Monday, December 30, 2013

A Travel Report from Rome: Impressions of St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museum

Another excerpt from my travel diary--this one reflecting on our tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's, for which we had an outstanding tour guide, an art historian recommended by a friend of ours:

The whole tour: overwhelming, even enervating. There's simply too much to take in on one visit, even with an accomplished tour guide-cum-art historian as one's mentor.

I'm struck by the obvious, crystal-clear connections between--the carryovers and outright dependencies on--pre-Christian Graeco-Roman and Egyptian tropes and Catholic ones. It's trite to note this, but it's such a striking experience of the Vatican Museum: tour a room of Greek, Roman, Egyptian "pagan" statues, turn a corner into a new room, and there the very same statues will appear all over again, transformed into the Madonna, angels, saints.

Another impression, especially of St. Peter's: the somewhat repulsive need to showcase the hegemonic power of Rome (as in Roman Catholicism) via the resplendence, the power and wealth embodied in jewels, marble, precious metals, papal tombs, sumptuous art work.

I'm reminded of the unseemly battle between the dominant episcopal sees of the early church--Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Byzantium--and how Helena and Constantine sought to trump Alexandria's claim to supremacy through Mark and Rome's through Peter by producing the Holy Cross: the cross of Christ trumping mere apostles. It's all entirely about power, demonstrated through shock and awe, and is a little sick-making, perhaps especially for someone with a cultural sensibility rooted in the British Isles, which have always been so geographically and culturally far from this trumpery.

The early Celtic church and its monks found God in thin places, in the song of birds, the lapping of sea or lake water on stones, the blue of sky and green of woods--against which the excess of Baroque triumphalism in St. Peter's can seem not only appalling, but when all is said and done, downright silly, as if by topping a rich fruitcake with marzipan followed by ganache followed by whipped cream with a goodly dollop of marmalade on top, one has self-evidently created the world's most compellingly perfect confection.

Now having gone there, I understand Luther's reaction to Rome and St. Peter's, even if part of me revels in the opportunity to have a less straitened, pristine, and monochromatic Christian story to tell than the Reformers would dictate to us. Because the positive side of all this sumptuous excess and rich memorial art is that it catalogues for us an amazing diversity in the Christian tradition from very early in its history, which is hard to reduce to the kind of irredentist straitjacket that imagines there was one and only one model for the church or for living the Christian life, from the origins of the Christian movement . . . . 

The photo: the wonderful art historian who gave us our tour of the preceding places, with me at St. Peter's, 23 December.

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