If Church Walls Could Talk

You’ve heard the expression, “If only these walls could talk…”

I believe they can.

Not literally, of course. But the walls—and other physical elements of a building—can tell us a lot if we are sensitive to their manner of speaking.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of religious history. Ancient faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity boast some of the oldest and most symbolically rich edifices in the history of mankind.

Sometimes, the history lesson is straightforward. The Throne of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral in Germany points to the fact that the Holy Roman Emperor was the impetus behind the building of this venerable and magnificent church.

In other cases, more interpretation is necessary. The walls of the cathedral of Córdoba in southern Spain speak with so many voices that the message can be hard to decipher. The site may have been home to a Christian church in the era of Visigothic Spain in the early Middle Ages. After the Muslim Umayyad Empire took control of the region in the eighth century, the emir built a grand mosque for his Andalusian capital. Some of this building (including subsequent additions) remains in the courtyard and prayer hall, where typically Islamic geometric designs and pillared arches can be found. When Catholics returned to authority in the thirteenth-century during the Reconquista, the mosque was converted into a Christian church, and over the centuries more typically Catholic elements were introduced. A new nave added Gothic vaults, and the minaret was encased in a Renaissance-era belltower. The mixed architecture of the building thus expresses succinctly the broad sweep of religious and political history in southern Spain over the course of 1500 years.

The famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, offers a similar tale. Its glorious Christian core, comprising a massive brick nave and covering dome, was built under the emperor Justinian (d. 565) in Constantinople’s heyday as the capital of the eastern Roman Empire. It signified the triumph of Christianity over previously heathen Rome, reflecting the life story of the city’s patron, Constantine, who embodied the transition from paganism to Christianity. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Church of the Holy Wisdom was transformed into a mosque, a shift physically exhibited by the minarets that were added by several Ottoman sultans over the course of more than a hundred years. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led Turkey into a modern, secular future with Islam sidelined. The capital’s chief landmark, in turn, was decommissioned as a place of worship and became a secular museum in 1935. Mirroring the gradual re-Islamification of Turkish public life, Hagia Sofia re-entered service as a mosque in 2020. Muslim prayer rugs were laid out, and ancient mosaics of Jesus and Mary were covered in drapes.

Córdoba cathedral and Hagia Sofia reflect history on a grand scale, but most places are of more provincial import—yet no less interesting. On the east wall of the Shrine of the Holy Relics in rural Maria Stein, Ohio, are two stained-glass windows depicting, respectively, Fr. J.M. Gartner and Fr. Francis Brunner. The visitor will need to do a little research to learn that Brunner led a band of Precious Blood Fathers to the United States from Germany in 1843, establishing a network of Catholic parishes and other institutions that endure to this day, making the region one of the most densely Catholic places in the state and generating its nickname, “Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches.” Brunner also had a small collection of relics of the saints, which became important when the Wisconsin priest, Fr. Gartner, began collecting endangered relics from the turbulent streets of Rome during the days of Italian unification in the 1860s. Gartner donated his collection to the Maria Stein chapel, making it one of the largest collection of relics in the world.

Historic churches and other buildings have stories to tell, if we are willing to listen. Sometimes that “listening” means paying attention to the details of decoration and architecture. Sometimes it means simply reading the placards that are posted. Sometimes it means doing an internet search, listening to a podcast, or picking up a book. By these means, we can discover an entire historical world that exists just beneath the surface of what otherwise might be quickly glanced over as just another pretty church. This discovery not only satisfies our curiosity by feeding us fascinating stories about people and events in the past, it also nourishes our faith by helping us see how the virtues of our Catholic ancestors—courage, zeal for justice, persistence, creativity—contributed to the good of our Church and our communities. Appreciating the lasting impact of their efforts in the face of challenges inspires us to persevere in the face of our own.

These are but a few of the things you might hear when the walls of a church speak. Next time you visit one, be sure to listen.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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Kevin Schmiesing teaches Church history in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Lay Ecclesial Ministry Program. He is co-host of the Catholic History Trek podcast and author of A Catholic Pilgrimage through American History (Ave Maria, 2022).

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