‘A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.’ So said one of my favourite French writers, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
I love architecture, and of course as a writer and a romantic I love places that are alive with symbolism and spiritualism and soul. It is hardly surprising, then, that whenever I travel to a new city, I find myself drawn to its beautiful cathedral.
When I first visited Cadiz, setting for my new novel Legacy, I was absolutely astonished by the grandeur of its cathedral, the Catedral de Santa Cruz. It dates back to the eighteenth century (but houses an older church, the Baroque Santiago church, built back in the early seventeenth century).
The cathedral that is so prominent in the Cadiz cityscape was built to impress. At the time of its construction Cadiz was enjoying a golden age, thanks to the growth of trade from the port to the Americas; indeed, it was called the Cathedral of the Americas. The cathedral was painstakingly built over more than a century to exemplify all that is great about Cadiz, and to put it on the spiritual map.
Visitors to the cathedral feast their eyes on the ornate, detailed architecture, which is a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical in style. There are various artworks and sculptures within, but for visitors the most interesting part is the Torre de Poniente, the bell tower, which is open to the public. The views from on high are breath-taking; you can see all the city laid out below, and you get a good view of the cathedral’s iconic gold-timed dome roof, which gives it an exotic Moorish look.
Personally, while I enjoyed the panoramic views (if not so much the vertigo), I thought that the real beauty was to be found in simply sitting on a pew and soaking in the reverent, peaceful spirit of the place. I was so affected by this quiet time I spent, I was inspired to take my heroine for Legacy, Luna, and the hero, Ruy, to the cathedral. Here are Luna’s first impressions when she arrives for an evening concert:
The cathedral’s vaulted ceiling rose above them in a tessellation of rounded arches, reaching up to the famous dome itself, which was suspended like the pale insides of some magnificent giant sea urchin. Below it, wall lights and tall candles offered a warm, sacred glow; the air smelt of cool marble, roses and incense. Luna’s gaze travelled over the heads of the audience finding their seats, and around the vast stone hull of the interior. History and piety, suffering and bliss were etched into every piece of wood and stone that surrounded them, and it was hard not to feel awed by it all. Yet, added to this, an unexpected feeling of comfort struck her; she was not immune to the profound spiritual atmosphere here.
For the next hour, Luna is swept away by the concert in this inspirational setting. One of the songs performed by the choir most perfectly encapsulates the mood in the cathedral:
The dramatic, sweeping sound of Barber’s Agnus Dei started up from the choir stalls and Luna’s every nerve ending was aware of Ruy as they sat together listening to the exquisite voices climbing and falling.
Afterwards, Luna is moved to describe her surroundings as ‘a ship of souls’. ‘Did you know,’ she tells Ruy, ‘that “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis”, meaning ship? Symbolically speaking, the cathedral is the ship bearing God’s people through the stormy seas of life, buoyed up by their faith and worship, I suppose.’
Luna has come to the cathedral this night purely to enjoy good music in a beautiful building. But in this space, sitting alongside Ruy and feeling so much for him, can she find more? Can she develop faith in herself, in Ruy, in what it means to love and be loved? Perhaps – if she can move beyond, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery suggests, seeing the cathedral as a pile of rocks and contemplate it with the idea of a cathedral, a ship of souls, in mind.