An Interesting Tour of the Vatican
YOU are about to visit a hilltop once associated with soothsayers. Here Numa Pompilius—Rome’s fabled second king—is said to have declared to the people his vaticinia, supposed pronouncements of their deities. In later centuries, spectators witnessed the horrible deaths of Christians in Nero’s circus not far away.
Those soothsayers are gone. So are the throngs that reveled in savage circus pageants. Today Vatican Hill is occupied by the smallest state in the world. Completely surrounded by Rome and almost entirely walled, Vatican City covers just 108.7 acres, and its largely nonresident population numbers less than a thousand. Yet, the Vatican dominates the lives of over 577,600,000 Roman Catholics earth wide.
The Lateran Treaty of 1929 provided for establishment of Vatican City as a separate sovereign state having the pope as its ruler. Benito Mussolini signed for Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, and Cardinal Gasparri did so for the papacy.
It has been said that a visitor can walk Vatican City’s length in about eight minutes, but could not view all its treasures of art and learning in a lifetime. Since Pope Paul VI has declared 1975 a “Holy Year,” doubtless millions of persons hope to visit the Vatican. But suppose we do it now, and as we do so, pause long enough to reflect on some features that an overawed pilgrim might miss.
Saint Peter’s Square
We walk west of the River Tiber and enter the Vatican between the towering twin arms of Giovanni Bernini’s quadruple colonnade of 284 columns and 88 pilasters. The four rows of columns form an ellipse enclosing Saint Peter’s Square. Atop the colonnade are 140 statues of “saints” and martyrs.
The entire square encircles a red granite obelisk, over eighty feet high and weighing a million pounds! What is its origin? It was plundered from ancient Heliopolis by Caligula and erected in the circus that Nero completed. The obelisk bears dedicatory inscriptions to Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. In the shadow of this Egyptian pillar, Christians met untimely deaths nineteen centuries ago. Then how did it get here in Saint Peter’s Square?
It was moved at the behest of Pope Sixtus V and was erected in the Vatican on September 14, 1586, a Wednesday, always viewed by Sixtus as a “lucky day.” This also happened to be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. In view of its pagan connections, the pope attempted to have the heathen spirit of the monolith exorcised.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
According to Catholic tradition, the apostle Peter suffered martyrdom and was buried in Rome. On the other hand, the Holy Scriptures neither say nor imply that the apostle ever was in that city.* In about 325 C.E., however, Roman Emperor Constantine began building a great basilica over the supposed tomb of Peter.
In 1506 Pope Julius II decided to rebuild the basilica. Donato Bramante was the first of the church’s many architects, among whom was Michelangelo. When finally dedicated by Urban VIII in 1626, the basilica had the form of a Latin cross. Some 614 feet long, with an overall area of about 163,000 square feet, the building can accommodate an estimated 80,000 persons. Yes, it is mammoth—the largest church in the world.
Rising 435 feet above the basilica floor (where the long and short arms of the crosslike structure transect) is the great dome of mosaic and gilt. It is about 138 feet in diameter. Sixteen separate panels in the dome depict Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, the apostles and “saints.”
Beneath the massive dome of the basilica is the High Altar. Here only the pope (or a cardinal whom he designates in his stead) can celebrate Mass. Over the altar is a canopy that Bernini fashioned, using bronze plates that Pope Urban VIII took from Rome’s well-preserved Pantheon, a pagan temple.
Why such a huge and opulent edifice as Saint Peter’s Basilica? Shedding some light on this, André Biéler wrote: “Maderno was to transform the [original] Greek cross plan into a Latin cross, and Bernini was to finish off by introducing ostentatious embellishments and by enlarging the plan with the two immense arms of the great colonnade. They were concerned to prove to the world, in face of the Reformation, that Rome, the powerful and magnificent head of Christianity, was once more brilliantly resplendent. St. Peter’s had to express ‘the grandeur, the strength, the power, in a word the majesty, of the Catholic Church’. We can find in the very material execution of this sanctuary the essential continuity between Roman ostentation and the showy protocol of paganism.”—Architecture in Worship.
Numerous works of art are found in the basilica. For instance, we pause to view Michelangelo’s renowned Pietà, a sculpture of the dead Jesus on the knees of his mother Mary. Originally it was to adorn the tomb of a French cardinal. Incidentally, after hearing certain pilgrims ascribe this work to Cristoforo Solari, by night Michelangelo added a ribbon on which he inscribed his own name. This band runs from Mary’s left shoulder to her right hip, drawing unmistakable attention to the sculptor.
Inside an ornate bronze case made by Bernini is a relic used by popes for centuries during special ceremonies, and which has long been venerated as the chair of “Saint” Peter. Its front has eighteen ivory panels, representing the twelve labors of the mythological Hercules, as well as six monsters that may be signs of the Zodiac. In actual fact, Peter never occupied this seat. Carbon 14 testing supports the ninth century C.E., some 700 years after Peter died, as being the date of it. On one ivory strip is a bust of Charles the Bald, Roman emperor and king of the West Franks. Probably this oaken throne was brought to Rome for Charles’ coronation by Pope John VIII, in December 875 C.E. Yet, several years after the Vatican acknowledged its origin (in November 1969), this medieval chair still occupied an honored place in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Your interest now is drawn to a bronze statue of “Saint” Peter, seated on a throne, with a halo over his head and his right foot extended. In 1857 Pius IX granted a fifty-day indulgence to anyone who kissed the toe of that lifeless foot. Many pilgrims kiss it, then make the sign of the cross. The toes of the unkissed left foot are well defined. But those of the right are worn away, apparently by the kisses and caresses of reverent thousands. On Peter’s feast day this statue is adorned with gem-studded papal miter and garb. What we see makes us recall the inspired psalm that speaks of silent, sightless, deaf idols, with “hands unfeeling, feet unstirring.”—Ps. 113:13-16, Knox.
According to tradition, this statue was cast in the fourth or the fifth century C.E., though it also has been ascribed to the thirteenth century. Yet, others view it differently. For instance, concerning it, R.C. Wyndham’s Practical Guide to the Principal Sights of Rome states: “The statue was originally that of Jupiter in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, but has been converted to a holier purpose by the Pope.”
More important than this statue’s uncertain origin is the reverence given it. Would Peter approve of such veneration? When the Italian centurion Cornelius fell down at the feet of this humble apostle, Peter did not put either foot forward, to be kissed or caressed. No indeed! The Scriptures tell us: “Peter helped him up. ‘Stand up,’ he said ‘I am only a man after all!’”—Acts 10:25, 26, The Jerusalem Bible.
The Sistine Chapel
Our tour takes us to the Sistine Chapel, named for Pope Sixtus IV. Built between 1475 and 1481 at his order, this structure is 132 feet long and 45 feet wide, with a height of 68 feet. Actually the private papal chapel, it has been the scene of various ceremonies and of assemblies for electing popes.
The Sistine Chapel already contained works of other artists by 1508, when Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to apply his skills to its ceiling. When completed, the resulting frescoes contained 343 figures. Principally depicted are scenes of creation, man’s fall and the Flood. But the paintings also include ancestors of Christ, as well as Biblical prophets and pagan prophetesses, or sibyls.
Sibyls? Yes, and among them the Delphic Sibyl. According to Origen, it was said that “the prophetic spirit of Apollo entered her private parts,” after which she gave oracles in a state of madness. She was under demon influence. (Compare Acts 16:16-18.) The Guide to the Vatican (1973) says: “Michelangelo meant to depict the old Hebrew and pagan world as it waited and hoped for the Messiah.” However, the fact is that God sent no messages to pagan prophetesses. Moreover, is it not strange that they should be represented along with Biblical prophets, since there were godly prophetesses awaiting the Messiah, women like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and Anna?—Ex. 15:20, 21; Judg. 4:4-7; 2 Ki. 22:14-20; Luke 2:36-38.
Years later (1534-1541), Michelangelo painted the “Last Judgment” on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. In this fresco the dead are shown being summoned to judgment by an angry Jesus Christ, who condemns many to a hell of torment. The artwork, however, is in direct conflict with the Bible, which shows that hell is the common grave of mankind, where the dead are conscious of nothing and can suffer no pain! And it is not from the Bible’s pages that the idea comes that Jesus will be a cruel, wrathful judge! (Eccl. 9:5, 10; Isa. 11:1-5) Nevertheless, upon seeing the “Last Judgment,” Pope Paul III, who had two mistresses and fathered four illegitimate sons before entering the priesthood, reportedly dropped to his knees and begged: “Lord, charge me not with my sins when Thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment.”
In this day when pornography is so rampant, with all its unsavory effects upon the people, we cannot totally ignore the nudity of many characters depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. At one time the nudes appearing originally in the “Last Judgment” aroused such complaint that, by papal order, the nudity of certain figures later was draped.
Gardens, Museums and a Noted Library
The Vatican also is a place of beautiful gardens, various museums and noteworthy galleries. In the Pio-Clementine Museum, an altar bearing bas-reliefs shows Victory carrying a shield with the inscription: “The Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this altar to the Emperor Augustus, son of the deified Caesar, in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus.” This title (literally meaning “Greatest Bridge Maker”), once borne by the head of Rome’s pagan priesthood and eventually by its emperors, was rejected by Emperor Gratian as unbefitting a Christian. Pope Damasus I of the fourth century gladly assumed it, however, and it remains a papal title to this day.
A treasure trove of manuscripts and books—that is the Vatican library. Besides some 1,000,000 printed books, it is the repository of over 90,000 manuscripts. Among these is the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209, a valuable Greek Biblical codex of the fourth century C.E.
“Silver and Gold I Have None”?
As a visitor to the Vatican, you may well be impressed with its costly edifices, jewel-studded religious articles, renowned artworks and the like. The papacy has received many outright gifts, but that is not the whole story. Concerning extremely costly Saint Peter’s Basilica, it has been said: “Donato Bramante’s winning design aroused stormy opposition—as did the taxes which Julius [II] and later popes levied in order to pay for the work.” (Great Ages of Man, Renaissance, by John R. Hale and The Editors of Time-Life Books) The fund drive for the construction of the basilica, carried on in Germany through the sale of indulgences by Dominican monk Johann Tetzel, was one cause of the Reformation led by Luther.
The Roman Catholic Church claims to be founded on Peter, a humble fisherman and apostle of Jesus Christ. But many persons are unable to reconcile such great wealth with Peter’s words to a lame man who sought some material gift: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.” And the man walked. Yes, Peter placed emphasis on the human element, and on spiritual values, but a tour of the Vatican reveals an emphasis on material things.—Acts 3:1-26, Douay Version.