Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Even if you aren't Catholic II

From the Sistine Chapel we were led to the Basilica of St. Peter.  For which there are almost no words.  It is absolutely stupendous.  Huge and gorgeous, and of course, crowded with tourists, so that getting a picture without heads or shoulders or whole bodies was a challenge.

We got the little talk that I’m sure every tour group gets about the Holy Door, which is to the right of the main door leading from the portico into the church. (The portico, or front porch, has a beautiful, high, arched ceiling, and from here you can look out and see St. Peter’s Square spread before you, just as the Pope no doubt does before he walks down the steps for this, that or the other ceremony/occasion.)  Anyway, the Holy Door is kept sealed except for Jubilee years -- usually every 25 years -- when there’s an elaborate opening by the Pope.  Formerly masons would loosen the sealant, so that the Pope could just tap the door with a silver hammer for it to open.  But after some loose masonry fell on Pope Paul VI, they made a point of getting rid of all the sealant, so that the Pope would be able to just push on the door with his hands, without a shower of concrete falling on his head. 

They’re not even sure how this tradition originated, but like most traditions, it’s taken on a life of its own.

Inside, after giving us a brief moment to gasp at how huge and splendid the church was, we were led by to the right, where Michelangelo’s famous Pieta can be viewed behind the glass wall that was installed after some deranged geologist (!) took a geologist’s hammer to it, while declaring “I am Jesus Christ!"  It is, indeed, a beautiful sculpture, just as the artist’s David is.  No question, the guy was good.  But it is frustrating to be kept at such a distance, so different from the up-close-and-personal view you are able to have of David.  You simply are not able to see the fine detail.

Then we were led around by our guide to look at this statue and that picture (and, interestingly, none of the pictures you see in the church are paintings, but rather mosaics, that look like paintings), and eventually I did my usual wandering off on my own.  You’re drawn ineluctably toward the colossal dark bronze canopy that looms over the main alter, directly under the dome.  In a way, the canopy doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the d├ęcor, which is heavy on the white marble, the gold, the classical paintings (i.e. mosaics), the colored marble on the floor, in the niches that contain all those statues.  To me the canopy looks positively oriental, like a Chinese pagoda.

Like the inner domes of the Duomo in Florence, and the one in Siena, this one is beautiful, with panels of painted saints and other religious folk curving up the dome, separated by narrow stripes of gold stars against a dark blue background.  I’d learned by this time that the “stars of heaven” are a favorite theme of church ceilings.  And of course, as always, there’s the cupola at the top of the dome, with a hole giving you a view into “heaven” beyond.

Here again, as at the basilica in Siena, I got separated from the group, discovered all of a sudden that I could not hear the guide over my headset.  Minor panic set in, as it had in Siena, because I didn’t know where the group was going next, and with the crowds of people, and amount of space to be covered in any search…how was I to find them?  And then, suddenly, there was ever-dependable Gianni, waving his hand at me.  Where would I have been without Gianni!

When we went outside, we found that the area directly in front of the basilica was full of chairs, for some event.  We had to follow a narrow, roped-off path around the center area.  And of course, we were led directly by our guide to the inevitable gift shop, where people got busy buying souvenirs and Vatican guide books. 

And alas, wouldn’t you know that in the one picture I took of the exterior of the church, the dome is hidden by an outdoor lighting fixture!   

But there is no question: the Vatican is not to be missed on a trip to Rome, whether you are Catholic, or as much of an agnostic as some people I could name.