In the spirit of Catholicism, I have a confession: I am not a religious person. Yet no matter where I travel, I inevitably wind up walking the nave of the largest cathedral in town. This is particularly satisfying in Europe, where Catholicism and its iconography are as present as thong bikinis are in Rio. I’ll hit up three shrines before lunch in Palermo and feel like I’ve totally scored (the walk from Via Roma to the Vuccheria market is chock-full of them). I can’t explain what it is about churches. But I think it’s got something to do with their ornateness and the somber, solemn vibes that mash up together to create an environment that feels awesome and sacred. Even to a heathen like myself.
The scale isn’t of much importance. I’m as interested in the life-size porcelain Madonnas of France, illuminated with a gorgeous halo of stars, as I am in statues of St. Lucia holding her eyeballs on a platter in Sicily. (Depending which story you believe, they were either gouged out with a fork because she was disobedient to her bethrothed, or she tore them out herself in the hopes of being delivered to God. Heavy stuff.) I also adore informal shrines and the occasional vegetable offerings that grace the corners of alleyways and storefront vigils.
There’s something about the devotion, the consistency, and the tacky trappings of it all that truly touches me. Maybe it’s because the back stories of the saints swirl together in kind of a crazy Grimm’s fairy tale of outrageous drama. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, the kind that pre-dates Hollywood and CGI. There’s a romance there that’s totally palpable, and in between all the shopping and drinking and eating that normally takes up lazy vacation days, it’s nice to duck into a dark church and feel the cool, smooth stones under your sandals, smell the incense of a century’s worth of masses, and observe a quiet, private space that is always open. To everyone.
Except when admission is 18 euros. Then I usually snap a pic of the façade and find the nearest Campari and soda.
Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia, Palermo, Italy
Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Paris, France
Santa Maria de Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
Saints Ancient & Modern, Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua