Of gargoyles and astronauts

30 Jun

It has been hard to find time to write over the last couple of weeks. Last Saturday, for example, was a whirlwind day with a whistle-stop tour of student halls of residence in Salamanca thrown in. We have reached that stage of life when our “first-born” is about to fly the nest and start life on his own as a student. So we made the 700km round trip, for a second time, to hopefully set him off in the right direction.

Salamanca is a fascinating place, steeped in tradition with centuries of history round every corner. A mediaeval centre of learning, knowledge was pursued in the context of faith and the very idea of “secular study” would have been anathema, a simple contradiction in terms. Learning was the means by which faith was strengthened and deepened, a sacrament almost that permitted the sincere student to draw closer to the God whose revelation in Christ and in mystic communion with the Spirit is complemented by his ongoing self-revelation in nature and philosophy. This integration of faith and science has been battered by modern dichotomous thinking that polarizes the two but both are still pillars of life in Salamanca, albeit running along mostly separate paths.

In the centre of the city stand the old and new cathedrals. (“Old” and “new” are relative terms, note; do not confuse “new” with modern. The former was completed in the 14th century, whilst the new cathedral was consecrated in 1733, 220 years after building first began in 1513.) Time has taken its toll on both and the “new” cathedral was the object of extensive renovation work in 1992.

Cue debate – what does it mean to renovate an old building, or anything else “old” for that matter? Is it to return it to the condition it was in when constructed, exactly as when first revealed to the waiting world? What place is there for “modernization” or fitting to a new purpose for today? And what about imitating the spirit of the original artists, even if not following their designs to the letter? To what extent may an artist exercise their own creativity in renovation?

There certainly were some creative sculptors here in the past. Elsewhere in Salamanca, on one of the carved doorways of the university building to be precise, an anonymous artist’s probably unauthorized personal touch has today become the main focus of attention, far over and above the rest of the monumental entrance. Barely perceptible – that is half of the attraction for the groups who stand mesmerized by the search across the whole ornamental façade – a small frog sits quietly on a skull, gazing down on all who enter. A symbol for lust, sitting on a skull to indicate where that deadly sin will take us? The artist’s “signature”? The true purpose is lost in the mists of popular legend, though the best documented research suggests that it was a quiet snub at the religious establishment, the Inquisition in particular; this was the first university established directly under the control of the Spanish monarchs rather than the papacy.

See if you can find the frog for yourself — at least you know what you are looking for…

Back to the renovations on the new cathedral, and enter Juan Iglesias and Miguel Romero, the enterprising sculptors in charge of the work. Like monks of old, who hid playful details in corners of painstakingly copied illuminated manuscripts, or computer programmers who leave “Easter eggs” – unusual or humorous data that can be accessed through a certain series of keystrokes – in software, the renovators of the carvings round the new cathedral’s main entrance have left a couple of details to rival the university building’s frog; something for tour guides to point out to bored school groups, perhaps, if nothing else.

The first blends in reasonably well with its surroundings: a lion, gargoyle, or similar mythical creature – maybe even a demon; I will leave you to make your own mind up from the photo – eating an ice-cream cone. Two scoops, please, though no clue as to the flavours. Looks like he (he?) is enjoying it too.

The second seems a little more out of place – an astronaut. Yes, an astronaut, a space-walking astronaut at that, perched on the floral motifs to the left of the entrance. I rather like that, and not just because of my innate fascination with all things astronomical either. I sincerely hope that it is more than someone’s idea of a joke or attempt to create a novel tourist attraction. Maybe I find meaning where none is intended, but I glimpse an attempt to integrate ancient faith with current reality, to bring the whole of our modern experience into the realm of Christian worship.

Faith has to be relevant. Whether in language or liturgy, ritual, architecture, governance – in all its essential aspects faith must connect with the world in which we live and engage with its thought processes and experiences. Ancient expressions of faith are interesting as museum pieces, but do not provide the motor for contemporary Christian community. A Gothic cathedral may have provided a sense of awe and wonderment for mediaeval Europeans but is less likely to have the same effect on 21st century city-dwelling technocrats.

Like the King James Bible for those brought up in the church, traditional expressions of faith provide security for those already “in the fold”. But these same elements whose warm familiarity gives comfort to the faithful erect walls for the outside world. Peering in, all that “outsiders” see is a mysterious world, unintelligible to any but the initiated, utterly foreign and quite outside their own experience. Crossing that line and attempting to make sense of that world is a cross-cultural adventure as potentially traumatic as any other. It will thus only occur as a result of extreme personal need or some mysterious inner yearning that enables a person to bridge the gap and launch out into unknown territory.

Faith must present natural points of connection, not a barrage of unfamiliarity. (Click to tweet.)

This is why the initiative is always on the side of the believer. More than a command to geographical relocation, Jesus’ “go” is a permanent state of mind that he asks of his church, a constant reality check on our ability to connect “the whole world” with “all that I have taught you”. To relate successfully, to have any chance of passing on a Christian worldview and conviction to those outside the church, faith has to be seen to be relevant. It must present natural points of connection, an inviting open door, not a barrage of unfamiliarity. Carvings of astronauts, not Ostragoths.

So find your astronaut. Engrave it boldly over whatever Gothic splendours guard the entrance to your temple of faith. Yes, engrave it. Resist the temptation to simply add it to what is already there. Chisel away past marvels that hold centre stage; irrelevance, however beautiful, must be irremediably defaced. Discover at all cost how to blend an ancient message with a society that is constantly being made new. You may even keep your gargoyles, if you like. Just make sure they are eating ice-cream.

(PS. For my current favourite “Easter egg”, try typing “about:robots” in the address bar of Firefox — sorry, that one will not work on IE, Chrome or Safari. You could also put “zerg rush”, “tilt”, or “do a barrel role” in a Google search and see what those do…)

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