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.

Angelic Curiosity

On Saturday I visited the Sistine Chapel – a long-awaited visit to see art I had studied in books. Michelangelo’s ceiling somehow left we strangely unmoved – perhaps it’s just too far away. I need to be up on the scaffolding with my nose a few feet from the plaster – I always thought you had a better view on the TV than you did at the cricket match – perhaps the ceiling is the same….

Yet, as I cricked my neck to follow the story of creation, fall and redemption I noticed a detail which had passed me by before. My eyes had always been drawn by the iconic touching of finger tips, as God gives life to Adam. But what struck me as I looked again was the group of cheeky cherubs trying to strain around God in order to see what he was up to now.

Here are the angels wanting to know more, straining to see, trying to understand, what the human project was about. Perhaps the child-like cherub is meant to suggest a naive innocence amongst the angelic host. Perhaps, but it took my mind to Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honour…

O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!



Madonna and Child

Thursday 19th May

Arrived in Rome. I have settled into the Venerable English College where the hospitality has been warm and gracious. From my window I can see the clock tower –  and hear it every quarter of an hour – but not, thankfully, at night.

Friday 20th May

Today I crossed the Tiber into Trastevere and visited the church of Santa Maria. It was fairly early and the church was quiet. The mosaics were stunning but I was more affected by the play of light and shadow outside in the portico. I recrossed the Tiber – was distracted by some ancient columns behind the Theatre of  Marcellus (which I drew) and visited the Gesu Jesuit church – but the Baroque triumphalism left me cold. Strangely, I was also unmoved by the Pantheon, apart from technical wizardry of that concrete dome. The real find was the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which contains the tombs of the great mystic, Catherine of Sienna, and the great artist Fra Angelica.

There was a great stillness in the side chapel which contained an image of the Madonna and child – once thought to be by Fra Angelica but now attributed to his pupil Benozza Gozzoli. Tempera painted on silk and then mounted on board, the painting is exquisite but, far more, it invites reflection and prayer. I photographed it (hand held in poor light) and then simply sat and looked.

Mary, in blue, has a star on her shoulder, the traditional prompt that she is the queen of heaven. Yet there is a reversal here: while Mary is portrayed as the queen of heaven, Jesus who has come from heaven is holding a globe – the reason for his descent from glory. He is presented as a miniature adult as a sign that his coming is for the saving of this world. On the globe are marked Asia, Europe and Africa – all the known world when this was painted over forty years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Salvation is world embracing – speaking of which – Mary is not actually holding Jesus who is standing of a balcony. Yet it is as though she is cradling him with reverence, cradling yet not holding him, protecting him yet not touching him. And over them both the Holy Spirit hovers – because incarnation (then and now) is through the work of the Spirit. God with us – God in us – God through us – the Spirit of creation, the Spirit of new birth, the Spirit of Christ. And here is the invitation for us to cradle with reverence Emmanuel, Christ in you the hope of glory. No wonder its called Madonna and Child giving Blessings…

crammed with heaven

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…
from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines have often been quoted by writers on spirituality.They are an invitation to see in the world signs of God’s presence and glory.

Yet they carry a caution about eating blackberries which could be misunderstood. Such sentiments could be seen as a form of elitism. ‘I can see what you can’t see!’ We might even call it a form of aesthetic gnosticism if we wanted to coin some fancy language, suggesting that you have to be in the know, or part of a special group, in order to see the glory. The teaching of Jesus goes in quite a different direction:

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ (Luke 10.23f.)

This business of seeing is elusive – it is about having eyes open – about not being distracted by accumulating things – about seeing the world as gift – about a readiness to appreciate what we see (or hear) without immediately assuming it is for our gain – remember the story of Winnie the Pooh and the bees!

It’s not straightforward – but, then, simplicity often isn’t , because the labyrinthine workings of our hearts are not straightforward. But I hope my musings on this blog will be an invitation to see the glory – or be wanting to see the glory (which is a good start). I’ll muse on other themes as well, but I hope we can develop a conversation which encourages us to see better and see more consistently the glory of God.

One closing thought: it isn’t only in beauty that we see the glory of God (see Isaiah 53.2f.) but that’s a theme for another day…