings in Europe.
Whilst in Scotland and in Inverness we made the requisite trip down to Loch Ness to see if we could spy a monster. Yes, I must admit, Loch Ness is surely one of the worst tourist traps in the world, and going on a cruise to look for Nessie ranks right up there with “going to the top of the Eiffel Tower” as one of the most cliched things you can do … but it must be done. These places are tourist traps for a reason, after all, because the tourists love to do them! So we played tourist for a day, and took the boat out on Loch Ness. We tried to something a bit different though, and rather than merely monster spotting we took the cruise to Castle Urquhart, a lovely ruin on the shore of Loch Ness. Unfortunately, our “something a bit different” turned out to be the same thing that 4,276,294 other tourists wanted to do that day! Oh well. It was very scenic, if you can see past all the annoying Americans.