Religion

Sunbeam at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of global Catholicism and the main house of worship for the Catholic Church in the Vatican City, the tiny but influential nation-state located in beautiful Rome.

I took this shot in 2006. I had a basic point and shoot camera. The lighting as magical inside the massive building, which was designed by Italian architect Donato Bramante, in the early 1500s.

I first remember seeing a painting of the interior of the cavernous and enormous basilica at the St. Louis Art Museum as a kid. That painting, Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome, by Paul Panini Romae from 1731, was on my mind as I wandered in the sanctuary, with thousands of other visitors on a hot October day.

One of the lessons I took away from visiting St. Peter’s and the Vatican City was a simple one. Never underestimate the power of the Catholic Church.

The San Diego Mission: oldest and site of a great armed revolt

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the 21 colonial Spanish California missions, was founded in 1769, when the state fell under the orbit of the Kingdom of Spain. At the time, the Spanish Empire still included much of South America and a wide swath of land on the North American continent. The mission today is located in San Diego, a sprawling southern California metropolis, and it attracts visitors from the world over. It is worth a visit.

I have visited about a half-dozen of the missions in the Golden State. I like them because of their architecture and testament to history, when the continent was not yet fully conquered by European powers and the growing American nation.

The mission was supposed to serve the Catholic Church and convert native peoples from their local faiths to the new religion hailing from Europe. The mission gives a weak showing of its Native American past, with a display of the Kumeyaay peoples traditional homes and culture in the main plaza–it is as if someone realized recently that the people converted actually had meaningful stories and narratives to the larger mission story. The Kumeyaay peoples had lived on the lands for more than 10,000 years before the Spanish arrived. The Franciscan friars who first ran the mission came to settle the area, grow crops, and convert the non-Christian indigenous people. It was, after all, a mission with very clear religious purpose.

An illustration of the killing of Father Jayme

An illustration of the killing of Father Jayme

According to the mission’s own records, nearly 800 indigenous residents attacked the mission on Nov. 4, 1775, less than a year before the U.S. revolutionaries were declaring a new nation on the East Coast and fighting another empire–that of Great Britain. The native attackers reportedly burned the mission down and massacred a number of residents and Father Jayme. He became, according to the Catholic tradition, “California’s first Catholic martyr.” Whether a person killed by native residents fighting against a foreign colonial empire is truly a martyr is not for me to decide. I do not think the native residents saw members of the mission as benign, nor perceived the Catholic Church as friendly. Indigenous peoples in the Americas did not spark armed uprisings without good reason. Public health threats from disease, reported rapes by soldiers, and threats to local religious traditions all fueled the attack.

The mission was rebuilt, more as a fortress. After Mexico became independent and after the Union army occupied it during the Civil War, it fell into disrepair. It was not until 1931 when the mission was rebuilt, according to how it likely looked during its early heyday. Today it is still home to an active Catholic parish.

The Sistine Chapel of Native American art on the Columbia River Gorge

Native Americans, according to archaeology records, lived continuously on the banks of the Columbia River for more than 12,000 years prior to their near demise due to new diseases and the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s. Their culture thrived because of trade among tribes and the stable supply of one of the world’s most nutritious natural food sources: migrating salmon and other fish species in the Columbia River.

The many generations of Native inhabitants also left behind a legacy of artwork, in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (paintings). The latter were mostly with white paints, derived from bones, and red paints, derived from blood. The age of these pieces of art are not fully known. They can be found in the region roughly east of Hood River and eastward for the next 40 or so miles. The residents who lived here at the time Lewis and Clark made their journey in the early 1800s on the river were known as the Wishram people.

Sadly, most of the art, the paintings and rock carvings, were flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built dams on the Columbia, flooding historic village sites that had been settled since well before the rise of ancient Rome. A number of rock art carvings were salvaged and then reassembled in 2004 for public display at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington state, near The Dalles, Oregon. The location of the art today was once the site of a thriving Native settlement. Today, the Yakama, Umatilla, and Warm Springs bands hold ceremonies here by their ancestors’ art, which was once on their ancestors’ land.

There is no written record describing the purpose of the art. Current theories suggest the artwork provide guideposts for dream quests, connecting the people to the spirit world. Other pictures also depict elements of folk myth, the most famous painting of all, “Tsagaglalal” or She Who Watches, derived from a story about coyote and clan matriarch who was cast into the rock and stood watch over her people. (The painting is now used as the logo for the Columbia River Interpretive Center.) This is considered one of the finest examples of Native American art in all of North America.

The petroglyphs today are accessible to all for the price of admission to the state park. To see the rock art paintings in an area with limited viewing, you need to call the park in advance and sign up for a guided interpretive tour, led by a park cultural interpreter or a Native American guide. This was one of the highlights of my regional outings in the Pacific Northwest.

I would recommend this trip to anyone, of any age. You find yourself in one of the most scenic areas in North America, standing on land where countless generations stood before you.

You can see some photos of this area and its former Native inhabitants in the collection of Edward Curtis, famed photodocumentarian of Native American people (including staged photos). His work is archived on a superb Smithsonian photo media archive. Look for pictures marked “Wishham” (note spelling differences from above).

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

Jerusalem, winter morning’s light

This is one of my favorite places in the world. Despite the divisions that crash together among the believers of monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), I felt something special here. Somehow the prejudices I saw and felt in and around Jersusalem were overcome by the feeling of the place. It’s Holy week for Christians, so I decided to did this one out of my old archive. This dates from 2004. You can see more pictures of Israel and the Occupied West Bank on my web site. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Christmastime at Concordia Seminary

Concordia Seminary is one of the most beautiful academic campuses in the country, in my book. The seminary is affiliated with the more conservative branch of the Lutheran Church in the United Stated (Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod), but that is not why I have an affinity for this place.

I used to live very close to here, and I always pay a visit when I visit family in the St. Louis area, mainly because I find the campus to be so lovely. The seminary was built like many homes, churches, and public buildings in the St. Louis area, with a sense of permanence and with stones and slate roofs. If I were to pick any place to shoot a film that needed an “elite university look,” this would be the place.

All of these photographs were taken with my GoPro.

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Bethlehem, how it looked about 2,004 years later

I visited Israel and the Occupied Territories in February 2004. It was a tense time. There was a terrorist bombing in the Jewish area of Jerusalem, and the Al-Aqsa Intifada was taking place.

Bethlehem, the purported birthplace of Christendom’s name-sake savior, Jesus of Nazareth, was under lock down. I had to walk through the Israeli security perimeter, and there was almost no traffic getting in or out. Security forces almost prevented me from reentering back into Jerusalem.

Tourists were no where to be seen. Tourism businesses were shuttered. A pervasive gloom prevailed. Merchants were pleading with me to buy something, anything, when I came to see the supposed birthplace of Jesus, which is located in a grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity. Trash was everywhere, as the Palestinian Authority had no money or capacity to pick up the garbage. So this is what it looked like on my visit to the holy city we all sing about in carols around the world.

Today, Bethlehem and the West Bank remains isolated by the security perimeter, and tourism that supports many in Bethlehem is still suffering as a result of the last war in Gaza. All is not well in the Holy Land this Christmas season, again.

Joan of Arc, savior of … Laurelhurst, in Portland?

Joan of Arc is one of history’s great, inspiriational figures and a saint beloved by the French. She was a poor woman, born in a violent era of never-ending war. In this male-dominated world, she rose to become one of the most revered military strategists (celebrated at West Point) and a religious icon at the same time for helping save the Kingdom of France from disintegrating. She was burned at the stake at the young age of 19, having accomplished more in a short life than most of us can even dream of.

She inspired others to action. She took bold and decisive action. She used her wits repeatedly to challenge more powerful groups and opponents around her. And she remained passionately committed to her vision that many claim was inspired by either religious visions or psychological disorders.

She famously said, “Better today than tomorrow, better tomorrow than the day after.” She also is remembered by her words, “go forth boldly.” (See an article I wrote about Joan in 2013 on my policy and ideas blog.)

Joan also is feted at a major traffic circle in Portland at Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Glisan, in the upscale Laurelhurst neighborhood. This statue honoring the “Maid of Orleans” was commissioned and bequeathed to the city by Dr. Henry Waldo Coe in 1924. It is a replica of an original by French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, at the Place de Rivoli in Paris. So this is yet another thing I never knew existed here before, when I lived in Portland in the 1980s, though I was too busy then to discover the city.

Well, I say, I am glad Joan is riding her prancing steed through my fair city. Watch out dull-witted, arrogant occupiers. We have the saint to protect and save us. Never underestimate a strong mind with a clear purpose. You will be overcome if you do. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Old Laurelhurst Church, Portland, Ore.

Today, I was exploring a few areas around the Hollywood and Laurelhurst neighborhoods. Laurelhurst is one of Portland’s very tony, planned upscale communities that dates from the early 1900s. Portland is full of these high-end places, along with areas that are extremely low-income. One of the landmarks in this posh hood is the Old Laurelhurst Church. It is non-denominational and available for rent for events like weddings. Standing out front I would have thought I was back in sunny San Diego today, except it was below freezing. This town is just full of interesting churches.  (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Temple Beth Israel of Portland

During my explorations of Portland, I am stumbling on many beautiful and sturdy houses of worship. Many of these date to the early and mid-1900s in this city. Temple Beth Israel, in the city’s northwest neighborhood, is among the most beautiful of all structures dedicated to the celebration of and expression of faith. The building, built in neo-Byzantine style (meaning duplicating the style of the great Hagia Sofia Church in Istanbul), is on the National Register of Historic Places. I used my GoPro to snap these first round of photos, and some members of the congregation graciously let me in to see the beautiful interior. I loved it. I hope to photograph as many of these stately buildings as I can on my free hours. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a seperate picture page.)

The ruins of the Sumela Monastery

The Sumela Monastery is among the most magnificent Christian monasteries I have visited in the Near East, and there is a lot of competition for magnificence in this great category of monastic facilities. The monastery is located in beautiful mountain foothills, a short bus ride from the major Black Sea Turkish port Trabzon. Two Athenian monks during in the fourth century had visions and founded the monastery on the cliff’s face. It was run by Greek Orthodox clergy until 1923, having received special dispensation from Ottoman rulers because of the place’s sacred status.

During the violent period of ethnic cleansing following the war between Greece and Turkey after World War I, which saw up to 2 million Turks and Greeks change borders, the monastery was abandoned. I could not find an accurate account upon first look of who actually was responsible for the defacing of what should be a World Heritage site, but the ancient facility provides a good example of cultural devastation, particularly along religious lines. (For details on what happened to many Christian sites in Turkey following the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey, I would recommend reading William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, in which he talks about the upheavals in Turkey during this time and later.) I strongly recommend anyone in Turkey take time to visit this very special place. You cannot help but feel something other-worldly here. I did, despite the obvious damage done to the ancient art and buildings.

Recently, Turkey’s government has allowed a few Greek Orthodox services at the monastery. That is a great sign of reconciliation and progress, I believe, between Christians and Moslems in this great country, Turkey.