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In Excessis Deo

First of two posts tonight. Avril here – but Avi gets credit for the title!

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Like many countries in Europe, Portugal is primarily Catholic, and has been for centuries. As a result, like many countries in Europe, it’s jampacked with churches and cathedrals and chapels and monasteries and convents and such – all monuments to the greater glory of God. Or rather: to the greater glory of The Church. Because, let’s face it: God (whatever you conceive him, her, or it to be) doesn’t need our monuments. But the ecclesiastical power structures do, because the monuments are physical manifestations of their power – and they wanted to make absolutely sure everyone knew who was boss.

So they built structures that inspired awe … and still do. Vast, soaring and solid, even the smallest ones dwarf the humans inside, reminding us how small and insignificant we are in the face of The Divine – and the self-appointed interpreters/enforcers of the divine will. But of course, as anyone who has travelled to Europe knows, the churches and cathedrals are not just huge – they are lavish beyond belief, dripping in gold and marble and precious stones and ornate tile work and rich fabrics and minutely-carved sculptures that must have taken years, perhaps decades, to create.

We’ve now been in our share of these places here in Portugal. And make no mistake: they are awesome. They are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. They are glorious. They are eminently worth seeing. Each time we walk into one of these places, we gasp anew at their splendour and join the throngs of goggling tourists trying to capture their fabulousness in our cameras.

And yet. And yet. Each time we walk into one of these places, I also gasp at the sheer excess on display. I can’t help thinking: what if even a fraction of the money that went into building and embellishing them went towards improving the lives of their parishioners? And were the artists and artisans even remotely adequately compensated for their time and effort in creating all the beautiful things inside? (Oh, come on: I’m an artist. I know the answer to that. Artists are never adequately compensated for their time and effort! Some things do not change.)**

My admiration is of course also tempered by the knowledge that the same Church that preached piously about God’s great and enduring love didn’t exactly practice what it preached, being the merciless promulgator of the Inquisition and a ruthless suppressor of all other religions. (Jews being the Church's favourite punching bag since pretty much forever.) So, y’know, a bit of cognitive dissonance going on here.

All this to say that I view these man-made wonders (and they pretty much are man-made) with a mixed bag of emotions. Which, when you think of it, is probably a good approach to take to any large, powerful institution, religious or otherwise.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes.

**An alternative perspective on artistic compensation in former times: Avi suggests that far from being undercompensated, working for the Church in those days may have been the most solid guarantee of employment any stonemason, wood carver, or other artisan could get. Given how many decades it took to build a church, a work gig like that was guaranteed income for them and their families, possibly for life. I'm prepared to concede the point – though I'm still pretty sure they were paid a fraction of what their work was worth. But then, that would have been true for anyone who wasn't a member of the upper classes. Hmm. Wait. That's still true for anyone who isn't a member of the upper classes!

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Posted by AvrilAbroad 23:04 Archived in Portugal Tagged church power portugal excess

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Magnificent examples of Excesses Deo

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by Carole Christopher

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