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As churchgoing continues to slump precipitiously in Western Europe and as church buildings are increasingly abandoned, something essential is slowly disintegrating on that continent: glorious religious architecture.
In 2018, I wrote about this cultural implosion’s iteration in the United States, where unused churches are mostly being repurposed rather than abandoned: “As churches and malls close, life as we know it grows uncertain”. Instead, shopping malls are the iconic American structures being abandoned in the last few years, in the face of plummeting in-person shopping due to another huge but non-spiritual behavioral metamorphosis: an explosive shift to Amazon-driven online retail buying.
I pointed out Europe’s far more pronounced and earlier-emerging shift to secularization compared to America’s in a post I wrote about uber-secular Norway this summer: “It’s official: More than two-thirds of Norwegians are heathens.”
But today, disintegration of often beautiful, irreplaceable places of worship is most pronounced in Europe — and an intrepid photographer is trying to save them on film if not in actuality.
A CNN article published in December, “Inside Europe’s stunning abandoned churches,” introduced French photographer Francis Meslet, who was once an aspiring architect.
“Hoping to capture their faded splendor before it’s too late … Meslet has spent almost a decade documenting abandoned churches, chapels and priories in varying states of disrepair [in Europe],” the article noted.
Wrote Oscar Holland in the CNN piece:
“Across Europe, hundreds of churches that were once filled with worship and song are now at the mercy of the elements. With religion’s role declining sharply around the continent in recent decades, the most promising outcome for many of these centuries-old structures is being reincarnated as residential or commercial properties.”
Much to Meslet’s chagrin, as he is valiantly trying to catalog these unique places of worship while they still exist and encouraging their preservation, people are rediscovering them — and in the process of tramping about their premises in exploration, are effectively vandalizing them. A similar phenomenon in the U.S. involves a sudden enthrallment with abandoned malls, and the trendy hobby of visiting and photographing them is known casually as “ruin porn.”
Meslet’s new book, “Abandoned Churches: Unclaimed Places of Worship,” includes abandoned-church images shot in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Portugal. The CNN article asserts that the book, currently the No. 1 Amazon best seller among photo-essay titles, “offers an eerie tribute to a building type [Meslet] describes as ‘very special in the history of architecture and the history of men.’”
Although many of the abandoned churches he visited have been woefully neglected for years, Meslet said others appear “as if they have only recently been deserted, their painted walls still oddly vibrant, their seats arranged as if awaiting the next congregation. Nature can, however, be quick to act.”
“Sometimes a recently abandoned building deteriorates very quickly, mainly because of water seeping into the roof,” Meslet told CNN. “In a few winters, and just a few years, you may be surprised by the beauty of the decay and the vegetation that starts to grow inside.”
One gorgeous Meslet image of a 14th century convent in Portugal shows thick green vegetation nearly covering its floors and starting to climb the walls.
In recent years, Meslet said, a growing passion for what he calls “urban exploration photography” has brought hordes of “novices and unscrupulous visitors” to these sites and contributed to their swift decline.
Whereas millions of euros in reconstruction funding has poured in after a catastrophic fire last year at Paris’ world-famous Notre Dame cathedral, far less is donated to save “those little churches which are slowly dying in the countryside,” Meslet laments. In France alone, he said, hundreds of such crumbling churches are listed by the nonprofit group Observatory of Religious Heritage.
Meslet seems to have a soft spot for buildings that faith has built over millennia. He mourns their inevitable demise, a fair grief even for nonreligious people. After all, glorious architecture is one of the real-world glories of humankind.
“What happened to faith, to religion and to our societies?”Meslet says wistfully of the past. “This is the reason why I decided to start working on this project.”
It’s a religious project even an atheist could love.