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Vatican Treasures

(May 2001)

No visit to Rome would be complete without a tour of the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and the center of all Christendom. Even if you are not a Christian, the Vatican will inspire you with its vast array of beloved artistic treasures. There is so much too see—the architecture, the sculpture, the frescoes, the history, and, if you are lucky, the Pope.

If you only have one day to spend in the Vatican, a guided tour is highly suggested. Our guide, Alexa, led our group into the confines of the Vatican while holding a car antenna with a bright red scarf tied at the top. I found this quite comical since we looked like troops going off to battle—in this case, our fearless leader was a demure Italian art connoisseur, and our battle plan was to conquer a better understanding of art and perhaps the divine inspiration behind it. Battle plans aside, it was obvious the antenna/flag was the only way to keep the “troops” from getting lost within the massive crowds. The Vatican is more crowded this year than in others due to the Jubilee, a holy year proclaimed by the Pope every 25 years. For Catholics, it is a time of repentance, forgiveness, and pilgrimage.

The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums’ vast collections could keep an art enthusiast captivated for a lifetime. They contain several extensive collections spread throughout the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signature), the Chapel of Nicholas V, and the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery). The Borghese Gallery, the 17th-century palace of Cardinal Borghese, is both a showcase of Roman architecture and interior decoration, and a showcase of great works by Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio. Alexa was passionate in her explanation of each important piece that we stopped to contemplate. However, even Alexa knew that no explanation was necessary to describe the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel

Built in 1473 by Pope Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel is the private chapel of the popes. When I entered the Sistine Chapel, I got goose bumps. Not to sound clichéd, but the place is so beautiful that it leaves you speechless. Despite the hundreds of people in the room, it was serenely quiet. The paintings on the ceiling and walls and are the chapel’s most engaging features. Frescoes by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Signorelli cover the side walls. They depict scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ. As beautiful as these frescoes from these artists are, they pale in comparison to the most famous achievements in the chapel, the works of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo was in his 50s when he was commissioned by Pope Julius to paint the chapel’s ceiling. Over a four-year period, from 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo devised an intricate pictorial of scenes from the Book of Genesis, including God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. As you look up at this masterpiece, you cannot help but wonder how one man painted it. Perhaps it was a tempestuous four years of painting for Michelangelo. He once wrote, “Here I am 65 feet up, my neck nailed to my spine, plaster speckling my face. I may be a sculptor and a bit of a poet but no painter.”

While Michelangelo may have doubted his abilities, his work clearly spoke to many, including Pope Paul IV, who brought Michelangelo back to the Sistine Chapel 10 years later to compose The Last Judgement. Fittingly set upon the wall over the altar, this painting makes up the most colorful area of the chapel. It depicts the idea of people being dragged down by their own demons, with valiant martyr saints above them. Michelangelo was in his 60s when he painted The Last Judgement, and, perhaps feeling a bit temperamental with his own faith, he painted himself among those being dragged down.

Hundreds of years of exposure to light, soot from burning candles, and pollution have taken their toll on the chapel’s frescoes. In 1980, a massive undertaking to clean and restore Michelangelo’s frescoes began and was not completed until 1994. Michelangelo’s works had always been considered “dark” and “foreboding,” but what restorers and art experts uncovered under the soot amazed them and would forever change art history—Michelangelo was in fact a master colorist. Bright cobalt blue dominate the The Last Judgement, while gentle hues of pinks and lilac decorate the scenes of Genesis. The restoration was a divine rebirth of a masterpiece that had been misunderstood for centuries. One couple on our tour, who had toured the Sistine Chapel in the late 1970s, stated it was like seeing it again for the first time. Since the restoration, visitors are no longer permitted to take pictures or video, as light is damaging to these priceless works.

St. Peter’s Basilica

While Michelangelo certainly worked his magic on the Sistine Chapel, he again left his mark on another Vatican treasure, St. Peter’s Basilica. Adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, the massive Basilica of St. Peter (St. Peter’s Basilica) is Christendom’s largest church. This building, with the exception of some sites in Jerusalem, is Christianity’s most important site.

Entering St. Peter’s Basilica is an amazing, yet humbling, experience. The marble-covered basilica is capped off by Michelangelo’s famous dome that towers 400 feet above you, making you feel incredibly small. Much of St. Peter’s beauty is inspired by the Pantheon, not only in design but also in composition. The gilded bronze canopy covering the altar (designed by Bernini) is made from the bronze that once lined the dome of the Pantheon. Beneath the altar is the tomb of Simon Peter. The basilica is also home to many great works of art, but none is more beloved and treasured than Michelangelo’s Pieta, depicting Madonna holding Christ’s body in her arms.

After wandering around the basilica, we were led outside to St. Peter’s Square. We had the good fortune to be able to go through St. Peter’s porta santa (holy doors) that are unsealed with the Pope’s blessing only during the Jubilee year. It is said that passing through these doors is to be forgiven a lifetime of sins. As people passed through the doors, I noticed their hands symbolically touching the bronze reliefs (door sculptures). Without hesitation, I found myself doing the same.

St. Peter’s Square

Exiting out of the basilica to St. Peter’s Square is quite a sensation as you go from a massive, dimly lit indoor area to an immense, bright outdoor piazza. The square was designed by Bernini and is surrounded by a curving succession of pillars topped by statues of 140 saints. The focal point of the square is the obelisk at the center, which was originally from Alexandria and was brought to Rome by Caligula.

The square is vast and can hold up to 300,000 people during a Mass. For many Catholics celebrating Mass, celebrating it in this place is a spiritual highlight of their lives. Every Sunday morning when the Pope is in Rome, he stands on a balcony to give his blessings to the crowds gathered below.

I had not come to the Vatican on a pilgrimage as many had, but I found myself surprised at how emotional an experience it had been. I left with a feeling that perhaps divine intervention works in mysterious ways. Maybe in some small way I was a pilgrim. After all, part of travel is discovery and every journey is ultimately an act of faith.

Related Sites:

The Holy See: Official Vatican Website
Europe for Visitors's Italy for Visitors
Italia Tourism

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