Catholic church pays homage to diversified cultural array
Place of worship: An overview of Phat Diem Cathedral. — VNA/VNS Photo Quy Trung
Heavenly: The main church is sophisticatedly carved with paintings depicting Biblical narratives. Stepping inside from the court, people may have to stop for a while to adjust to the darkness, which is similar to the atmosphere in local pagodas and temples. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
As a non-Christian, I have always been impressed with the domes, high towers and heavily decorated ceilings of Catholic cathedrals. I still remember how amazed I felt at seeing the high-ceilinged hall inside Notre Dame, in Paris. With magnificent light coming through coloured-glass windows, it is truly one of the most impressive examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
The same feeling overwhelmed me when I visited Phat Diem Cathedral in Kim Son District of Ninh Binh, a cradle of Catholicism in the north of Viet Nam. A unique blend of Western church, local pagoda and communal house, the cathedral is one of the most visually striking I’ve ever encountered.
The stone and wood complex is located 120km south of the capital on an area of 22ha dotted with man-made grottoes and hills. Along with the big central church, there are five side chapels and a big lake at the front entrance.
The complex was built between 1875 and 1898 by priest Peter Tran Luc, intimately called Father Sau by locals.
“The buildings here look like Vietnamese traditional communal houses and pagodas,” said Nguyen Van Giao, a guide at the complex. “Father Sau wanted to integrate Christian architecture with local traditional forms, reflecting the harmony between Christianity and other religions in Viet Nam.”
There is a pig pond with a statue of Jesus Christ in the middle islet at the front of the complex and a man-made hill at the back, reflecting the traditional East Asian design of water in front and mountain at the back.
Stepping onto the court tiled with big blue stone and shadowed with longan trees, I felt overwhelmed by the immense stone domes and carvings describing Christian anecdotes, on which could also be found familiar images of bamboo, red brick tiles and timber works.
A three-belvedere square bell tower (called Phuong Dinh) welcomes visitors at the entrance. On the first floor, three big stone beds enhance the solemnity of the complex. The biggest bed in the middle, measuring 4.2m by 3.2m by 0.3m, is said to be the royal bed of the Ho dynasty (1400-07) brought here from Tay Giai Citadel in the central province of Thanh Hoa. Stone bamboo-shaped window bars close the gate between the tower and the nearby rural village.
A small staircase leads visitors to the second floor, where there is a big drum. The third floor, made of wood, contains a bell measuring 1.9m by 1.1m that weighs 2 tonnes.
Giao said the drum had been used with the bell every Sunday and to mark important events for over a hundred years. Its echo can be heard within a radius of 10km.
“Father Sau cleverly utilised the power sounds of the bell in Western churches and Eastern pagodas and the drum used in folk games and festivals,” noted architect Mai Huu Xuan in his Master’s thesis on the cathedral architecture.
From the highest floor, visitors can see the surrounding landscape with dozens of churches nearby. On bright days you can even see the sea to the south and mountain ranges to the west.
Many architects believe the gate, which recalls the three-door gate at pagodas and temples in Viet Nam, is the masterpiece of the complex. Others prefer the stone chapel at the far left corner of the complex. The chapel, built in 1883, measures 15.3m by 8.5m by 6m. The wall paintings were crafted by skilled workers using small chisels.
At the heart of the complex, between the Square Gate and the Main Church, lies the tomb of Father Sau, who died in 1899 after expanding the local Catholic population to 50,000 people.
The main church was built in 1891. I cannot imagine how timber weighing up to 7 tonnes and stones reaching up to 20 tonnes were transferred here from Nghe An, Thanh Hoa and Son Tay provinces, hundreds of kilometres from Phat Diem.
Giao said Father Sau ordered millions of bamboo stacks to be brought to make a solid foundation, since the land was previously sea silt.
Visitors enter the main church through five stone doors, heavily carved with paintings depicting Biblical narratives. Stepping inside from the court, people may have to stop for a while to adjust to the darkness, which is similar to the atmosphere in local pagodas and temples.
The first objects inside that catch the viewer’s eye are two rows of wooden pillars, which lead to various gilded carvings at the far end behind the altar. The hall is divided into nine rooms by big wooden pillars, of which the 16th at the centre of the hall are the biggest: 11m in height and seven tonnes in weight. The circumference of one of these pillars is 2.6m.
As many as 28 wooden gates run along both sides of the hall, which can be opened for more fresh air and light when churchgoers crowd the hall. When the gates are shut, light and air come from windows in the middle of the two-storey brick-tiled roof.
Walking around the complex, I admired Father Sau’s vision. In the 19th century, the term “cultural integration” was not popular. But Father Sau succeeded in integrating Christianity into Vietnamese ways of building and decorating.
Priest Nguyen Hong Phuc, head of the Phat Diem Diocese, noted that the cathedral was not just an example of old architecture, but a holy place.
“People flock here to enjoy not only cool, fresh breezes and magnificent architecture but also peace and protection,” he said in the June 2008 issue of Kien Truc Viet Nam (Viet Nam’s Architecture). “They come here to meet God, receive the host, and return home with a stronger belief and the assurance to continue a good life.” — VNS