Mother Teresa's Masterpiece; Recalling Rome's Fall

Who’s the Best Artist to Depict the Calcutta Nun?

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 26, 2010 ( Rome is celebrating a summer of anniversaries.

Today the Eternal City (along with the rest of the planet) is marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Liturgies, meditations, exhibitions and even postage stamps, have been readied in honor of this diminutive religious sister who changed the world.

One hundred years after her birth, Mother Teresa’s life continues to inspire (most) people to be their best: her works, words and example are like a wondrous masterpiece of art.

One month earlier, Rome celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Caravaggio, one of the greatest painters in Italy’s history.

Rome celebrated Caravaggio with a remarkable exhibition of his works, held in the former papal stables. On July 18, the day of his death, the museums and churches containing his works stayed open all night, a strange recollection of Caravaggio’s passion for nightlife, which ultimately led to his exile for murder.

Researchers even declared that they had found the bones of the painter, tucked away in a communal grave in Porto Ercole where the artist died. The supposed bits of jaw and bone fragments made a macabre addition to Caravaggio festivities.

In a bizarre turn of events worthy of Caravaggio’s dramatic life and style, the Jesuits at the Roman church of the Gesu claimed to be in possession of a lost Caravaggio work, “The Martyrdom of St, Lawrence.” The news was broken by L’Osservatore Romano during the week of the anniversary. After the rediscovery of “The Taking of Christ” in a Jesuit refectory in Dublin, it seemed too good to be true. It was. Most scholars have dismissed the possibility the work is by Caravaggio on the grounds of style and execution.

The sensationalism that surrounded this anniversary is all the more accentuated by the joyous prayerfulness for Mother Teresa’s birth.

Caravaggio died as he was returning from four years in exile for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni in a sword fight. Promised a papal pardon, Caravaggio alighted on the shores of the papal states laden with paintings and full of hope.

When questioned by local authorities however, Caravaggio lost his temper and found himself in a jail cell while his belongings left on the boat for Rome. Released a few days later, he started off on foot for home. A fever overcame him and he died in a local hospice.

Caravaggio’s end was first described by an old enemy, Giovanni Baglione, who wrote an acerbic biography of his long-standing rival. “He died miserably, just as he had lived miserably,” pronounced Baglioni.

Seen together, Caravaggio’s death and Mother Teresa’s birth perhaps provide a little artistic lesson. Caravaggio’s most famous trademark is his ever-present tenebrism, a constant encroaching darkness, kept at bay by his use of light, a mysterious and supernatural guide through the trials of this life.

Less recognized is the humility with which Caravaggio painted his saints and heroes who were frequently garbed in coarse wear and almost discarded at the base of his compositions.

A true mirror for his age, Caravaggio could recognize the essential virtues for salvation, he could paint them persuasively, but his struggles to embody them in his own life were often unsuccessful.

Mother Teresa, however, would have been very much at home in Caravaggio’s work. She, living in the hardest conditions imaginable, experienced the tenebrism of Caravaggio’s art during her “dark night of the soul,” but instead of giving reign to her feelings as Caravaggio often did in life, she steadfastly followed the light of Christ.

A Nobel prize winner and one of the most famous women in history, Mother Teresa remained simple and humble throughout her life, personifying the ideal of humility that Caravaggio had revolutionized in his painting. If he were alive today, he would have been the ideal artist to represent the saint.

Caravaggio’s struggles with holiness were played down this year as flashy headlines milked his bad-boy reputation for all it was worth. It seems for a man who met such a sad and lonely end, a few prayers and Masses would have been in order for Caravaggio too.

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Awaiting another city

Amid these important anniversaries, one date in particular reminds Romans of the fleetingness of temporal glory. On Aug. 24, 410 A.D., Visigoths invaders sacked Rome, the first such humiliating defeat in 800 years, after the Gauls had overrun the city in 387 B.C..

The 400-year growth of the Roman Empire had seen the city on seven hills extend its boundaries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River. The Roman army was universally feared as the mightiest military machine in the world, and the emperors had even adopted a policy of incorporating foreigners for military service to slowly domesticate their unruly enemies. The empire, though far from stable, fought its battles distant from its heart, Rome.

Furthermore, more for economic stimulus than for actual need, Emperor Aurelian had constructed a new set of walls for Rome, replacing the older, smaller Servian walls from the Republican era. Twelve miles long and 26 feet high, these fortifications boasted a watch tower every 100 feet. Within these walls, Romans had enough water and arable land to wait out the unlikely event of a siege.

The Aurelian walls enclosed a showcase of ancient architecture, from elegant temples adorned with exotic stones taken from Rome’s many conquests, to structures of dizzying height and breadth, proclaiming the supremacy of Roman engineering.

Boasting such beauty and power, Rome, the caput mundi, or head of the world, could never fall. Or so the Romans thought.

The Visigoths arrived at the great walls of Rome in 408. Undaunted by the display of Roman defensive engineering, they besieged the city, cutting off food supplies, and destroying the outskirts. Fueling the Visigoths determination was the desire for revenge.

The Visigoths had been pushed out of their lands by the Huns and settled in the Eastern Balkans. Starting out as pillagers, they soon grew into a military force to be reckoned with. In 382, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius offered the Visigoths the province of Thrace in exchange for military service.

The Visigoth leader, Alaric, had fought for Theodosius in several important battles but after the emperor’s death in 385, the Visigoths found themselves again on the wrong side of Roman hostility, until the Roman general Flavius Stilicho claimed their allegiance. But disputes with the Senate, the murder of Stilicho and the massacre of barbarian soldiers and slaves spurred Alaric and his followers to action.

The capital of the Roman Empire had been transferred to Ravenna, so Alaric found a vulnerable Rome. The Senators first tried to buy off the attackers, but it was only temporary respite. On Aug. 24, 410, barbarian slaves in the city managed to open the Salarian gate to the invaders. For three days, the Visigoths sacked the city, plundering treasuries and damaging Rome’s splendid mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus.

Shocked Romans fled the city; those who remained could not understand how this devastation had happened. As St. Jerome, himself a Roman citizen, wrote, “The city which had conquered the whole world was itself conquered …”

Many attributed the sack to the abandonment of the old pagan gods in favor of Christianity. In 380, Emperor Theodosius had decreed Christianity the sole religion of the empire, and in 382 Emperor Gratian removed the golden statue of the goddess of victory in the Senate house, amid protests from senators and citizens alike.

The outcry against the conversion of the empire increased until St. Augustine responded by writing “City of God” to give Romans a Christian perspective on the troubles that had befallen them. His lessons on the
Earthly City versus the Heavenly City still provide good guidance today in a world as turbulent and violent as his.

St. Augustine first countered the claim that the worship of the Christian God had angered the ancient deities, bringing about this bloody chastisement. Countering that the pagan gods neither stopped the sack of 387 B.C., nor any other disasters, natural or man-made, he criticized those who would worship gods for worldly gains.

Augustine viewed the world as nearing the end of its life cycle, despite the Roman’s pride in their technological innovations and novelties. The Church Father exhorted, “Do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: ‘The world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath.'” In our world where people search for eternal youth in exercise, surgery and sexual escapades — everywhere except in Christ — Augustine’s words seem particularly apt.

St. Augustine compared the events of his day to a kind of olive press, squeezing olives to produce the best oil. Instead of gazing forlornly at the ruins of Rome, he enjoined Christians to be active in their faith, and bear witness to the Heavenly City, the true home of peace and happiness.

St. Augustine’s prescience concerning the fate of the empire was soon proven right. In 430, the Vandals invaded northern Africa, and seized Hippo, where Augustine was bishop. At the age of 75, St. Augustine died within the walls of his city under siege, to enter his City of God.

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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

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