Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Italy: Catholic Rome

This is what you see if you look up in the Sistine Chapel, which is accessed through
the Vatican Museums, not St. Peter's Basilica. The paintings show scenes from
various parts of the Bible but not in a sequence that I understand. I think Michelangelo
intended each section to be viewed and appreciated separately.

This part of the ceiling shows the Garden of Eden and God giving life to Adam,
perhaps the most famous of the many famous elements of this gigantic work.

"Moses" by Michelangelo at San Pietro in
Vincoli. This huge work (see it in full below)
was intended for the tomb of Michelangelo's
great patron, Pope Julius II, but work on the Sistene
Chapel intervened and the tomb was never
completed, though Julius II is interred
in this church. I'm not sure why this
muscular Moses has horns.
As someone who is not religious, I sometimes wonder why I'm drawn to churches when I travel, especially extremely ornate ones such as are found throughout Rome and most of Italy. I'd probably have the same curiosity if intact, still-functioning Greek or Roman temples were around, and in some ways, the Catholic church seems almost a continuation of those "pagan" religions. Just as Hadrian declared his young lover Antinous a god and built temples to him, the Catholic church decides some people are saints and builds churches in their honor. All of the churches we saw were named for saints.

The stories of gods, saints, their deeds, their miracles and their sufferings have been told in paintings and sculpture for thousands of years, and religious buildings are often repositories for wonderful, other-worldly art. In my posts on ancient Rome (click HERE) and on Roman palaces (click HERE), there are many photos of art depicting ancient gods as well as Christian figures, but none of those deal with the amazing art and architecture of Rome's many churches.

During our six weeks in Rome, Jane and I visited many churches and basilicas, most quite grand and some rather modest. We skipped St. Peter's Basilica because the lines were extremely long. Years ago we got in with only a short wait when Benedict XVI was pope, but the crowds drawn to the popular Pope Francis mean that one waits on line hours to get into St. Peter's. (Click HERE for how we spent three months in Italy.) I don't include addresses of the churches here -- they're all easily found on the Internet, on tourist maps and in guidebooks.  I hope this posting will encourage you to visit some of them.

 I did not take any photos in the Catacombs of San Sebastian, a basilica on the Appian Way a short taxi or bus ride from central Rome. The maze-like, multi-level catacombs were used during the centuries of Christian persecution for Christian burials and for worship. There is a small chapel carved from stone deep underground that was used for clandestine worship services. It is marked with an anchor, which was the symbol for Christianity before the cross was adopted. Above the chilly and winding catacombs is a rather conventional church dedicated to Saint Sebastian, who is interred there. I mostly but not always conformed with "no photo" signs; in the catacombs, our guide enforced the no photo rule. Given an opportunity, though, sometimes one just can't help oneself. Most churches allow photos, though not flash photography. All my photos were taken using available light.

Michelangelo's "Moses" at San Pietro in Vincoli, a rather minor basilica in Rome, despite
having a Michelangelo, the tomb of a pope, and the chains that supposedly once
bound St. Peter (below). 

"San Pietro in Vincoli" means "St. Peter in Chains." The
church was originally completed in the year 440 to house
the chains. Additions and renovations were made
through the centuries so one cannot tell what the
original basilica looked like.

San Sebastiano is built above extensive catacombs
that were used by some of the earliest Christians
in Rome. The church, miles from central Rome
on the Appian Way, is also the saint's burial
place and contains what it says are the arrows
that killed him. This was the only church in Rome
that we didn't walk to from our apartment below
the Palatine Hill.
The Archbasilica of St. John in Lateran is the oldest public church in Rome (and thus in the Western
world). It is the cathedral of Rome and the ecclesiastical seat of the pope. Its name comes
from the Lateran Palace, which was given by the emperor Constantine I to the church of Rome
around 313.  It became the seat of Pope Silvester I and was dedicated in 324. It was the
seat of the papacy until it moved to France in 1309. By 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome,
the Lateran was in bad repair; the papacy found homes in two other churches before finding its
permanent home in the Vatican.

St. John in Lateran today is quite grand, rebuilt and restored over the centuries. 

A cross tops
an Egyptian
obelisk in the plaza
outside St. John in

Mosaics tell Bible stories at St. John in Lateran.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore or Basilica of St. Mary Major is another of the churches that once housed
the papacy. Construction of the church is thought to have begun in the late 430s under Pope Sixtus III. It has
been enlarged and modified over the centuries, particularly after an earthquake in 1348. Today its stunning
and ornate spaces are admired by hundreds of visitors every day. The canopied high altar,
above, is reserved for use by the pope, who is said to visit the church often.

Pope Pius IX is a large presence at Maggiore.

One of the chapels at Maggiore.

The wonderful mosaics at Maggiore date to the fifth century.

A closer look at one of the mosaics.

The great artist Bernini was also a great architect, designing this
stairway at Maggiore as well as the columned porticos that surround
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. He and his family are buried
at Maggiore.

Santa Maria in Trastevere seems rather modest
on the outside, but it is considered one of Rome's
grandest churches, and one of its oldest.

Mosaics dating back 800 years make Santa Maria in Trastevere a must-see for
many tourists in Rome. The interior columns were taken from the Baths
of Caracalla. Some guidebooks say the church does more to conjure up the grandeur
of ancient Rome than anything else in the city.

Basilica di Sant'Agostino, near the famous Piazza Navona, is one of many almost hidden churches
in Rome that are well worth seeking out. There's a Caravaggio painting ("Madonna de Loreto")
and other magnificent art. Unfortunately, the painting was in too much shadow for me
to photograph it.

Another church, another Madonna. At Sant'Agostino.
This ornate ceiling is in Basilica San Clemente, a 12th-century
church built above the ruins of a 4th-century church, which itself
was built above the ruins of a first-century villa that contained
a temple to Mithras, a Persian god whose male-only cult
was a rival to early Christianity.

The 4th-century church, filled with rubble when the newer San Clemente
was built above it, has been excavated and opened to visitors. Murals
such as these survived, along with a simple altar (not shown).

Water that once supplied the Roman villa still flows, presumbably
tapped into a spring. Like the 4th-century church, the ruins of the
villa were once filled with rubble that has now been removed.

This is the temple to Mithras, which was in the Roman villa. Hundreds of similar temples, mostly
underground, were scattered around Rome. In the center is the altar and on the sides are
areas where the worshipers could recline. San Clemente does not allow visitors to enter the temple. 
The door to San Giorgio opens onto an interior
with little adornment. 

Jane and I rented an apartment for six weeks on Via dei Fienili in a tiny neighborhood surrounded by history: the Forum to the north, the Capitoline Hill to the west, the Palatine Hill to the east, and the Circus Maximus to the South.  To walk anywhere from there, we often had to pass by three very different and interesting churches.

One, the Chiesa di San Giorgio al Velabro, dates to the 7th century. It is a relatively simple and plain structure with little adornment. In fact, it seems to have been built using mismatched columns of different sizes and stone recycled from older buildings. (The fact that stones used in ancient buildings were reused centuries later for construction projects elsewhere is a major reason why so many ruins are incomplete.)

Another rather modest church practically abuts the Forum. It is Santa Maria della Consolazione. The church is named after an icon of the Virgin Mary that was placed here in the 1300s to console criminals who were thrown to their deaths from the cliff above the church; in ancient Rome, the cliff was called the Tarpeian Rock and was used for the same purpose. Today the church is one of the few obviously still functioning as a neighborhood church. It drew a congregation on Sundays complete with a priest standing by the door greeting worshipers as they left.

The grandest of our "neighborhood" churches is Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which overlooks the Piazza Venezia and is adjacent to the Michelangelo-designed Piazza Campidoglia as well as a huge white building that resembles a wedding cake and is officially known as the Altare della Patria (and shown on most maps as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument). Walking west into central Rome most days, we passed through Campidoglia and looked up at Aracoeli, which sits at the top of 124 steep steps constructed in the 14th century of white marble. The church itself dates to the 6th century and replaced a Byzantine abbey.  For centuries Aracoeli housed a olive-wood figure of the Baby Jesus, known as the Aracoeli Bambino, which supposedly could ensure pregnant women that their babies would be healthy and was also believed able to resurrect the dead. The original 15th-century Bambino was stolen in 1994 and never recovered; the replica on display now appears to be just as venerated. Over the centuries the church has been owned by Benedictines and Franciscans and in the late 18th century was deconsecrated and used as a stable. Today its interior is probably grander than ever, with many elements from the church's long history well conserved and displayed.

The altar canopy at San Giorgio.

San Giorgio al Velabro is one of the few Roman churches, I think, where a Mennonite or an Amish
person might feel at home.  The mismatched columns were recycled from ancient ruins.

Santa Maria della Consolazione overlooks Piazza Consolazione
just east of the Capitoline Hill.
On Sundays these pews at Consolazione are occupied by worshipers.

Romans say that if you climb the 124 steps to Santa Maria in Aracoeli on your knees, you'll win the lottery.

View from the top of the Aracoeli stairs.

It's hard to believe that little more than 200 years ago Aracoeli was used as a stable.

Macabre exhibits, such as this at Aracoeli, are not uncommon in
Roman churches.

Various miracles are attributed to the Aracoeli Bambino.

15th-century frescoes by Pinturicchio in one of the chapels at Aracoeli. The frescoes
survived the church's deconsecration and its rehabilitation. 
Santa Maria della Vittoria, grand as it is, is known mainly for one small chapel. 
In Bernini's Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria, members of the Cornaro family
(some dead, some alive at the time it was built) watch the "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" from
a theater box. Frescoes, sculpture and architecture combine
to create a work considered the apex of the Baroque style.
St. Teresa swoons during an encounter with an angel. The chapel was
undergoing restoration when I was there and scaffolding obscured
much of it. I've cropped the scaffolding out of my photos.
This painted pieta is at San Marcello al Corso, a venerable
but easy-to-overlook church on Via Corso, the busy shopping
street that runs in a straight line between Piazza Venezia and
Piazza del Popolo. The church dates to the 4th century
but much of today's structure is from the 1500s. Worth
at stop on your way to Ferragamo or The Gap.
The Chigi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo was designed by Raphael around 1513, but he's
hardly the only famous artist represented here. In the 1600s, Bernini added oval medallions
on tombs and two statues. He also designed the organ case. In a surprisingly dark corner,
to the left of the high altar, are two characteristically dark works by Caravaggio, "The
Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "Conversion of St. Paul."  They were almost impossible to see
and impossible to photograph. I assume there are times when the church illuminates them.

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