We spent today at the Vatican, first the Basilica of Saint Peter, then the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. This was our second time visiting. No matter how many times one enters it, St. Peter’s is amazing. First there is the size. The Nave can hold 60,000 worshipers. The Baldacchino over the main altar is seven stories tall! And church is ornate beyond imagining.
It’s hard to tell in this picture but where I was standing is two football fields distance from the apse behind the altar or nearly half a mile! Much of the interior is baroque with many features by Bernini, the master of baroque illusion. The alabaster dove in the apse has a seven foot wing span. It’s translucent so that golden rays of sunlight project out of it.
Oddly something that moved me was a round piece of polished porphyry granite in the floor near the entrance. Porphyry is the stone of emperors and thus of popes. It was on this spot that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 799. I don’t know why this is so powerful to me but it is. The most moving piece of art in the church, however, is Michelangelo’s Pieta. Mary tenderly holds the lifeless body of her son with an expression of sorrow and yet acceptance that nearly brings me to tears ever time I see it.
We knew the museums would be grueling, so after the basilica we took a break for food and coffee. Thus refreshed we plunged in. We made short work of the Egyptian stuff. To be honest the collection isn’t that great compared to Cairo or the British Museum. We did linger a little at the examples of Sumerian (today’s Iraq) writing, the oldest in the world, some 5000 years. I’m a sucker for that sort of stuff. But for me the big attractions are the sculpture and the paintings. The Hellenistic statue of Laocoön and his sons being crushed by serpents is one of my favorite ancient works.
It is from the story of the Trojan horse. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who warned about the horse but the Gods wanted the Achaeans to win so they had serpents do their dirty work. The expression on Laocoön’s face as he wreaths is sheer agony. This is a far cry from the Classical Greek statuary of 200 years earlier with it’s balance and serenity.
Further into the museums and 1600 years later we found Raphael’s The School of Athens in which Raphael’s buddies are portrayed as great Greek thinkers. I especially like Leonardo Da Vinci as Plato (center left with the beard). My other favorite is Michelangelo in the foreground brooding, leaning on his elbow. While Raphael was painting this, Michelangelo was just down the hall doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the same time.
You can’t photograph the chapel so pull up an image from goggle. The ceiling was done at the peak of the renaissance. It’s overflowing with humanist optimism. Adam is not feebly cowering before God. He is confident and muscular as he is brought to life. You could say he’s portrayed as nearly God’s equal. 23 years later Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement behind the altar of the chapel. The counterreformation was underway. Freedom of thought was under attack as the Catholic Church dug in. The inquisition began. The painting is dark and filled with tension as a muscular Christ swings his arm banishing sinners to eternal torture. Clearly the optimism was gone. It makes me think of the optimism some of us had in the late ’60s – another renaissance. Humanism was on the rise. Sexual and spiritual freedoms were expanding. Equal rights for all and lasting peace seemed achievable. Art, literature, music and theater were finding new and exciting expressions. But ten years later much of that energy and optimism was gone in excesses of the ’70s. I suppose it is inevitable. When culture experiences that kind of flowering it will swing back the other way. Some people fear the freedom of such cultural movements. It happened in the renaissance with figures such as Savonarola. And it happened in our time as well. I guess the trick is not to loose sight of the things we gain, the expansion of human experience and consciousness, when the pendulum swings back.