My first morning in Seville, I chose to visit churches.
Is anyone who knows me surprised about that? I think not.
So, today I started at the Cathedral of Seville. In case you don’t know, this Cathedral is the 3rd largest in the world (on St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London are larger), and the largest in Spain and was built on the site of a mosque destroyed during the Reconquista recovery of Seville by the Christian kings. The famous tower, the Giralda, is the only part of the original mosque that was retained – kept as a souvenir of conquest.
Now, I have been in a lot of cathedrals and churches around the world (again, surprise…NOT) but this one was a completely different experience. Frankly, I have never seen so much gilt and silver in any church, not even in Rome. It was completely overwhelming – beautiful, but I have never seen a more over-the-top expression of the Baroque/Rococo period ever. Not anywhere.
So I wandered and I wondered, and then I stopped in the middle of the space (I hesitate to call it a sanctuary, the proportions are so large)…and, as you so often see in a cathedral such as this, there was a huge tower of scaffolding. Restoration in progress. And on the famous carved choir of the Seville Cathedral, with its carved wooden seats made in the 15th and 16th centuries.
I was completely entranced, because, as I peeked through the scaffolding, I saw twenty industrious souls cleaning and scrubbing every inch of wood carving. All I could think about was two weeks ago at Calvary, when people volunteered their Saturday to come and clean the woodwork in preparation for the American Guild of Organists event. Now, I’m pretty certain that the people I saw this morning were not volunteers – they were most likely restoration specialists or at the very least, students the restoration sciences, but I couldn’t escape the parallel.
I stood and watched the work as it continued, and then I moved on to see the rest of the Cathedral – the 30 chapels, the garden of orange trees, the tomb of Christopher Columbus…but I just couldn’t shake this image of all of these people working together to restore the choir. We work so hard to maintain these buildings that we call our church and clearly the city of Seville devotes considerable time, money and effort to maintain this magnificent cathedral, and the Iglesia El Divino Salvador that I saw later in the morning. And yet, in both of those buildings, I was surrounded with art and sculpture and an ostentatious show of wealth that had nothing to do with the spiritual, that in fact, was created by the hard work and probably the deaths of many indigenous peoples on the North American continent.
It was an unsettling reminder that, as we move on our journey of faith, we must continually question ourselves regarding our motives and our intent. It is a particularly thorny question for those of us in the arts. I’m sure that some of the original builders and artists and artisans that were responsible for what I saw today genuinely believed that they were using their gifts for the glory of God. For some, it was just a job — another commission.
Just something to ponder when it is 102 degrees outside, which it is here.