Summer Visits to Famed Sanctuaries — Virtually

Now that summer is officially here, I wish to flag, for readers of this blog, the chance to visit some renowned sanctuaries – virtually. (If of course your summer travels happen to take you to Rome, France, and Germany this year, you might be able to see these sanctuaries and their treasures in brick-and-mortar, but even then, you will definitely not see all you can on the virtual visit). Here below are three possibilities for sanctuaries to visit virtually, maybe on a rainy and slow summer Sunday. The background to what I will describe are advances in digital technology (largely owing to advances in online gaming technology) that have opened up or restored our ability to enter and walk through ancient places of Christian worship.
An exceedingly early place are the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome, which were used by Christians since the second century. This space can now be entered virtually thanks to a collaboration between the Pontificia Commissione Archaeologia Sacra and Google Maps. Once you go to the website (https://plus.google.com/+CatacombediPriscillaRoma/about) and click “see inside,” full 3D movements through the catacombs become possible, via a guiding arrow on the ground. As the scholar of early Christianity Wendy Mayer has noted, there are limitations to such a virtual visit, but certainly the “visual experience of moving through the catacombs and to do this repeatedly” is valuable. Not all sensory experiences connected with the catacombs translate into virtual reality (yet), e.g., the damp feel of the underground galleries, a sense of smell, or the experience of how sound travels (Wendy Mayer, in Liturgy’s Imagined Pasts). Yet as with other digitally-mediated experiences too, a virtual visit to the catacombs of Priscilla yields its sensory power most clearly not when compared to a physical site visit, but rather when compared to not visiting and seeing these catacombs at all. So, on a rainy, slow Summer Sunday, why not walk through the Catacombs of Priscilla, online?
More intriguing still is another option, namely to visit virtually the famous Abbey church of Cluny, center of the Benedictine world in the early Middle Ages. The Abbey church has lain in ruins for centuries, with only ten percent of the former Abbey remaining. Yet a digital project has now restored the whole Abbey, including the 90% that were lost. You can visit this glorious church here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xich3a_extrait-maior-ecclesia-2010_tech#.UZ43U7XCbTo, and http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x9j9cn_extrait-maior-ecclesia_tech. Having visited the ruins of Cluny some years ago, I must say that experiencing the Abbey church in restored splendor, albeit online, was both deeply moving and very instructive too.
A third possibility is a virtual visit to the Romanesque Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Speyer, Germany, which is not only a site of pilgrimage and the cathedral church of the bishop of Speyer but also a UNESCO world heritage site. Since 2011, the Cathedral can be entered virtually, thanks to a Foundation that has created online access to the much-visited site at http://www.kaiserdom-virtuell.de/. According to the website, the aim is to enable online visitors “emotionally to experience the Cathedral.” The online access includes areas not generally open to the public, such as access to the sacristy with a view of the stunning black-purple vestments used in the 1902 re-burial of the emperors and kings in the crypt, which one normally never sees. (and having just visited the Cathedral in Speyer last month, I had no idea these vestments even existed behind the closed doors of the sacristy!). In addition, the website matches the different spaces in and around the Cathedral with audio clips appropriate to each site. Entry into the famous eleventh-century columned hall crypt for example is overlaid with Gregorian chant, the nave with organ music (and yes, the gardens around the cathedral with bird song…). As one moves through the different spaces of the Cathedral, one can also access additional information on various sites by a mouse-click. Visitors from close to 100 countries around the globe have now visited Speyer Cathedral online. Obviously, reasons for such online visits range broadly, from the desire to meditate in an ancient sacred space to simple sightseeing – the same holds true for offline visits to the Cathedral too.
So: if your summer holds some rainy, slow days and you happen to be at a loss for what to do – but you are at this loss with internet access – do visit some of these wonderful places of worship!

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3 comments

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Karl, there actually is a now-famous “farm sanctuary” (Feld-Kapelle) but you would have to travel to Germany to visit it. It is well worth it! Here is the website: http://www.feldkapelle.de/.
      It is a privately-funded Roman Catholic chapel, newly built by a Catholic land-owner farmer in the midst of his fields. The incredible building was designed by the renowned Suisse architect Peter Zumthor. The church is dedicated to St. Nicolas of Flue. Thanks for reminding me of this building with your mis-reading of my title.

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