May 30, 2017
Eight students, parents, and friends of Grace experienced all or portions of a 22-day tour of Europe (May 1-22, 2017) under the direction of Dr. Kayleen Bobbitt, Professor of Worship Arts at Grace. The tour was developed to highlight the history of Christian worship throughout Europe, culminating in a class on the fine arts in Italian Christian worship during the last week of the tour.
Our first stop was Oxford, England, where we toured the medieval portion of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In the days before the printing press, hand-written Christian books called manuscripts were extremely valuable and rare, so they were often chained to the shelves to prevent them from being stolen. We were able to see examples of these “chained books” on this tour. In Oxford, we also visited the Christchurch campus with its impressive cathedral, and had lunch in the same room where C.S. Lewis and his cohorts, the Inklings, discussed their writing projects. While there, we met two fellow Christians who were also tracing the steps of C.S. Lewis and had a delightful conversation about the possible hidden thread uniting the books in the Chronicles of Narnia.
The next day, we worshipped with a small group of London Christians during morning prayers in a serene and ancient side-chapel of Westminster Abbey. From there we found our way to the British Museum and saw the stunning evidence, in stone friezes, of the Assyrian captivity of the Israelites, exactly as portrayed in the Bible. Then, it was on to the British Library, which houses two of the three earliest and most influential Greek manuscripts of the Bible—the mid-fourth century Codex Sinaiticus and the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. These codices were used extensively in later vernacular translations of the Bible, including the English translations we read today.
From London, we traveled to Holy Island off the northeast coast of England, home of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which we had just viewed the day before at the British Museum. This beautifully illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels was created around 700 AD and survived Viking raids by being smuggled to safety. It is one of the most remarkable examples of early medieval Christian art in all of Europe. The abbey at Holy Island was founded around the year 634 by an Irish monk, St. Aiden, and became the birthplace of Christianity in northeastern England. Because water floods the causeway to the island at times, we had to arrange our visit to coincide with the tides. We really enjoyed the refreshing nature trails around the island after two very hectic days in densely-populated English cities.
After a relaxing train ride across the breathtaking southern Scottish highlands, we arrived in the seaside town of Oban, from which we took a ferry to see Iona Island. The ancient monastery on this island was founded around 563 AD by St. Columba and became the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.
Our travels then took us to Edinburgh, home of the Royal Mile, capped on each end by the Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace. While the other travelers enjoyed the many sights of Edinburgh, Dr. Bobbitt took a bus ride to Glasgow to see the beloved painting by Salvatore Dali, Christ of St. John of the Cross. This work shows a view of Christ on the cross from the perspective of God the Father and reminds the viewer of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
From Edinburgh, we flew to Dublin, where we were able to see the famous Book of Kells—an exquisitely illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels which may have been produced on Iona Island around 800 AD. We also visited the Chester Beatty Museum, home of Biblical papyri dating from the second to the fourth centuries (including fragments of the earliest known copies of the four gospels, Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul, and the Book of Revelation). Our Dublin day was capped by a wonderful experience of evensong worship at Dublin’s Christ Church, with the regal sound of pipe organ and choir filling the sanctuary.
The next day, we visited Giant’s Causeway on the northern coast of Ireland, to revel in the masterwork of God, our Creator. Everyone in our party, even those with a self-confessed fear of heights, also took the challenge of walking across a deep gorge on the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
From Ireland, we flew to France and rented a car to see some of the famous cathedrals in the French countryside outside of Paris. The present-day cathedral at Reims is built on the site of a church dating from around 400 AD and was the place where French kings were crowned. It was named after St. Remi, who was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis, the first Christian king in France, around 496 AD. Today it is a shining example of classic Gothic cathedral architecture, which is characterized by pointed arches and two towering columns framing the entrance.
We then drove to Vezelay, to see an ancient historic church which was on the route to the Spanish pilgrimage destination, Santiago di Compostela. From here at Vezelay, St. Bernard of Clairveaux launched the Second Crusade on Easter, 1146 AD. This church is one of the best examples of Romanesque church architecture (which is characterized by round, not pointed, arches).
On our first night in France, we were privileged to stay in the tower rooms of Marais Castle, an authentic 14th century castle in Nevers, France, with ties to the Dukes of Burgundy and the Hundred Years War. From there, we launched out to see the city of Bourges and the Saumur Castle in the Loire Valley, which was featured on the September page of the famous Tres riches heures du Duk de Berry (an illustrated devotional manuscript which is a striking example of the International Gothic Style). The original fortress and monastery at Saumur Castle were founded by King Charles the Bold in the ninth century. Finally, we traveled to Chartres to see its massive cathedral, which dates from the twelfth century and is considered to be the epitome of French Gothic church architecture.
Our final day in France was spent in Paris, where we visited the Palace of Versailles and the famous Notre Dame Cathedral, home of much innovation in the sacred music of the church during medieval times. Begun in 1163 AD, this Gothic structure was one of the first buildings to incorporate the architectural feature of flying buttresses for support.
From Paris, we flew to Berlin where we visited Museum Island, which houses five world-class museums. At the Pergamom Museum we saw the famous Ishtar Gate, constructed at Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II around 575BC. At the Bode Museum we saw many examples of medieval altarpieces which were used in churches and cathedrals to illustrate Bible stories for congregations that were often illiterate. The next day, we journeyed to Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, and we were able to visit his home with the original (“table talk”) table, the church where he preached, and the castle church where he posted his famous theses and where he is buried.
From Germany, we flew on to Italy for our final week. At Ravenna, we visited the renowned Basilica of San Vitale with its glittering mosaics and hushed atmosphere. This was a highlight for many of us, as the church seems designed to remind the worshiper of heaven itself. This church, begun in 526 AD, is an outstanding example of the early Christian Byzantine style in art and architecutre. In Ravenna, we also visited the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, which dates from the first part of the sixth century. It was erected by Theodoric the Great and later beautified by Justinian I with Byzantine mosaics.
From Ravenna, we traveled to Venice for a brief visit to the famous St. Mark’s Basilica, which dates from around 1063 AD, although a church had existed there from the 800s. The beautiful, gold-gilded interior of this huge building is based on the Greek cross plan, which has four arms equal in length. This church sparkles with Byzantine mosaics, the highlight of which is Christ the Pantokrater (Ruler of All). Another wonderful feature is the existence of many balcony niches on both sides of the nave, where Renaissance choirs and instrumentalists played to one another across the space above the congregation to achieve a stereo effect. It must have been an angelic sound.
Our next stop in Italy was Padua, where the wonderful Scrovegni Chapel highlights the fresco works of Giotto, one of the first painters to use shading in an effort to make his works appear more three-dimensional and realistic. This magnificent series of frescoes includes scenes from the life of Christ and the final judgment, and has a powerful impact on the viewer who takes time to study the paintings.
From Padua, we traveled on to Florence, where we spend a morning at the Uffizi Museum viewing first-hand the developments in Christian painting styles of the various time periods from medieval to Baroque. We also visited the San Marco Convent, which is famous for its early Renaissance devotional frescoes depicting the life and sacrifice of Christ in each of the tiny monk cells. These frescoes were created by Fra Angelica in the early 1400s and still inspire great reverence and meditation.
Finally in Florence, we visited the Duomo, the great Gothic cathedral begun in 1296 in the heart of the city.
From Florence, we traveled to Siena to visit an art gallery featuring Sienese artists from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Byzantine influence is very evident in the gold-gilded, iconic style of the earlier Sienese painters. As the centuries progressed, the Sienese art also began to reflect Renaissance features such as three-dimensionality created by the use of perspective principles.
Later that same day, we went on to Assisi, home of St. Francis of Assisi, where we saw the tiny 9th century church where St. Francis dedicated his life to God. It now sits within another large, late-Renaissance church named the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. Then we went up the hill to the older part of Assisi to see the church dating from the 1200s which was founded by St. Francis himself. This church has an upper Gothic sanctuary and a lower Romanesque sanctuary as well as the crypt where St. Francis is buried. Its walls are covered with beautiful frescoes by the famous late-medieval artists Giotto and Cimabue.
Our last stop was Rome, where we spent three days viewing Christian art and architecture from antiquity through the Baroque period. The first day we saw the ancient Christian art of the Priscilla Catacombs, including the first known portrayal of the Madonna and Child, and depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd. The second day we visited St. Peter’s Basilica where one of the most magnificent Christian sculptures is housed: the Pieta by Michelangelo. We also visited the necropolis below the basilica, which contains portions of the walls of Constantine’s original basilica. We also visited the Vatican museums that day, including the remarkable Sistine Chapel, with its famous frescoes by Michelangelo.
On our last day in Rome we visited Tre Fontane Abbey, the alleged site of the martyrdom of the apostle Paul and the Basilica of St. Clement (the so-called “lasagne church”) which contains three levels. The lowest level was a pagan worship site for a cult known as Mithras. This was covered over and a fourth-century Christian church was constructed above it. This church represents what the earliest legalized churches would have looked like; it was a simple rectangular structure with three parallel naves and frescoed walls. The top level was constructed in the early 1100s and contains a magnificent gold-gilded apse mosaic on the triumph of the cross.
Our minds awash with the sights and sounds of historic worship in Europe, we happily but wearily boarded our plane and took off for home, filled with a sense of awe and gratitude at the artistic heritage we as Christians can enjoy. It is evident that throughout history, Christians have used their God-given skills and talents to make worship meaningful for those who desire to join together in the praise of our great and triune God. To God be all glory!