Remembering Karol; Swiss Guard Art

John Paul II Gone But Hardly Forgotten

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 6, 2006 ( On April 2, Rome celebrated the one-year anniversary of the death of its beloved Pope John Paul II. Putting aside electoral antics just one week before the vote, Romans joined with pilgrims to pay homage to the late Holy Father.

Biographical films of his life pre-empted televised debates while campaign posters were covered with large signs reading “Goodbye, Karol” — reminders of the enduring love that Rome had for this great Pontiff.

Once again, as more than 100,000 people descended on the city, Romans remained unruffled, and seemed delighted to welcome visitors. Peaceful and prayerful days, much like the days after the death of John Paul II, were enhanced by the warm sun and newly flowering trees.

St. Peter’s Basilica blossomed into its springtime guise, framed by blue sky and bustling with activity as workers prepared for Monday’s memorial Mass.

On Saturday, April 1, the city swelled noticeably. Thousands of Polish pilgrims, some dressed in cheerful traditional costumes, roamed the streets along with young people of every nationality, many wearing T-shirts printed with one of the last things said by John Paul II, “I have looked for you, and now you have come to me, and I thank you.”

The common destination for all was the tomb of John Paul II in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica. By Monday morning, the grave was inundated with flowers, candles and banners. Interspersed among these offerings were photographs of children brought by pilgrims hopeful for his intercession.

Sunday night saw 100,000 people in the square praying the rosary under the papal study, reminiscent of the rosary said exactly a year earlier, as Christians prayerfully accompanied John Paul II in his final moments on earth. Many of my students joined the crowd in the square, canceling weekend plans to be able to pay homage to the Pope they had known all their lives and to greet the new Pope who will guide them through their first adult years.

The Monday Mass was a celebration of all things John Paul II had loved in life. Multicolored flowers and lush plants surrounded the altar, recalling the man who loved long nature hikes, and music filled the square while dancers performed with the exuberant energy of youth.

As John Paul II’s friend and successor, Benedict XVI celebrated the Mass with neo-Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz close by, it could only seem that the Pope looking down from heaven, must have been delighted with his day.

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Celebrated Soldiers

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guard, a new exhibit has been opened in the Charlemagne Wing at the left colonnade of St. Peter’s Square. “The Pontifical Swiss Guard, 500 Years of History, Art and Life” will run until June 6 and offers a view of this unique militia’s foundation and relationship with the papacy.

Entering the hall, the first thing one hears is lively chatter in German and French coming from the former members of the Guard who have volunteered to come to Rome to serve as custodians of the exhibit. One side of the wing displays the brightly hued flags of the Swiss cantons that have sent soldiers over the centuries, while the other side boasts portraits of the 33 captains of the Guard culminating in the present commander, Elmar Theodar Mäder, captured in a stunning painting by Russian artist Natalia Tsarkova.

Upstairs, the flags are replaced by the silk and brocade standards given by Pope Julius II in 1506 for the Guard’s first entry into the city of Rome. Lovingly treasured over the centuries, they look ready to be paraded even today.

A 1538 painting shows Rome at the time of the formation of the Swiss Guard, a walled city, sparsely inhabited, with magnificent monuments littering the landscape. The diary of Johann Burckhard, papal master of ceremonies, recounts the arrival of the Swiss soldiers in Rome and their oath of loyalty to the Pope on Jan. 22, 1506.

The exhibit also explores the origin of Julius II’s relationship with the Guard. A splendid honorary sword in silver and steel proudly recalls the service offered by Swiss soldiers during Julius’ struggles with the French king Francis I in 1511. A yellowed parchment contains the letter sent by Julius to his agent ordering him to recruit Swiss soldiers to his service.

The next room relates the Guard’s trial by fire in 1527 with the devastating Sack of Rome, when 16,000 mercenary troops burst into the city killing and looting and intending to hang the Pope by a golden noose. The self-sacrifice of 147 Swiss Guards thwarted this plan and to this day the new guards take their oath of service on May 6 in memory of the sack.

Bronze medallions commemorate the escape of Pope Clement VII Medici, his exile in Orvieto, and finally his return in 1528. Three of the medals were made by Benvenuto Cellini, a famous goldsmith of the 15th century who was a prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo during the sack and left a dramatic eyewitness account of those days.

Drawings of Clement VII besieged in Castel Sant’Angelo or the invading Landesnecht soldiers in their distinctive uniforms vividly render this distant event in Rome’s history.

After the storm of the sack, Rome lived a peaceful existence for many years and many striking paintings recall days when the pope spent much time in the city. Just like today, the Swiss Guards were by the pope’s side as he opened the holy door during a Jubilee year or walked in the Corpus Christi procession, but other images present a papal Rome no longer existent in living memory.

A work from 1650 shows Pope Innocent X arriving at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, its plain facade alight with oil lamps and decorations, for his yearly appointment to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation. In another canvas, Pope Pius IX stands on the balcony above the Mamertine prison where St. Peter and St. Paul were held, preaching to the crowds.

These images of the popes using the city’s monuments and history as tools for teaching, remind us of a Rome where the pope, the papal court and Swiss Guards parading through the streets was a frequent occurrence.

So familiar were the guards that children liked to dress in the uniforms at masquerades, as an exhibit of a 19th-century child’s costume attests. A portrait of an aristocratic scion sporting those distinctive colors indicates that the Guard appealed to all the classes of Rome.

The uniform and weapons of the Guard occupy most of the lower floor. The red, yellow and blue striped outfits were first seen under Leo X Medici’s reign from 1513 to 1521. Rumored for many years to have been designed by Michelangelo himself, a new book by a Swiss Guard, Sergeant Christian-Roland Marcel Richard, points out that there in no evidence to support that claim.

While many weapons are displayed from the Guard armory, the pride of place goes to the halberd, the lance still borne by the soldiers today. Designed by the Swiss Guards, it was multifunctional, able to stab, hook and spear as needed — the original Swiss army knife.

The last room focuses on the piety and commitment of the Guard. Sixteenth century frescos from the first guards’ chapel built for them by Pope St. Pius V, represent St. Martin of Tours and St. Sebastian, patrons of the Swiss soldiers along with St. Nicola di Flue.

These symbols of the Guard’s faith are arrayed around a pockmarked bronze ball, which once stood atop the obelisk today in St. Peter’s Square. The orb bears the marks of the bullets fired during the Sack of Rome, a vivid reminder of the guards’ sacrifice of their lives in the course of duty.

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Friends No More

Every semester I take my students to Florence for a weekend where they offer impromptu presentations on the works of art that we visit. I always enjoy these presentations because they give me an idea of what the students find important or noteworthy and sometimes they come up with very interesting and original reflections.

This time I got more than I bargained for. During a presentation regarding Donatello’s bronze “David” in the Bargello, one of my students, after a cursory explanation of probable date and medium, launched into an interpretation of the work, which represents a very youthful and somewhat effeminate David, as a reflection on the supposed homosexual relationship between Jonathan and David.

Looking at my other students, I saw them tranquilly accepting this explanation as completely logical. Dumbfounded, I asked my student where she had found her information and she said she had followed a link from Wikipedia, the Web-based encyclopedia, which brought her to several articles dealing with Jonathan and David.

It seems to me that much of the reason why many of our contemporaries have difficulty understanding Michelangelo’s relationship to Tomaso de’Cavalieri, or Donatello’s relationship with Cosimo Medici, or Frodo and Sam’s relationship in “The Lord of the Rings,” has to do with the loss of the idea of friendship. The modern mind naturally slides toward erotic overtones when confronted with close friendship. This lack distances us even further from being able to understand Renaissance art or even 20th-century English Catholic literature.<br>
Man has speculated on the nature of friendship since antiquity. Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” broke friendship into three categories: friendship of utility, where people are mutually useful to each other; friendship based on pleasure, which mutates through time as tastes change; and friendship based on goodness where good people desire the good of one another. Only the last sort of friendship endures through time and is both useful and pleasurable.

St. Thomas Aquinas christianized Aristotle’s view of friendship, abandoning the notion that friendship can be based merely on pleasure. He wrote that the love of “friendship” and the love of “desire” were two completely different things. St. Thomas asserted that a true friend is “one to whom we wish good” whereas desire means “to want for oneself.”

Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci showed the evangelical power of friendship when he wrote his “Treatise on Friendship” for the Chinese. Through his erudite and Christian explanation of the value of friendship, Ricci impressed the Chinese scholars and won many converts.

But the intervening years, especially since the sexual revolution, have eroded the Christian idea of friendship as wanting the good of another. And it seems that the best that art can offer us in the way of friendship, in 2006, is “Brokeback Mountain.”

Perhaps Benedict XVI’s first encyclical on the meaning of Christian love, “Deus Caritas Est,” will set our feet back on the right track to understanding the meaning of love, which doesn’t always mean romance.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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