Great buildings, although functional, are designed to make the people feel a certain way – whether that’s fear, hope or the inclusion of home.
Although I’m not religious myself, I’ve visited many religious sites of from all manner of religions. The Temples of Thailand, the Mosques of Turkey, the Synagogues of India, and (in this case) the Churches of Italy. I enjoy the feeling of quiet awe standing within someone’s expression of love and faith, and have an unfaltering respect for the fact they’ve created something beautiful – even though I don’t share the belief.
This is the same in St Peter’s Basilica – the main dome of The Vatican in Rome. It is a beautiful place, one of the largest and most grand religious building I’ve seen. Brass covered saints and intricately painted biblical scenes show the incredible workmanship of the (surely) hundreds of thousands of hands needed to build it. Its history and purpose are a common one; it honours Saint Peter who was executed on that spot for converting to Christianity.
Making your way down from the basilica, back towards the river you walk through the square where the masses stand to hear the Pope. There’s a quiet around the place, like that of many religious sites; visitors have come to be impressed by it and they walk away reflective.
However, passing the boundary fence and out into the tussle and thrust of Rome with the shadow of the basilica’s dome behind you, in stark contrast, you see desperation. Desperation in the shape of crouched figures in tatty clothes slumped behind empty plastic boxes hoping to be dropped some change by an enlightened pilgrim.
These are the displaced. I assumed they are part of the European refugee crisis we’ve seen so much about in recent years, although this is purely an assumption. These are people – by my understanding – who have been persecuted because of who they are, the family or group they belong to, or the form of the religion they follow. Not unlike our St Peter whose stone image overlooks their daily struggles.
I’ve no idea what the Catholic Church does to help displaced and struggling people, and I don’t mean this to demonstrate any perceived selfishness. It could be even argued that desperate people choose their positions to make the point. However, it feels wrong to be remembering one, no doubt brave and saintly person in stone and gold; while others, currently desperate and suffering, cry into the pavement less than a quarter of a mile away.
Last year, whilst travelling in India, I visited a temple where they prepared food for hundreds of people every night. Locals, rich, poor and tourists contributed and ate together. There was no one begging in the street outside. The building wasn’t as grand, there wasn’t gold or brass, statues of saints, or intricate paintings. But every person who entered left feeling fulfilled, spiritually and physically. So, if architecture is great because of how it makes you feel, then it’s great because of the people who work within it; to help, inspire and change the lives of those around them.