Big Churches in Little Europe: Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia, Barcelona

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Santa Creu i Santa EulĂ lia, Barcelona

Barcelona, one of the great port cities of the Mediterranean. For a time a client city of the Romans, at another time a stronghold of the Greeks. For a little while, it was the city state that controlled a sea empire from Italy to wherever. It has always been the gateway to Catalonia, a long time independent state on the Iberian peninsula. For a short time it hosted one of Franco's most notorious death prisons.

The old Gothic Quarter has four churches in the Romanesque style (which is odd - either the architecture in the Gothic Quarter should be Gothic or the earlier Romanesque but what they have called it is not my problem). All are identical and all are almost completely undecorated and unfurnished except for one - the Cathedral (which also has a fake stuck-on frontage from a century ago).

Interestingly when people think of churches in Barcelona they think of the Church of the Holy Family by Gaudi. This is fair enough as it is a lot more famous. What they don't necessarily consider is that Barcelona has a tradition of stone trade craft that stretches back a long time and is exemplified in the long shallow arch. Gaudi's great work as an architect is possible because there were stone masons to build his designs, and he designed the buildings he did because he had centuries of unique Barcelonan stone-craft legacy around to inspire him.

Back to the cathedral. Well, next door anyway where is there a Roman undercroft with a long low arch. Opposite the cathedral are the remains of a Roman aqueduct, tall pillars with tight, high arches. Inside the church itself the building is a series of cages, pillars and arches all pressing inwards, towards the centre of the church. It gives the building a sense of gravitas but also privacy. Each one of these cages has its own character.

The history of Western Christianity (as opposed to Eastern Christianity or Pentecostal Christianity) begins with the collapse of Byzantium as a European power. Until as late as the 9th century, the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope) was formally appointed by the Emperor of Rome in Constantinople (aka New Rome, Rome, Byzantium, Istanbul - take your pick). Until the 16th century, in Western Europe people were just Christian. Roman Catholicism with the central power of the Pope and Rome was invented after that time. Until then, the bishops were pretty much free to do as they wanted and, although the Pope was a centre of authority, the first of the bishops and patriarchs, he was not the sole figure of authority we have today.

It is in Barcelona's cathedral with its multitude of spaces, linked by arches and pillars and each one its own space, where you can see each phase of the Western church presented clearly in and on the walls. Some rooms are painted with Byzantine art of a style and quality that you would naturally expect to find in a Greek Orthodox church. Another room, maybe next door, is a medieval painting of western style and taste. Another room, across the main area might host a statue of Jesus with wounds depicted bleeding in carefully anatomically correct detail. Another room is post 1950s and is alive with a post World War Two sense of life.

For myself I love the Byzantine, Medieval and modern works. This is a church in a town that has either been critical to the economic growth of some of the richest empires in the last 2,000 years - or indeed has run such empires. The church captures the sense of the cultural value of every era it has survived or flourished through. It is not a young building and it has seen some ups and downs in the world and the city around it.

The question for many people is whether it is a place to go and meditate or is it a cultural/historical tourist's "see the world in 80 ways" kind of place. I think there is something for everybody. There are definitely people on their knees here. There is diversity. Outside in the monks’ cloisters is a fabulous garden filled with birds and a lake. Off this stone-edged square are opulent rooms, even if they are faded from their former glory.

This is a big house and there are many rooms (to adapt a famous text). It is a place you can visit with different goals in mind. You can sticky-beak shamelessly without being judged. You can also enter one of the spaces that matches your mood, aesthetic or seating needs and settle in. You won't ever be alone but if that is your main criterion, I can recommend any of the four near identical churches elsewhere in the quarter or just do the decent thing and go up into the mountains that dominate the city.

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