Sight

The Sacred Spaces of Wilshire Blvd: St. Basil Roman Catholic Church, 1969.
The Sacred Spaces of Wilshire Blvd: St. Basil Roman Catholic Church, 1969.

I did not expect St. Basil’s to be so colorful. I walked in to St. Basil’s from the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard. Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles was one of the first streets in the city intentionally built for cars. As someone walking next to the wide lanes my view was grey and sparse, and my senses exhausted by the constant roar of cars. There were especially very few pedestrians. St. Basil’s was a stark contrast from its sparse environment. The cathedral was colorful, but not like other traditional Catholic cathedrals. This space let in lavish sunlight and used bright colors and eye-catching patterns. On this day it was Palm Sunday. Most congregants held not just a palm branch, but in this Spanish-speaking congregation they all held palms weaved together with colorful ribbons. The sea of palms and ribbons looked like a true celebration.

A significant portion of the cerebral cortex in the brain is needed to process what we see.[1] Both sides of the brain are needed and complex communication between each side occurs in order to identify and make meaning out of what we see. Visual stimulants are very much tied to our verbal processing as well as abstract thinking. The experience of a sacred space is primarily visual, but navigating through space actually requires a complex integration of all of our senses that involves our full body. The parietal area of our brain helps us identify objects while the cerebellum helps us coordinate our movements through space. At the same time the hippocampal place cells are busy gathering sensory input from all of our senses in order to create what we experience as space.[2] Our lived religion is heavily reliant on the sense of sight. In the middle ages, images of saints and other icons in prayer became the prominent mode in which the Christian community engaged in prayer and religious ritual.[3] The priority most religions place on written texts also created our liturgy based on sight. Icons, art, and even the repetition of patterns are essential contemplative tools. They draw the many parts of our brain needed to process sight to focus on one ideal spiritual attribute and to facilitate a more productive meditation. The predominance of sight in sacred spaces naturally captures not just our gaze but also the gaze of our souls.

Introduction  Smell  Sounds  Touch  Taste

[1] John Paul Eberhard, Brain Landscape : The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 78.

[2] D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, 42.

[3] Classen, Constance. The Deepest Sense a Cultural History of Touch.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

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