Since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the idea 800 years ago, Italy has been the land of Nativity scenes. And there is no more prominent location for a Nativity scene in the world than St. Peter’s Square. The scene is different every year and–along with the Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia–is usually subject to intense comment and critique from Romans and visitors alike. There’ve been a few doozies in my years here, but this year’s scene from Friuli Venezia Giulia does not seem to have aroused great protests.
Here’s a peak at the scene, still waiting for the child who makes all things complete.
Christmas blessings to one and all!
“In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator.” (Pope St. Leo the Great)
Visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome often don’t realize that the magnificent baroque church is built over the site of a still more ancient basilica, built by Constantine and then torn down completely by Pope Julius II during the Renaissance. Over the course of the next century, today’s basilica was rebuilt by the likes of Bramante, Giulio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Bernini.
Surprisingly little of the original church remains, so I was fascinated this week to see a few of the mosaics saved from the first basilica at a special exhibition on medieval Rome at the Museo di Roma. The exhibition displayed work from the other four major basilicas, each of which has a unique history. The complex around St. John Lateran, another Constantinian construction, has changed greatly over the centuries and the interior of the church was redone by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, though the shape of the basilica remains basically the same. St. Mary Major preserves the magnificent mosaics from its Roman days, but St. Paul Outside the Walls was entirely rebuilt after a fire burnt it down in the early 1800s.
Here are a few pictures form the papal basilicas’ medieval past.
For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.
Today’s reading from the Office of Readings put me in mind of the fresco of Christ’s descent into the limbo of the patriarchs in the chapter room of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Note the demon crushed under the doors of hell at Christ’s feet and the other bewildered devils on the right. (Don’t feel sorry for them.) It’s what the Middle Ages had instead of superhero movies.
Italy is such living sculpture that one could easily fill a coffee table book with pictures of otherwise mundane objects that, here, have have taken on artistic flare. You could fill a profitable day just searching out interesting door knockers or doorways, drinking fountains or the weeds that sprout from rooftop tiles. We owe much of this picturesqueness to the medieval spirit that allowed craftsmanship and creativity to flourish on a human scale–and which has become less common in our age of planned obsolescence and Made in China.
Making the station church pilgrimage this year, I’ve been looking at the ground. I wrote before of the marvelous Cosmatesque floors in so many of Rome’s churches. This style is named after the Cosmati family, the medieval craftsmen who made use of Rome’s overflow of broken marble to turn what would otherwise have been refuse into charming and sometimes Escher-esque designs. It’s especially appropriate that the Cosmati’s work paves Christian churches, where sins are absolved and, picking up the fragments left by our mistakes, we are reminded that, with the help of grace, we can still manage something beautiful.
So here’s a slideshow of a handful of Rome’s graceful floors…
This week we passed Lent’s midpoint, which always seems the most grueling part of the journey, the part where you’re most tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?” The excitement of starting something new has worn off, and the end still seems distant. It’s the part of Lent where hitting the snooze button one more time comes oh-so-easily.
And here the Church again gives us a little boost with Laetare Sunday and the simple joy that comes from listening to your parish priest insist that his vestment is not pink, not mauve, not pepto-bismal, but rose, darn it, it’s rose.
My own personal mid-Lent boost came this week from the remarkable apse mosaics in the week’s station churches. I’ve always found mosaics mesmerizing, the fragments that make up a greater whole, the way the light glistens off each piece. The mosaics in Rome’s station churches are particularly precious because they are so old. Santa Pudenziana’s dates from the 5th century, Ss. Cosma e Damiano’s from the 6th.
To celebrate today’s feast, I walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica this morning, especially keen to see the church decorated for the day–the candles lit on Bernini’s spectacular sculpture of the Cathedra Petri and the first pope’s statue decked out in his party regalia.
In the past I’ve always had class or other obligations or there were too many tourists or the world was closed for pandemic, so I’d never visited the basilica on this feast. Today, like Goldilocks but without the hair, I found everything just right. Just a smattering of visitors early in the morning, and as a bonus I was able to get to the altar of St. Leo the Great, which is in a part of the church that is sometimes blocked off. Leo is a favorite of mine because of his lapidary teaching that what was visible in Jesus when he walked the earth has passed over into the sacraments (Sermon 74).
It looks like a picture of a horse’s… well, of the back part of a horse. Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome puts the story’s equine character front and center. What gives? The practical joke of a roguish artist?