Big Churches in Little Europe: Nice

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Cathédrale Orthodoxe Saint-Nicolas, Nice

This is a strange one. I have a fondness for Nice. It has a tendency to Bling that I find quite verges on the ridiculous, but it also has the sublime Matisse Museum and an amazing annual Jazz festival. Oh, and bright, strong, summer sunshine that my Australian bones love.

In this Russian Orthodox cathedral Bling is brought into a unity that is rarely seen. People familiar with the various Orthodox Christian traditions will be aware that pictures framed in gold form the basis of church decoration. In fact they can substitute for much other religious formal expression. There are good points and bad points about this and if you want to read about one of the longer arguments to have taken place in the middle east, search the web (or a good library) for ‘iconoclastic’ and ‘iconophilic’.

For these pictures are the original ‘icons’, after which many things in modern use are now named. They are written (not drawn or painted I am told) and they each attempt to capture a single moment of unending and eternal state of grace experienced by a saint in their daily life. Presumably they did something or lived something that was completely aligned with the perfection of heaven. The matter gets quite complicated, dealing with the economy of God (which is the ordering of our daily lives) and the theology of God (which is eternal and never changing). If I were to tell you that the term ‘Byzantine’ was coined to describe the complexity and subtlety needed to capture this logic that may illustrate the points better. Byzantium is the town where these arguments were formally presented and after which these kinds of distinctions formulated through logic is named.

The Orthodox church in Nice is a quite tiny octagon with the walls and pillars covered in gold and what seems to be hundreds of icons embedded in it. Some are individual and some are in sets. The great thing about icons is they are universal and you need no Russian or Greek to understand them. The problem with them is that depictions of universal states of grace can be tricky to read unless you know the language. Probably more people know the language of the French or the Russians than they do of icons, but once you get into the swing of them you can get a sense of what they are about.

The building is bigger on the outside than the inside, and that is partly because a lot of church services take place behind the closed doors that lead to other parts of the building. Orthodox religious expression is far more focused on the eternal than Western Europe's love of the here and now. So who cares about seeing what is going on every minute at a service that can take three to five hours when you can contemplate an icon and then go outside for a while?

Inside, walk around and find an icon that you like best. Stare at it (light a candle if it will help, really, I am no expert in this), think about what thought/action is depicted that could be eternal and last forever without change: the love of what is innocent; the desire to learn the unknowable; nurturing a gift in another? Each is a vision by the icon writer of a moment of perfection in the life of a person. Whatever this is, it will be what is now known to contemporary management consultants as a ‘stretch goal’. Look at the person and the thing they hold (if anything). Does the saint focus on what they hold or on you (it could be either - Mary Mother of God: offering child, adoring child, nurturing child etc etc). Give yourself to the moment.

Going back outside you are hit by the sunlight of the south of France bouncing off in all directions from a very colourful and golden building. The church is surrounded by a small park of grass and trees which is choked by the local road system.

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