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…