'Path of St. Peter' Exhibit Made for This Moment in History

Looking at the Footsteps Pope Benedict Has Followed

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The surprising news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation has sparked myriad reactions and interpretations. Many media outlets in Rome juggled outlandish terms like schism or scandal or quitter, unable to understand the historical context of Benedict’s decision or the motives that contributed to it. Love of the Church and the intimate dialogue of prayer are not concepts that most media outlets understand.

Some Romans, sensitive to weather changes and superstitious besides, trembled as lightning hit St Peter’s dome on the night of the decision. Never mind that there was also a lightning storm on the day Blessed Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and that seems to have turned out okay. Most, however, are excited to be entering these new uncharted waters, knowing that together with Pope Benedict we are writing a new chapter in Church history.

I spent the day Tuesday reading every sort of news report from the sublime to the ridiculous, all the while trying to comprehend Benedict’s decision as best I could. In the evening, I walked into the Castel Sant’Angelo where a new exhibit opened Feb. 7. «The Path of St. Peter» seems tailor-made for this moment in history, almost as if Benedict curated it himself so as to help us better understand the role of St. Peter and his successors.

Housed in a former imperial mausoleum-turned papal fortress-turned museum, this exhibit brings together 40 works from East to West, and from the dawn of the Christian age to modern times, illustrating the story of Peter’s vocation, response and destiny. It is the city’s gift to the Year of Faith, co-curated by the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and the superintendent for the historical and artistic patrimony of Rome.

«St. Peter has always stimulated the minds of artists,» said Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Indeed, from icons to statues to large-scale altarpieces, the stages of Peter’s life have been renewed from generation to generation through artistic talent.

This fruitful collaboration between the Church and the secular state shown in this exhibit is an inspiring model of how holiness and beauty can bring people together.

The exhibit was subtitled «What a Man can do for God and what God can do for a Man,» transforming these paintings and sculptures from pretty pictures to potent testimonies of the extraordinary things man can achieve in cooperation with God’s grace.

The installation is exceptional (a word I use rarely in these exhibitions), enhanced by audio, video and graphic effects that make Peter’s saga part of the present life of the Church, as indeed it is through his successor. The didactic, thanks to Don Alessio Geretti, curator of the exhibit, astounds for its theological acumen. It may skimp on the art component, but it forces visitors to think about the images they are enjoying in a very different way.

The show will run until May 1 and those planning on coming for our imminent conclave or to rejoice during the Easter celebrations with our new Successor to St. Peter will glean much from meditating on the mystery that is the Prince of the Apostles.

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A Rock in Troubled Times

The curving ramp in the Castel Sant’Angelo leading to the exhibit seemed well suited to the day after the papal resignation. It is a winding path, leading seemingly to nowhere, flanked by heavy walls that appear to press inwards. I rejoiced in the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and I had worked very hard to try to keep up with the intellectual challenges of his pontificate. I had learned much, was learning more and was looking forward to the next lesson. So his resignation left me on the one hand with the certainty that this was a decision made with and by the Holy Spirit, but on the other the frustration of not understanding what the Holy Spirit was thinking.

My inner child wanted to say «Come back Holy Father, I’ll behave, please don’t leave.» The fact that the most famous pope to step down, Pope Celestine V, wrote in his bull of resignation that he was resigning because of his «ill health and the wickedness of the people» was ringing in my ears. But Cardinal Arinze reproached us for such childish thoughts in his Tuesday interview when he invited us to mature in our faith, leaving behind the sentimentality of «I like» or «I want» and to be strengthened in our faith in Christ.

Still, the unsettling feeling that comes from uncertainty continued to haunt me as I reached the first room of the exhibition and I was confronted with an image of St Peter sinking in the water. The boat in a storm, Jesus calmly walking on the water, Peter walking toward Him and then beginning to sink. The wood panel, carved in Brunico in Northern Italy in 1480, captures Jesus reaching for Peter as He says, «O you of little faith, why did you doubt?» (Matt 14:31). It seemed that those words were meant for me in these tempestuous days.

The opening section of the exhibit is titled «Encounter,» and it announces that faith is born of a meeting. Much like that of Peter on shores of the Sea of Galilee, all the faithful have encountered Christ in our lives, and our faith, as Cardinal Arinze reminded us, is born of this meeting. The images of Peter from wood carvings to large oil paintings reveal a wide-eyed Peter, completely focused on Jesus. His awareness of the presence of God is the focus of the artist’s effort.

The second part is called «Stupor,» and here painters and sculptors try to capture that moment when one falls in love with God. The marriage of faith and philosophy, wonder and reality, has inspired art from the beginning. Many painters opted to use light. A 15th-century icon of the Transfiguration from Novgorod has Peter bowed by the light of Christ. Mattia Preti’s Tribute Money from 1645 pulls a tight group around the table with a single ray caressing the brow of Peter as he draws the coin from the fish. A third work from the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg reconstructs a gritty historical setting of a first-century home in the «Daughter of Jairus» from 1871, yet it is the light that Jesus bestows on the girl and Peter’s rapt expression from the other side of the room that truly illustrates the meaning of «thaumaturgus,» or «wonder-worker.»

There are several rooms, each with its own unique opportunity for contemplation. «Resistance» spoke to me powerfully on that difficult day, as I studied images exploring Peter’s difficulty in fully accepting «the difference in how God reveals Himself and how man expects Him to be revealed.» As Peter shies away from Christ in Giovanni Baglioni’s Washing of the Feet, I saw myself struggling to accept a will of God that did not conform with what I thought His will should be.

Peter’s faith is forged in struggle as he «clumsily faces the immense preference Christ has for him» until he finally, in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, says «Lord, you know everything; you know I love you» (Jn 21:17).

«Crisis and Rebirth» brings us to the Passion, the heart of the exhibit. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, «The Gospel According to Matthew,» fills a giant screen as one enters, followed by the room of Peter’s great betrayal. The audio in the chamber narrates the Gospel history of Peter’s denial of Christ. As those words resound in the room known as the hall of justice, how can we not hear it as a ringing condemnation of our own sins? 

But as the lights dim on George de la Tour’s image of Peter’s darkest moment, they illuminate a stunning image of Peter and John running to the tomb on Easter morning. Painted by Eugene Burnand, the sunny tones of this 19th-century Swiss painter and the astonishing expression of Peter raise the spirits.

One leaves Peter’s witness to the Resurrection to enter into the area designated «Abandonment to God.» Studious Peter is absorbed in writing, while Penitent Peter by Guercino appears like a mirror before the viewer. Peter, emaciated from fasting and penances, looks upward in tears. Through his purification, he will be ready for his mission.

The next few sections take us through his fellowship with St Paul and his ultimate martyrdom, but the final part of the exhibit is not in the darkened halls crowded with pictures, but outside when we look across the terrace to the mighty dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. This glorious tomb of the apostle, blossoming over the pauper’s grave where Peter’s body was first thrown, reminds us that the Church has seen many challenges to the See of Peter, but «the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.»

In the show, we gain a tiny glimpse of the footsteps that Pope Benedict has followed. We see the immense burden laid on his shoulders as well as the dynamic presence of God by his side, helping him fulfill his vocation in the best possible way.

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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. A new paperback version of her book, «The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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