Estimate reading time: around 10 minutes (2200 characters)
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM
… you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church …
There are places in this World that touch and move us in very special ways. Many years ago, when I have first visited Basilica San Pietro in the Vatican I had very high expectations in terms of what I was about to see. Any rudimentary search will speak about Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s Baldacchino and all the wonderful art that fills this one-of-a-kind monument, so I was indeed ready for a wonderful collection of masterpieces. What I didn’t expect though, is how all of it would strike me at a human level. Believe it or not, for a couple of seconds I couldn’t breathe!!! I am not joking … and I am a 33 y.o. psychologist … I have seen and heard quite a bit in my life, at least enough not get emotional very easy. San Pietro got to me!
As I was saying in another post, many people have criticised me or commented about my passion for grandiose buildings and opulent art and I really am not ashamed to admit that the impactful splendour of baroque emotionality is my favourite style (my dream home is the Palace of Versailles so …:) ) but here it was much more than that. It was a busy summer day on a weekend, the place was packed full of tourists and noise, I was there with a relatively large group of friends – not really the best time to start any introspective process :). I just placed my enchantment on the the art and the size of it all and I left the Vatican knowing that I totally fell in love with the Basilica and that I would sing it praises for months to come.
It wasn’t until 4 years later, when I visited San Pietro the second time that I actually got to process the feeling that I have here. This time around it was the beginning of March, a rainy Wednesday evening, first day in Rome and after some sightseeing I suddenly decided I can’t wait and I need to see the Vatican. In a much more intimate group this time we entered an hour or so before closing. Inside there were some people … but “some people” in the San Pietro feels like you have it all for yourself. As we entered, I took only 5 steps and the incredible vastness of the place just engulfed me, generating the same intense internal reaction, as I had the very first time. Being so little populated, now it felt even grander … and it was so silent compared to what I remembered … and there were so many details…
Spinning in a complete circle I raised my eyes towards the large amazing angels that grace the nave’s arches and I just realized that San Pietro redefines the meaning of size in art for me. Opulent? Huge? Perhaps … but those angel figures felt so right there and so well proportioned and in balance with the surroundings, that the feeling I got was more in line with… “they’re actually the right size … we are too short!” They are all at home here, man is actually just an occasional guest in their realm. From gigantic splendour to another I simply followed where my eyes took me, not minding the rest of my group who already moved rightwards, joining the choir of tourists gasping in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
It’s a pity to try and control the experience of such a place, so the best thing to do is to just surrender to it and go where it leads you. Here, I just let the statues lead the way. It almost felt like dancing with all these Saints! Bold, pious, triumphant or sorrowful … but they were all so proud to be there and they all sent a message … “you might be looking at us in our marble form … but we do have a lesson to share with you, we might be beautiful and old, but remember … this is not a museum!” And there is nothing more true or obvious when one eventually reaches the High Altar, superbly guarded by the 29m tall bronze canopy raising on top of St. Peter’s Tomb. If you look around you will see 4 amazing statues that stand taller than those around: Saint Longinus (Bernini), Saint Andrew (Duquesnoy), Saint Veronica (Mochi) and Saint Helena (Bolgi). Just look at them! If you are not Catholic or you’re not passionate about theology, there is a high chance you won’t know their story … and that’s totally fine of course. That is where art comes is in and its wonderful quality of intriguing us. Whenever I like a statue, or a painting but I am not sure I understand its message or the context … I just look at it longer, try to imprint in my mind those details that made it stand out to me, take pictures of course and then when I first have a chance I will find out more about it. Many new layers and meanings will arise when you look at your pictures, after you understood the moment a particular work tries to capture. (Obviously sometimes I would Google Search it there and then, especially when I am in Museums, but I try to refrain from doing that in churches, or palaces and so on, because I feel it disconnects me from the surroundings I am in).
It would make for a very long post to go through these 4 statues and anyway Its not my place, as I am neither an art historian nor a specialist in any way so there are much smarter resources out there on the great big www that can tell you all about them, but I strongly suggest you do look them up. You will read so much more in the large embrace of Saint Longinus and you will fill much deeper the ecstatic fervor of Saint Veronica afterwards.
One beautiful masterpiece I do want to share with you is the Tomb of Alexander VII, again by Bernini (I do admit Bernini is one of my all time favorite sculptors 🙂 so he is disproportionately present in the things I stop to ponder upon). Safely hidden in the Basilica’s south transept (on the left as you are looking at the Canopy) and usually distanced from the crowds by a velvet rope lies, this tomb. Many have described it in a lot of ways and I do invite you to find out more about it, I just want to share with you the feeling I had when I first saw it. Glancing your eyes over the beautiful statues (virtues) and taking a moment to admire the praying pontiff on top, you can’t help being drawn to that shadowy gilded figure depicting Death, as it menacingly raises its hourglass towards you. The fact that it is not in full sight, that it is just at that moment lifting that perfectly sculpted jasper veil, for me personally is a strike of genius. It’s like Bernini wants us to remember that Death indeed comes eventually for all of us but until it shows its head, how we live our lives matters. Will we also have four virtues to stand testimony for our legacy? Will we also pray serenely when the sand in our hourglass has been depleted?
This is what fascinates me about places such as the Basilica San Pietro. They manage to convey a message, they succeed in making you ask yourself questions. At a first glance it is all a gigantic structure that houses massive works of art clearly wanting to demonstrate the power of Chatolicism. That’s obviously! … But try to go a layer more, beyond the baroque PR of the XVII century Church and take any statue, any mosaic, any cherub that somehow speaks to you and let them guide your reflections on life, death, commitment, values, inner strenght and whatever else they might generate inside of you. One could spend hours here trying to decipher their lessons and how they resonate with them. I actually think it can make for a good psychoanalysis session! (It would be for sure much cheaper! 🙂 )
Lost among the far-off gazes of the Apostles, fascinated by the playful smiles of all those chubby little cherubs and in complete awe with the solar outburst of stucco sun rays bursting into the Basilica and bringing forth the Chair of Saint Peter, time quickly flew by and in a very elegant way we were led to understand it was time to leave.
On my way towards the exit, I still felt I didn’t want to ignore the Pieta completely … and as touristy as it may be, I really wanted to pay my respects in front of what I personally believe to be one of the most beautiful artistic creations in the world. And, although I know its shape quite well [Insert bragging moment here – I actually did a paper on it for my class on the Psychology of Art many years ago during my University years 🙂 ] … a picture makes for a thousand words and a glimpse makes for a thousand pictures. Still busy in front of it and protected by glass … there it was … that phenomenal piece of brilliantly chiseled Carrara marble.
I usually do care who is the artist that signed different pieces but what I try to do when in front of these famously, highly commercialised masterpieces is to try and fade out everything related to what I know, zone out of the surrounding people and let the statue guide me. It takes me about 3 minutes of blankly staring at it and after the amazement of all those superb details – the fingers, the folds, the muscles – set in, a different Pieta starts to shape up.
It actually doesn’t matter that it is Michelangelo, it doesn’t really make a difference that you are in the Vatican or anywhere else … it is a moment of high emotional charge … the dignified sadness of a mother holding the frail and lifeless body of her child, collapsed in her arms and caught among the folds of her dress. Forget everything that you know about Her and just look at how She contorts her left hand in a sign of helplessness. You are witnessing a parent’s most horrible nightmare … don’t ignore the emotion that generates. Then glide your eyes across, towards Her face … there is no despair there … there is no hysterical torment … it’s pure paralysing sadness. She is the Virgin, holding the Saviour’s body as He was taken down from the Cross … She always knew this moment would come … but She is His Mother nonetheless.
Even though religious monuments carry their timeless solemnity (and dare I say, Christian ones a certain sorrow in my opinion) I left that evening with a genuine joy of having had the privilege of understanding this amazing place a little bit more and myself along with it. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you are a believer or not, or whatever intimate spirituality you have, places such as the Basilica San Pietro – if you let them – have the power of moving something good inside of you – even if just more of an appreciation for the sheer size of Humanity’s artistic genius … but, perhaps, even a little bit more than that.
- Visit early morning or before closing. San Pietro is almost always a busy place but sometimes it can get very crowded – especially during weekends and summer months – and obviously such circumstances can quickly spoil the experience. So if you have a chance try to visit early morning (around 07.00 AM) or late in the evening. (06.00 PM October to March and 07.00 PM April -September). Always check opening times in advance.
- Queue. Always take into account that there is no way to skip the lines queuing to enter the Basilica. Although entering is free of charge, there you have to go through the security checks in Saint Peter’s square. The line moves impressively fast but sometimes, when it is crowded, it can take a bit over an hour to get in.
- Extras. Although entrance to the Basilica itself (and to the Grottos – containing the tombs of many popes) is free of charge, getting up the Dome is not and there is another queue for that just as you get out of the grottoes.
- Plan ahead. It might make for a more rewarding experience if you have an idea of what you want to see, or understand the layout before you go and know where everything is. Also, as I was saying earlier it could be a more complete moment if you know the story behind the major works of art at least.
- Links: If you want to read more about the Basilica these two sites helped us a lot, offering an incredible amount of information (from practical things to floor plans and information related to every art work inside)