What would it take to convert John Falconer? Is a religious epiphany on the songcard at the Bazylika Bożego Ciała in Kraków?
This must be the darkest church I’ve ever been in. I know it’s dusk outside, and I know churches aren’t famed for their light, but with these tiny, high windows, I ask myself if it ever becomes bright in here. This is the Church of Corpus Christi, and the only place of worship in the Jewish quarter that is actually open at 6pm. The only light here comes from a couple of electric chandeliers so dim they are probably powered by hamster wheels, and a few candles. These candles are scattered throughout the church, burning in apparently random formations.
It is built on a plan of interlocked, arched chambers of stone; cool grey, and rough to the touch. At least, it would be if I could touch it, but that’s impossible because the pillars that hold up each of these domed ceilings are clad in carved wooden panels. The carvings go deep into the wood, pooling shadows in recesses that could swallow a whole finger, no problem. The raised areas on the wood are picked out in gold, while the wood itself is nearly black; this contrast seems to hang in the atmosphere like a heavy weight. I can almost feel it on my shoulders.
A velvet rope separates the public area from the altar and choir. It does not, however, stop the children from unhooking it, or simply ducking underneath it, and running to the altar to snap some pictures. I wonder where their parents are but, as they are conscientious enough to re-hook the rope as they leave, I have no cause for outrage. Adults, on the other hand, have more respect for velvet, and that is why I admire the altar from about fifty metres back.
Even from this distance, the structure oppresses the whole church, gold and enormous. A fluted starburst surrounds some holy picture. The velvet prevents me from making any more detailed observations. I can, however, see an organ as large as my bedroom perched high above the choir, its pipes arranged in columnar shapes.
The main church organ is far away, facing off against the grand altar as if they are warring beasts. This one’s pipes are arranged into broad, outstretched wings. It totally dwarfs the choir organ. Between them, they force the cavernous church into terrified silence. Everywhere there are shadows; the walls are plain; the wood is the main interest here. The church between the two enormous structures seems to cower.
I catch myself thinking this is how churches should be. Then I wonder why. Why would I think that? Is it the drama inherent in the architecture here? Is it the daunting aspect of the darkened hollows, the eternal shadows that creep longer as the night approaches? Even the cherubim with their trumpets and the saints with their spears are somehow frightening. In its own way, this church is as extravagant as all the others, so why is it that this particular brand of excess fills me not with distaste at man’s folly, but with awe of the unknown?
Perhaps it is because the other churches make me feel poor, and want me to feel humble, and I simply refuse. This one just makes me feel small, and it wants me to feel insignificant. I walk back out into the drizzle. I do feel rather insignificant.