A Feast Fit for Apostles; an Oratory for a Martyr

A Decked-Out Basilica, and the Storied Pallium

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 1, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Tuesday marked the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, a holiday in Rome when stores and businesses close.

It is also the titular feast of St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica gets fully decked out for the celebration and provides pilgrims with a treat for ears and eyes. In fact, the excitement becomes palpable as of the day before.

According to tradition, the morning of June 29 of the year A.D. 64, Peter and Paul were taken from their common cell at Rome’s Mammertine prison and separated. Artists through the ages have dwelt on their goodbye, often depicting the last embrace between the two friends.

The Golden Legend records their parting words:

Paul to Peter: «Peace be with you, foundation stone of the churches and shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!»

And Peter to Paul: «Go in peace, preacher of virtuous living, mediator and leader of the salvation of the righteous!»

Peter was taken to Nero’s Circus where he was crucified upside down, while Paul was taken east to the area now known as Tre Fontane. The name records the legend of the saint’s beheading, when his severed head reportedly bounced three times, creating three fountains.

The connection between the two saints is also evident in their respective basilicas. Emperor Constantine built the first six Christian churches in Rome from 313 to 328, and among them were St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s «outside the walls.»

Five of the churches face east, as was common in orienting churches at the time. St. Paul’s faces west, so that across the city, both basilicas watch over the sheep and lambs of their city.

Anticipation for the celebration is kindled on the eve of the feast as the church reveals her splendid decoration. The 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter is adorned with a high jeweled tiara, and a red and gold brocade mantle fastened with a topaz pin of the Holy Spirit.

The only parts of the statue protruding from the robe are the saint’s face, his keys and the famous foot, worn smooth from years of touching and kissing by the faithful. On this day, however, there is no rubbing of Peter’s foot as he is flanked by two discreetly dressed men carrying boxes for the offering of «Peter’s Pence,» a charitable fund used at the discretion of the Pope.

Below the statue a huge spray of deep red roses emit their sweet fragrance that mixes with the lingering scent of incense throughout the church. Still more roses surround Peter’s tomb and the papal altar is hung with a velvet and gold cloth of the same hue as the flowers. The rich scarlet serves as reminder that the blood spilled by the martyr 19 and a half centuries ago has helped lead to the Church we see today.

Even the light of the basilica cooperates in the décor. In the late afternoon, three distinct beams of light descend around Peter’s tomb, as if the Trinity were standing guard around the resting place of the Prince of the Apostles.

On the feast itself, the basilica sparkles with activity. Beyond the usual number of tourists and pilgrims, the church was filled with ecclesiastic glitterati. Forty-four archbishops scheduled to receive the pallium that day had arrived in Rome and red and purple caps flickered sporadically among the crowds.

The Mass began in the cooler hours of the early evening in St. Peter’s Square. After the homily the archbishops came forward to receive the pallium from the Holy Father.

The pallium is a circle of wool that hangs around the neck and shoulders with two long pieces draping one over the chest and the other along the back. It is decorated with six black crosses and weighed with pieces of lead.

Originally an identifying item that only a pope could wear, as early as the fourth century, writings tell of popes conferring the pallium on bishops.

The wool for the pallium comes from two lambs offered every year to the Pope. They are first taken to the Church of St. Agnes to be blessed. The lambs arrive wearing floral crowns, one white and one red. These represent the purity of Agnes, which the archbishops should emulate, and the martyrdom of Agnes, which the archbishops should be prepared to follow.

The lambs are then shorn and the palliums are made. On the eve of the ceremony the palliums are stored overnight in the silver casket above Peter’s grave.

Then the palliums are given to the newly appointed metropolitan bishops, the only occasion in which more than one bishop can be seen wearing the pallium at the same time. Symbolically, the Pope is sharing his mission to «Feed my sheep and lambs» with the archbishops. The wool over the shoulders evokes the lamb over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd.

It also reminds the archbishops of the burdens of their office.

The term «pallium» in Latin means «traveling cloak,» underlining the idea of pilgrimage. In the First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah calls Elisha to him by throwing his «pallium» over him.

The fact that this word is framed both before and after with the term «yoke,» calls to mind that the role of the archbishop is an arduous one and that by investing him with the pallium, the Holy Father confers some of his own weight and responsibilities on him.

Among the American archbishops here in Rome figured Sean O’Malley of Boston and Raymond Burke of St. Louis as well as Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who is receiving his second pallium, having received one earlier as archbishop of St. Louis.

Watching these men receive the pallium, the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá (whose memorial was June 26) seemed especially apt: «May the daily consideration of the heavy burden which weighs upon the Pope and the bishops move you to venerate and love them with real affection, and to help them with your prayers.»

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In Honor of St. John Beheaded

One of the great joys of living in Rome is the increased awareness of the liturgical calendar. Sometimes I’m made aware of it by an indignant phone call that I have inadvertently forgotten someone’s «onomastico,» or saint’s day. But other times it is the interlacing of art, culture and religion that makes a given day in Rome special.

Last Thursday, June 24, was the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is celebrated with particular flourish in Florence as he is the city’s patron saint. But due to the close connections between Florence and Rome he also gets quite a bit of recognition here.

For art lovers, the great gift of the day was the once-a-year opening of the oratory of San Giovanni Decollato (St. John Beheaded), which is something of a macabre name but oddly appropriate for the present caretakers.

The oratory was built in the 1530s for a Florentine lay confraternity. Confraternities were very popular throughout the 16th century. They marched together in processions, met for prayer and Mass, and engaged in charitable good works in reparation for sin.

The Archconfraternity of St. John assisted criminals who were condemned to death, hence the choice of patronage.

From 1536 to 1553, the oratory was frescoed by a group of Florentine Mannerist painters: Francesco Salviati, Jacopino del Conte and Pirro Ligurio. Although many confraternities were formed during the 16th century (over 60), they normally used pre-existing chapels, few built separate buildings, and only three decorated with fresco, which makes San Giovanni special.

This year, to the chagrin of those us who went racing over there, the oratory was not opened on June 24, but on the following Sunday for a tiny window from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Entering into the small chapel, one is engulfed by large frescoed panels recounting the stories of John the Baptist’s life. Like a silent I-MAX theater, color, light and movement surround the viewer.
From the Visitation to the Decapitation, these painters — all followers of Michelangelo who was apparently associated with the confraternity — created dramatic diagonal compositions, in vivid colors reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. The figures themselves seem like a series of all-star guest appearances — they are derived from Ghirlandaio, Raphael and, of course, Michelangelo.

Many art historians hail the Visitation as the finest work for its complex use of perspective and color. Two men — the patron and the builder — seem to be entering from the oratory floor into the painting by a secret staircase, an effect that adds accessibility and immediacy to the scene.

An adjoining room displays curiosities from the history of the order: the hood of the executed heretic Giordano Bruno and the basket that caught the head of Beatrice Cenci, the young woman convicted of patricide and subsequently beheaded in the most notorious trial of the 1500s.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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