Papal Processions Less Regal in 2005

Pantheon Pentecost; Luminous Art

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 19, 2005 ( Simplicity and discretion seem to be early hallmarks of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, and this has been very evident in Pope’s visits to the patriarchal basilicas.

In each case, such as when Benedict XVI took formal possession of his cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran on May 7, the Pope arrived by car, entered the basilica through a side entrance, celebrated Mass and greeted the crowds.

Possession ceremonies have taken this form since 1929 when the Lateran Pacts established the Vatican City State as a sovereign state separate from Italy.

The low-key form of the modern papal possession ceremony is a far cry from the triumphal parades of the past. In fact, the elaborate route of the earlier «solenne possesso» has been of great importance in shaping the city we know today.

From the Middle Ages on, it became tradition that a new pope ride in procession between St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s to take formal possession of the city of Rome over which he then held temporal rule. As the years went on, the route became more and more complicated in order to give the procession greater symbolic meaning.

The popes departed from St. Peter’s in the Vatican, where the coronation would take place. They passed Castel Sant’Angelo, then used as a papal fort, before crossing the Tiber river on the «pons Aelius» or the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, one of only two bridges spanning the river.

Then they entered the heart of the city. The Campus Martius was the residential quarter of medieval Rome and thronged with pilgrims, artisans and residents jammed onto narrow winding streets. This snarl of alleys, shops and stands were dotted with the large residences of noblemen and cardinals.

The few straight roads that plowed through this area were intended for processions. The most important, Via Papalis, along what is today the main thoroughfare of Corso Victor Emmanuel, was the site of one of the most interesting urban changes.

When the dome of St. Peter’s was completed according to Michelangelo’s plan in 1590, St. Peter’s had very different appearance from the basilica we know today. With the immense, tiara-shaped dome standing loftily above rounded apses, it stood as the «head and shoulders» of the Catholic Church.

All the churches built along the processional route, from San Giovanni dei Fiorentini on the Tiber, to Santa Maria in Campitelli by the Forum, were crowned with similar domes to show allegiance to the Pope. The effect, as seen from an aerial view, is one of smaller heads following their leader through the city.

The route originally skirted around the Roman Forum, which was known as «the cow pasture» in medieval times. During the Renaissance, the triumphant spirit of rediscovery of antiquity was also responsible for altering the route. Michelangelo was hired to redesign the Capitoline square so that the papal procession would climb the most famous hill of antiquity, and then pass down the Via Sacra of the Forum, the path of the ancient Roman triumphal parade.

The 17th century freckled the route with a few more churches including the first Baroque church, St. Martina and St. Luca, built by Pietro da Cortona placed next to the Via Sacra, but the Golden Age of the procession was coming to a close.

The pomp and pageantry of the papal procession belong to a period which is long gone (and not particularly missed), as these processions were ruinously expensive symbols of a very worldly approach to the Papacy. But visitors and citizens alike benefit from the changes made to the city that reflects Rome’s pride in the Papacy.

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Pentecost in a Pagan Temple?

This question passed through the minds of many tourists at the Pantheon last Sunday. Armed with guidebooks and cameras, people walked up to Ancient Rome’s architectural marvel prepared to explore the building dedicated to «all the gods» only to find people praying, a cardinal celebrating Mass and joyous song resonating throughout the hall.

Consulting their guidebooks, they discovered that the Pantheon had been transformed into a church in A.D. 609 when the Byzantine emperor gave it to Boniface IV. According to legend, the Pope brought 28 cartloads of martyr’s remains from the catacombs to the church for safekeeping, hence the churches official name, St. Mary of the Martyrs.

The Pantheon is one of the finest examples of Roman architecture and engineering. Probably built by the Emperor Hadrian between A.D. 118 and 125, it boasts a concrete hemispherical dome placed on a brick drum. The building is celebrated for its proportions as the height and the diameter are the same — 142 feet.

The most compelling feature of the Pantheon is known as the «oculus» or «the eye,» an opening at the very top of the temple. It has always remained open, so that on rainy days visitors can watch the rain falling inside the Pantheon.

But Sunday, instead of rain, Romans came to watch the Holy Spirit descend into the church. After a beautiful Mass, with many of the great relics of the Pantheon arrayed around the altar, and a stirring homily inciting the participants to combat ignorance of God in the modern world, all those gathered looked to the oculus as red rose petals poured through the opening.

Thousands of petals rained down upon the delighted faithful as well as surprised tourists, symbolic of the tongues of flame that descended upon the disciples almost 2,000 years ago.

And as with the apostles, the gathered people from all over the world walked out of the building praising God in many tongues.

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Russian Artist Illuminating the U.S.

It seems that Americans are poised to teach the Europeans a thing or two about art patronage. This week a new painting by Russian artist Natalia Tsarkova, best known for her portraits of John Paul II, will be unveiled in the United States — first in Washington, D.C., then in Atlanta.

The work is called «The Madonna of Light,» and was commissioned from Tsarkova by the Primavera Foundation. This foundation was created by an American couple, Earnest and Barbara Bentley, to renew the vitality of Christian culture through the fine arts. Together with Natalia Tsarkova, they have taken the first step in this direction.

«The Madonna of Light» is also a tribute to John Paul II and the luminous mysteries of the rosary which he gave to the world in 2003. Tsarkova developed a new iconography to represent the new mysteries.

In meditating on meaning of the new mysteries she imagined the Madonna, serene and beautiful, walking across clouds coming toward the world. With one hand she dispels the dark clouds of despair, replacing them with warm, golden light. Nestled in her other arm, Baby Jesus, the hope of humanity, looks out toward the viewers.

To frame the Madonna and Child, Tsarkova chose to represent the mysteries of the rosary as angels. The luminous mysteries erupt from the heavens, shimmering with light. The angel would be offering an open book symbolizing the new mysteries.

The angels of the joyful and sorrowful mysteries would be paired as a study in contrast. The joyful angel is painted in the bright hues of the sun while the sorrowful angel is colored in cold dark tones and crying as he holds the blood-red Gospel of the Passion. The joyful angel comforts the sorrowful by pointing up toward the new mysteries. At the lower corners of the canvas, the glorious mysteries blow trumpets toward the viewer, proclaiming the luminous mysteries to mankind.

John Paul II’s inspiration for the work is not forgotten in the painting. Tsarkova painted a miniature portrait of John Paul II in a reflection on the angel’s trumpet. It mirrors the miniature image of Mary as «Mater Ecclesia,» Mother of the Church, that she placed on his staff in her portrait of John Paul II for the Jubilee Year 2000.

John Paul II saw the »
Madonna of Light» over the Christmas holidays. The work was brought to the papal apartments and stood in the Pope’s library from Dec. 11 until Jan. 7. The Pope blessed the painting and was pleased to see illustration of his new mysteries.

From Rome the painting has traveled to America, where Tsarkova and the Primavera Foundation will present this Madonna of Light, this image of hope, praying that she will help bring about a Renaissance in Christian culture and Christian life in the New World.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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