Florence and the Holy Cross

Sunday I travelled from Rome to Florence. The comfortable, quiet, ultra-fast train sped through the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside. Meadows and rivers slipped past, terracotta roofs appeared and disappeared,
hilltop villages looked down, defiant and timeless.

Florence is compact. A wanderer emerges from quiet alleys and can be suddenly immersed in vast crowds of tourists. Oh why does great art so often seem to be in very hot climates?

The Florence Pieta

Three years ago I visited the Duomo (outside: wonderful –
inside: municipal showing off?), the Academy (with Michelangelo’s David and the slaves) and the monastery of San Marco (with the Fra Angelica frescoes: Oooohhhhh). The serendipity was finding the Duomo museum which was devoid of crowds and full of treasures. I remember especially Donatello’s Mary Magdalene and, especially, Michelangelo’s deposition, with his octogenarian self-portarit of Nicodemus. I hope to revisit this week.

Replica of Cimabue crucifix

Today I visited the Basilica Church of Santa Croce which has some wonderful religious art and is a beautiful building. Here lies buried Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. Here is the chapter house designed by Brunelleschi, an annunciation in bas relief by Donatello and the famous Cimabue crucifix, so badly damaged by the 1966 flood. In the museum in the cloisters are some f the damaged works now beautifully restored, but the Cimabue crucifix seems to have been left in its scarred beauty rather than reconstructed. There is, however, a life-size replica, in beautiful colours and displayed in an appropriate ecclesiastical context.

There was disappointment as well as delight. The apse is
completely filled with scaffolding so that renovations  of the frescoes  there can take place. But the Giotto frescoes of the life of St Francis can be seen in all their delicate beauty. As I gazed at his rendering of the death of Francis, I thought ahead to my visit to Assisi  in a few week’s time. Surrounded by his friends – Francis was a saint who was attractive in his following of Christ. Respected and trusted by the Pope, a man who drew many, high and low, to his side through simple goodness and a loving simplicity that drew people to God. An inspiration then and now.

There’s more about this on the Italian Journey page.

Layers of history beneath the tree of life

Yesterday I visited the San Clemente church in Laterano, Rome. In church visiting terms there is old – and then there’s very old. As you  arrive you walk through the cloisters to the twelfth century church which had something of an eighteenth century makeover with a new facade and nave ceiling, as well as a renaissance chapel with fifteenth century frescoes. For me, the glory of the church is the twelfth century mosaic of the triumph of the cross. Filling the apse, it provides a majestic back cloth for the altar and medieval choir stalls.

San Clemente, Rome

But this multilayered history is nothing compared to what lies below. Beneath the medieval church is another church – a fourth century basilica first built soon after Christians ceased to be a persecuted  and so were able to construct public buildings and worship in them openly. It is dark because, there are of course, no windows now, for the ground level has risen in the intervening centuries. The basilica was adapted to become the foundation and crypt of the ‘new’ church, but there is a real sense of what kind of building these early Christians worshipped in. So still we build (or stand) on the shoulders of those who go before us who hand on the faith  a great cloud of witnesses.

But there’s more, because beneath the fourth century church there is a second century temple devoted to the worship of Mithras. Here, amidst fancy brickwork constructed not long after the later books of the New Testament were written, the visitor can imagine the festal meals of that Persian cult.

Here the relationship to a previous age is more ambivalent. Was the basilica built here because it was seen as a sacred site and so a place of worship, however pagan? Is this an example of inculturation, with all the questions that such apparent syncretism can bring? Or is this an example of triumphant and confident church planting – building on a pagan site because no name is as strong as the name of Jesus? Either way, there are questions which can have an edge to them.

The cross: the tree of life

Yet, when I climbed the steps back into the medieval church I was again silenced by the eloquent  beauty of the mosaics. The cross is presented as the tree of life – a place of death which brings life ton the world – not just a religious kind of life – but life for all creation – for growing plants and fertile earth,, for thirsty deer and singing birds, for broken humanity – life for all the world. For Christ plays in ten thousand places…

From tourist to pilgrim

Today I visited St Peter’s, the largest basilica in the world and the central church of the Roman Catholic Church. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Giant architecture and plenty of Baroque art, for sure, but would it feel like a church or a museum, a place of faith or a centre of tourism.

Well, faith was certainly in evidence. I didn’t connect with all the massive sculptures, of saints and cherubs, although downloading a podcast guide by Sister Wendy Becket helped. But I did connect with the faith of the people who came, tourists and pilgrims, pray-ers and photographers, bustling to yet another wonder one minute and standing reflectively the next. I wasn’t overwhelmed but neither was I repelled as I have been in some other churches in other places. Kneeling in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, I meditated on the earthiness of the incarnation – God with us in bread, in a meal amongst friends, in the tangible focus of a shrine.

But there was to be much more – for I had booked ahead for a tour of the necropoweb imagelis that had been excavated in recent years beneath the church. A pagan burial ground beneath the foundations of Constantine’s basilica which he built in 330 CE on what was believed to be St Peter’s burial place. (The present church was built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with contributions from Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini and others.) Nine metres down we explored a street in the city of the dead – from Egyptian mausoleum , through pagan cemetery to Christian graves from the middle of the second century until Constantine filled it all in and built a church on top.

Mythological mosaics and Christian symbols stand side by side, sometimes interwoven, like the image of Christ represented as a sun god, buried for over sixteen hundred years. And then, towards the end of the tour, the account of the detective work that leads those involved to believe that St Peter’s remains have been unearthed and lie under the altar of St Peter’s church.

Here’s the story. St Peter was martyred during the rule of Nero, between 54 and 68 CE. It is told that when he learned that he was to be crucified, he asked to be crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to share the same mode of death as his Lord whom he denied. When it was over, he was cut down peremptorily, his feet hacked off to save time. He was buried in a poor man’s grave in the not very pleasant Vatican area outside the city walls – near the place where a necropolis was soon to grow up. This was where Constantine built his church, placing the altar where the resting place of Peter was believed to be. Today Bellini’s great altar canopy stands above the same spot. During the excavations bones were found which fit the bill. Nothing is conclusive of course but archaeological evidence only ever corroborates, or disproves, rather than proves identity.

At the end of the tour the guide read some words from the gospels and invited us to pray. The silence was rich and deep. I was strangely moved – for a Baptist – at a shrine – before some relics, however holy. What moved me was not so much the possibility of connection with Peter thorough the presence of bones, but the spirit of the place. Here, or near here, Peter had witnessed unto death, the sordid end of a big hearted disciple. Here he had been a rock and his death inspired those who followed. This was, this is, holy ground, for here a life was given up for love of his Lord. And in this love a church has been nourished and inspired. A had come as a tourist –  but I left a pilgrim.