Reviving a Jewel; a Jewish Knight Saves the Cross

Beauty Returning to the Sancta Santorum and Holy Stairs

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 24, 2011 ( In this Lenten period of self-mortification, Rome comes strangely alive.

Sunrise sees a stream of priests and pilgrims crossing the city to the “station churches” where the saints’ relics have been taken from their usual cabinets to be placed on the altars.

Special Lenten periods of Eucharistic adoration renew the purpose and majesty of the ancient basilicas while the new stations of the cross on Via della Conciliazione invite a modern reflection on an ancient mystery. Saints of the past meet saints of the present and future as all roads through time, place and history converge on Rome.

It is in this context that an ancient Christian shrine has presented a new face. The Sancta Santorum, the most private of papal chapels, superior in dignity even to the Sistine Chapel, has begun its own metamorphosis from dingy darkness, brightened only by the piety of pilgrims, to a glittering jewel in the crown of Rome’s holiest sites.

The complex of the Sancta Santorum contains several significant areas. Upon entering the building that stands across the street from the Basilica of St. John Lateran, one is confronted with the silence of the Holy Stairs, believed to be the 28 steps climbed by Christ to be judged by Pontius Pilate. Whether these are the actual stairs from the governor’s palace in Jerusalem or not, it is apparent that this devotion is not just to the relic, but to the humility of Christ, who not only took on our poor mortal condition, but allowed himself to be paraded as a subject of derision and ridicule before the very people he had come to save. To this day, pilgrims climb this set of stairs on their knees following Jesus’ great example.

At the top of the stairs stands what was once the private chapel of the pope. In this marble-encrusted space, popes prayed for close to a thousand years while the Lateran palace was the official residence of the papacy. Its relics were innumerable, from the most celebrated — like part of the table of the Last Supper or the remains of the apostles — to the most dubious. Of particular importance was the Acheropita icon of Christ Pantocrator, a fundamental part of the papal Holy Week devotions.

Two later chapels embrace the Sancta Santorum, one dedicated to St. Silvester, the Pope who received the Lateran land from Emperor Constantine, and the other dedicated to St. Lawrence, the Roman deacon and martyr, roasted on an open grill.

Between the Sancta Santorum and the Church of Santa Croce a little further down the street, where the relics of Christ’s passion were kept, Rome had its own version of Jerusalem and Mt. Calvary.

Already seriously damaged by sack, neglect and nature by the 16th century, the complex was all but forgotten. The devotion to the Holy Stairs, which began about 1400, had breathed some life into the building but it took Pope Sixtus V in his energetic five-year reign to fully reinvigorate the structure. He restructured the complex into a separate building and built the extra chapels to allow pilgrims to celebrate Mass alongside his own private space.

To decorate the sanctuary, Sixtus brought in a 40-man team of decorators led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra. As the Pope was very interested in scriptural exegesis and allegory, he closely supervised the program of images drawn from the Old and New Testament. Unfortunately Sixtus’ brief pontificate meant that the full program was never completed.

Sixtus’ project of reviving the Sancta Santorum was in turn obscured by the elements — the space used to be open to the outdoors — and the rich decorative program was gradually lost to damage. The narratives that accompany the pilgrims up and down the stairs came to resemble ghosts fluttering behind a tattered veil and the chapels seemed more like grim prison chambers than joyous renderings of Christendom’s heroes and triumphs.

Until now. In 1990, Carlo Pietrangeli, former director of the Vatican Museums, arranged for the Sancta Santorum to be restored, recovering stunning frescos from the 12th century. But the rest remained in darkness. Father Tito Amodei, of the Passionist order (the Passionists have watched over the complex since the age of Pope Pius IX), and an artist himself formed an association, “Sala 1,” to try to recoup the remaining works.

Mary Angela Schroth, Father Tito’s righthand woman, had the inspired idea to go to the Getty Museum and ask whether they would be interested in carrying out research on the site. An art historian, she dangled the right bait. Paul Brill, 16th-century Flemish painter who brought landscape art to Rome, was believed to have worked on the chapel.

The Getty sponsored the preliminary study involving the analysis and photography of all the 1,700 square meters (18,300 square feet) of the whole decorative cycle. The largesse of the American Museum also permitted the Chapel of St. Sylvester to return to its original glorious state. Brilliant hues swirl around an elegant framework while allegorical figures recall the theme of humility. One lovingly fingers the crown of thorns, while another puts aside the golden crown of kings in favor of the rough spines.

The most surprising of all are the landscape scenes by Paul Brill. Thick foliage frames rosy skies while friars walk through the wood or hunters chase boar. Sixtus came from an agricultural family, and the same countryside he grew up in beckons from between the erudite panels. Sixtus is frequently accused of unimaginative patronage, and a willingness to sacrifice beauty for heavy-handed propaganda, yet in calling the Brill brother he showed an avant-garde artistic vision.

The Getty’s patronage returned the St. Sylvester Chapel to light, but there is still much to do. Mary Angela Schroth and her team from Sala 1 will be offering special tours of the Sancta Santorum and the Chapel of St. Sylvester in order to raise funds to complete the restoration, and the Vatican Museums is ready to send its restorers and renowned skill.

Gradually they hope to bring the Sancta Santorum, the last but not least major 16th-century restoration project to completion, giving new vigor to this ancient shrine.

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Queens and crucifixes

From the triumph of the cross to the triumph “for” the cross.

Last week, as reported in ZENIT, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Italy had not violated human rights by requiring crucifixes in classrooms. While this may seem like a statement of the obvious — as if displaying a crucifix were somehow on par with human trafficking or genocide — in fact, the initial ruling of the European court on the matter implied exactly that.

In 2002, Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born atheist, began the suit after being offended by the sight of crucifixes in her children’s classrooms. Lautsi and her husband, Massimo Albertin, who live in Northern Italy, claimed that the display of crucifixes violated their human right to raise their children according to their atheist beliefs. After losing in Italy, she appealed to the lower chamber of the rights court, where in November 2009 she won the case with a 7-0 ruling.

This was a wake-up call to many countries in Europe. The lack of attention to the doings of the European Parliament had allowed an interest group to sweep away a millennial Italian tradition.

The Holy See immediately recognized the imminent danger, while Italy sought an appeal to the high court. Given that this court is located in France where the secularist laws are so stringent that they have prohibited Muslim headscarves in schools, the situation looked grim.

But like the chivalric days of medieval Europe, champions came from near and far to defend the crucifix. The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal association based in Washington D.C., began an awareness campaign and wrote a brief for consideration of the court, in part illustrating the tremendous and unseemly hostility between church and state in the present American climate.

The ruling carried insidious dangers for many states in Europe. England and Denmark have established state religions. Vatican City and Rome cohabitate within Italy’s Aurelian walls. Poland, after years of Communist rule, had finally won the right to hang crucifixes in classrooms again. This ruling threatened to make the “pluralism” of the European Union a one-way street to nowhere.

Several countries boldly jumped into the fray, including Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, the Russian Federation and San Marino, as well as Albania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

One of the striking things about this list are the number of former Soviet bloc countries that lived under enforced atheism. Having seen where the road of Mrs. Lautsi and the atheist agenda leads, they rallied to the flag of religious liberty.

But the true knight in shining armor of this story is a New York University law professor, Joseph Weiler, a devout and observant Jew, who represented, pro bono, the governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, The Russian Federation and San Marino against the court’s ruling.

With expert arguments, a mixture of wisdom drawn from the Old and New World and an occasional spark of humor, Europe’s modern Galahad, made his winning case.

He compared the cross to a picture of the queen of England hanging in the classroom. “Like the cross,” Weiler noted, “that picture has a double meaning. It is a photo of the head of state. It is, too, a photo of the titular head of the Church of England.”

“Would it be acceptable,” he asked, “for someone to demand that the picture of the queen may not hang in the school since it is incompatible with their religious conviction or their right to education since they are Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims?”

He closed with a warning, one that should echo in the United States: “A one rule fits all, as in the decision of the Second Chamber, devoid of historical, political, demographic and cultural context is not only inadvisable, but undermines the very pluralism, diversity and tolerance which the Convention is meant to guarantee and which is the hallmark of Europe.”

Weiler won the day — the court decided 15-2 in favor of Italy. Much like the Knights of Malta in 1565, who single-handedly held off the Turkish fleet, Professor Joseph Weiler and the nations and advisors who came to Italy’s rescue, struck a decisive blow in favor of Europe’s religious freedom.

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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 [email protected]

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