We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.
I’ll begin with the largest of all, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.
Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.
The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.
The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!
We swung by Salisbury on our way from Stonehenge to Bath. Walking towards the cathedral, built in the 13th century, I immediately recalled Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’, one of the most enjoyable books I have read about the construction of the first Gothic cathedral in England, set in a fictitious place called Kingsbridge. The author admits himself in an interview that the fictional cathedral he recreates in his book resembled Salisbury closely.
Gothic construction was a new technology in those times and the ability to create tall soaring structure that appeared light instead of the squat, heavy stone buildings they were used to certainly changed the experience of visiting the church drastically. Though I’m sure the Gothic cathedrals in Amiens and Lyon are more impressive, I really liked Salisbury, with its faux cloister and Catholic-turned-Church of England interiors.
But what was really fun about visiting the cathedral was ‘meeting’ the Magna Carta or The Great Charter, which is a document signed way back in 1215. Though the barons who protested the tyranny of King John did so to protect their own property and rights, two tenets from the document became the founding principles for democracy and common law in England, and consequently the world over.
Consider these two tenets, keeping in mind the context of feudalism at the time they were written:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
For the first time, the king was no longer above the law. For the first time, the common man was entitled to justice. For the first time, the King (or Queen, as I remember Alice in Wonderland) could not scream “Off with his head!” and expect someone to carry that order out. It really hit me as I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta, that many before us have fought hard for the rights we take for granted today!
And yet, so many continue to be unaware of their rights and in many countries, oppressive dictators continue to deny people basic rights and freedoms. That history not only is cyclical but also that different geographies experience their own cycles of oppression and freedom, making the world a hard place to understand.
I focused on the Magna Carta’s simplicity and directness and willed myself to absorb the meaning of those words. Not just in terms of being a citizen of my country but also in how I judge myself and those around me.
Heritage always turns me on, but more than pristinely renovated heritage structures that are essentially inactive, it is particularly exciting to see heritage in use. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to walk into Gaiety Theatre in Shimla and see it buzzing with a group of local artists hard at work. We wandered through the small intimate space watching a range of artworks being created in front of our very eyes.
Gaiety Theatre was first opened in 1887, in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year. It was designed as part of the Town Hall complex and was the hub of cultural activity in the city during colonial times. Designed by the well known English architect Henry Irwin, it is a Gothic building and can seat over 300 people. I learnt from another blogger’s post that this is one of six remaining special Gothic theatres in the World! Known for excellent acoustics, the recent renovation of the building is tastefully done and keeps intact the originally designed screen.
The art event we came across was being held in one of the side halls and later in the evening we were happy to see a buzzing crowd outside the hall, awaiting the inauguration of the public exhibition of the artworks. The Shimla Summer Festival was just concluding, which hosted several performances in the theatre.