When I travel, one of my favourite things to do is visit churches. This tends to surprise people, what with me being an atheist and all. And I understand where they’re coming from. However, I’m also very interested in architecture, and the reality is that for much of human history, religious organizations have been the ones with all the money, meaning that they were the ones who could afford to hire the best craftspeople and artisans. So in order to see the best work, well … it’s off to church I go!
I’ve been to a lot of churches over the years, and my absolute favourite is Turku Cathedral. (On a tangent, I recently learned that the difference between a church and a cathedral is largely a bureaucratic one, with a church being a general place of worship and a cathedral being a place of worship that the highest mucky-muck in the local arm of the organization calls home base.)
Anyway, back to Turku Cathedral. I visited Finland a few years ago in what was not a particularly enjoyable trip. The weather, the food, accommodation issues, luggage issues – everything conspired against me, and because I was travelling alone, I didn’t even have anyone to commiserate with. But there were a couple of bright spots, one of which was Turku Cathedral.
I first saw it this way, from across the river after an enjoyable lunch of pizza and beer. (Perhaps not the kind of meal one would expect in Finland, but as I mentioned above: food issues.) It’s equal parts imposing and beautiful, but a lot of churches are, so I was in no way prepared for the overwhelming interior.
I’ve seen a lot of beautiful buildings in my travels, but it’s not often stepping through the entrance brings me to a sudden stop. Turku Cathedral did, the squeak of my boot coming to a sudden stop on the tile echoing lightly in the superb acoustics. It’s a combination of the sense of mass and the stone. It doesn’t feel like it was built, constructed from pieces of material being joined together. It feels like there was a massive boulder sitting on a hill and someone looked at it and said, “We could carve that into a nice church.”
It reminds me of something I once heard Michelangelo said when asked how he created his sculptures: he’d study the block of stone and then simply remove the parts that weren’t David. I have no idea if that story is true, but it perfectly encapsulates how it feels like Turku Cathedral was created.
I was fortunate during my visit, in that there was almost no one there. Outside of a few staff members, I had the place to myself, and could take my time exploring without risk of interrupting anyone’s private worship.
My solitude continued in the small museum on the second floor, where I was alone with the artifacts, and this stunning view of the main cathedral floor.
And the final treat – the proverbial icing on the cake – was discovering this little stairwell with a tiny hobbit door at the bottom.
It felt delightfully sneaky to tiptoe down the steps to see where the doorway opened onto. I’m pretty short, but I was bent nearly double by the time I got to the bottom, and a little concerned that, with my backpack of camera gear adding to my bulk, I might get stuck. But I made it to the bottom, and when I opened the door, I spilled out onto the cathedral floor.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an atheist. I dislike organized religion and the negative effects it’s had, and continues to have, on society. I can’t wrap my head around how anyone can continue to support organizations that cause such harm. But I do understand the human need to feel that there are things bigger than ourselves, and to acknowledge them.
Turku Cathedral is the grandest expression of that need I have ever experienced.