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.
There are a lot of churches in Rome. I’ve heard 900-something, but I’m not really sure. There are eight or nine chapels in the building I live in, but I might be forgetting some. Needless to say, it seems a little too late for a master plan to ensure efficiency.
The closest Rome ever came to an efficient program of church construction was probably right at the beginning, with the tituli, which were really just the houses of prominent Christians where the faithful gathered to worship, sometimes in secret. Titulus refers to the name of the owner, usually written on a plaque by the door. These centers weren’t laid out in any logical plan, but depended on whoever had a big enough living room (well, courtyard) to accommodate the whole proto-parish. When Christianity came out into the open after the Edict of Milan, the city’s faithful erected church buildings on the site of the tituli, which often enough coincided with sites of martyrdom. A few of the station churches are also built on the site of an old diaconia, basically an early Christian charitable distribution center.
Today’s station church, San Clemente, marks something of a milestone. San Clemente was where the station liturgy broke off two years ago in what was to become the longest fortnight in human history, “two weeks to flatten the curve.” In fact, in my experience of the station pilgrimage, the second Monday of Lent at San Clemente seems associated with portentous events. It was to San Clemente that I trudged through the slush in 2018, the last time that Rome got snow.
Rising from the ashes is, I suppose, the theme of every Lent and Easter season, though it appears especially appropriate this year. On a personal note, this will be the first time since 2020 that I will be able to return to one of Rome’s great Lenten traditions, the station churches.
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).
I paid a visit to chilly Mount Rushmore on my last trip to South Dakota and was stuck by the way the sunlight hit Washington’s face, casting it half in light and half in shadow. It occurred me how little I knew of our first president, whose birthday–with characteristic American efficiency–we combine with Lincoln’s to produce a three-day weekend.
To remedy my lack of knowledge–and perhaps because Americana takes on added interest when you live abroad–I read a biography of our first president.1 And it stuck me just how fortunate those thirteen colonies were to have a man like George Washington as their leader.
Today’s first reading from Jeremiah brought to mind the surreal landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, which I visited on a long road trip through the American West several years ago. It’s a surreal landscape of lava flows, ash, and shards of rock so sharp they’ll slice through your shoes if you wander off the trail.
Jeremiah’s image of a “barren bush [that] stands in a lava waste” to describe those who trust in men and not in the Lord brought Craters of the Moon to mind. I remember rounding a cinder cone, descending onto a river of hard rock, and thinking I’d wandered into Mordor.
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?