While Pope Francis has often extolled the beauty of saints, holiness and faith, over the last few weeks (to the joy of this art historian) he has twice devoted his attention to the power of art.
On Oct. 19, the Roman Pontiff met with 350 Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, an international organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the Vatican’s collection of art, and on Nov. 5, he sent a message to the Russian Synodal Choir which performed at St Mary Major. In both cases, Francis discussed the role of art.
What made his comments particularly interesting is that one address seemed to hold up the active nature of art while the other praised its role in contemplation and prayer.
To the choir, Pope Francis explained that “art in all its forms does not exist only for simple aesthetic enjoyment, but because through art the Church in every moment of history and in every culture, explains and interprets revelation for the good of the People of God. Art in the Church fundamentally exists for evangelization.”
Art moves, persuades and in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict, “wounds” us, opening viewers or listeners to the Divine. This active, dynamic role of art has been felt by millions of people who have crossed the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica.
To the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, on the other hand, Pope Francis explained that art—especially that of the pontifical collections—bears “witness to the spiritual aspirations of humanity, the sublime mysteries of the Christian faith, and the quest of that supreme beauty which has its source and fulfillment in God.” This description of art seems to allude to the quiet reinforcing of faith and the deepening of one’s intimate relationship with the Lord that happens when confronted by beauty.
In these same weeks, two books have been published that highlight in one case a more active appreciation of art, while the second offers a guide to intimacy with Christ through art.
The first is a new, pocket-size Guide to the Basilica of St. Peter, written by long-time expert Rome guide Ester Scoditti and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana under the aegis of the archpriest of the basilica, Angelo Cardinal Comastri.
At less than 100 pages, this manageable guidebook is bound to be anyone’s best friend while visiting St. Peter’s. Borrowing the user-friendly technology of audio guides and tablets, the book color codes its sections into different areas of interest: the main square, the construction, the funerary monuments and the altars, so the visitor can thumb back and forth between the Pietà, the baldachin and the tomb of St. Peter.
Each monument is described succinctly yet engagingly by the author. Some more famous monuments are awarded more space and here Scoditti shares unusual facts about the work, such as the different placements of the Pietà over the years. Unfortunately, the streamlined nature of the book meant that some works had to be left out, for example the Tomb of Pope Pius VII, a personal favorite of mine, sculpted by the first non-Catholic artist to work in St. Peter’s, Bertel Thorvaldson.
Scoditti, however, also takes us into unexpected places. The glittering skin of mosaics that coats the interior with such brilliant color was produced by the Vatican mosaic laboratory, whose 500-year history is recorded in the book. Readers are also led through the Treasury Museum of the basilica, one of its unsung glories containing remnants from the Constantinian basilica and some of the splendid relics of the papal collection.
Scoditti’s book also rescues the basilica from being just another “art museum” and reminds the reader that all this splendor is there not just for diversion but in honor of the Prince of the Apostles, whose martyrdom nearby sowed the seeds of Christianity in Rome.
The book has little highlighted sections (much like a Wikipedia tab) that open into the person of St. Peter and the role of the pope, his successor. She catalogues the types of papal blessings from the Angelus to the Urbi et Orbi and even takes readers into the excavation under St. Peter’s where the tomb of Peter was found.
This little book will be a boon to the millions of visitors that pass through the church every year. With its modern style, its helpful information on opening hours and how to get tickets to papal Masses or the scavi, it becomes an invaluable resource. Unfortunately it is not yet available in English, but by the time pilgrims arrive next April for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, it will be (hopefully with the titles of the two new saints amended in the book).
Mostly Scoditti’s guidebook serves, in a soundbyte world, to unite the dazzling art to the 2,000-year history of the Church in a way that will undoubtedly open the eyes of many visitors for years to come to the beauty that springs from faith.
Far from the crowds and bustle of the basilica, the other book brings the devotional art of the Vatican collection to the living room or better yet, the chapel. Meditations on Vatican Art, by Fr Mark Haydu LC, the International Director of the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, was published last month by Liguori Press. In the two hundred pages of soft matte finish, the reader is drawn gently into prayer through a careful selection of masterpieces from the Museums.
Fr. Haydu bases his meditations on the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, approved in 1548 by Pope Paul III. The exercises use meditation and prayer to deepen one’s relationship with Christ and to discern how to best serve Him. The profoundly visual nature of the meditations, especially in the composition of place, invite the faithful to imagine the physical setting of the first sin or hell or some other place. This aspect of the Ignatian exercises had a profound effect on art, spawning the baroque in many ways, and Fr Haydu has recaptured that power from the sterile walls of a gallery or the barren space of deposit and restored it in his meditations.
The spiritual exercises originally demanded a month-long retreat, but Fr Haydu adapts the method to allow for a half hour every day for thirty days, like visiting the museum every day to pray before one work. One can imagine going early in the day – the hour of the privileged patrons visits, for example, and enjoying the peace of solitude before beauty.
Five sections take us through a softer version of Ignatius’ battles with sin and redemption.
The book opens with encounters with God’s love in our lives, using images of God revealing Himself to humanity painted by Raphael, Michelangelo and Pietro da Cortona, but the first image chosen is one of the two works of the Vatican I would love to have in my own house, the Dream of St Helena, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1580. The Dowager Empress, mother of Constantine, sits in her throne sumptuously draped in silks and brocades. She leaves her lush surroundings, escaping into meditation as an angel brings before her the stark wood of the True Cross. This dream will lead Helena to her calling to find that cross and restore it to the world.
Fr. Haydu’s emphasis on Divine Mercy echoes Blessed John Paul II, especially as he begins his meditations on sin, aware that the modern age, as he writes, “hates to talk about sin… it’s too negative.”
Yet, through beauty, which Fr Haydu describes as “honey” to “help us take our medicine properly,” the reader can courageously probe his or her woundedness with Michelangelo by one’s side. Indeed, I found the section on sin the most compelling of all, with extraordinary insights into images that are so well known it is hard to see them with fresh eyes., When Haydu explains the ease of sin through the reclining Eve in Michelangelo’s Temptation, the whole image become new.
The Embrace, a modern work by Pedro Cano, relieves the pain of self-examination. It was a brilliant selection enhanced by a remarkable analysis of the work in the light of the prodigal son.
Each section starts with a little historical grounding of the work, before going on to a scriptural passage. The chapter then deepens into meditation with some guidelines to prayer and reflection before giving the reader daily “homework” to carry into his or her day.
As we prepare to enter into Advent, in anticipation of the Nativity, when visible, tangible beauty came into the world, this book seems like a perfect way (amid Christmas shopping and other pre-holiday madness) to ready our hearts and minds for that blessed event.
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She has most recently published a book with George Weigel titled: Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books, 2013). Her website is http://www.elizabeth-lev.com/