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CHURCHES, By Judith Dupre, HarperCollins: 170 pp.,

Houses of the Holy

Seeking the divine in marble, gold and stone throughout the centuries

June 30, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER | Larry B. Stammer is a Times staff writer who covers religion.

Sipping a Cafe Americano at a sidewalk cafe on Rome's Piazza della Rotonda is to be transfixed by an architectural time machine. It looms in one's eyes, then enters the mind to transport the beholder to another time. It is, of course, the Pantheon. Built by the emperor Hadrian between AD 118 and 128, it is the best preserved of Roman antiquities.

One imagines ancient Romans entering the temple, with its imposing concrete dome, to contemplate an ordered universe. As the sun courses through the sky, light streams through a circular opening, or ocula, at the dome's apex and slowly sweeps across the interior floor. In inclement weather, rain pours through the opening. Nearly 500 years later, Pope Boniface IV would consecrate the once pagan edifice as a church: Now it would be Christians who came to worship. On the Feast of the Ascension, parishioners hoist a statue of Christ through the dome's aperture to the heavens.

The experience of seeing the Pantheon is so much richer if one first consults Judith Dupre's sumptuous new coffee-table book, "Churches," which is marvelous for its concise and authoritative commentaries as well as for its rich color photography.

Imaginative in design and conception, "Churches" is one book that can be judged by its cover. The book cover, a dramatic photograph of Donatello's Annunciation, is cut down the center so that one flap opens to the left, and the other to the right, as if to beckon the reader through the great doors of a cathedral. Within its pages are to be found pictures of some of the world's greatest churches, among them the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Chartres Cathedral in France, St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

American churches are also well represented, including those that are known and those not so well known. They include the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, R.I.; the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah; the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; Shiloh Temple in Durham, Maine; and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

As rich as the images of these magnificent edifices, Dupre's text goes beyond the required historical, architectural and engineering details to proffer insights into the transcendent. The entry of the Pantheon, for example, includes a full-page color photograph of the dramatic interior, as well as an etching of the Pantheon as it appeared in the mid-1700s with the outrageous intrusion of twin bell towers rudely imposed on either side of the roof of the ancient gem's portico. Thankfully, the bell towers were dismantled in 1883.

If the book has any lapses, it sometimes overlooks artistic failings. Dupre's discussion of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in St. Louis, for example, offers informative commentary on the church's "extraordinary mosaics." Indeed, many of the mosaics are wonderful. Others, however, have a decidedly cartoon character that, in this book, go unmentioned. But, of course, beauty and banality are not matters of fact but perception.

Still, the perceptions that Dupre provides in "Churches" can be depended upon as solid, even insightful. A cultural historian with a background in art, architecture, education and English literature, Dupre offers in "Churches" a confluence of these schools.

"Churches" is a coffee-table book certain to be admired by guests. But its real value lies not as a prop but as a beautiful and authoritative reference meant to be read and appreciated over and over.

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