London Calling: The Religion of Nationalism

For the past week and a half, I’ve been soaking up the sights in London. This is only my second trip overseas, and once again I find myself longing to do this more often. London is an amazing city teeming with excitement, diversity and history (and pubs). As someone who loves art history, it has been a feast for the eyes. I particularly enjoyed exploring both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – these two houses of worship are very different from one another, but have a common thread which runs between them. As I walked through them, I found myself thinking about politics and religion in the U.S., and how the concept behind the Anglican Church influences us today.

My first stop was at Westminster Abbey. While it was built over multiple eras and has a variety of stylings to show for it, the Gothic signatures are the most dominant – flying buttresses, an enormous rose window, and my favorite – stunning, stretch-to-the-sky rib vaults. The nave is particularly breath-taking; I kept looking upward as I walked along it. The abbey is beautiful and at times seems to defy gravity.

Unlike the churches in America or the cathedrals I’ve seen in Italy, there is an unmistakeable secular feel once you are inside of the church. As I later joked to Chris, who couldn’t join me for the excursion, “anybody who’s anybody is buried in Westminster Abbey!” There are so many tombs here, you are practically tripping over tombs to get to more tombs. Images or statues of the crucifix are lost or forgotten when placed next to these often grand monuments to the rich and the powerful. When I think of the history and evolution of the Anglican Church, I find it interesting to see the theme of placing images of royalty in the church where one would expect to find a Biblical figure.

The Lady Chapel, housing the tomb of Elizabeth I (and is also the burial place for her half-sister Mary I) is an area of exceptional beauty, filled with natural light and elaborately carved pendants and fan vaults. According to the Abbey literature, the room is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the architecture and positioning of the tomb make it clear that Elizabeth I’s tomb is the main focus of the room. I would even make the argument that there was a conscious effort to equate Elizabeth I with the Virgin Mary in this space.

There is a celebration of the humanities at Westminster Abbey as well, with the famed “Poet’s Corner” as well as monuments honoring Purcell and Handel, who were both buried here. It is only when you enter the older portion of the church – the undercroft – where you feel a sense of piety and quiet spiritual reverence through its simplicity.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, its current iteration constructed in 1675-1711 after the prior cathedral burned in the Great Fire, has a different character than Westminster. It’s built in the English Baroque style, with a Romanesque approach to it’s arches and vaulting systems. Aesthetically, it’s a “heavier-looking” building than Westminster and is more of a celebration of massiveness achieved through an open, rounded horizontal design versus the celebration of the vertical displayed in Westminster. It has a far more religious feel to it than Westminster Abbey, with images on the dome telling the story of St. Paul’s life. Again, though, there is a secular feel on the main floor with the statues featured. The religious iconography is out of reach and at times difficult to see (in part because much of it is so high up on the ceiling of the massive dome), but the secular figures are large and at arm’s reach. This isn’t to say it is a primarily secular space – the high altar, chapel and quire are all very traditional in design – it is just more focused on the secular than one would see in the American churches or Italian duomos.

As I walked through St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, I kept thinking about using art as a way to connect leaders and religion. In these two grand spaces, you see a governing body that intertwined itself with religion to encourage people to equate their nationalism with their religiousness and vice versa. The role of St. Peter and subsequent popes are replaced with a nation’s leader and subsequent leaders, in a way that encourages people to believe their leader has the “keys to the kingdom,” that is, the direct line to God. Supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, and supporting your nation is supporting your God. In return, God will bless your nation, which blesses your leaders and by association, you. God Save the King.

When you look at American history, you see a similar trend of equating nationalism with religiousness, particularly when the nation’s ideology is challenged. Consider the phrase “In God We Trust.” It appears in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written during the War of 1812. When we were a nation divided during the Civil War, the Union added “In God We Trust” to coins as a way to indicate God was on the side of the Union. In the 50s, as a response to the anti-religious sentiment of communism at the height of the Cold War, we changed our nation’s motto from “e pluribus unum” to “In God We Trust” and added the phrase to all paper money. Finally, following the September 11 attacks, posters with the phrase “In God We Trust” filled the schools, again suggesting God is on the side of the United States. Once again, supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, supporting your nation is supporting your God. If we all are patriotic enough, God will Bless America. Whether you believe this or not is entirely up to you, but the parallels in history are fascinating (to me, at least).

There is one noticeable difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: when I look at the reverence placed on kings and queens in Westminster Abbey and the similar VIPs buried in St. Paul’s, I notice a certain secularism to the Anglican Church and to England in general that we don’t have in the U.S. The effect in England seems to give the religious areas a more secular feel, whereas in the U.S. the effect gives our secular areas a more religious feel. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m interested in reading the various theories people may have explaining it.

As I come across other notable things while in London, I’ll share them with you – most will likely they be far more fluffy and touristy than this post. I’ve seen many amazing things here and have a few suggestions to those of you who are considering a visit. Until then – cheers!

Re-Discovering Creativity: The IT Guy, the Photographer

Matthew Collen is an IT guy.

Well, if you looked at one aspect of him at one point of time in his life, that’s what you would say.  If you asked me a few years ago, I would say Matt is a funny, artistic guy from my high school who loved the Bears and the Cubs – he sat behind me in AP Bio and we participated in good-natured pranks on our Hungarian-born French teacher who often confused the five languages she spoke.

In high school, Matt had a number of interests – drawing, painting, and technology, to name a few.  Like many people, after graduation he recognized only one of his interests led to a viable career option, so he became The IT Guy.  IT is an enjoyable career, but art nagged at him.  Over the years, the desire to create crept up frequently.

Matt discovered digital photography via his love of technology.  Digital cameras were essentially a fun tech toy to learn how to use and fiddle with.  After a couple of years of nerding out on cameras, he took a photo of a daffodil in the snow.  Upon seeing the beautiful image he captured through his lens, he finally saw the art in his hobby, and that artistic void he felt from high school was finally filled. Matt the IT Guy, a.k.a. Matt the Funny, Artistic Guy started sharing some of his photos with friends and family, and he became Matt the Photographer.  I first noticed his talent with this shot from a couple of years ago (click on the photos for a larger image):

Solitary Goose
I asked Matt to talk a little about this photo:
“This was taken during a event, full moon.  While the moon was cool to shoot I noticed some geese just hanging right at the edge of the falls behind town hall.  This one goose was not part of the group and lights on the pond were lighting him up on one side only and I thought it would make for a cool shot.  I had a little trouble composing the shot as a newb: rule of thirds, the reflection, blah blah.  Anyhow I ended up liking the shot and it did pretty well for me in competition as well.”


Not long after, Matt posted a number of photos he took on the Yale campus, and I particularly enjoyed this one: Melancholy
“This was shot during a event at Yale.  It was in the courtyard of one of the libraries… There were four of these at each corner of the fountain so I just lined up the one with the least distracting background and fired away.  I was an early spring day and just a cold dreary day and the title really fit.  I always feel a little weird photographing what is someone else’s art but while it is the subject it is not the whole story.”


Matt joined the Milford Camera Club in Connecticut, and began taking a number of classes to further develop his art.  I asked him to talk a little about each of these photos:

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
“…After a minor edit this is also known as It’s Always Greener…There is a group of day lilies right by the opening of the gate in my back yard.  Inevitably one will follow you out and get stuck and then eventually get decapitated.  Below the gate is just a pile of ‘heads’ and hence the Trouble I’ve Seen title – well that, and the obvious ‘behind bars’ look.  I really liked the bright red, orange and yellow against the weathered wood of the fence.  This is one of my favorite shots to date and got me an Honorable Mention for the NECCC Winter Inter-Club competition.”


Gerber Daisy
“I had just gotten back from a macro course in MA and just had to shoot something.  I ran to Whole Foods, picked out a few nice flowers, brought them home, got in real close and fired away. Macro is one of my favorite types of photography and really is great for those with limited free time.  With a toddler at home free time is hard to come by, but with macro all I need is flower or two and I can set it up in the basement and fire away.  No need to worry about travel, time, daylight, etc…”


Vincent Island
“My favorite subject other than my daughter!  I grew up on the beach and this was always there.  Now that I don’t live there I try to shoot it every time I visit as I truly miss it; it knows a lot about me.  I took this shot this past Thanksgiving.  The sun was dropping and while I was hoping for some clouds I think the sky is great and really gives the picture great contrast with the yellowed sea grass and salt heather.  The rock to the left is a major fixture in my childhood, just the whole scene means a great deal to me and I am glad to share it with others as well as capture it as I remember it in case there is a day I don’t have access to it.”


Brooklyn Bridge
On a personal note, this is one of my favorites. I miss the northeast and have fond memories of going into New York City as a child.  For me, this shot really takes me back and reminds me how much I loved New York as a kid.  Here are Matt’s comments:
“I took this one with a group of friends from the camera club.  We all met up at 4:00 and drove down to catch the sunrise in NY.  We went over the Brooklyn Bridge and walked around China Town looking for interesting street shots.  I set out to get that shot with no one around.  I ran up ahead of our group only getting sidetracked by the locks all over the bridge.  It is a somewhat cliche shot but it is a classic and one you just have to have – no way I couldn’t take it.”

Many of us unknowingly abandon the things we enjoyed when we’re young.  Matt’s story shows us that even when we leave art behind, art never leaves us – it sits quietly in each of us, waiting for that one little catalyst to awaken it from its slumber.  You just need to find your proper catalyst – it is out there for you, if you are willing to look for it.

I’d like to give a big “thank you” to Matt for allowing me to publish his photography and sharing his story and thoughts. Matt is still a long-suffering Bears fan and I quote, “ an even longer-suffering Cubs fan” who currently lives in Milford, Connecticut with his wife and daughter.

And now, on to the geeky photography details:
Solitary Goose
Canon Rebel XTi, Canon EF 70/300mm (220 mm)
ISO 800, f 5.6, 1/5 sec
Post Processing:  “Just a levels adjust and cloning of a distracting element in the water near the goose.  I was really going for the black and white contrast…”

Canon Rebel XTi, Canon EF 70-300mm (200mm)
ISO 200, f 5.6, 1/160 sec
Post Processing:  “A minor crop and and adjustment to make the image level.  I also softened the background and gave it a sepia like tone when I converted it to black and white.”

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
Canon Rebel XTi, Canon EF 70-300mm (160mm)
ISO 200, f 5, 1/320 sec
Post Processing:  “Levels adjustment and burnt in the little bit of the house I caught in the background.”

Gerber Daisy
Tripod Mounted with Cable Release…
Canon Rebel XTi, Canon 100mm Macro
ISO 200, f 3.5, 1/30 sec
Post Processing:  “A small levels adjustment and a white balance adjustment.  I also cropped into it by about half…”

Vincent Island
Canon Rebel XTi, EFS 18-55mm (41mm), Speedlite 430ex II
ISO 400, f6.3, 1/200 sec
Post Processing:  “Just a crop to get it closer to the rule of thirds and then increased the tonality.  I also did some dodging and burning to the grass to give a bit more contrast from the background.  I used the flash for fill light on the grass and rock as I was exposing for the sky and island.”

Brooklyn Bridge
Canon Rebel XTi, Tamron 10-24 mm
ISO 400, f 4.5, 1/1250 sec
Post Processing:  “Converted to Black and White, a minor crop and just increased the tonality of the image to make the clouds and stone pop.”

Images are Copyright 2012 by Matthew Collen

Are you someone who recently re-discovered your creativity? Discuss below, or if you have a great story to share, drop me an email at