As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep breaths.
In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.
You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).
Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.
There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.
As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.
And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.
And you are grateful.