Why I travel for sacred art and whether I’m religious…….or not

I adore religious art, and I travel to see it in person any chance I get.  Most of my happiest days in Europe have been spent with HOB in and around cathedrals (and the occasional mosque and synagogue.)  Of all music, I am most enthralled by masses and oratorios, and I’d much rather see art in a church than in a museum.   When not travelling I frequently read sacred literature and I endlessly look at reproductions of religious art.  Oh, and I write a blog called “Picnic at the Cathedral.”  It would be safe to assume, given my behavior, that I am religious.  Well….. so, that’s the complicated part.

My long time m.o. is to sidestep questions about my religious identity with evasive replies.  I do this for three reasons: first, to avoid being proselytized to.  Second, I’ve found that the more vague I am, the more people assume that I am deeply spiritual.  Finally, and most importantly, I despise discussions about beliefs.  Any statement that begins with “I believe” is bound to be tedious, self-righteous and sanctimonious.  People’s beliefs are irrelevant: how people live– their culture–is so much more interesting.  So I’m not going to tell you what I believe, but I will break my longstanding rule and come clean about my religious identity: I am a Humanist.  That’s a capital H Humanist, no, make that a really fancy capital H from an illuminated medieval manuscript.Inhabited_Initial_H

[Before this post goes any farther, I’d like to encourage anyone who is easy offended and/or doesn’t have a sense of humor about religion to stop reading immediately.  Here, click over to Oprah’s website–I’m sure you’ll find it comforting.]

My hardcore Humanism is what attracts me to Europe, the cradle of the Renaissance and the birthplace of Western Humanism.  As a Humanist, I am drawn to human achievement, scholarship and potential (and that’s why I worship at the altar of UNESCO World Heritage sights).  Yeah, I know that traditionally Humanists reject faith in favor of critical thinking and empiricism, and promote secular over religious institutions.  (As my Humanist boyfriend Walt Whitman says “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then….I contradict myself; I am large….I contain multitudes.”)  The thing is, works of art created in the service of religion, represent much of the finest of human achievement and many of the best artists have themselves been deeply pious.

And you know, I don’t think it’s intellectually possible to separate ourselves from religion.  Let me explain it this way: when I was baby, I learned what a banana was.  Now, whenever I see a yellow smile-shaped tropical fruit, I know without question it is a banana.  My adorable niece, not quite a year old yet, is being raised bilingual.  While she’s too young to talk, if you say banana in English, she’ll point at a yellow fruit.  If you say 香蕉, (banana in Mandarin), she’ll point to the same yellow fruit.  Then the adults in the room will clap, praise her, and tell her she’s a smart girl.  For the rest of her life, the yellow fruit will be both a banana and a 香蕉.  That’s how it works with religion:  I grew up in a small Midwestern town where religions other than Christianity were nonexistent.  Though my family was not particularly religious, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and I learned that baby Jesus is either the little squishy baby in a manager, or the grown-up hippy guy with a beard.  God is an old stern-looking dude, also with a beard and they all live some place with lots of light.  Now, much to my relief, I live in a wonderful diverse urban neighborhood, and the people around me practice a gazillion different religious.  Nonetheless, deep in my lizard brain, Jesus is still the hippy guy with a beard, I celebrate Christmas and a yellow fruit will always be a banana.

Maybe it’s better to talk about religion in terms of literature.  Most people from the US or the UK would know exactly what you meant if you described someone as a Scrooge.  They may never have read A Christmas Carol, or even know that he’s a character in a novella written by Charles Dickens in 1843.  In 150 years, a character created by Dickens has become part of our English lexicon.  We know what a Scrooge is, without having to read a word of A Christmas Carol.  The Hebrew Bible  is more than 2500 years old and it’s main character, so to speak, is God.  The Hebrew Bible’s God, and later, the Jesus of the gospels, has grown into the psyche of the Western mind, with all the intensity and power of great art and authority behind it.  And what’s more, our intellects have evolved over 2500 years with an implicit threat: the wrath of God.  Imagine if my baby niece was not only praised for identifying a yellow fruit as a banana and a 香蕉, but was threatened with death and eternal punishment for not doing so.  Then she really really really would know what a banana is, and would make sure all her loved ones did too.  She might one day, as an adult, learn  to say banana in German, but deep inside, she would always know the truth about that yellow fruit.  Religion, through the persuasion of art and thousands of years of social pressure, has literally developed our minds.  I have good friends who are Atheist, and I’m always tempted to say to them “How can you tell me that God doesn’t exist, that you deny religion, when the idiom of the language you are arguing with me in comes in large part from the King James translation of the Bible?”

This is why I love to travel to see religious art: I am overjoyed with the idiosyncrasies and just plain weirdness of religion as it develops culture over time in a regional area.  It seems as if every small to medium size town has a religious statue or something that cries tears of sacred oil three days a year, and that oil, when carried in a vial, will protect the owner from all harm or whatever.  So many times HOB and I have been standing in a European church studying a carved silver reliquary containing the holy gallbladder of St. So & So and the people of the town are lining up to worship in front of it.  We practically have “WTF!” thought bubbles over our head, but the people of the town, they’ve always known about the sacred gallbladder box and it’s not weird to them, but rather an object of reverence.  It’s also super cool when the people of the region resemble their depictions of religious deities.  A few weeks ago we were in Cefalù, Sicily and saw the magnificent Christ Pantocrator in it’s main cathedral.  The next day, we bought a ticket at a museum from a man who looked exactly like the Pantocrator.

Religious art and architecture is plentiful in Europe and, I know this is important for you cheapos, much of it can be viewed for free.  Think about it: you can see some of the highest expressions of individual human skill, cultural cooperation and long range planning in situ, and perhaps hear some beautiful sacred music while you’re at it, and pay almost nothing for the experience.  You’ll rediscover your own religious heritage viewed through another culture.  (And, if you’re like me, you find a never-ending supply of bizarre Madonna and Child art to giggle at.)  Even the most committed Humanist needs an occasional taste of the divine.

 Christ Pantocator from the cathedral of Cefalù, Italy


  1. Cracking post – lots of different topics covered effortlessly in relatively few words! Thanks for the like on my blog too. Let us know as and when you’re both in England – we spend a lot of our weekends looking at church and religious art so maybe a joint field trip is in order! 🙂

    My wife does a blog on related topics – check it out 😉 http://medievalwallpaintings.wordpress.com



    1. Thank you for your kind words Scandifriend. Your wife’s blog is wonderful and it certainly does temp me to make a field trip to England!



  2. Thank you for putting into words my own fascination with religious art and architecture. I’m a Unitarian/Universalist (sub-species mixed) who seeks out churches and temples wherever I travel.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, buntymcc. I am a particular fan of your sub-species mixed!


  3. Pretty much your entire argument explains my reasoning for walking the Camino de Santiago. You and HOB should give it a go! There´s lots of beautiful Romanesque art in France along the way.


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