By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, MARCH 10, 2011 (Zenit.org).- If only atheist frontmen Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens lived in Rome, we would have a Lenten diversion by watching their tantrums for the next 40 days.
Seeing the Romans pour into the streets to watch Benedict XVI lead the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum on Good Friday would already make their hair stand on end, but the sight of the stations arranged along Via della Conciliazione would probably make their heads explode.
The Via della Conciliazione — opened by Benito Mussolini in 1929 to celebrate the Lateran Pacts of that year, which saw Italy and the Holy See recognize their mutual sovereignty — is the principal thoroughfare to St. Peter’s Basilica. Anyone who has visited Rome will remember the breathtaking view rounding the corner from the Tiber River and seeing the piazza, basilica and dome rising loftily at the end of the road.
Designed to underscore the spirit of cooperation between the Italian State and the Holy See, the road has a typical Roman mix of sacred and profane, from the Vatican pilgrimage service to the Chaos publishing house specializing in Vatican conspiracies and scandals.
But this week, the grand avenue of the Vatican is taking on another guise, the Via Crucis. Fourteen life-size stations line the wide sidewalk of the Via della Conciliazione. Cast in bronze, using the same lost-wax technique of Brunelleschi and Donatello, they comprise 49 statues and 11 crosses, and are the largest stations of the cross in the world.
The sculptors, Pasquale Nava and Giuseppe Allamprese, have been working on the project since 2002, using in all 22,000 pounds of bronze for the figures and crosses. The sculptures were cast and modeled in the vast atelier of Domus Dei, owned by the Congregation of the Pie Discepole del Divin Maestro, which produces art and liturgical objects for churches.
The Via Crucis was commissioned for the city of Coquimbo in Chile by the “Fundacion Cruz del III Milenio.” The foundation was formed after Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to Chile to reap the fruits of the papal encounter. In 1998, the foundation began the project to construct a 280-foot cross above the city, and these majestic stations, after their Lenten sojourn in Rome, will also adorn the streets of Coquimbo.
Benedict XVI blessed the first station after the general audience of March 1. But Sister Rosalia Rossetti, president of Domus Dei, together with the the board of directors, went on to seek the permission of the Roman mayor, Gianni Alemanno, to display the works on Via della Conciliazione, which is under the jurisdiction of the city of Rome. This secular “blessing” was swift in coming and lacking in the polemics, atheist outrage and other tantrums we are accustomed to in the Anglophone world.
The stations will be inaugurated on Sunday, when Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, will offer a Lenten mediation at 11:30, before the noonday Angelus. They will remain in place for all of the Lenten season, until April 29.
The stations are arresting. The figures are arranged in groups where Christ always seems more restrained and calm then those around him. The soldiers twist and turn as they beat, taunt and threaten Christ; the women sway in mourning; the crosses loom heavily in the air— they compel the passerby, Christian or not, to pause, witnessing the persecution and suffering of Christ.
The meticulous and historically accurate accents lend added life to the scenes. The Roman armor is carefully and correctly detailed, the clothes and accessories so naturalistic, that one feels transported back in time despite the roar of car engines all around.
Via della Concilliazione, already dramatic in its own right, has become a theater in which Christ’s last hours are played out. Following the same path St. Peter walked to his martyrdom, the statues make one meditate deeply on the meaning of witness.
There are several other stations of the cross in the city. The most famous is in the Basilica of Santa Croce where the relics of the Passion are housed and the Holy Stairs venerated as those Christ climbed to meet Pontius Pilate.
In 1670, Bernini added another with his angels on the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, each holding an instrument of Christ’s passion. This journey through the Gospel, relics and art, stretching from one end of the city to St. Peter’s Basilica, serves to remind pilgrims of the high price of our redemption.
Although Dan Brown in his novel “Angels and Demons” and his multitude of followers may try to interpret the city as a path to “illumination” through an atheistic science, Romans, from the mayor to the citizens, know that the trail blazed through the Eternal City, from the relics to the new stations on Via della Conciliazione, illuminates the way to salvation.
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Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous, I was in Florence a couple weeks ago, where, amid the marble “David” by Michelangelo and the bronze baptistery doors by Ghiberti, a new sculpture was being greeted with great pomp and fanfare. Contemporary “artist” Damian Hirst was exhibiting his 2007 work “For the Love of God” in the Palazzo Vecchio, next door to the Uffizi museum.
This project, a jumped up arts and crafts activity, involved a human skull, purchased in a taxidermy shop, encrusted with a cap of 8,601 flawless diamonds. Florentines and tourists were invited to take time away from Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci to gawk at the piece for €10 per person — more than a ticket to the Uffizi.
After one made the financial homage to Mr. Hirst, one could climb the stairs, briefly glimpse the Hall of the Nine, where Michelangelo and Leonardo once squared off in an artistic duel, before entering the chamber of the crystal skull.
Walking into the small room, one is greeted by pitch darkness. A rustle of movement startles the visitor as an armed guard in the corner moves forward in the dark and shines a flashlight at one’s feet. In the center, on a velvet covered pedestal, the diamond skull sits in a glass case with a vertical light shining on it.
Alone with the sparkling skull, one (I suppose) is intended to experience a series of sensations — shock at the expense, awe at the light and fire of the stones, and sobriety at the reminder of mortality. I was thinking I was glad I had a museum pass so I didn’t have to pay to see this. It looks like a mirrored ball for a vampire disco.
This work was supposed the most expensive piece of art in the world, but then, of course, the asking price of £50 million ($80.2 million) was never paid. It has none of the craftsmanship of the crown jewels, nor the thoughtfulness of Bernini’s bronze skeleton rising from under the monument to Alexander VII in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Its provocation comes from the name (allegedly a cry from Hirst’s mother “Oh Damian, for the love of God, what will you do next!”) but it shows more than a little of Hirst’s beginnings as protégée of advertising mastermind Charles Saatchi. Write the slogan, let the consumers do the rest.
The brief sensation of excitement — dark room, bright skull, confined space, security guard — seems taken straight out of the haunted houses from amusement parks. When one thinks of the glories of the art of Florence representing God’s love for man, this work is a sad commentary on contemporary “art.”
The same weekend I went to Siena where I saw the preserved head of St. Catherine of Siena in the church of San Domenico. No diamonds, no sensational setting, just a large basilica and an altar, yet the presence of the saint has brought thousands and thousands of pilgrims to this shrine.
St. Catherine’s mortal remains create a link with her in heaven interceding for us. Her presence in the church reminds pilgrims of her great example as a woman, teacher and peacemaker. She may not be encrusted with diamonds, but her witness is far more precious than Hirst’s cynical take on relics will ever be.
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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]