Assisi: love on pilgrimage

Each stage of my Italian journey was rich and rewarding. But I was glad I had planned to visit Assisi last of all. The visit to this place of pilgrimage was far more than I had anticipated, an experience which amply rewarded my preparation of reading a life of St Francis before I arrived in the Umbrian town.

There are so many memories of those places which are associated with Francis, either by his presence or by others commemorating his faithful discipleship.I found myself saving for my last day a return to the basilica of San Francesca. On my first day I come to the church as a pilgrim and spent time in the crypt which houses the tomb of Francis and viewing some of the works of art. The second time I visited the church I had downloaded a tour guide to the church on to my iPod and this made me go around slowly, thoughtfully and relatively comprehensively. But even this second time I kept being drawn back to a painting which had stopped me in my tracks on the first visit. There was strictly no photography in the church so this image is off the internet.

Situated in the left transept of the lower church, this is a representation of the deposition, the taking of Jesus’ body down from the cross, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti early in the fourteenth century. Art historians will tell you that it is significant because it is an example of those works which broke through the medieval conventions which had been  influenced by Byzantine iconography. Instead of stylized images we have figures who interact with one another, a precursor of the humanism of the Renaissance.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But this work hit me between the eyes – or, rather, touched me at a deep level of common humanity and spiritual devotion. Look at the people who crowd around the dead body of Jesus. Their grief is not just the ending of their dreams, but the loss of someone they love more than  they can say. Their grief is tactile, as they cling tenderly to what remains of their Friend and Master. In the foreground, in red, is Mary Magdalene, kissing the foot she had so recently anointed with oil and washed with her tears of repentance. Standing, in blue, is Mary the mother of Jesus gently caressing his cold cheek with her own, just as she may have done when he was a babe in arms. John, the beloved disciple, shares the weight of the corpse – but this is no mere burden to carry, but a beloved friend to be cared for. But the fresco is far more than ‘just’ a portrayal of human grief. It is a representation of human devotion and it drew me into its spiritual response to God’s love in Christ. Here are friends devoted to Jesus. They cradle him lovingly and respectfully. Their tactile affection invites us to respond to this Jesus not simply with the language of faith or the vocabulary of discipleship – but with a  movement of the heart, with an adoration born of love and longing.

See from his head, his hands his feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down;

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Isaac Watts

New book reviews  – just click on the books menu tab:

Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination (Equinox 2005) go to Books >Austin Explorations

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949) go to Books > Merton Seeds


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.