Perhaps Rome’s most extraordinary quality is its ability to convey hope in adversity. The Eternal City has survived devastation and disasters and yet countless church vaults offer visions of the soaring glory of heaven above the trials of earth. Whatever the difficulty we may have in this life, Rome offers both perspective and promise.
Last Saturday, my father, Edward Lev, passed away suddenly at the age of 86. Realizing the impossibility of getting to my father’s funeral in time (in the Jewish tradition he had to be buried within three days), I looked to my city for solace since I would be far from my family.
How many images of hope in death this city has! In the church of Sant’Ignazio for example, the little chapel of St Joseph illustrates the most peaceful passing in human history. In Francesco Trevisani’s Death of St Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather lies in his bed as Mary gazes devotedly at him. Jesus, radiating light, opens the heavens to welcome him. Joseph’s lifetime of work is represented by the tools of his trade abandoned by the bed as he goes to reap his eternal rewards.
Edward Lev was my stepfather; he cared for me from childhood, stepping in to raise and educate me. He taught me what he believed to be the greatest skill — how to read — long before I went to school, a gift that taught me to love words and respect their power. In Trevisani’s painting, Joseph seems simply exhausted from a lifetime of giving, and indeed, my father chose to give quietly from behind the scenes, assisting my mother in her tireless service to the Church and helping me as I started to write, by reading every line I wrote (and often mercilessly teasing a particularly unfortunate draft.)
I was visiting the catacombs of Priscilla on Monday, walking though the 2,000-year-old tunnels. That day, the sense of community struck me in a very special way, all those souls sleeping side by side in expectation of the resurrection. The site is very rich with the oldest Christian paintings, and alongside depictions of the Good Shepherd and the three Magi, there are numerous images from the Old Testament. Abraham with Isaac, Daniel the Wise Judge and Jonah with his whale.
Edward Lev was a son of Abraham and he prized justice and truth in a very special way. His loyalty to religious traditions defined him, and once it was decided that my sisters and I would be raised Catholic, he accompanied us to Mass every Sunday for 10 years. His first-person commitment to our Catholic formation made us realize what a valuable gift we had been given in faith. Edward Lev was passionately interested in the history and identity of the Jewish people, even as he struggled to understand the nature of faith. Thinking about him poring over volumes of science and religion, trying in his own way to reconcile faith and reason, those three Magi of the third century, hastily painted in a subterranean tomb, made much more sense to me.
Those three kings, each of a different color, represent man’s search for meaning, and ultimately for God. Each journey of faith is different, a personal quest, hence the different colors of the figures, but each must follow some path and thus the three kings are always depicted in motion. The Madonna and Child, however, are the culmination of the journey. Each Magi brings his own gift, his own story, but all the kings find a home with Christ. Those Magi told me my father’s wanderings are over, he now stands before the Christ child, lays the gift of his life at His feet and gazes face-to-face at the Truth he so longed to see in life.
Where else would one go in grief if not St Peter’s? After all, the site has seen the murder of the Prince of the Apostles, sacks, raids, and the Reformation, and still looks good. The arms of the colonnade reach out to welcome more than just the “tired, poor, and huddled masses” (my father was a proud son of Russian immigrants and served his country in the Korean war), but also those who yearn for peace. The immense nave, meant to reflect the pilgrimage of life, seems so very long and the distractions offered by the monuments are many.
But as one approaches the apse of the church, winding down after the long walk, one monument takes visitors by surprise. It is the funerary monument of Pope Alexander VII designed by Bernini from 1671 to 1678. Visitors often stop abruptly before the large chunk of red jasper shaped into the form of a theater curtain. Only after that breathtaking display of virtuosity, does the bronze skeleton become noticeable. The dark winged figure holding up an hourglass represents Death, always looking to surprise us for “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen,” (Mt 24:36). Nonetheless, death does not catch Alexander off guard — the Pontiff, bare-headed with his tiara discarded under his robes, is kneeling in prayer. The gold and white colors that surround him tell us that the Pope is in a state of grace and is ready to be received in Heaven.
My father loved Shakespeare and you can almost hear the Bard in the monument, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more.” (MacBeth Act 5, Scene V). Except that curtain in Bernini’s hands is not the end, but a new beginning. Indeed the door below (granted, now a service entrance) evokes the idea of death as the ultimate passage from this life to grace beyond.
My father’s death caught us all by surprise, but in many ways he had been preparing. He spoke often to friends and family of faith, and he loved to survey the fruits of his life in the accomplishments of his wife, children and grandchildren. He was cheerful through his many infirmities and rejoiced in the flowering of the next generation of his family.
I was never the most docile of the domestic lambs, and my father and I often butted heads. But our great “platform of dialogue,” as Benedict XVI would say, was beauty. My father had an unusual sensitivity to beauty. When talking about Renoir, Mozart or my mother, his voice would change and his eyes would soften as the mere thought of wondrous beauty seemed always to awe him.
The first time I stood with him in the Sistine Chapel and we spoke of Michelangelo’s frescoes, and he looked at the ceiling with new eyes, is my favorite memory of being with him. He went through Raphael and the ancient sculptures as delighted as a kid in a candy store, but Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling was a veritable banquet. Every time I was home, there would be a moment when we pulled out the big picture books and I would talk about what I was working on and he would lose himself in that ceiling again.
Edward Lev’s love of beauty was one of his greatest qualities. He studied the Holocaust, forcing himself to look at the horrors that humanity could inflict, but never allowed his world to simply become a den of ugliness. He would allow beauty to transform him, to open him, to captivate him. He was unafraid of where beauty would lead and indeed eagerly followed it — in the case of my mother he became a staunch defender of the Catholic Church and religious freedom (he even opened our house for Masses with college students, serving doughnuts and coffee to the kids and priests) and he knew transports of joy in music, sensitive to every trembling nuance of an aria.
In the case of Michelangelo, I am certain that he fearlessly followed the master from his Genesis cycle, through the long journey towards redemption, expressed by the glorious sibyls and prophets of the ceiling and he now awaits in hope, the ultimate beauty, the day of final resurrection.
Requiesce in pace, Pater.
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 last Fall. Her website is http://www.elizabeth-lev.com/