Picture This: 70 Popes, Together; Europe's Mother

Exhibit Runs the Gamut of Pontiffs and Personalities

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 2, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Imagine a papal audience with 70 popes present. No relation to the darkest moment of the great schism, when no less than three contenders claimed the papal title, but dozens of successors of St. Peter, standing, sitting, smiling, praying, blessing everywhere the eye turns.

This is the effect of the newly opened exhibit, “Popes in Pose,” housed in the Palazzo Braschi (former residence of Pope Pius VI) which overlooks Rome’s Piazza Navona.

Dedicated to the 26th anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II, this exhibit brings together papal portraits from the Renaissance to the present. Raphael’s portrait of Julius II della Rovere (actually a 16th-century copy) painted in 1512 dramatically opens the age when portraiture came into its own. No longer satisfied with the stiff profile images emulating medals and coins of ancient Rome, 16th-century society expected portraiture to express the character and the personality of the sitter.

Raphael painted two Popes, Julius II della Rovere and Leo X of the Medici family. The two images give radically different impressions. Julius is seen as frail and tired. Once a big, powerful man, now he sits hunched in his chair with sunken cheeks and lines of exhaustion under his eyes. Although his body has lost its strength, his pursed lips and energetic fingers clutching his handkerchief state that the Pope has lost none of his authority.

On the other hand, the Medici pope is painted in a symphony of reds, using the rich Venetian technique of blending shades to confer a visual sumptuousness. The Pope dominates the foreground while two cardinals stand nearby. He holds a jeweled magnifying glass as he inspects an illuminated manuscript. The luxury and fine taste of the Medici family are on display here. One can almost hear his voice, rumored to have once stated, “God gave us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Of all the Popes portrayed in this show, only two are saints (although there are a couple blessed), and both bear the name Pius. The portraits of Pope St. Pius V and Pope St. Pius X, though separated by 400 years, share an austerity in both surroundings and facial expression, indicative of their focus on the spiritual over the temporal.

The 17th century was a spirited age, celebrating the active evangelization of the New World. Papal portraiture developed in a new medium: sculpture. Like the emperors of antiquity, the popes chose to be immortalized in marble or bronze. Unlike their pagan predecessors, however, instead of being represented as immobile and godlike, above the cares of this world, they were captured in action, lips parted, brows furrowed.

Bernini’s bronze portrait of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi ushers in this new style, which will be transferred to the canvas by Pietro da Cortona and his portrayal of Pope Innocent X.

As the viewer passes from room to room, different considerations come to mind. How should a pope be represented? Should he seem absorbed by the spirituality of his office, with rapt gaze directed heavenward? Should he be attentive to his pastoral mission, looking out over his flock with his hand raised in blessing? Perhaps he should be accompanied by cardinals reflecting leadership with good counsel.

An interesting solution to these questions comes in the form of the last portrait, that of John Paul II, by Russian artist Natalia Tsarkova. Instead of the typical red robe that adorn the other pontiffs, the Holy Father wears a mantle of gold brocade over his white cassock, substituting the color of grace for the color of authority. The pallium sits heavily on his shoulder as a reminder of the burden of his office, with St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance, bathed in light of dawn. The Pontiff leans heavily on his staff, surmounted by the crucifix, a reminder of what sustains the Pope in his mission. The painting also reveals an intimate side of the sitter — on the Pope’s staff there is a miniature reflection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This portrait draws together many qualities of a good pope. The temporal responsibility as leader of the Church sees the Holy Father placed in the foreground as if leading the flock into the new millennium. While it helps the viewer understand the loneliness of his task, it also shows the grace and love that is his patrimony as Christ’s Vicar on earth.

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Virgin Land

As we open the first windows of our Advent calendars, the city is preparing for the first great festivity of this joyous season — the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The city will deck the statue of the Blessed Virgin in Piazza di Spagna with flowers and the Pope will celebrate the event with a special Mass in St. Peter’s.

But throughout the European Union, the Immaculate Conception is commemorated every day. As banknotes change hands, traffic buzzes about the streets and flags fly overhead, everywhere Europe looks, it sees a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background.

This symbol is defined today as 12 stars representing “completeness” by the leaflet distributed at the EU headquarters in Belgium while the EU Web site points out that the 12 stars are a “symbolic number representing perfection.” While no explanation of the stars is offered, it is noted that 12 is the number of hours on a clock, the months in a year, signs in the zodiac, tables in Roman law and gods in Olympus.

It is also the number of the tribes of Israel and Jesus’ apostles. It also divisible by three and four, the numbers of the theological and cardinal virtues. More importantly, 12 gold stars circle the head of the Blessed Virgin Mary in images of the Immaculate Conception. This iconography comes from the Book of Revelation 12:1 and the description of the appearance of a “woman clothed with sun, and a moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” Catholics associate this figure with Mary and the stars with the apostles. The color blue is associated with the Blessed Mother and traditionally only the best lapis lazuli blue was employed to color her robes in art.

Though his motives were unknown to many, Arsene Heitz, the French designer of the flag, declared that he was inspired by the descriptions of Marian apparitions in Paris, which are now referred to as the Virgin of the Miraculous Medal. Heitz, a devout Catholic, entered the flag design competition of 1950 with his circle of stars on blue ground and won.

It just so happens that 1950 was the year the liturgy for the Mass of the Assumption that took as its introit Revelation 12:1. It just so happens that the flag was officially adopted on Dec. 8, 1955. France, Luxembourg and Siena were among the cities and countries once consecrated to the Blessed Virgin.

Coincidence? Certainly it is presented as such nowadays. Meanwhile, the euro currency, license plates and the ubiquitous EU flag proudly display these stars.

Christians in Europe can take comfort from the thought that even as a child may push away its mother, ashamed to admit dependence, a good mother hovers patiently nearby, ready for the moment when her child will turn to her again in need.

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Agog Over Ordinands

Living in Rome, especially near Vatican City, is like living history in the making, as there are regularly historic visits, events or celebrations going on. But this weekend, there was a novel feeling of reliving history around St. Peter’s.

Among the events of this past week stood out the priestly ordination of 59 Legionaries of Christ. The Pope subsequently received a group of some 7,000 members of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, the apostolic movement associated with the congregation, and Rome seemed particularly charged with enthusiasm and excitement

It spread through the streets and even infected the Romans, tourists and weary students out on early-morning site classes. The day of the ordinations, I was standing in front of the Church of the Gesù, built for the Jesuits, lecturing to a group of cold, tired students looking forward to their Thanksgiving dinner.

Suddenly their faces perked up, eyebrows raised in curiosity and pointing behind me they asked, “Where are all those priests going?” Busload after busload of Legionaries were passing us by, each window filled with smiling faces. Hearing that there were to be 59 religious ordained that morning, the students dropped the blasé morning-class face and started to cheer and applaud. Romans out shopping and lost tourists stared in open-mouthed wonder as the eight large buses containing priests and seminarians passed through the heart of Rome.

Sunday morning in St. Peter’s Basilica was special too. At its 45 altars where the canons of the basilica and visiting priests celebrate Mass every morning from 7 to 8:30, there were scores of priests, including many of the newly ordained, saying Mass, waiting for a free altar or heading back to the sacristy.

Surrounding them were thousands of faithful — family, friends and the early-morning Mass crowd. Even the St. Peter’s “regulars” seemed a little awestruck to see the basilica so busy so early, candles lit on every altar, priests robed in purple everywhere one looked.

And the singing. Hundreds of strong voices, resounded from the apse, the side chapels, even through the floor from the altars in the crypt intoning, Latin, English, Spanish, French, Italian and German hymns. St. Peter’s truly felt universal as God’s praises were sung in many languages by people from the four corners of the world.

Again my students were there, attending their first Mass at the basilica. They came to me in wide-eyed wonder asking, “Is it like this every day?”

Indeed, St. Peter’s is not like that every day. Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, archpriest of the basilica, made a special exception that morning to allow the Eucharistic celebrations to continue until 9:30 a.m., breaking the rule that “private” Masses must end by 8:30 a.m.

I walked up to one of the custodians I have known for years here as he was surveying the crowds, a half smile playing around his lips. I asked if he had ever seen something like this before. “No,” he answered, “but this is what the church was built for.”

In this long period of cynical predictions regarding a dearth of vocations and lack of interest in the church, few sights could better revive the spirits than the immense St. Peter’s bursting with prayer, song and love.

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

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