Cathedrals, Gargoyles and Minarets-what church buildings tell us

pythoncaveHumans have always had sacred spaces; a certain mountain, cave or spring that is deemed special. Perhaps the oldest found so far is the Python Cave in Africa, used 60,000 years ago. I think you can understand why a cave guarded by a giant stone python would be considered special.

But moving up to the relatively recent, the difference between cathedrals in western Europe and in Russia are very revealing. British Gothic cathedrals, like all sacred spaces, tell us a lot about the builder’s worldview and their God-view. They are soaring, ornate, BIG-like God. Inside they are austere, orderly, lofty-like God.

churchgargoyles2An odd element (to us) of many cathedrals are the grotesque gargoyles that adorn the exteriors. They served a practical purpose in that they drained rainwater away from the building foundation, which is why many of them have big, gaping mouths.

Since the carver was free to carve whatever he wished, some of them are just plain funny.

To Westerners, the cathedrals in Britain “make sense;” they are “normal.” Then Westerners should buckle their seat belts for a trip to Russian cathedrals, which reveal a quite different worldview and God-view. Forget gray, austere, orderly…St. Basil’s is a riot of shapes and colors. Inside it is ornate, with painted icons everywhere. God is complicated, exploding with possibilities, vibrant, alive!

St. Basil's in Russia
St. Basil’s in Russia

The cathedrals in Russia are from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, which has been going for 2,000 years and was centered not in Rome, but in the new capital of the Roman empire at Constantinople.

It has been said that we Westerners can never fully understand Russia, standing as it does, between East and West. We want it to “westernize” it, which we equate with everything good. Could this be a bit arrogant?

Personally, I can admire the gray, orderly cathedrals of the West, but St. Basil’s always makes me smile, and that is more in line with my God-view than gray austerity and gargoyles-

except for this gargoyle, which also makes me smile.

Nose-picking gargoyle
Nose-picking gargoyle

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