I collect churches.
I know I’ve said I don’t collect things, but I do. I collect churches. Inspired by my art history professor at Columbia who set out to map all the Gothic churches in northern France, I now need to visit churches when I travel and to photograph them the way other people take pictures of their traveling companions. I find, when I get home, that I have a half dozen pictures of my children, my family, my friends, but I have dozens of shots of arches, vaulted ceilings, galleries, and, my personal favorite, flying buttresses. I don’t even operate under the pretext of “Stand over here, honey, and I’ll get you in front of the church,” but rather, “You go on ahead while I get this shot of the church.”
This seems cold. The buildings will be there, for the most part, but do I actually lose a few more happy moments with my children in order not to miss the way the light streams through the clerestory? This is my real passion, or one of them, at least. I get completely wrapped up, I don’t want to leave, I need one more angle, one more view, and I even asked a security guard once if he would look the other way while I climbed the scaffolding in the back of the church to get a closer shot of one of the sculptures over the doorway. He declined. I didn’t get the shot.
Like a lot of fascinations, obsessions, if you will, when I write about this, it sounds pretty loopy. But when I turn the corner or come around the plaza or make that last curve on the train and a medieval church fills my view, I can’t get my camera out fast enough. I thrill at the site of towers and portals and I marvel that medieval churches were built by hand and simple tools and that
they have stood in that space for a thousand years.
So how do I know I am getting this across to my children? Even after years of visiting cities and towns all over France, Spain, and most recently, Ireland, I’m not completely sure I have translated this craziness to them. I take them to Paris and we go straight to Notre Dame, sometimes right from the airport. In fact, I actually have My Spot which means, whenever you don’t know where I am in Paris, you can pretty much count on the fact that I am on my spot, just in front of the cathedral, to the right, sitting on one of the stone blocks in the front. And the real craziness is that I know full well from being in all those art history classes that the facade of Notre Dame, pretty much the whole thing, is a product of the mid-19th and not the 13th century. I don’t care.
There are a couple of nice shots where my children strayed into my view finder. I really like those. Those shots probably won’t make their way into picture frames that I have now started to put up on my walls, but they remind me that this is one of the random things that I can give to my children. They won’t inherit much in terms of finance or property but they will know how
much I loved, … churches.
When we go out to see a church, and we have seen quite a few together, it’s my chance to tell them the stories that have captured my attention for so many years. I can tell them how Gothic arches were invented and how people reacted to stained glass when they saw it for the first time, how a Roman wall was destroyed to build the chancel, or how towers were used as defensive locations. And then, maybe they will be able to tell their children, “You know, my mom loved this stuff,” and that will
be really wonderful. They probably just don’t want me to know they were listening all these years.
That’s it, isn’t it?
Burgos Cathedral, Burgos, Spain
Real Colegiata, Roncesvalles, Spain
St. Vincent Ferrer, NYC
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain