Walking through the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica today, I have to admit being in awe of the scope and power of the Vatican collection. That awe is not limited to the artwork, but rather reflects the way in which our very civilization was saved by, shaped by and is still affected by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican is a strong link between past and present, going back even before the birth of Jesus. Early Christians saved all they could from ancient Rome, keeping it in their monasteries and cathedrals, preserving a civilization that seemed to be passing. Thanks to their efforts, Rome did not really fall, but instead morphed into what we now call “Western civilization.” The renaissance (which we’ll really get into in Florence) and all that has come afterwards owes a real debt to the Romans and the early church. Yes, the early Church was hyperconservative, and anti-progress, but without their discipline and work to save the past, we’d not have been able to use the Roman past as a springboard to move forward.
Going through the rooms of artifacts from ancient Egypt it’s clear that the Vatican collection reaches way back in time, also covering the pre-Roman Etruscans (the term “Tuscany” comes from that tribe’s name — the Itali was a tribe in the south). There are oddities too — pagan symbols on various mosiacs and ceiling design, the astrological signs by the ancient obelisk in front of St. Peter’s, and an intriguing mural by Raphael which has all the philosophers coming together in one room. While on one side of the room God is depicted as above the philosophers, it’s clear he had a strong sense of the history of intellectual thought, given the philosophers he chose and the poses they took. Plato points to the heavens, signifying his idealist thought (idealism as the belief that ideas are the stuff of reality, not matter), while Aristotle points to the ground, signifying realism and materialism.
And of course, the Sistine chapel is amazing. Michelangelo painted the ceilings of the chapel while Raphael was painting his “rooms.” Michelangelo did not like that job, he preferred to be a sculptor. And in deference to that, Raphael puts Michelangelo in the painting of the philosophers, wearing stone cutters’ garb to show his true identity. Yet one could spend hours in the Sistine chapel, in awe of the genius behind Michelangelo’s work.
Then there is St. Peter’s. Magnificient! I told the students the ironic story I mentioned in the blog the other day — how the Church built St. Peters in such opulance to upgrade its image in response to changes coming from the renaissance. To pay for this they relied on the “sale” of indulgences, something which lead Martin Luther to ignite the Reformation (though it was going to happen in some form anyway). Thus the cost of the this magnificent Basilica was the loss of dominance in political and spiritual power in the Western world. Still, St. Peter’s is splendid. The art, the symbolism, the unbelievable amount of space makes one feel dwarfed and humbled.
As I left I felt like all day I’d been hearing “Vatican voices.” Voices from the past, connecting the present with all the ebbs, flows, and shifts of western history, a history of which the Church has been the center. I am not a Roman Catholic, I am not a Christian — though my beliefs on spiritual matters are very close to Christianity, I respect Christians and Christianity (as I do Islam, Judaism, etc.) and I am not an atheist. But the Roman Catholic Church is the most important institution in the history of western civilization. All protestant faiths were spawned by the Roman Catholics, and not only did they preserve knowledge from ancient Rome, but they brought in Greek thought through Augustine (Plato) and Aquinas (Aristotle). But accepting both reason and faith as legitimate ways to know God’s will, Church leaders set up the very move towards modernism that ultimately weakened the Church and removed it from its position of dominance.
I cannot do justice in words to the power of the paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from the past. I cannot really explain the feeling that overcomes one inside St. Peter’s, or standing outside observing the majesty of this opulent remnant from an earlier age when the Church really was the dominant institution. The voices from the Vatican’s museum and St. Peter’s joins the secular and political voices from the past one gets simply walking through Rome, realizing that one is walking through history.
However, much of this would be lost to me if I didn’t know my history, philosophy or even theology. The first time I was in Rome I was 25, and the experience was less about history then just exploring an interesting place. Now my emotions get pulled, even almost to tears, as I see paintings, buildings, and sculptures that connect to dramatic periods in history, so close that I feel the power of those past scenes reverberating through the present. Past and present seem connected, even as I note the dramatic differences. That’s one reason I love this travel course — we try to get the students to experience this as more than just interesting sites, but to know the stories, histories and long term impacts on what all this means.
In a short while I’ll be accompanying a group of students to my favorite restaurant in this city — Lilli — and walk through Rome at night. Tomorrow is a day trip to Pompei. The adventure continues.
UPDATE: Dinner was OK, but we didn’t get to Lilli’s. We got there, but our group was too big. So we split up and went to two lesser places; a relatively inexpensive meal tonight after all. But we ended up eating some of the finest gelato in the world at Giolotti’s and Rome is wonderful by night — so much life, sidewalk restaurants, people moving about, walking past glorious buildings like the Pantheon. What a city!