A Hushed St. Peter's; Theology of the Pietà

New Rules Mean a Quieter Basilica

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 22, 2005 (Zenit.org).- In Italy, the «tramontana» is the brisk wind that blows away the lazy days of summer and brings the crisp, busy days of autumn. This September, it seems that a tramontana is gusting through St. Peter’s, as new rules and policies are enacted through the basilica.

While some tourists may be dismayed by the changes, pilgrims will be delighted by the metamorphosis.

One new regulation requires all large groups touring the basilica to wear headsets while the guide speaks into a microphone. In the inevitable chaos surrounding the implementation of a new policy, several astonished tourists have seen their guide forbidden to speak in the absence of the so-called whisper sets. The sets are available for rental at the entrance to the basilica, but one should reserve ahead as they tend to be always taken.

The custodians are also strictly enforcing a no-tour rule from 4:30 p.m. on. Whisper set or no, large groups cannot tour the basilica as the sacristans are preparing for the 5 p.m. Mass.

The result is a thorn in the side for guides, but a joy for the faithful. St. Peter’s is quieter than it has been in years — even when cruise-ship companies disgorge thousands of tourists at once in the basilica. Instead of the din of explanations of this sculpture or that architectural marvel, there is a steady but low buzz of sound throughout the church until 5 p.m. when the choir washes away the day’s business leaving prayer and praise in its wake.

These changes are part of Benedict XVI’s desire to reclaim the basilica for the faithful and to enhance their experience of prayer and meditation in the church. Now in St. Peter’s there is not only an atmosphere to pray but encouragement to do so.

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Art of Compassion

Last week on Sept. 15, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, many a frustrated photographer was forced to jockey from one side to another of the balustrade in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà to get a clear picture of the statue. Instead of the clear glass and bare altar, the chapel contained two large lit candelabra, and an offering of flowers before the statue.

For the first time in many years, the Pietà revealed itself not only as a watershed work of Renaissance sculpture, but also as masterpiece of devotional art. Visitors and pilgrims alike were invited to think about the meaning of «Pietà» (compassion) as they meditated on the image of the Blessed Virgin holding her Son for a few moments before his entombment.

In Christian eyes, the innovations of Michelangelo become less of an aesthetic pleasure and more of a stimulus to prayer.

The pyramid composition, lauded as a triumph of the High Renaissance, serves not only to give order and monumentality to the work, but binds the Mother and Son together so that she appears as a living shroud for her Son. This composition, employed regularly for images of the Madonna and Child, reminds us how she held the infant Christ on her knee, as now she holds him one last time, limp and lifeless in her arms.

The high polish of Christ’s body, touted by guides as the only time Michelangelo gave marble such a bright shine, contrasts sharply with the shadows in the heavy folds of Mary’s drapery. When looking at the work, the first impression is that of weighty grief and sorrow, but deeper meditation hints at something else. Mary does not weep in anguish as in earlier Pietàs; rather, she is solemn and resigned — a reminder of her obedience to God’s will. The surface of Christ’s body reflects light, so that from the heart of the stone or the tomb, instead of darkness there is illumination.

Finally, to many visitors, the bare altar under the statue seems like a kind of pedestal, there to raise the statue to a better viewing position. But the sculpture only reveals its true meaning when it is above an altar.

Mary’s right hand still cradles her Son but the left has released him and opens in a gesture of offering. At the same time, the body of Jesus seems to be precariously balanced in his mother’s lap and about to fall onto the altar. When Mass was offered daily before the Pietà, at the moment of consecration, Michelangelo’s work dramatically represented the Body of Christ coming to the altar and gave vivid witness to the Real Presence.

In this Year of the Eucharist, could there be a more beautiful and eloquent reminder of the suffering, sorrow and sacrifice of Mary and Jesus for our salvation?

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Atheist Amid the Sacred

An atheist artist in St. Peter’s? It already strikes one as strange that Bertel Thorvaldson, a Protestant, was hired for the tomb of Pope Pius VII. But why did they hire an artist who placed his faith in the Communist Party rather than in God?

Giacomo Manzù, sculptor of the Doors of Death in St. Peter’s, more often than not is presented in this fashion as a sort of success story of secularism triumphing in the bastion of Christian art. Even a new exhibition in the nearby town of Alatri, entitled «Manzù and Classical Beauty,» attempts to emphasize the paganizing qualities of his art.

But for all the portraits of Manzù’s mistress Inge and the still-life themes of fruits and chairs, the fact is that no retrospective of the Italian artist who died in 1991 can ever be considered complete without some of the dozens of religious-themed works he produced.

Giacomo Manzù was born in Bergamo in 1908. His father was the sacristan of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna when 25-year-old Father Angelo Roncalli gave his first homily. Baptized and raised in a devout family, Manzù showed artistic talent at an early age and trained to become a sculptor.

His career started with a major religious commission, the chapel of the Università Cattolica of Milan, but suffering and war haunted the young man. First the death of his parents and then the deaths of his first two daughters marked Manzù’s first years of maturity. Later, when the Nazis invaded Italy, Manzù participated in the Resistance where he met and befriended many people who would later become the key figures in Italy’s Communist Party.

Manzù declared himself an atheist at one point in his life and always maintained close ties with his friends from the Resistance days. He was awarded the Lenin Prize in Moscow for his artwork and erected the Lenin monument in Capri. For these reasons, many objected when Manzù won the prestigious commission in 1952 to design a new set of doors for St. Peter’s Basilica, the Doors of Death.

Yet when he sculpted the reliefs of the «Crucifixion» and the «Deposition,» this artist modeled bronze panels in gnarled lumps and barbed, angular ridges to convey the experience of suffering in the material itself.

His famous series of «Cardinals,» bronze statues of the Princes of the Church, are often described as expressing Manzù’s disdain for these men through the rigid poses and stylized faces.

These figures are formed as pyramids or tall columns, however, shapes of stability and endurance. Their robes swoop in dynamic curves. Rather than rigidity, the cardinals convey contained energy. Perhaps the artist saw more than modern critics think.

Pius XII hired Manzù for St. Peter’s Basilica, Blessed John XXIII had his portrait done by him, and Paul VI bought a chapel executed by the sculptor for the Modern Art collection of the Vatican Museums. As often happens in art, there seems to be more here than meets the eye.

Manzù’s encounter with John XXIII affected the artist profoundly. Archbishop Loris Capovilla accompanied the artist to his first meeting with the Pope and wrote about the meeting in the foreword to the c
atalogue «Giacomo Manzù: The Artist and the Sacred.»

He described how the two men spoke in dialect as they were both from the same region, but Manzù only realized he had been speaking so familiarly after several minutes of conversation. The archbishop recounted how moved the sculptor was in the presence of the Holy Father.

Manzù saw the Pope many times during the pontificate and held him in great respect, but perhaps one of the most significant encounters was after the Pontiff’s death. Manzù was sent to make plaster casts of the face and right hand of John XXIII. After this he made an important addition to the Doors of Death. He added a panel representing the holy and prayerful death of the Pope.

The calm serenity of Christian death appears to have touched the artist greatly. Archbishop Capovilla wrote that at the end of the artist’s life, when Manzù’s physical strength had gone and «he could no longer draw or model clay, his tired hand was able to make the sign of the Cross.»

It seems that as Manzù was sculpting death, his doors were opening a path to a new life.

* * *

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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