Perhaps the biggest surprise for me, touring Italy, was how much I enjoyed visiting the churches in that country. I had the thought, early on, that if you’ve seen one cathedral, you’ve seen them all. And there are many to see. Every city, every tiny village, has at its heart a mighty cathedral or basilica. But how wrong I was in thinking they would be the same, or even similar.
The first thing I learned from our tour guide is that the word “cathedral” isn’t interchangeable with the word “church”. A cathedral is the seat of the regional bishop. A basilica, a commonly used word for churches in Italy, is defined as a large church. The Italian word for cathedral is duomo. I saw that term used frequently as well.
St Peter’s Basilica, Rome
What I wasn’t prepared for was how incredibly beautiful the cathedrals and basilicas of Italy would be, or how much they would impact me. The architecture was amazing and inspiring. Victor Hugo wrote, “Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race. Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book.”
The immensity of the structures was mind boggling, as was the age of many of the buildings and the length of time it took to complete a cathedral. It typically took more than 100 years to build a cathedral, and sometimes 200 to 300 years before the work was finished. Imagine the generations of builders and architects who created such enduring magnificence.
Basilica of St Mary of the Flower, Florence
They weren’t all elaborate structures, but each one was unique, and each told a story. As we wandered through the streets of villages, we would suddenly step into a piazza, a square, and there was usually a church housed there. They never failed to capture my attention or my appreciation, these keepers of history and art.
That is what I came to realize about the churches of Italy. They were museums, full of paintings, mosaics, stained glass and sculptures. They housed relics, in some instances. The worn floors told of the passage of many feet. That dark line across the marble was from generations of drowsy heads resting against the wall.
As I entered the cathedrals and basilicas I was often moved to tears. The quiet spaces felt sacred. These churches are still in use. Services are held daily in many of them. However the Divine invitation felt deeper than a call to worship.
It felt like an invitation to join with the countless souls who had sat or knelt within these walls throughout the centuries, and contemplate the expansiveness of life and the intricacies of the heart. There was the bittersweet realization of the permanence of these gorgeous stone cathedrals and the impermanence of human bodies.
Oh, how glorious were those places.
“The cathedrals and churches architecturally prepare our souls for the beauty of the Eucharist.” Allen R Hunt
I love that quote in the context of the cathedrals of Italy. The eucharist is the sacrament of the Holy Communion, the drinking of the wine, the breaking of bread, signifying union with Christ through his sacrifice.
For myself, viewing the cathedrals of Italy prepared my soul for the wondrous beauty of creative inspiration. And they opened my soul in unexpected ways to a deeper communion with the Divine.
It was an invitation I was grateful I accepted.