Tag Archives: Europe

The Sistine of the Balkans

The Church of the Nativity in Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria, was built in the 15th century and repainted in the 17th century. It is also called the Sistine Chapel of the Balkans due to its many frescoes.

The icon screen.

The Pantocrator.

The Pantocrator.

All the doors would be low in order to make sure the Muslims would not ride their horses in the church as they did in Constantinople.

The church has a two hall configuration.

In 1538, the sultan approved the construction of a church only on the condition that is be low and not look like a church to demonstrate the superiority of Islam.

The church is dedicated to the Nativity so notice how the Pantocrator looks like a child: Emmanuel.

The Dormition, on the west wall.

The Virgin Mother in the apse dominates the nave.

The Annunciation.

When you approach the church, it does not appear to be a church at all. It has a low roof and looks like a barn. This is a 17th century church that blends into the agricultural landscape and for a reason.


This is the church of the Assumption that was established in 1600 however the current church was built in 1830, hence it does not look like a church on the outside.

While the exterior does not look like a church, the interior does!

The church houses the three-handed miraculous icon of the Holy Mother however pictures are not allowed.

What a blessing that I witnessed the baptism of Victoria! And after the sacrament she came forward to venerate the icons. This was so moving.

Followed by a celebration to which I was invited.

Resistance and Witness

We went to a museum that housed a memorial to those who resisted the terror of Communism and suffered and were tortured. My guide who grew up under the terror gave me such insight into the terror. We often think of the Nazism terror and forget the terror of Communism under such people as Stalin.

The walls were covered with pictures of victims of the terror and I noticed how many priests and bishops and religious were on the wall with those who witnessed to freedom. Our presentation in the USA often underestimates how the Church resisted both Nazism and Communism. I did not realize the extent of the resistance until I have visited these museums and seen memorials in churches. Maybe because they are understated and hidden but then perhaps that is the greatest witness.

Rom-101629The experience of such terror made me think about the 20th century that has been the bloodiest century that humanity has known and the most irreligious as well. It is hard to comprehend that the Communist butcher Stalin butchered over 20 million alone.

Then from 1939 to 1945 in WWII 50 million lives were lost, so many by the cruelty of the Nazis who imprisoned and murdered perhaps 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews. And, as Pope Francis recently referred to, the Armenian genocide.

Millions more in the Chinese civil war then add 90,000 American lives the Korean and Vietnam wars claimed, the millions that Pol Pot claimed and the millions in Nigeria and the Communist Derg in Ethiopia, and add the poison gas in WWI and the saturation bombing of WWII and such firestorms as Dresden, all this came to mind as I walked through a powerful museum memorial to those who suffered under Communism. Just a quick calculation is sobering in that the 20th century was the most barbaric and most irreligious century the world has experienced and our cultural elites insist religion is the main source of violence.

That is absolutely a thought driven by ideology and not reality.

I pondered so much that day. My guide said the Communists practiced what they called deportation. If you had a home they would evict you, take you to the middle of nowhere in burning heat and say good luck.  The inhumanity of it all, by a system that hated religion and did all it could to stamp it out.

As I looked at the pictures of all those clergy and Christians who resisted (for example, Father George Calciu) I stepped back for a moment and said a prayer through the intercession of Saint Vladimir . We saw a huge picture of him and my guide remarked that he admired him. I admire him as well and did not even know he existed until about a week ago.

Surprise Music in Mainz

This morning (December 20) I set out to accomplish one thing and that was to explore the Mainz cathedral which is a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture. The cathedral, dedicated to Saint Martin, is magnificent.

Mary altar

Saint Boniface Shrine

When I walked in the western door in anticipation of the breathtaking apse, I heard beautiful music and thought they must have a CD on this early at 10 in the morning. What a surprise!

The combined parish choirs of almost 100 voices, complete with instrumentation, were rehearsing for their Sunday evening concert at which they would perform Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The rehearsal provided a great aural context within which to enjoy the beautiful artwork.


West apse; the choir rehearsing at the cathedral for Sunday concert

And if that was not enough I read that there would be an Andacht at 12 noon. I have noticed this all over Germany. It is a simple 30 minute reflection from the priest with music. I decided to return and when I walked in 10 minutes before noon every seat in this enormous cathedral was taken. And then the boys and youth choir of the cathedral processed in, and they performed incredibly beautiful music interspersed with reflections from the priest. What an experience for me. Here in a busy shopping district, shoppers take 30 minutes for prayer and reflection.

After the Advent reflection service, I continued on to the Gutenberg museum. He was the inventor of the printing press using movable metal type. He printed the Bible in 1454 and out of the original 200 only 46 have survived. I spent almost two hours because they not only had a reconstruction of his workshop but also the history of making books before printing and then the history of the development of printed media and its social impact. I wanted to see the printed copy of the Ars Moriendi, the medieval text of the art of dying, and also Cicero’s text, On Duties.

Ars Moriendi from the Gutenburg museum

Pressing on I decided to see some more churches.  First stop was Saint Peter. This church is a very good example of the Rococo style.

When I visit a church I always check out the parish life and once again this church is not just a museum but houses an active parish life.


As I was walking from to the cathedral I discovered Gutenberg’s parish church. Like most of the city it was destroyed and only a small portion was restored as a functioning church.

From there I proceeded to the Augustiner church which once again a Baroque church.

Then on to the church of Saint ignatius.


From there I went back to the Christmas market at Cathedral Place and delighted in the parents watching their children on the carousel. The music for the merry go round was carols such as: O Most Holy One, O Come Little Children and Good Christian Men Rejoice. Germany is every bit as secular as the United States but the public square in Germany is filled with nativity scenes, traditional carols and greetings such as Merry Christmas, no Happy Holidays to which we are  accustomed in the United States. And Christmas trees are Christmas trees, not holiday trees. It is refreshing.

Before I caught the evening train I went to one final church, Saint Stephan. It is a Gothic church from the mid 13th century.

The adjacent cloisters are a jewel of late Gothic design.

The original stained glass windows were destroyed in the bombings of World War II; however they were designed by Marc Chagall depicting scenes from old testament. The glass is striking.

What began as a day to simply enjoy the cathedral became a day of unexpected musical surprises that animated my spirit to want to celebrate Christmas and share that with everyone, not with a Happy Holiday but with a Merry Christmas, Frohweihnacthen!

The Lorelei and the Rhine

This morning [December 19] we left Mainz and drove to Rudeschein where we boarded a boat for a cruise on the Rhine river that the Germans regard as their river. The cruise gives a wonderful view of the many castles and towns that line the river.

The Lorelei rock has a legend that tells of a beautiful blonde woman who would lure sailors to their death. The fact is that this is the most difficult part of the river to navigate so in truth many boats shipwrecked because of strong winds.

Die Lorelei by Heinrich Heine (in German)

More about the Lorelei song, which has been set to music many times

More about the Lorelei cliff itself

There are many ruins of castles on the river and there is one castle named Pfalzgrafenstein, which was constructed in the middle of the river as a place where customs were collected. Although it dates back to 1325 its present look is due to the Baroque renovations of the 17th and 18th century.


We finished our cruise of several hours and then took the bus back to Rudeschein. Once again the Christmas markets were much fun because of the festivity that surrounds it all. And the streets of Rudeschein were very medieval and highly decorated.

Towards late evening we had a wine tasting since the hillsides of this part of the Rhine are covered with vineyards. Then, back to Mainz in the late evening.

The tourist brochures speak of this cruise on the Rhine as a cruise of stunning vistas of hilltop castles, terraced vineyards, and villages of timbered framed houses. This is no exaggeration: the vistas are beautiful, with hilltop castles.

Second Sunday of Advent, in Dresden

Since this morning is the Second Sunday of Advent I decided to make church a high priority. First I went to the Kreuzkirche, the Evangelische, that is the Lutheran Church, for their morning service. The trombones and trumpets performed beautiful advent musical selections from Mendelssohn, Schutz, Eccard, Rutter, Handel, and vigorous congregational singing of traditional Advent hymns from which I derive such joy and spiritual benefit.

Kreuzkirche, the Evangelische church, in Dresden

Kreuzkirche, the Evangelische church, in Dresden

The organ in Kreuzkirche, Dresden.

The organ in Kreuzkirche, Dresden.

At the conclusion I had a delightful walk to the Hofkirche that is the Catholic cathedral and when I walked in I was overjoyed because it was overflowing and I had to stand, and I was 10 minutes early. Although Mass was in German I felt right at home with the Latin chants. What a wonderful church where you feel at home. Of course great congregational singing accompanied by the Gottfried Silbermann organ. It was stunning but more stunning was the men-and-boys’ choir.

The Dresden bombing of 1945 when 25,000 residents were killed that night was ever present on my mind all through Mass. This church was leveled but reconstructed in all its glory and filled with believers. Hope is what Advent is all about.

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden (the Catholic Cathedral)

There was a chapel in the cathedral dedicated to all those innocent men, women and children whose lives went up in flames that night. The memorial is explicit in that it reminds us we can only obtain peace through Christ. And on the wall were the names of 30 priests in the Dresden diocese who suffered because of their resistance to the Nazis. There is also a chapel to a priest of that diocese who has now been beatified. He was murdered on 3 February 1943 by the Nazis and as the pamphlet reminded us, Blessed Alojs Andritzki was with 1000 priests at Dachau. We must not forget the heroic witness of so many Christians. He was beatified and on 14 June 2011 his ashes were transfered to the cathedral in the presence of 11,000 people. What a witness to faith incarnate in the life of a man who resisted evil even to point of giving up his life.

Alojs Andritzki, priest and martyr, killed in Dachau in 1943. Beatified in 2011.

Alojs Andritzki, priest and martyr, killed in Dachau in 1943. Beatified in 2011.

Wandering around the city was delightful but also pensive in that the night of the carpet bombing was ever present in my mind. How quickly a cultural heritage can go up in flames with the slaughter of innocent lives and yet there is hope as this Sunday proclaims.

Then back to Kreuzkirche for an organ concert of selections from Bach, Messiaen, and Buxtehude. All day I have heard variations on “How Brightly Beams the Morning Star.” After the concert the bells were pealing, the air brisk so I decided to go to evening Mass at the Hofkirche. The church and its fine instrument are attractive however a church full of people singing great Advent hymns is even more appealing.  I was not disappointed. Once again a full church with vigorous hymn singing. This has been a wonderful second Sunday of Advent in Dresden.

A Christmas market in Dresden.

A Christmas market in Dresden.

Christmas Market in Dresden

Christmas Market in Dresden

Christmas Market in Dresden

Christmas Market in Dresden