A bus stopped in front of the grand cathedral and out stepped a group of young people. I did a double take. These were not greying folks, wait what? Christianity in Sweden is extremely close to non-existent in all but cultural practice, the country is one of the most secular in the world, what sort of magic was this?
And so I followed them into the cathedral to check it out.
There were even more youths than I realised. The altar of the church was packed with people taking pictures of the altar, it’s tall columns inspiring ‘wows’ from their mouths. At the side a collection of youngsters were checking out a 15th century astrological clock, numerous guides between each mini-group pointing out important details of the clock.
I inched closer to the front of the altar, at the top a mural of Jesus, the background in gold reflected and contrasted with the dull stone walls. Jesus’ grandeur was made even more impactful by the blue halo around him and the choir of angels and saints over him. At the very front facing the mural is a small statue looking up to Jesus in submission.
I thought the statue was a clear indicator of what the intention was for the congregant to feel after then entered the cathedral – awe, respect and the fear of god. The narrow and high columns, would make the devotee feel their smallness in the presence of the holy; the golden, bright and raised altar lifts the holy above the level of the average individual creating a clear hierarchy – here, you are men; there is God.
Even today, when the people visiting the church are there for a cultural and historical experience rather than a religious one, the power of the architecture still works on them – there is this sense that you are in a holy place.
Now imagine walking into this Cathedral to worship. The high walls serving to not just create a divine image but to also trap vibrations and create a surround sound system, and in the background there is the pure vocals of Gregorian Chant or traditional organ music like below.
One music piece inspires this sense of holy, the other this sense of submission to a greater power does it not?
But this is not something that is unique to this cathedral, this is something that many older churches were designed with. Think of the Chartes Cathedral in France,
the Hagia Sophia in Turkey,
or St Paul’s Cathedral in England.
Even today, cathedrals and churches are usually designed to inspire awe and fear of god in its congregants, as religious buildings are designed to be. Barcelona’s Tibidabo Church and Sagrada Familia Church are good examples. The fear of God doesn’t necessary mean to be afraid, it refers to generating a sense of respect, awe and submission to a deity.
Why is it important to inspire such a fear of God? The religious argument flows from a verse in the bible: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10). More religious people will have a more detailed theological appreciation of this point, but it is apparent that if a sense of the holy is important in a religion, that the ability of a church to inspire that sense matters a lot.
By any standard, Lund Cathedral succeeded. It had to. First founded on this site in 1080, the cathedral site was to be the home of all Christianity in Denmark and it was the site from which Danish kings were crowned and the headquarters of Scandinavian Christendom.
All this came crashing down during the Protestant Reformation.
Lund, which was at one point the most holy place in all Scandinavia had now become the symbol of the Roman beast, and its the influence of Lund decreased as the different Scandinavian countries adopted Lutheranism. This cathedral, a holdout of Catholicism with its statues, incense and side altars and artwork, was eventually transferred to the new protestant religion in 1536 and the building was stripped bare of everything as the new Lutheran beliefs required.
The accoutrements may have been removed from the church, but the sheer power of Lund Cathedral to inspire admiration still remains till this day.
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