After you enter the nave of the church and say “Ooh! Ahhh!” at the abundance of beauty, step back into the shadows of the side aisles. Initially these may seem to be short cuts to the front altar and gift shop, especially if services are going on, but really the side aisle are where the more accessible art is displayed in the chapels. The ceiling frescos of the nave may be 30 to 60 feet above your head. They are best taken in as a whole image, or studied with binoculars. The chapels, especially if they are open to enter, bring you right up to the art. Do not just stroll by. Rather step into the chapel and sit for a few minutes. The best artists anticipated that this is how you would view their paintings and sculptures, thus the image is designed to be viewed from this perspective.
As a reminder, the side aisles exist because of the Roman design of the basilica. In some of the older churches, you can still see the open-beam trusses that allowed the builders to add another two sections of the main nave of the church. In Baroque churches, these side aisle ceilings were plastered and painted… places for more angels and commissioned works of art (e.g. donations).
During services, the priest and acolytes may use the side aisles for the processional. Whether sung, recited, or in silence, the passing of the Cross and incense surrounds the congregation. Often minor daily masses may be conducted in one of the side chapels, rather than at the main altar. Between
services visitors may sit quietly, pray, meditate, or perform a ritual such as the Rosary, in a side chapel, away from the tour groups and bucket-list checkers. Stop to light a votive candle (I always carry a pocket full of half-Euros), to add to the mysticism of the ambiance, or to tend to your fire-bug urges.
For those of us who were not brought up on saints and sinners, many chapels will have a description of the images in the art. Better yet, stop at the gift shop first to pick up a guide to the art in the church. These will fill you in on all manner of miracles and martyrdom techniques. While some images of torture and death are obviously depicted, others are alluded to by the symbols that someone holds. St. Stephen will usually have a pile of rocks at his feet, as he was stoned (more on that in a future blog about the frescos of the Life of Paul… oh, you thought I was going to wrap up Rome with churches, huh?). St. Lucy has her eye-balls on a platter. St. Lorenzo has the grate on which he was roasted. St. Catherine has part of the spikes wheel which an angel broke (the Romans then beheaded her). We Baptists thought Hell was some future event. The Catholics found it right here.
Enough gruesome saint-hood images. You will also find lots of Madonnas, angels, Jesus’ and church leaders teaching and healing people, fabulous fashions and landscapes. After you have had your fill of chapels, proceed forward to the transepts and apse.