This is the first church we encounter our walk from our hotel to the main city square. Its pretty but unassuming white exterior and well proportioned bell towers does not prepare us for the treasures inside. As we purchase our tickets and enter, it glitters and dazzles, it awes us into silence, just as it did the small congregation in the early years after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca. Built on Inka ruins (I really like this spelling, used commonly in Ecuador, so I’m going to stick to it!) starting the year 1557, the church was likely the centre of religious and social life for the Spanish in colonial Cuenca (it appears indigenous people were not permitted to worship here) and in fact, was built through private donations. It remained the heart of the city till the New Cathedral was built much later in the 19th century (read post).
Though longer a consecrated church but rather a carefully preserved museum, it still feels very much like a place of worship. The elegant, elongated proportion of the building translate into elegant arched hallways, richly decorated. Parts of the original paintwork on the walls have been restored, especially in the elaborate chapels along the sides of the main hall and the richness of colour and the beauty of the carefully crafted human forms are striking indeed. A three-dimensional depiction of the Last Supper now dominates the space before the gilded altar and the paintings in the altar section are particularly vivid. This is also the only place I have seen oil paints done on marble from the 16th century! The quality of the artefacts and the quality of restoration is impressive. Especially striking is the balance between restoration and preservation, with many places where the original paintwork or masonry has been left partially revealed just as they might have found it, giving the visitor a sense of how much changed over time.
Another interesting fact about this Cathedral is that its spire was used by the French Geodesic Expedition in 1739 as a point of reference to establish the arc of the earth. This becomes more relevant when I later visit the monument to the work of these brave scientists at Mitad del Mundo near Quito.
I’ve had several encounters with St. Bavo Kerk, a beautiful late Gothic cathedral located right in the centre of Haarlem in The Netherlands. Like many churches in Europe, St Bavo was built on the site of an older church that existed from the 12th century, however it was only in the 15th century that it was altered and expanded into a large cathedral. St Bavo started off a Catholic church but bore witness to the wave of Protestantism, finally becoming a Protestant cathedral in 1578.
Magnificent in size, with an impressive wooden ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows, St Bavo is designed (like all Gothic churches) to awe the visitor. Its Pièce de résistance, however, is its pipe organ, for a long time the largest in the world and once even played on by Mozart in 1766, when he was all of ten years old!
I remember walking to St Bavo way back in 1999, accompanied by my younger mama (maternal uncle) to hear an organ concert. Having recently finished by Bachelors in Architecture, I recall I spent most of my time staring at the church interiors and also at times dozing off (put it down to a limited understanding of Western music and a full stomach!).
This visit though, the rich sound of the organ struck me as soon as I set foot inside the cathedral and I found I could appreciate much better the texture of the sound, the acoustics of the absolutely stunning space and the atmosphere of divinity that the combination of space and sound created.
For the children, who had never been to a cathedral before, it was hard to decide where to look: the paved floors that marked the graves of important people, the paintings on the walls, the ceiling so so high, the shining organ, the hushed demeanour of those who sat in the pews hearing the music and seemingly engrossed in prayer, the statue of Mother Mary with her benevolent expression…..
After having spent a couple of hours out there in the Grote Markt thinking the cathedral was closed, I was just happy to be inside. For, call me old-fashioned or slightly crazy, it seems incomplete to visit Haarlem and not come here once!