Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Trier 8.1.94: Sugary Baroque Ceilings and Sun-Bathed Roman Gate

Night in Trier. The city is beautiful—more so, I think, because today we had the first dry day of our entire trip. It was cloudy, but at sunset the sun came beneath the clouds, and we saw the top of the Porta Nigra and the other landmarks—St. Peter’s fountain, the Three Kings’ House—bathed in gold light.

Afterwards, as night began to fall, we drove across the Römerbrücke to the Mariasäule overlooking the city, and walked up to the statue to look down. A beautiful vista, with two crows calling to one another, one perched on the stars over Mary’s head, the other flying overhead and into the sunset, where a spire east of the city caught fire from the setting sun.

A cliché to say so, but one feels the density of history in a place like Trier. Roman ruins, the Roman artifacts in the Rheinisches Museum, the churches with their mishmash of Romanesque and Gothic and Baroque styles, the buildings from the 18th century to the present: all this in a living, vital city makes one aware of a continuity that Europeans must often take for granted, but that absolutely bamfoozles Americans.

What’s much in my thoughts is the question that always runs in my head, the question of what can be picked up from history. That Trier is a Catholic city, a Catholic culture, makes this all the more piquant, because that’s the context in which I’ve so often framed the question for myself.

One the one hand, there’s something undeniably appealing about the Gemütlichkeit of this Catholic city, especially after the weeks we’ve spent in earnest, gray, cold and wet Lutheran Germany. To see the people (who often look at least half French) strolling aimlessly in the market streets of the city is very appealing. North Germans seem to have more purpose about their movements, but the very purpose they convey restricts and narrows their culture.

And the attractive side of the city seems to have much to do with the Catholic past. If nothing else, one who grows up in a city with such pretty buildings—and the prettiness has a lot to do with Catholic piety, since statues and sculptures are everywhere—is assured of having an eye for beauty. It would be hard to build something monstrously ugly in a city in which the eye is trained (if only unconsciously) from youth on.

On the other hand, the ecclesial art and architecture themselves show the other side of the story. So much that was once living piety now shows itself to be merely ornamental, often grotesquely so—as, e.g., the statue of Mary on the side of the store that sells women’s furs.

And in any church one is immediately confronted with what can only be called the superfluity of much of the Catholic heritage—the sugar-coated Baroque ceilings, the pretentious tombs with their overdone inscriptions glorifying mighty and rich citizens, the plaque honoring a witch hunter affixed to the seminary wall. What have these to do with Catholic piety today? It’s no accident that many of the books we saw in the theology section of a bookstore in Trier today had to do with questions re: the future of the church, in light of its historical heritage.

I feel (even more than in other places we’ve visited) that I’m only skimming the surface as I say all this. At one moment today, as we stood outside the bookstore, I suddenly realized I would very much like to come back and live here awhile—to learn fluent German and polish my French, to travel, to write and produce art, to study a region like the Eifel intensively. Steve and I vowed we would do this, as we left the bookstore.

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