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)
One of the reasons I find the season of Advent so compelling is its central symbol of light growing in the darkness, as simple as it is powerful. The fifth of the O antiphons always strikes me as particularly poignant:
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Mid-December also coincides with a slight lull in the crush of tourists here; between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas the streets are a tad calmer and one can get out and enjoy the decorations. In the northern hemisphere it is one of the darkest times of the year, but that only makes the lights all the more delightful.
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.
With more than 900 churches, as I’ve noted before, if you’re looking for church-related curiosities, there’s no place like Rome. A friend recently pointed out an oddity that seemed to take the cake. Atop a church between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is what seems to be a stag with a cross between its antlers, which looks suspiciously like it was taken straight from… a Jägermeister bottle.
With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.
I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.
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.
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.