Mysterious Beatification No-Show; a New Friend

US Represented Only by Ambassador Díaz

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 12, 2011 ( At almost two weeks from the beatification to end all beatifications, the spotlights have dimmed, the helicopters have moved on and there is finally time to reflect on the success of the party.

An estimated 1.5 million people crammed into St. Peter’s Square and surrounding areas to be present for the beatification of John Paul II, some spilling out into a few other sites, like the Circus Maximus, where giant screens broadcast the Mass.

Some 2,300 journalists representing 101 nations were accredited for the event between radio, television, print and Internet. The raising to the altars of John Paul II, a religious event celebrating supernatural grace, managed to captivate a world allegedly seduced by the empirical sciences.

The turnout was dazzling. Eighty-eight countries sent delegations; British royals fresh from the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the prime minister of France and the crown prince of Spain attended. Even the president and prime minister of Italy mended fences to pay homage together to John Paul II.

But as the delegations filed in to view the casket of the newly beatified John Paul II in front of the altar where he celebrated so many Masses during his 26-year pontificate, one was glaringly absent. The United States was officially represented by only the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Díaz, who took the position in 2009.

While there were other former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See present at the beatification, they had come privately to pay tribute to the man they had met and respected.

This was a bit of a turnaround from John Paul II’s funeral, when the United States delegation was led by the acting president George W. Bush, joined by former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. as well as First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It was also a change from the 25th anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II in 2003 when the United States sent 13 delegates to congratulate the Pontiff.

Indeed, the United States even sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Torino headed by First Lady Laura Bush.

To be honest, another superpower took the weekend off as well. Russia also limited its attendance to Ambassador Nikolay Sadchicov. Of course, Russia never allowed John Paul II to visit the country, and he did play a crucial part in dissolving the Soviet Bloc, so it already seemed pretty gentlemanly of the Russian Federation to send the prime minister for John Paul II’s funeral.

John Paul II however visited the United States during his pontificate five times meeting with as many U.S. presidents. Furthermore Roman Catholics comprise between 20% and 24% of the population of the United States, (as opposed to the 0.5% in Russia), so it is a little more mysterious why the country that so warmly welcomed Benedict XVI in 2008 would make such a poor showing in 2011.

Some greeted the news with relief, fearing a host of self-proclaimed Catholics who actively work against Church teachings lining up for Communion from the hands of Pope Benedict himself.

But perhaps it would have done them good to see a million people who had slept overnight in the Square, who gave up comfort, preferential seating and any hope of a photo op, to testify to a man whose ability to love and be loved went beyond political parties or ideologies. Perhaps they could have learned from these million people the power of Truth.

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Meditative counterpart

After last year’s blockbuster monographic exhibition for the 400th anniversary of the death of Caravaggio and the extraordinary opening of the Palazzo Farnese and its frescoes by Annibale Carracci, the new Lorenzo Lotto shows seem to have left visitors cold. So much so, that last Sunday afternoon, ordinarily a time when every art exhibit in Rome has a line trailing down the street, I walked right into the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome’s premier exhibition space, wondering if the show has already closed.

I thought I would reacquaint myself with an old friend from my undergraduate art history days, but instead I was floored by a genius. The Lotto show is Rome’s spring sleeper hit. The stunning paintings, the spectacular lighting and the peace and quiet are the perfect meditative counterpart to the chaotic Roman limelight of Easter and the beatification of John Paul II.

Lorenzo Lotto was born around 1480 in Venice. Although eight years older than Titian, who would become the giant of Venetian painting, Lotto found himself unable to compete with the well-connected and dazzling artist of the Serenissima and left Venice for the northern town of Treviso.

The exhibit opens with several of Lotto’s first major works, executed between 1504 and 1506, but one in particular, the San Domenico Polyptich is simply arresting. The play of light from the Virgin and Child to the angels cavorting below, and the exquisite details enhancing its stately grandeur, make one wistful for the days when these masterpieces stood above altars to inspire the faithful, instead of on a museum wall.

Lotto travelled all his life, going from the northern city of Bergamo to the Marche to Rome and back again. He arrived in the Eternal City just in time to gain a commission to decorate the apartments of Julius II, but was immediately eclipsed by Raphael, Rome’s rising star in 1510. Having learned a few lessons from the Roman masters in monumentality, Lotto turned northwards again to Recanati, where he executed the Transfiguration, an inspired blend of Venetian color and Florentine design.

Lotto’s artistic output was overwhelmingly religious with a few portraits thrown in for good measure. In the upper section of the exhibit, an early portrait of Bishop Bernardo de’Rossi captivates the visitor. With his luminous skin and limpid gaze, Bishop de’Rossi appears on the verge of speech.

Other portraits dazzle for their spontaneity, elegance or unusual poses. The Triple Portrait of a Goldsmith presents a bearded man with his hand on his chest from three angles, each more complicated than the next.

Part of the appeal of this artist is his fresh and somewhat startling take on well-known scenes. Two of his Annunciations, in particular the 1534 version from Recanati, stop the visitor in his or her tracks. The angel Gabriel stands in the background gesturing dramatically upward, but Mary turns toward the viewer with her hands raised, and looks right out of the canvas. The figure of Mary brings us uncomfortably close to her fiat, no longer passive viewers of the scene.

In his Trinity, Lotto paints God the Father as a ghostly shadow encompassing his Son, never seen before in art. This Venetian painter offers similar surprises and delights through the entire exhibit.

The Dominicans discovered Lotto early on and kept him employed for most of his life. For the great Dominican stronghold in Venice, he painted the magnificent Alms of St. Anthony, while for the town of Cingoli, he painted the Mysteries of the Rosary, a spectacularly well-orchestrated altarpiece.

Lorenzo Lotto painted the stories of salvation history with a deep personal faith, a fact that the exhibit does not shy away from. After a lifetime of painting in churches, Lotto became an Oblate in 1554 at the Marian sanctuary of Loreto. He died two years later and was buried at his request in a religious habit.

The exhibit will run until June 12, 2011, a wonderful opportunity to see old friends among the great saints who people these panels and to make a new one in Lorenzo Lotto, who painted them with such lively freshness.

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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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