If a country is big enough, it will have a north-south
divide. Britain’s got one. So has the United States. And Italy, France, Spain,
Germany and many more. But if countries have them, so do continents. There’s a
strong north-south divide in Europe between the sober and serious north and the
sun-drenched, fun-loving south.
Of course, it’s not really as simple as that. The stereotype
of the fun-loving south is complicated by the fact that, compared to the north,
the south is also death-loving. In the United Kingdom, for example, we tend to
be squeamish about death and dead bodies.
We like decent burials and cremations that turn bodies into clean ashes.
In Italy, they’re much more open and there are many churches where dead bodies
are on open display, lying in crypts or reliquaries.
It’s north versus south and also Protestant versus Catholic.
Catholic countries like Italy and Spain aren’t just much more open about death,
they’re also much more open about dying. Catholicism places much more emphasis
on the pain and suffering of Jesus. The Stations of the Cross, or scenes from
the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, are familiar to every Catholic from childhood.
Sometimes the Stations are great art, sometimes they’re crude and
unsophisticated, but they’re always disturbing and often bloody. Jesus is
whipped and crowned with thorns. Jesus is forced to carry the heavy cross.
Jesus is nailed to the cross.
And highly realistic statues and paintings of the crucified
Jesus and martyred saints are also found everywhere in Catholic churches and
cathedrals. To someone from a Protestant culture, these images can be too
strong and unpleasant. Are they psychologically healthy? Are they not sadistic
and obsessed with blood and pain? Perhaps they can be, but they can also be
seen as more honest and realistic about the darker side of life. Catholicism
doesn’t turn away from death and suffering. It makes them central to its
And it balances them with images of the infant Jesus and his
mother. Catholicism is about birth as well as death, and the religious calendar
in a Catholic country moves from celebration to mourning just as everyday life
does. We celebrate the birth of children and mourn the deaths of our loved
ones. In Catholic countries, that ever-recurring cycle is reflected in
religious art and imagery more strongly than it is in Protestant ones.
Protestantism is more centred on the words of the Bible, not the pictures that
are conjured by those words.
Of course, some forms of Protestantism are much closer to
Catholicism than others. There are divides in institutions, not just countries
and continents. In the Church of England, you can find very plain and austere
churches and very richly decorated ones with gory representations of the
crucified Jesus. There’s a special word for Anglicans who still look to the
south in the way they worship: Anglo-Catholics. But even an Anglo-Catholic
church doesn’t put mummified bodies on open display.
The British climate isn’t suitable for that and nor is the
British personality. In Italy it’s different and you could say that Britain and
Italy are divided by death and their attitudes towards it.