What a troika…The world’s smallest country holds the largest cathedral, a set of museums hard to match anywhere and surely the most impressively decorated chapel in the world..five hours in The Vatican.

The Apollo Belvedere ..out of favour today because of his alleged lack of personality but still the epitome of classical grace and elegance for me

The Apollo Belvedere ..out of favour today because of his alleged lack of personality but still the epitome of classical grace and elegance for me

Discovered in the C16th but  known from antiquity,

Discovered in the C16th but known from antiquity, “The Laocoon” bristles with muscular power and energy and seems more alive than any other sculpture in the museums

Wednesday July 8th

At 7.15am we commenced our second 35 degree day in the eternal city with a five hour visit  to The Vatican City,  the walled and gardened tiny city with the world’s smallest train system, exceptionally well manicured and beautiful gardens, a cathedral which is twice the size and breadth of York and which for sheer classical and brute strength has no peer.  Passionate people from every country on earth pour into St Peter’s Square daily and stand in formidable queues to visit the Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel and its many museums and gardens.  We had the privilege of a small and quiet group to visit Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel by meeting at 7.15am. Can there be a more well known image than Michelangelo’s muscular and dynamic ancient of days creator passing life by fingertip to a wan and basically limp Adam? And is there a more sustained image of despair than that of Michelangelo’s “thinker” not yet in Hell but being pushed in that direction with a seeming sense of culpability and what might have been; and Michelangelo’s own skin being offered as a dispassionate Christ appears to deliberately ignore a Mary who seems in awe of the power of judgment; and even the saved seem uncertain of whether the decision is for them. To be there in the still of the morning without the teeming crowds later in the day was a spiritual, intellectual and poetic experience I will not forget.

The stretch and breadth of the museums with their ten ancient world globes, every culture on earth it seems represented, ancient near Eastern cylinders and manuscripts, over 30000 classical figures, a pinocoteca with many wonderful paintings and tapestries and the library with the Codex Vaticanus ( a complete Biblical mss of the C4th). The museum of Contemporary Art was equally impressive, mostly but not only of religious themes and the strength of the fresco and tiling decoration of every surface – floor, ceilings, walls including all the corridors is overwhelming.  The Papal apartments with Raphael’s work and his stable of students are a study in themselves and the peaceful gardens invite reflection and prayer, something we even managed in a quieter section of the cathedral set apart for the purposeThis is a rich diet of spirit, mind, architectural and artistic skill of the highest and an extraordinary concatenation of faces and languages from all over the globe. The most amazed folk in our group were a family of Ecuadorans who had travelled to Italy to meet the Pope only to find that he was in Ecuador! Photographs from our harried iPhone cannot do any justice to this feast of the mind and spirit.  We are glad to have been part of this experience.Michelangelo  The PietaMichelangelo’s Pieta, even through bullet proof glass , combines love and despair in equal measure; in the entrance to St Peter’s Cathedral, it sets in my view, the perfect tone and overcomes the triumphalism of much that follows.

Raphael's Ascension of Christ combines an ethereal event with human commotion, faith and fear

Raphael’s Ascension of Christ combines an ethereal event with human commotion, faith and fear

The crowd in this Papal apartment forbad a proper perspective but this painting by Raphael with Plato conversing with Aristotle and mathematicians and philosophers of every suit arguing their case, for me summarises the best of the Renaissance.. It is an absolute wonder

The crowd in this Papal apartment forbad a proper perspective but this painting by Raphael with Plato conversing with Aristotle and mathematicians and philosophers of every suit arguing their case, for me summarises the best of the Renaissance.. It is an absolute wonder

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10 Responses to What a troika…The world’s smallest country holds the largest cathedral, a set of museums hard to match anywhere and surely the most impressively decorated chapel in the world..five hours in The Vatican.

  1. Sandy Curnow says:

    Dearest pair, you must be exhausted! All of the Vatican in that heat. you are very kind about St Peter’s — and the Pieta. i feel both are so poised, balanced, lack sense of pain.
    Sandy

    • raprideaux says:

      Well we came back to the Pieta right at the end of our day and it seemed as you say so poised, balanced and simple so perhaps what you saw as a theological weakness I saw as an artistic strength. I was so upset the first time I entered St Peter’s in 1998 by the baldachino over the altar in the centre …black, python like and so dominant. This time we went straight to the Pieta (which I completely missed in 1998!) and I tried to see the whole building architecturally and I even avoided looking at the baldachino. I did like the amazing high altar alabaster Holy Spirit light and many of the carvings especially of female saints were strangely reassuring. Like you I was irritated by the tombs and/or celebrations of the saints and I have the same dislike for all the graves in Westminster Abbey. I love the external placement of the cathedral and Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s statues…in general I feel very differently about the whole shooting match than last time and I have been very impressed by Pope John Paul 11 and Pope Francis. There is a new entrance to the Sistine Chapel which is like a Guggenheim stairway and it contains accurate models and photographs of what seem to be the canoes of just about every native tribal group in the world …an endless cavalcade. It is clear that many of these folk are not “Bible believing Christians” and what John Paul 11 is saying to me is that whatever Jesus thought he was doing on the cross (to ask an excellent N T Wright question) he was not just doing it for “Bible believing Christians” or for certain folk who can say a particular verbal proposition in English about Jesus dying for their personal sins but he was doing something on the Cross “for the sins of the whole world” as it says several times in the New Testament. (Tutu said it much more briefly: “God is not a Christian!”) So I came to St Peter’s this time with very different questions in my mind and my next book if it is ever written will be trying to work through these issues (possibly at the expense of some of my long-standing evangelical friends.). I still think the Cathedral could do without the baldachino and all the black stuff on the high altar. The other thing we did which helped me was to sit and pray in the section set aside for those who wished to worship. After all this is the purpose of the architecture ..not to amuse 200000 tourists a day. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog. You have been such an influence on my thinking ..in literature, history and theology. Look forward to talking these things through when we return.

      Love Richard and Ann

    • raprideaux says:

      Well we came back to the Pieta right at the end of our day and it seemed as you say so poised, balanced and simple so perhaps what you saw as a theological weakness I saw as an artistic strength. I was so upset the first time I entered St Peter’s in 1998 by the baldachino over the altar in the centre …black, python like and so dominant. This time we went straight to the Pieta (which I completely missed in 1998!) and I tried to see the whole building architecturally and I even avoided looking at the baldachino. I did like the amazing high altar alabaster Holy Spirit light and many of the carvings especially of female saints were strangely reassuring. Like you I was irritated by the tombs and/or celebrations of the saints and I have the same dislike for all the graves in Westminster Abbey. I love the external placement of the cathedral and Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s statues…in general I feel very differently about the whole shooting match than last time and I have been very impressed by Pope John Paul 11 and Pope Francis. There is a new entrance to the Sistine Chapel which is like a Guggenheim stairway and it contains accurate models and photographs of what seem to be the canoes of just about every native tribal group in the world …an endless cavalcade. It is clear that many of these folk are not “Bible believing Christians” and what John Paul 11 is saying to me is that whatever Jesus thought he was doing on the cross (to ask an excellent N T Wright question) he was not just doing it for “Bible believing Christians” or for certain folk who can say a particular verbal proposition in English about Jesus dying for their personal sins but he was doing something on the Cross “for the sins of the whole world” as it says several times in the New Testament. (Tutu said it much more briefly: “God is not a Christian!”) So I came to St Peter’s this time with very different questions in my mind and my next book if it is ever written will be trying to work through these issues (possibly at the expense of some of my long-standing evangelical friends.). I still think the Cathedral could do without the baldachino and all the black stuff on the high altar. The other thing we did which helped me was to sit and pray in the section set aside for those who wished to worship. After all this is the purpose of the architecture ..not to amuse 200000 tourists a day. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog. You have been such an influence on my thinking ..in literature, history and theology. Look forward to talking these things through when we return.

      Love Richard and Ann

    • raprideaux says:

      Well we came back to the Pieta right at the end of our day and it seemed as you say so poised, balanced and simple so perhaps what you saw as a theological weakness I saw as an artistic strength. I was so upset the first time I entered St Peter’s in 1998 by the baldachino over the altar in the centre …black, python like and so dominant. This time we went straight to the Pieta (which I completely missed in 1998!) and I tried to see the whole building architecturally and I even avoided looking at the baldachino. I did like the amazing high altar alabaster Holy Spirit light and many of the carvings especially of female saints were strangely reassuring. Like you I was irritated by the tombs and/or celebrations of the saints and I have the same dislike for all the graves in Westminster Abbey. I love the external placement of the cathedral and Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s statues…in general I feel very differently about the whole shooting match than last time and I have been very impressed by Pope John Paul 11 and Pope Francis. There is a new entrance to the Sistine Chapel which is like a Guggenheim stairway and it contains accurate models and photographs of what seem to be the canoes of just about every native tribal group in the world …an endless cavalcade. It is clear that many of these folk are not “Bible believing Christians” and what John Paul 11 is saying to me is that whatever Jesus thought he was doing on the cross (to ask an excellent N T Wright question) he was not just doing it for “Bible believing Christians” or for certain folk who can say a particular verbal proposition in English about Jesus dying for their personal sins but he was doing something on the Cross “for the sins of the whole world” as it says several times in the New Testament. (Tutu said it much more briefly: “God is not a Christian!”) So I came to St Peter’s this time with very different questions in my mind and my next book if it is ever written will be trying to work through these issues (possibly at the expense of some of my long-standing evangelical friends.). I still think the Cathedral could do without the baldachino and all the black stuff on the high altar. The other thing we did which helped me was to sit and pray in the section set aside for those who wished to worship. After all this is the purpose of the architecture ..not to amuse 200000 tourists a day. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog. You have been such an influence on my thinking ..in literature, history and theology. Look forward to talking these things through when we return.

      Love Richard and Ann

  2. Sandy Curnow says:

    From my different perspective, i agree with you entirely..I first saw St Peter’s when i was 20 — and was utterly scandalized. Loathed the Baldachino and other parts of the interior. Pure assertion of power. AS a pre-Vat II catholic I was comfortable with ritual and drama and architecture in the service of belief, but the brutal statement of magnificence — wealth and power that is the inside of St Peter’s, appalled me. A papal audience made it even worse. Tho it was Pope John XXIII who set up the great Vat.II Council. he was carried in on the sedilia, treated as someone utterly apart.
    it wasn’t just that it was theatre, or that this was aggrandisement.
    it seemed to me that the Church was certain that self-aggrandisement equalled truth.
    Many visits since — but last year’s, because the place was emptyish in the late dusk, gave me more time to think.
    Yes, there’s fine work there. But i still found it a memorial to the Papacy and authority rather than prayer.
    Like you, i love the exterior. The outstretched arms are joyful. i like the battered windblown saints on top..

    it’s 500 years this year since Tetzel first preached the Indulgences that caught Luther’s attention.
    hugs
    s

    • raprideaux says:

      Thanks again for your thoughtful interaction Sandy; it has been wonderful to share this pilgrimage with you. Today I was in St Ignatius’ church with the amazing ceiling in one sense glorifying his family but in another sense celebrating salvation. I have to say I have a new appreciation of Catholicism (and I have always had a lot of respect for the Jesuits) as a result of spending six days in the heart of Rome. It is an extraordinary privilege. I doubt I am ready for a Newman experience yet however!

      • Sandy says:

        The Gesu as well!
        What a rich brew.
        in the 16 years from the order’s founding til Ignatius’s death, it had spread out of Europe and numbered over 1000 men. Very lengthy training and great simplicity of life.
        The General is elected for life and is often jokingly called the black pope.
        There’s a nice early story of pope Francis who telephoned the General (he lives just round the corner) and asked to speak to his erstwhile Superior. “Who’s speaking?” “The Pope”
        “And I’m Napoleon Bonaparte”.

        on a serious note, Rome is an extraordinary city, isn’t it? I think I still don’t understand it very well. An aged Roman Princess once said to a Jesuit friend that ‘in 1870 the Italians came to Rome, and the city has never recovered’. that was in the 1970s. I can see her point.
        Love following your travels
        And don’t even think about Newman.
        xxxx

      • raprideaux says:

        Hi Sandy

        Rome is an extraordinary city and takes some getting used to. I am glad we strolled some of the main straight thorougfares and lunched outside the tourist zone so saw some real Roman shoppers with their dogs in action. Re the Gesu I think we missed that..I was looking for it. The Jesuit church which impacted me (excuse the modern prepositionless English) was the Basilica of St Ignazio di Loyola. I think the two of a similar age and standing. I love your quote re emperor vs pope..it was quite a tussle over the years and in some ways it still is. I think there would be very few world leaders (perhaps Nth Korea) who don’t feel the power of the Pope to raise the feelings of the populace. We have loved tracking down the Piero della Francesca frescoes here in Arezzo ..he is quite a comic. I have just finished Cellini…what a ratbag! and why wasn’t it ever finished? perhaps, like Mark’s Gospel, the conclusion was too hot to handle politically. Today we off to Sansepolcro and Monterchi in search of more Piero della Francescas and perhaps to Cortona, so beloved of Francis Mayes. Our offspring are safe and sound back in Phillip Island for which we give praise to God.
        Much love

        Richard and Ann

  3. Sandy says:

    Dear Richard, I’d completely confused the Gesu and the Basilica — which I’m not sure I’ve seen since my 1960 visit. Had forgotten it. a look on the internet — must say I thought it looked ‘too much’.
    I had no idea that Piero della Francesca was a love of yours. me too. and Peter Steele wrote a marvellous poem about his REsurrection which you showed — wrote of ‘ His grave-haunted eyes’.
    . Don’t worry about saints’ nonsense. The True Cross cycle tells its own truths, just as Biblical poetry does.
    I’d no idea that that propped up figure against the tomb – the one with the eyes closed, was a self-portrait. What an extraordinary concept: the painter who is supposed to see things that others can’t, is rendered as present but unseeing at the most important moment in Christian history. So of course he can image the moment only in retrospect. He is worthless as a witness, and yet he wishes to give witness.
    glad you beat the Sat Nav…….have a wonderful time!!
    xxxxx

    • raprideaux says:

      Quite agree in every respect. Much of Francesca’s work has been lost but we did enjoy tracking him down in Arezzo, Monterchi and Sansepolcro. I look forward to reading Peter’s poem. I think of him often and the favour he did me by speaking at the AHISA Conference in Melbourne when I was in charge of the services each day. Hope you are keeping well in the midst of what looks like a genuine Antarctic blast in Melbourne. Our kids are back safe and sound from Bali.

      Much love Richard and Ann

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