“Miraculous” Loretto Chapel Stairway (Santa Fe)


Most non-parishioners come to Loretto Chapel to marvel at the spiral staircase. A fascinating legend surrounds its construction. Originally, when the chapel was built in 1872, there was no stairway to the choir loft.  The nuns prayed to St. Joseph to intercede. At the end of nine days, a carpenter appeared at the church who volunteered to build a stairway, on the condition that he have total privacy during construction. After three months, with the chapel completely sealed off, the stairway was completed, but the stranger disappeared without having been compensated. A reward for his identity never was claimed. The mystery doesn’t end there, however. The spiral stairway is a miracle of carpentry: it has no central support to the loft and uses no nails, only wooden pegs. Legend has it that no one saw any wood being delivered to the sequestered carpenter. Who was he? We can only marvel at this handiwork.

Loretto Chapel
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501
 

Byodo-In Temple (Kahaluu, HI)


Byodo-In Temple

You might have seen it on an episode of Lost, a stand-in for a temple in South Korea. It is the temple of Byodo-In, a half-size replica of its namesake in Uji, Japan, built in 998 AD and considered a national treasure and a UN World Heritage Site.

The temple here is built mostly with concrete, the original being wooden. This may have been for practical reasons, for the one in Japan was repeatedly devastated by fire. It is also much brighter than the original; its posts and eaves are painted red, while the original is not painted at all.

The temple is very impressive on first sight. The Phoenix Hall in the center of the temple houses a 9-ft carving of the Buddha, painted with gold lacquer, later covered over with gold leaf. To the left of the temple is a large brass and tin peace bell, which you are free to ring by swinging the large wooden clapper suspended on ropes. Surrounding the temple are large ponds filled with koi. The grounds are also surrounded by lovely gardens.

Wooden carving of Amida Buddha in the Phoenix Hall

The extensive koi pond is the home to hundreds of specimens

With the Ko’olau Mountains in the background, Byodo-In is one the most beautiful structures on the Islands.

St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)


After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

Siena Duomo (Italy)


The most striking and imposing architecture in Siena is its Duomo. We were taken there by our guide Annalisa. After some background information, she left us there to explore it on our own. Like any religious structure of this size, it took many years to complete. It’s difficult not to be impressed by its scale, ambition and sumptuousness, its decoration consisting of great works of art and masonry.

Because the façade was being repaired, it was sheathed in a false one of fabric painted to look like the real thing (top image). Facing due west, the façade, considered one of the finest in Italy, has its own interesting history during which construction was begun in 1285 and halted a few times under the supervision of different architects, spanning over almost 100 years, with the result that several architectural styles were incorporated, an odd yet unified combination of Romanesque, French Gothic and Classical.

The striped columns of Siene's Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

The striped columns of Siene’s Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

Here is one place where, not only do you look upward and marvel at architectural and artistic achievements, but down as well. The entire floor space is covered in mosaic tile that is the combined labor of about 40 artists, evolving from a drilling technique (graffito) to inlaid marble (intarsia) over the almost 200 years it took to complete them. The pavement is so valuable and fragile that much of it is covered up with drop cloths throughout the year, except for a brief time between August and October. Once again, we were fortunate to have seen more than most tourists, even if great sections of the flooring still were gated off to prevent foot traffic. There are 59 panels altogether, representing biblical scenes and important moments in Sienese history.

The Duomo's flooring is an artistic achievement

The Duomo’s flooring is an artistic achievement

Looking up in the nave, you can’t help but notice the plaster busts of 172 popes along the horizontal molding above the arches, although a closer examination shows a repetition of about ten different faces. In the spandrels below them are the busts of 36 Roman emperors. The roof is decorated with a pattern of gold stars against a blue background.

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

The pulpit is an octagonal structure sculpted by Nicola Pisano using Carraran marble, topped with panels of carved reliefs depicting important Biblical events.

Nicola Pisano's pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

Nicola Pisano’s pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

There are many other masterpieces in the Duomo, but an interesting adjunct to the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library that commemorates the life of the sponsor’s uncle, Aeneas Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, and stores his uncle’s book collection. The tribute takes the form of brilliant frescoes along the walls to which a young Raphael is said to have contributed. Combined with the paintings of classical mythological figures and themes in the vault, the effect is stunning on first entry.

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The Duomo was so impressive that we returned there after lunch.

Piazza dei Miracoli (Italy)


One of the most recognizable structures in all of Italy is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. En route to Cinque Terre, we made a brief stop in Pisa with storm clouds threatening above. The crowds were large, as you might expect at one of Italy’s iconic sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After walking through the cathedral and having lunch in the plaza, a torrential rain came down and everyone scrambled to return to the bus, unfortunately without having gotten a closer look at the tower and the baptistery.

Pisa's baptistery

Pisa’s baptistery

From the very beginning, the bell tower (campanile) began to tilt because of unstable subsoil. Begun in 1063, construction endured fits and starts through several wars and periods of inactivity; the tower was not completed until 1372. It is actually slightly curved as upper levels were constructed with higher ceilings along the outer edge to compensate for the tilt.

Artistically more important than the tower is the cathedral, Romanesque in style, and more specifically Pisan Romanesque, although the interior shows other artistic influences, including a Byzantine mosaic in the apse and Corinthian columns between striped arches that look Moorish. The columns originally came from a mosque in Palermo . The coffer ceiling atop the nave is gilded and decorated with Medici shields.

Cathedral's coffered ceiling

Cathedral’s coffered ceiling

The entire complex was such a grand undertaking that it is called the Field of Miracles.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy)


Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers), a cathedral built in the Gothic style, is a treasure of Florence that showcases two important artistic achievements. The first is an impressive octagonal dome that was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, a master goldsmith by trade. Two amazing facts about the dome: because of a scarcity of wood in Tuscany, it was built without the use of scaffolding, and no flying buttresses were used to support it structurally, since they were artistically repugnant to the Italians. The first obstacle was overcome by building an inner shell first as a kind of scaffold to work on the outer dome; the second problem was solved by using a construction similar to barrel hoops made with sandstone and iron ties, the details of which are more complex and ingenious to describe here. Open to the public, a spiral stairway between the two domes leads to the top, but unfortunately we never found the time to climb it.

Brunelleschi’s dome seen from the Campanile (note people along the top)

The second significant triumph of the basilica is the bronze doors fashioned by Brunelleschi’s rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Twenty-four in all, the panels on two sets of doors, depicting New Testament stories, are made of gilded bronze and sculpted in low relief to give a sense of depth, along with the use of perspective. All of these techniques were new at the time. Michelangelo was so impressed by these doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise. Because of weather and pollution damage, the original doors have been removed to the Duomo Museum in 1990, replaced by replicas.

Solomon and Sheba, a panel of Ghiberti’s bronze doors

On our last day in Florence, we climbed the Campanile, a free-standing bell tower next to the cathedral, to get a better view of the dome. The entire cathedral complex is quite impressive and deserves a longer visit to appreciate fully its artistic and historic significance.

St. Mark’s Basilica (Venice, Italy)


The arched portals at the front of St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most recognizable places in Venice, if not as the church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, then surely for the tens of thousands of pigeons that flock around its plaza. The cathedral has a commanding presence in the square, once the Doge’s chapel but now an ornate cathedral. The exterior is a strange, eclectic combination of architectural styles (including Gothic and Romanesque with Egyptian flourishes) but its predominant motif is Byzantine with characteristic domes on top (photo immediately below). There also is a hodgepodge of marble used both inside and outside that might make a modern designer cringe. Note the use of a variety of marble in the columns and archways in the photo above.

True to its Eastern orthodox influence, the cathedral’s floor plan is in the shape of a Greek cross with the largest dome over the center and one over the end of each of the four arms. Impressive inside are the intricate mosaics, much of them covered in gold leaf, all telling Christian stories and events, and extensive use of gilding on the frescoes that makes the interior shine. No picture-taking was allowed of the interior.

Pigeons of St. Mark’s Square

No experience at St. Mark’s square would be completely without the pigeons. It is estimated that 100,000 birds make Venice their home. Bird seed can be purchased from vendors in the square. It was funny to watch tourists shield their heads when the pigeons took flight.

In order to visit the famed glass studios, most tourists take a boat to Murano. Murano glass is known for its clarity and vibrant designs. Genuine pieces can get to be very expensive. Our guide took us to a studio near St. Mark’s (Galleria San Marco), where we watched a glass-blowing maestro fashion a vase and a horse. The tour concluded with the obligatory sales pitch. With their ornamentation, gold-leaf embroidery and Arabic-influenced designs, the glassworks were not to our taste (let alone pocketbook), but we did purchase a simple animal piece as a gift.

Murano glass works at Galleria San Marco