As a former history major with a special passion for Western Civilization, I have been to a lot of churches over the years. This isn’t because I’m particularly religious, but because often throughout history the church was the largest, oldest building occupying a town or city and served double duty as a place of worship and a community center. In other words, for a researcher interested in the cultural history of a place, it’s an information gold mine and can provide a lot of clues about a society’s values.
I became especially aware of these clues and the semiotic power of architecture when I visited Siena, Italy on a study abroad trip my senior year of college. Italy describes itself as a Catholic country, and Siena boasts the Duomo di Siena, one of the largest and most ornate medieval Cathedrals ever built. Its church steeples were constructed so that they were the highest structures in the city. This was done deliberately and was a way of indicating that God was the most important pillar of life in the city. In addition to the rather intimidating steeples, there are also incredible frescoes lining the walls depicting Jesus’s life and works. The combined effect of the ornate architecture and art is to fill onlookers with awe, and the frescoes were very important during the High Middle Ages because old Catholic mass was given in Latin, a dead language even then, as the priest faced the alter. The Bible was considered something only for the educated to study and really know, and the faithful were expected to show up to mass every Sunday like good Catholics for the sacrament and maybe get a little bit of the story from–you guessed it–the frescoes.
Finally and perhaps most bizarrely to my own sensibilities, I read that the original Duomo had no church pews at all! This was because mass was a relatively short affair up until the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the sermon. Also, since the Duomo was an important community hub, old-timey parishioners liked to chat during the Latin mass, and church pews would have gotten in the way of their mingling.
Even today, the Duomo di Siena doesn’t put much stock in church pews. Whereas some Catholic churches boast beautiful antique church pews in worked stone with cushioned seating and knee rests, the church furniture within is sparse wood and almost an afterthought to the art on the walls, the energetic church choir, and the colorful Sienese citizens who come to worship every Sunday.
All told, the Duomo’s architecture makes two things very clear: The Sienese are proud of their history, and are in some ways still living it in the present. The Duomo di Siena is a beautiful place of worship to be sure, but it is also a place for the Sienese to gather and express their faith and community spirit with characteristic Italian gusto.