From the Sagrada de Familia in Barcelona to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, I’ve used a lot of churches in my writing.
They’re fascinating buildings, full of religious relics, amazing art, and more than a few conspiracy theories.
Since so many are open to the public, you can explore their mysteries for yourself. Let’s start off with the weird things you can see on the outside…
Gargoyles, Grotesques or Chimera?
Many cathedrals and churches have carvings of saints or other religious figures. But it’s the gargoyles that draw the most attention.
Gargoyles, often made from granite, are waterspouts. Their job is to direct water away from the building to stop rainwater damaging the walls or the mortar between stones. Longer gargoyles help to direct water further away from walls.
Paisley Abbey even boasts a xenomorph gargoyle. Masons removed 12 damaged original gargoyles in 1991, and one replacement bears a striking resemblance to the aliens in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien.
Not all sculptures on churches and cathedrals are gargoyles. Other carvings, known as chimaera, are purely decorative. The statues on Notre Dame in Paris fall into this category. They’re not visible from the street, so visitors must climb 387 steps to reach the Notre Dame Chimera Gallery.
As does the Darth Vader bust you’ll find on the northwest tower at the Washington National Cathedral.
You can also find an astronaut on the New Cathedral of Salamanca. Sadly, this wasn’t added following a fit of premonition during the construction of the Cathedral between the 16th and 18th centuries. Masons added him in 1992 during restoration work, along with a faun enjoying an ice cream.
Grotesque is the generic term that applies to both gargoyles and chimaera. Both types of carving should protect their buildings against evil spirits.
Other Strange Carvings
Sometimes you need to examine these amazing churches and cathedrals up close to see strange carvings hidden in the stone.
A two-headed man shows off his bare behind above a window at the Church of St. James in Brno. Some experts claim the sculpture is a weird example of a church carving. Fun legends claim the carving was added after the church’s spire ended up taller than that of the neighbouring Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul.
Elsewhere, find a pair of hands and feet at the base of a pillar at the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse. Many think it looks like a pillar crushed a small person. You’ll find the carving behind the reliquary of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Many carvings show Biblical scenes, but they’re surrounded by Celtic, Hermetic, Masonic, Norse, and Islamic images. It’s easy to lose count of the number of Green Men peeking out at visitors from the stonework. Some theories suggest Sir William St Clair wanted to represent all knowledge, not just Christianity.
Other theories link the chapel to the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, despite its Catholic origins. Three gorgeous pillars separate the Lady Chapel from the main church, representing the Apprentice, the Journeyman, and the Master Mason.
The Apprentice Pillar attracts the most attention. According to legend, an apprentice carved the pillar while the master mason was away. When the mason returned, far from being impressed by the skill of his student, he killed the apprentice in a fit of jealousy.
Some believe the Apprentice Pillar also represents Yggdrasil from Norse mythology… a strange thing to find in a Christian church!
The Mysterious Life of a Cathedral
The image of St Paul’s Cathedral amid the fire and smoke of the Blitz often sums up the popular ‘Blitz spirit’ of London. Yet Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece hides several structural mysteries that make it one of London’s most fascinating cathedrals.
From the outside, the building looks like it has two storeys. But the upper floor is a facade, masking the flying buttresses holding up the walls of the nave. The fake walls help balance the famous dome’s visual weight.
London stands on weak clay and Wren faced a series of challenges to stop the cathedral from sinking. He built a crypt under the whole building to house the piers that carry the weight of the church. The chandeliers prove Wren’s design to be sound since they act like plumb lines; by hanging vertically, they prove the cathedral hasn’t sunk.
Wren employed Nicholas Hawksmoor as his principal assistant from 1684. Poet Iain Sinclair theorised that Hawksmoor’s amazing churches in London formed a pattern according to Theistic Satanism; some people believe the churches form a pentagram. Peter Ackroyd continued the idea in his novel, Hawksmoor.
Alan Moore expanded on it in From Hell, in which St Paul’s Cathedral lies at the center of this fabled pentagram.
There’s no proof to any of the theories but they add to the magnificence and mystery of the cathedral. It’s only natural I’d use the building as a murder site in Delirium!
Unusual Churches… In Caves?
The sheer size and scale of cave systems invite comparisons with the lofty spaces of manmade cathedrals. It’s unsurprising that people turn some of these caves into spaces for worship.
A chapel lies in the first chamber of the seven-chamber show cave at Callao Cave in the Philippines. A natural rock formation forms the altar, lit by an opening in the roof above.
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá lies 200m below the ground in the tunnels of a salt mine. This underground Roman Catholic church serves the town of Zipaquirá in Colombia. Another salt mine church, the Chapel of St. Kinga, lies in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow.
The Australian mining town of Coober Pedy, immortalized in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, has an Underground Serbian Orthodox Church, the Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet.
While Budapest is famous for St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Cave Church inside Gellért Hill provides a smaller, more intimate location for worship. It was only founded in 1926 but it’s worth a visit for its wonderful chambers. There’s a statue of St. Stephen outside, and you can enjoy views of Liberty Bridge too.
These larger examples scratch the surface of cave churches. Smaller chapels also exist in tiny grottoes and caves around the world.
Some cathedrals and churches are synonymous with tales of murder. Canterbury Cathedral saw the bloody assassination of Thomas Becket in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights.
A man shot a deacon and his wife in the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Georgia in 1985. The murder of a priest in 1998 at St. Michael Catholic Church in Dane, Wisconsin remains unsolved.
According to legend, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is haunted. Built in 1868, the locals decided to add a tower in 1886. The two Swedish stonemasons hired for the job disappeared without finishing their work. Soon after, mysterious events affected the church.
Workers saw a ghostly figure and refused to work in the area. Workmen only finished the tower in 1927. According to a former reverend, he’d taken a confession from an elderly man in Denver. In it, he identified himself as one of the Swedish stonemasons. The other fell to his death in an accident, but his colleague buried his body inside an unfinished section of wall, fearing the town would blame him.
The body remains missing, but many believe the ghost is that of the lost stonemason.
The Bone Crypt of Rothwell
Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic or the Paris Catacombs are famous for their bone displays. The history of these spaces is well-documented.
That’s not the case for Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, England. Built in the 13th century, the church stands above a charnel chapel filled with the bones of around 2,500 people. Many call the room the Bone Crypt.
The room was sealed until 1700 when a gravedigger broke through the floor. He fell into the crypt, revealing its skeletal secret. Experts organized the bones on display and the Crypt is now a tourist attraction.
It’s a chilling room because no one knows where the bones came from. Some believe the remains to be those of plague victims. Others point to the Battle of Naseby in 1645, claiming the bones belong to soldiers killed in the conflict. A third theory looks at the Jesus Hospital next door. Built in the 16th century, some wonder if the church removed remains from a burial ground to make way for the new infirmary.
Radiocarbon dating reveals the skulls date from the 1200s through to the 1800s so the mystery remains unsolved. The crypt is open on the second Sunday of every month.
You can learn a lot from visiting these amazing churches. Remember to be respectful and try to avoid visiting while services are underway, so you don’t disturb worshippers. Which of these amazing churches will you visit next?
If you’d like to try a thriller that opens at the Sagrada de Familia in Barcelona, check out Gates of Hell by J.F.Penn.
Original article by Icy Sedgwick, edited by J.F.Penn. Images as credited.