full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, it’s the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in Western Scotland. Though modest in scale compared to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods: in front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Britain; the ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. Odhrán and a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard holds the final resting place of kings from Ireland, Norway and France, as well as a number of early Scottish Kings, including Malcolm, Duncan, and Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, better known as MacBeth.

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church of the bad hair

For a small island nation, Jamaica has an inordinate number of churches; most of them squarely and scarily of the right-wing variety. It’s unsettling to think that the country’s endemic homophobia could emanate from such peaceably humble buildings – especially when all the ladies wear such fabulous hats. (Click the image for greater detail of that sartorial fact) Still, I couldn’t help but smile at the irony as I cycled past one church in particular.

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one big basilica

You could almost be forgiven for strolling past the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande without giving it a second glance.  Though it’s the largest dome in Spain – larger than St. Paul’s in London even – its main facade faces the intersection of the Gran Vía de San Francisco and the Carrera de San Francisco in what is essentially a traffic circle.  Add to that a high steel fence and the incumbent swirl of motorist garbage that it collects, I wouldn’t call it the most inviting of entrances. But passing it by would be a shame as inside there is a magnificent chapel painted by Goya and a secret stash of  art that can be seen at unbelievably close range.  This is one of those rare times where not speaking the local language actually helps.  Claim total ignorance of Spanish and the tour guide will show you how to operate the lights on your own.  Let the Spanish-language tour get started then bolt straight for the altar and nick in through the doors on the left.  Turn the lights on and off like you’ve been instructed and self-guide your way through the Basilica’s private rooms, which are literally crammed with art.  Eventually you’ll make your way to an opulent room where the church superiors once met – the Renaissance-era sculpted-walnut seats are one of those marvels of craftsmanship that define the enlightened times.  As you find yourself looping back to the opposite side of the altar however, you’ll find the star attraction:  Zurburán’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. No protective glass, no barriers, the painting is so close you could reach out and touch it. It’s so still – and quiet – that even a confirmed non-believer can’t help but grow contemplative looking at the great scholar as seen by the great artist.

 

 

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