Geometry or Symbolism?

It was a mealtime conversation in Rome while I was staying at the Venerable English College, the Venerabile. I was sat opposite a young priest from Malta who had come to Rome for further theological studies and was particularly interested in art history. He had just written an essay on art and the liturgy, and – well – the conversation flowed from there.

Somehow we got on to the subject of baptistries – it wasn’t me, honest! He commented on how most of the early ones were octagonal. Now we are talking about the fourth century onwards when baptism was still usually administered to adults professing their faith. Often the baptismal tank would be housed in a separate building in the grounds of the church and this building, as well as the tank, is referred to as a ‘baptistry’.

Octagonal Baptistry, Ravenna

Anyway, back to shape. Often these buildings were square or octagonal with a circular dome above. It was a throw-away line from the young priest, muttered with something of the certainty of the young (or maybe the confidence of being a student of the Gregorian University in Rome): ‘Of course, these baptistries were eight-sided to symbolize the ‘eighth day’.’

Now another historical note: the ‘eighth day’ was a concept developed by early Christian writers and it means Sunday. The term focused the meaning of the move for worship on the seventh day to worship on the eighth day. Now I know that a fair number of us have sometimes wished there were eight days in a week, but I know and the early church knew that there are in fact only seven. It’s a kind of paradox or nonsense phrase.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week – the day of resurrection. But the point is this – it is not just another day like the rest. Nor is it even just the first day of creation – it is the day of new creation when everything in heaven and on earth is changed because God has raised Christ from the dead. God’s future end, his eschaton, has broken into human and cosmic history and all the boundaries have been changed and expectations have been turned upside down.

The young priest didn’t need to make the connection for me. The symbolism was so rich. ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world’ – ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ In baptism we celebrate the life-giving, life-changing work of God who raised Jesus to life on the eighth day – the first day of a new world. And those just baptized clamber out of the water to walk in a new world, a world of the eighth day, living in the light of the resurrection.

All this is rich symbolism, great theology and inspiring sentiments. But… I wondered whether baptisteries were octagonal in order to express the eighth day – or because it was a nice shape which the architect thought would look good – or because an octagon is what you get when you put a dome on top of a square and do something artistic with the interior walls! Was it simply geometry or intentional symbolism? Or did  the symbolism suggest itself once baptisteries had eight sides and someone made an imaginative leap?

This conversation was a month ago but it was brought to mind by another geometry-symbolism bit of mulling this week. Between Venice and Assisi I took a two-day detour via Ravenna, courtesy of the slow train from Bologna to Rimini. Ravenna was, for a time, the capital of the western part of the Roman empire,  when it was being overrun by Goths and others. For a period it was rescued by the eastern part of the empire, based in Constantinople and in the fifth and sixth centuries a number of churches and, yes, baptisteries were built. The town boasts eight, UNESCO World Heritage sites – and on Tuesday I visited six, all within a mile of one another – and each with the most incredible mosaics.

Christ in Glory, St Vitale, Ravenna

St Vitale is one of the largest buildings and  – yes – it’s octagonal. Here is a photo I took of the image of Christ in glory which faces the congregation from above the altar. It is incredible that it was made in 548 – nearly fifteen hundred years ago. The mosaics in Ravenna are stunning and are claimed to be ‘the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople’ (Istanbul).

The Cosmic Cross, Ravenna

Back to my theme. In two of the church buildings I found domes decorated as starry heavens – blue background with gold stars and a central gold cross. I sat in one chapel and gazed at this beautiful image. As I looked I realized that all the stars were eight-pointed! Now I think I was brought up in the belief that stars had five points – if you know what I mean. Then I thought, well, that’s just four lines imposed on one another – how I would normally draw an asterisk – geometry again.

And then the geometry or the symbolism didn’t matter. For I was seeing not simply the stars but the cross. Here was the cosmic cross – the redemption  of all things through Christ.  Here was a claim about what kind of universe we inhabit – fallen, broken, but redeemed. Whether through geometry or intentional symbolism, here was an eighth-day realization that everything was different because of the cross and resurrection of Christ – all creation was to be seen in the light of the cross.

It is fitting that the heavens should rejoice:

and that the earth should be glad,

and that the whole world, both visible and invisible,

should keep the feast.

For Christ is risen, the everlasting joy.

Now all things are filled with light,

heaven, and earth, and all places under the earth.

All creation celebrates the resurrection of Christ.

Orthodox Easter sentences

Reprinted in Gathering for Worship p384

            © Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius

Mary Overload?

Hands up those who can remember Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life! As a teenager they had a profound impact on my sense of where God is to be found in the gritty realities of everyday life. From an ecumenical perspective, the prayer ‘Help me to say Yes’ broadened by Protestant understanding of Mary, with its line, ‘God needs my Yes as he needed Mary’s Yes’.

Protestants have often, or even usually, ignored the biblical figure of Mary in reaction to what they see as the excessive claims of medieval and Catholic piety and dogma. They have even muttered such things as ‘Mariolatry’ (often while practising their own ‘bibliolatry’ – but that’s a debate for another day). In contrast, and prompted by Quoist, I have, each year during Advent, preached about Mary as a model of faith, an example to us on how to respond to God’s call – ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.’ I have even meditated upon the charismatic implications of the work of the Holy Spirit conceiving Christ within her.

Yet this week I found myself reaching a kind of Mary overload. Two things came together. First, while on my Italian journey I have been reading each day a few pages of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. It is, I believe, a spiritual classic but even classics are of their time and this isearly Merton and, at times very pre-Vatican II (because, of course, it was). Published in 1949, it is the fruit of the early years of his contemplative monastic journey when he seems to have been ecumenically unaware.Despite this, the book is full of gems – or perhaps I should say ‘seeds’ that encourage the reader to contemplate. But of course it is human, and so mixed.One moment he writes,

… if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth consult not your own imagination but faith. Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form himself in you by His cross. (p96)

Then within a few pages he is talking of Mary’s soul as ‘absolutely full of the most perfect created sanctity’ (p101), and ‘We believe that hers was the most perfect sanctity outside the sanctity of God…’ (p100)  I could quote further, but I expect you get the gist. I started muttering about the Vulgate’s mistranslation ‘full of grace’, about scriptural warrants for such ideas – and then tried to be eirenic and generous.

Coronation of the Virgin by Michele Giambono

The second thing was just the next day. I entered the first room of the Academia art gallery in Venice, with its medieval and early renaissance religious art, and found that nearly all the pieces were of Mary. Now, I’m very happy to spend time in front of pictures of the annunciation (Mary’s Yes) or images of the Virgin and Child (symbolic of incarnation) but when I realized that a third of the works in the room are representations of the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven – well – I had to take the weight off my feet and take stock. The first reaction was emotional and negative – then the reflection began and I tried to enter the world view of these artists and the spirituality that they express and provoke.

Leave aside for the moment the theological qualifications and caveats – I worked my way through them apace. Yes, coronation speaks of hierarchy. Yes, Mary seems to be given a mediatorial role which should only belong to Christ. Yes, there are dogmatic formulations about perpetual virginity and ‘the assumption of BVM’ which Protestants find very problematic…. yes, yes.

Then the closing lines of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine came to mind:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here is a vision of the consummation of all things in which we all have crowns! Is it too big a step to see in the medieval vision of Mary’s coronation a prefiguring of our own destinies where ‘Love [bids] us welcome’ and gives each of us the place of honour. If this interpretation has any merit then the coronation becomes a symbolic representation of Mary’s place as the first Christian – chronologically – and, perhaps, prophetically.

Her Yes makes room for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enable Christ to be born. She is, as eastern Christians say, the Theotokos, the bearer of God. She also stands at the cross while most of the disciples ran away… And, perhaps, in these pictorial representations of her welcome in heaven we see the welcome that awaits all who trust in the child she bore for us and our salvation.

So – back to Merton. No coronation here, he is talking of Mary’s poverty and lowliness as expressed in the Magnificat.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God.

Well, I – we – might still hesitate with some of that, but its central theme is rich. As Paul puts it, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’; or as Kendrick puts it, ‘Our weaknesses become his possibilities’; or, as Merton continues:

This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.

Looking up

Annigoni St Joseph and the Christ Child

Yesterday I visited four churches and a library – all on foot in the centre of Florence. Each contained great works of art by any measure of the word. The Medici Chapels contain those iconic tomb statures of Michelangelo – although he never finished the series, what we have are stunning.

The San Lorenzo church next door boasts two – yes two – pulpits by Donatello. It made me wonder whether there were any dialogical sermons in the fifteenth century. I don’t think so… However, any preacher would need a good head for heights as the only way up seems to have been my means of a ladder.

I particularly wanted to visit Santa Maria Novella to see one of the those paintings which were a turning pint of their era – in this case Masaccio’s portrayal of the Trinity. Here it was not so much spiritual death which attracted my attention  as a sense of standing – yes – at a turning point.
There are two remarkable features of this painting – and we have to remember that it was painted about 1428. First is the striking use of linear perspective – that ‘trick’ of drawing lines in such a way as a two-dimensional surface has the appearance of being three-dimensional. Apart from the technical stuff to help the artist, this procedure actually means painting what you see rather than what is there. So we ‘see’ railway tracks converging – so when we draw them like that they appear far more realistic than if we draw two parallel lines on the page.
You paint what you see – not what you know – now there’s a thought for a future reflection! This approach to perspective was a discovery of the early Renaissance and although Masaccio was far from the first to use it, his Trinity is a stunning early example.
But this fresco is also significant because of the realism of the figures and especially the faces. This is a long way from Giotto, father of Renaissance painting, beautiful as his paintings are. Here is a different kind of perspective ‘trick’ from manipulating of lines. Now the shading of forms, where light models shape, gives them a three-dimensional body on a two-dimensional surface. This technical developement, coupled with Masaccio’s humanity, results in human faces full of emotion and character. I have to admit that God the Father seems to be rather lacking in emotion – but that probably reflects the theology of the time! An exploration of scripture leads us to many places where images of emotion – anger, compassion etc – are attributed to God. But whatever the theology of God, we can recognize living, feeling, responding human beings in this fifteenth century masterpiece.
I’ll leave the visit to the library for another day. These two images of Annigoni and Masaccio are taken off the web as neither church would allow photography, even without flash. However, when I passed the baptistery next to the Duomo and found that there wasn’t a queue, I seized the opportunity and went in to see the medieval mosaics which cover the domed ceiling (I couldn’t find a font let alone a baptistery – but that’s another story). The dome is covered with scenes portraying the Last Judgement – and some of pretty scary. But the eye is inevitably drawn to Christ enthroned on the judgement seat. It wasn’t easy to see some of the detail from the ground as the mosaic of Christ must be 40-50 feet up, but when I had taken my photographs and inspected them on the laptop I saw very clearly the scars of the nails on his hands and feet. The one who judges is the one who has laid down his life for the redemption of the world. Whatever our views or expectations of the judgement are we must hold on to this central affirmation and hope – the judge is the one who has washed disciple’s feet, lifted fallen sinners out of the dust and died for our salvation.  Images and phrases tumble after one another – Here is love vast as the ocean – the lamb that was slain sits on the throne – but especially: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.
Christ enthroned in judgement - the Florence baptistery

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!