03 October 2010

ON THE ROAD: The Vatican

This is another in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and interesting. This month it's Rome.

Papal Coat of Arms


There is a brick wall that divides Rome from Vatican City. It is called the Bastions of Michelangelo after Michelangelo Buonarroti, the reluctant painter of the Sistine Chapel. It could have been named after any of the other artists who worked for the Vatican, artists like Raphael, Caravaggio, even Fra Angelico, but as any visitor to the Vatican will tell you, it is the name Michelangelo that you hear over and over again.

Vatican City rests on Vaticanus Mons, Vatican Hill. While we consider the Vatican a sacred place (it is the burial place of St. Peter), and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a sacred area long before the Vatican was built. In fact, two thousand years ago, long before the arrival of Christianity, if you were standing in front of the Bastions of Michelangelo, you would have been in the Etruscan town of Vaticum. And during the days of the great Roman Empire, this part of Rome was known as ager vaticanus. It is from these names that the Vatican gets its name.
Overview of the Vatican

The Vatican City-State is the smallest state in the world, just 110 acres all within the confines of these walls. The Vatican state has its own postal system, armed guards, mini-train station and the Vatican radio station, KPOP. While we may consider it an amazing place, for historians it is only a fraction of the vast Italian territory that the Papal States ruled for centuries. That all changed in the late 1800s when the seeds of democracy started to take hold in Italy. Even though the pope was under a great deal of pressure to give up his territory to the newly unified Italian state, he refused. For years the fate of the Vatican territory was in limbo. But in 1929, Pope Pius XI and the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty and the autonomy of the Holy See within the Republic of Italy was established.

Follow the Red Brick Wall

If you look along the middle of the brick wall, you will see the Vatican coat of arms. Each figure on it symbolizes an important part of the church: the crossed keys represent the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus gave to Peter, the first Pope. The keys are displayed on a shield, joined by an embroidered stole, a symbol of the Papacy. Above the keys, is the three-tiered Papal tiara. When popes are crowned, the tiara is placed on their heads and the following words are spoken:
The Papal Tiara

Accipe thiaram tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse Patrem Principum et Regum, Rectorem Orbis, in terra Vicarium Salvatoris Nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in sæcula sæculorum.” “Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of Princes and Kings, Ruler of the World, Vicar of Our Savior Jesus Christ on earth, to him be the honor and glory forever and ever.”

Though people often talk about the Papal Tiara as if there was only one, in reality, there were many. Some of the early priceless papal tiaras were destroyed, dismantled or seized by invaders or destroyed by the popes themselves. But while most popes were content to be crowned Father of Princes & Kings and Rulers of the world, in 1978 John Paul I refused the honor. His successor, the first Polish pope, John Paul II also declined a coronation opting instead for a Papal Inauguration Mass. The current pope, Benedict XVI also chose a Papal Inauguration Mass in 2005 to the disappointment of some conservative Catholics who were hoping he would reinstate the traditional use of the papal tiara.

No church has so magnificent an approach as St. Peter's As you move across the Vatican Square you are enfolded in the lofty embrace of Bernini's colonnade, marble pillars that are meant to welcome us into the spiritual experience of the basilica itself. One hundred and forty saints stand atop; visible assurance of the power of faith to transform mankind and signaling, by their mute presence that we are moving onto sacred ground. Here, underneath the altar of the church, Saint Peter is buried, the only person from the Gospels whose grave we can still venerate. He has lain here from the earliest centuries, hidden until the 4" century when the Church was secure enough, under the Roman ruler Constantine, to begin to build what we now call "Old St. Peter's".

Twelve hundred years later, even though that church was too small and falling apart, there was a scandalized outcry when the Pope Julius II, (Michelangelo's adversary and friend), ordered it to be pulled down and a new basilica built. He had great architects like Bramante and Michelangelo to advise him and subsequent Popes fo the Church you see today took over a hundred years to build.

Basically the design is Michelangelo's. He originally wanted the church to have the shape of a Greek cross, with equal aisles, rather than a Roman cross with a long, central aisle. And his wonderful dome is not exactly as he had planned it either.

The first thing we see when we enter is an enormous atrium, the size of many a parish church. There are five bronze gates and the furthest gate to the right is the "Holy Door", which is only opened for Jubilees. The first gate on the Ieft is one of the rare modern works in the basilica. Pope John XXIII asked the Italian sculptor, Manzù, to create what is known as the Door of Death, which sounds eerie but is, in fact, extremely beautiful and inspiring. We must all die, and here we are asked to contemplate the death of Jesus and its consequence: the assumption of Mary, our representative.

Manzù shows that death is not an end. Vines must be pruned for grapes to grow, sheaves of wheat must be stripped to make bread: from these "deaths" comes life for others. And then we see contrasts. Abel dies by violence, St Joseph in peace¸ Peter is beheaded but Pope John himself died lost in prayer. All these various deaths represent various doors to God

One of the Massive Bronze Doors

Next to it, the second gate has a wonderful title - the Door of Good and Evil - and again it shows Pope John and his successor, Paul VI. The fourth door, Crocetti’s Door of the Sacraments shows the seven Sacraments and an angel. The oldest door is the one in the middle. It is made of bronze and it was rescued from the Old Saint Peter's church. It was made in the beginning of the fifteenth century and shows Jesus and his mother at the top. In the center panels are St. Peter and St. Paul in prayer with Pope Eugenius IV, who commissioned this door, and at the bottom you see Peter crucified, upside down as he requested, and Paul beheaded. Right above this door is Bernini's bas-relief of Christ entrusting the Church to Peter.

If you step inside you are in the largest basilica in the world. Before your eyes stretches six hundred and fourteen feet of nave, rising to a height that could encompass a fifteen story building. You would think the effect would be over powering, but the building is so perfectly balanced that it is only when you start to move around it that you realize just how big it is.

Down the center there are marks that show where other great cathedrals would end if placed inside this one. St. Paul's in London; St. Patrick's in New York would both be swallowed up. The intent is not to boast about the size of the Vatican but to show how all cathedrals are "within" St. Peter's, encompassed by its strength. The focal point in any church is the altar. It is the most dominant object within this huge expanse. The actual altar, the Pope's altar where only he may say Mass, is a simple block of marble with St. Peter's tomb directly beneath in the crypt. But what catches your eye is the enormous baldachin. It was designed by Bernini and Borromini, who were both young men when they created this bronze masterwork. It is the largest and heaviest work ill bronze ever made.

Bernini's Baldachin
Yet it does not look heavy. Bernini's twisted, barley-sugar columns are in honor of Solomon's Temple and they spiral upwards with that combination of dignity and vitality characteristic of this great sculptor. Borrormini worked out the mathematics of it and added the gracious and elegant swirls of the volutes that rise to the top in quiet jubilation.

Gilt angels stand around the playful cherubs, protecting the tomb of the apostle. From the back of the church the perfect proportions of the baldachin make it hard to believe that it is 95 feet high. Within its columns is framed what is called the "altar of the throne", another colossal work by Bernini, so splendidly gilded that it looks like gold. Its purpose was to hold up what was thought to be the throne or papal chair of St. Peter. Within the bronze is a throne of wood, inlaid with ivory, but this is a medieval work crafted centuries later.

Michaelangelo's Pieta
There is also a work of art not originally made for St. Peter’s. Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Michaelangelo was 23 years old when he made this carving. It is so powerful that most visitors stand in front of it in awed silence. It is a poetic working of Mary holding the Jesus on her lap. Like all mothers, she knows her son is a grown man but also, still, sees him, as her child. Michelangelo lost his own mother when he was six and it could be that "mother", to him, always represented as someone young and pretty. Above the Pieta is a splendid little dome: the only dome in the basilica not ornamented with mosaic.

Part Two Next Month.

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