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A few years ago, I visited Albi, a small town in southern France famed for its Cathedral of Saint Cecilia. Constructed of the rose-colored brick typical of the region, the building was begun in the thirteenth century, about a hundred years after the Albigensian Crusade against the region’s Catharist heretics. Rising above the Tarn valley, the cathedral, a strange and phantasmagoric structure, glows in the morning light like a beacon from beyond.

On the day of my visit, tourists stand inside in slow-moving lines. Many are here to see the cathedral’s most remarkable interior feature, a huge late-fifteenth-century fresco of the Last Judgment. It is a floor-to-ceiling extravaganza behind the main altar, depicting layers of naked bodies rising from the ground, each carrying the book of his life’s accounting, onward to hell or heaven. Below them are scenes of agony and torture, organized according to the seven deadly sins, and painted with care by unknown Flemish artists who seem to have been fascinated, like ­Hieronymus Bosch, with the repetitive power of pain. Above, images of the heavenly host are harder to make out. The display is disconcerting and overwhelming. Denuded bodies—stripped of all their individuality, all marks of human relationship—drift in an airless world, somewhere between our present existence and some drastic but unrealized promise.

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