Imagining Church Builders

Ken Follet has made quite a career writing about cathedral building. He began with the century-long projects that took place 800 to 1000 years ago then expanded those stories into the multi-generational epics for which he is famous.

Many of the world’s best known cathedrals were only partially designed when construction began. Details were always left to future craftsman, often the sons and grandsons of those who began the stonework.

Even major aspects of the design were created by people who were not present — sometimes not even born – when the work began. Occasionally, technology changed significantly to facilitate new directions as the edifices rose stone by stone.

It is inspiring to think about great cathedrals taking shape in the middle ages, but what about tiny churches in tiny villages? What are their stories?

I have seen hundreds of them throughout Europe, but I have rarely found the people who knew the histories. That leaves me to imagine what they might be.

Building a small church for a little-known village is far less of an undertaking then building the Duomo or St. Peter’s. On the other hand, a tiny project does not benefit from the resources that can be deployed by a Pope or the Borgia dynasty in Florence. A village priest has fewer workers to call upon, less money with which to pay them and a markedly inferior set of artists to decorate them.

Small churches might not require a century to build, but that does not mean a project could not consume a decade or more.

Churches large and small are delayed by wars, plagues and running out of money. Even the Washington National Cathedral, visible from my house, took more than a century to build, only to have the top of its towers toppled by a rare earthquake. They have not been repaired because funds are lacking.

The idea of different people having different inputs into the ultimate outcome is probably not confined to the great creations we have heard about and line up to see.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I went on a bicycle trip to Italy. We do those things a little differently from some people. We bring our own bikes and plan all of our own routes. The results are sometimes uneven, and we have had some dreadful days along with some great ones.

One of our stops last year was a tiny hill town above Bagni di Lucca. I can’t even remember the name and it was so small that Google maps is not helping.

If you would ever like to make a movie about the Italian resistance in World War II, this is where you should go. It is remote, barely inhabited and the hills are vertical. Great for scenes of outsmarting the Gestapo; not so great for bike rides. Yes, that is why bike tour companies exist. They save you from mistakes.

Right next to our AirBnB was a tiny church, the one in the picture. The feature that caught my eye was the neon “M” in front of the altar.

My linguistically adventurous wife had found a woman in the nameless village who had the key to the church, which is now only rarely used. She explained that the “M” stood for Maria as that was the church’s name. Yet another Santa Maria.

It would appear that someone at some point in the building’s history (from the style I am guessing 1950s) thought that a neon “M” was just what was needed to complete the look.

Instead of frescoes, there were small paintings that would draw a little attention from art historians.

Unremarkable though it was, Santa Maria di someplace nameless probably filled its role in the community until that role no longer needed filling. Now it is mostly closed. It did leave me wondering, however, about the advocate for the neon “M” and the village discussions surrounding that decision.

The other churches – all bigger than Santa Maria but still quite small – along our bicycle routes commemorated the village dead in the First and Second World Wars. The names were the same from one war to the next as descendants of survivors lived only to die themselves.

In one town, there were so many members of one family on the World War I memorial that nobody was left to be named on the World War II memorial.

The thought in my mind as I rode off to climb a steep hill in a low gear was that there are few better times to live than now.

Merry Christmas.



10 Responses to “Imagining Church Builders”

Jonathan, December 24, 2019 at 10:48 am said:

Very touching, Haven, and your conclusion was just right…


Haven Pell, December 24, 2019 at 11:42 am said:

Thank you Jonathan and Merry Christmas to you and Bettie.


Bill Gordon, December 24, 2019 at 10:50 am said:

The way things are developing in Italy’s economy you could probably buy that church for a dollar and change the M to P for Saint Pell! Hell, you could probably buy the whole town.
You story brings back great memories of our trips together into Italy and beyond. Look forward to the next adventure…you on your bicycle and me in my tiny Fiat.


Haven Pell, December 24, 2019 at 11:44 am said:

If I named it St. Pell, it would immediately (and deservedly) be struck by lightning and turned to rubble.

The next adventure should be Fairbanks to Valdez by bike. Midsummer 2020.


John Austin Murphy, December 25, 2019 at 8:14 am said:

Thank you for sharing, Haven. And best wishes for happy and healthy 2020.


Haven Pell, December 25, 2019 at 9:05 am said:

Thank you John, and the same to you.


Hakan N Lonaeus, December 28, 2019 at 6:02 pm said:

Lovely story. Gets me back to two of my favorite religious edifices: The Mezquita Cathedral de Cordoba, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The mixture of a a mosque and a cathedral in the same place is worth considering in these days of religious tensions


Haven Pell, December 28, 2019 at 6:14 pm said:

This was a long way from those but I suspect met the needs of the village. At least until it fell into disuse.


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