Building a Bridge in Rome; Master of Color

Benedict XVI Lives Up to the 1st Meaning of His Title

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

ROME, JAN. 21, 2010 ( When Benedict XVI crossed the Tiber last Sunday to visit the Synagogue of Rome, it wasn’t to make a political sally or glean a little attention from the world press. He was living up to the age-old priestly title of Pontifex Maximus, meaning the great bridge builder. Unfortunately, this Roman nuance was lost on many during the visit.

In the ancient city, dominated by the powerful Tiber river, the bridges linking the two halves of Rome had a sacred character and were attended to by priests. The Roman Pontifex Maximus grew to be the highest religious authority in the pagan city, linking man and gods as well as the heterogeneous citizens under a common worship.

Although the first use of the term applied to the popes is unclear, (some say Tertullian used it for Pope Callistus in 220, while others claim it was first assumed by Leo the Great), the role of the pope as bridge builder has been clear from the beginning. The papacy bridged the Imperial transition from polytheism to monotheism, as well as the fall of the Empire to the birth of the European nation states. One of Christianity’s watershed moments took place on a bridge, when Constantine defeated Maxentius on the Milvian bridge in 312, bringing peace between the Pope and the Roman emperor.

Pope Benedict XVI’s many qualities include a strong historical memory, often not shared by his interlocutors. His visit to the synagogue is best viewed through the lens of history and tradition rather than the distorted prism of scandal and controversy.

Pope John Paul II made history when he became the first Pope to visit the great synagogue of Rome in April of 1986. Now Benedict XVI, with this visit, has formed a tradition to be followed by future Popes.

Chief Rabbi Di Segni laid solid planks of dialogue by inviting Benedict in 2006. For his part, Pope Benedict extended an unprecedented invitation to Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen of Haifa to speak at the October 2008 synod on the Word of God. Increasing frequency of invitations and visits is as concrete a bridge building process as laying bricks and cement.

In the four years of his pontificate, Benedict has visited three synagogues, the Holy Land as well as the concentration camp of Auschwitz in 2006. Constantly critiqued for “not criticizing anti-Semitism enough” at Auschwitz and “not looking sad enough” at Vad Yashem, Pope Benedict nevertheless keeps reaching across the divide.
“Institution of the Eucharist” housed in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The letters reveal the Pope’s concern for theological emphasis in the work, while Barocci’s finished product demonstrates his elegant handling of the dogmatic theme.

The Siena exhibition opened with a spectacular altarpiece painted for the Cathedral of Perugia of the “Deposition of Christ” from 1568. Recently restored, the work displays Barocci’s winning card at the artistic table, his use of color.

The Florentines had mastered line and drawing in art, creating imaginary space and increasingly complex poses in an intellectual game of painterly one-upmanship. The era of the Catholic Restoration called for art to stimulate people toward piety, and just as music can directly affect the emotional state of the listener, so can color. Barocci unveiled a new type of color, called “cangiante” or changing, by his contemporaries that both dazzled and delighted the eye. Barocci’s mesmerizing color, however was given order by his excellent draftsmanship, as the many drawings in the show attest. Most importantly, his compositions unfailingly led the viewer’s eye to the most essential meaning of the work.

In the case of the author’s favorite work in the show, “The Visitation”, painted for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome in 1586, Barocci’s composition links the altar with the sacred event. One figure on the left leans down to fetch a sack of bread and a jug of wine, seeming to lift the offering from the altar into the painting. Mary on a lower step reaches up from her space, defined by bright pinks, red and yellow, toward Elizabeth’s area which is colored in a dismal grayish tone. As Mary grasps the arm of her cousin, the first spot of color appears on Elizabeth’s sleeve, representing the entry of grace into the world. The bright splotch of yellow seems to express John the Baptist’s jump for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

This work was a particular favorite of St. Phillip Neri and he experienced one of his visions while contemplating it. Caravaggio, for his part, would paint his “Deposition” across the nave from Barocci’s “Visitation” and would utilize Barocci’s incorporation of the physical altar in his own work. Barocci’s signature orange/red combination seems to have also been the inspiration for the Caravaggio’s treatment of St. Paul in his “Conversion of St. Paul” in Santa Maria del Popolo.

The exhibit is part of a renewed interest in the painter who was considered by contemporaries as one of the greatest artists of his age. Two recent books have finally dedicated serious study to this artist who blended faith and beauty, Nicholas Turner did groundbreaking work in his 2001 monograph on the artis
t, while Stuart Lingo’s “Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting,” published last year, brought new information to light.

The Siena exhibit has taken another step toward returning this artist to the public recognition he enjoyed during his lifetime.

Unfortunately set in a smaller town, the show did not receive the attention and attendance that one might hope. Hopefully Barocci will soon make the leap to a major museum where his works can testify before a larger audience to the splendid beauty of art enlivened by faith.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation