A Closer Look at Famous Works of Art
By “Awake!” correspondent in Italy
MILLIONS of tourists flock to Italian churches every year. Some are devout believers; others are just interested visitors. Whatever their point of view, they may be quite surprised if they listen and look carefully when viewing some of the most famous works of art.
My wife, Barbara, and I took part in an organized tour of three of the most well-known Italian cities, Rome, Florence and Venice, and we took our four-year-old son, John, along with us.
Our first stop was at Rome, a city that is truly fascinating for anyone interested in art and what it reveals about the history of religion.
Although we had already visited several large European cities, none of them could rival Rome for its wealth of ancient monuments, including forums, triumphal arches, its famous Colosseum, the aqueducts and Roman baths. During the whole tour we were looked after by the same guide, a man about 50 years of age named Carlo. Though small in stature, he soon commanded our attention.
On the morning of the first day, Carlo gave us a summary of Roman history, and at a certain point he asked: “Did you know that Rome is often called the City of Obelisks?” Nobody did. In fact, some of those present were not sure what an obelisk was.
After having explained that they are Egyptian monuments in the form of tapered four-sided stone pillars topped by a pointed pyramid shape, our guide observed: “No other city in the world has as many obelisks as Rome.” Sure enough, soon afterward the first one came into sight and Carlo continued his commentary: “We are now in the square of St. John Lateran. This is one of the 13 Roman obelisks still standing, but once there were many more. This one was erected on its present site by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.”
“What did obelisks represent in Egypt?” Barbara asked.
“They were fetishes of the sun-god. Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman writer, claimed they represented rays of sunlight. They were erected in temples and alongside altars, and the priests made offerings to the gods in front of them because they were even believed to personify various divinities.”
“How high is this one and how much does it weigh?” some of our companions wanted to know.
“It is the highest in the world, measuring exactly 105 feet 6 inches [32 m] and weighing 455 tons,” our guide replied without batting an eyelid.
“But what about that cross on the top?” I could not resist asking.
Carlo responded: “Oh, that’s nothing to be surprised about. The popes saw to it that the cross and other symbols were put on pagan monuments because they thought this was a way of making Christianity triumph over paganism. Sixtus V was particularly keen on this sort of thing.”
I asked: “It was rather a strange alliance, don’t you think?”
“It certainly was. Soon you will be seeing an even more evident example of what you call a ‘strange alliance,’” he replied. He was beginning to take a liking to Barbara and me because our questions gave him a chance to demonstrate his wide knowledge.
The next day, on our visit to the historic city center, we saw what he meant. “That is Trajan’s Column over there,” Carlo said, pointing to a white marble column 125 feet [38 m] high. “It was erected to commemorate Trajan’s military campaigns, but Pope Sixtus V had the emperor’s statue removed and put one of St. Peter in its place.” Soon afterward we visited another square containing a very similar column. “This one was erected in honor of Marcus Aurelius, but if you look at the statue on the top you will see that it portrays the apostle Paul. The statue of the emperor was replaced by order of the same pope in his efforts to ‘Christianize’ pagan Rome.”
“In a moment we will be visiting one of the best preserved of our ancient monuments,” Carlo said later on. When we pulled up in a nearby square, he showed us a typical pagan temple construction. “This is the Pantheon. It was built between 27 and 25 B.C. As you can see, it is laid out in a circular plan behind the facade. The dome is visible from here, but you will get a better view from the inside. It has a diameter of 142 feet [43 m] and is the largest masonry dome in the world. It was not until this century that larger ones were built, thanks to the introduction of reinforced concrete. The temple was originally dedicated to the worship of the pantheon of pagan gods. Then, during the Renaissance, Pope Urban VIII ordered the porch to be stripped of its bronze covering. Part of the metal was melted down to make the canopy over the papal altar in St. Peter’s and the rest was used for the cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo.”
As we walked inside, Barbara and I expected to find ourselves in a museum or something similar, but not . . .
“Ah! I forgot to tell you . . . ,” Carlo hastened to add when he saw the surprised expressions on our faces, “after the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV in 609 A.D., the Pantheon was transformed into a church dedicated to the cult of the Madonna and the Martyrs. As you can see, it is still in use as a place of worship. It is the burial place of the famous painter Raphael and contains the tombs of a number of Italian kings who fought for Italian independence.”
Then, turning directly to me, he continued: “A great many other Roman churches have been built over pagan temples and often existing structures were reutilized.” He began to reel off a list of these: “St. Mary’s was built over a temple dedicated to Minerva, the church of St. Lorenzo in Miranda was formerly dedicated to a deified imperial couple. . . .”
The morning of the third and last day was set aside for a visit to the Vatican. We made our way to St. Peter’s Square, enclosed by the magnificent colonnades, which give it such an imposing atmosphere. Our group gathered around a large obelisk in the very center of the square. Carlo seemed to know all there was to know about these Egyptian monuments.
“Look at it carefully,” he said, “and you will see there are no inscriptions on it. Emperor Caligula had it brought to Rome and it was erected on this site by Pope Sixtus V. It is said that the transport and erection of this monument was a very difficult and costly operation. In fact, it took 900 workers four months to complete. In view of the difficulties involved and fearing the slightest distraction, the pope decreed that anyone making a noise while the operation was under way would be punished by receiving the death sentence.”
As we entered the colossal basilica, glittering gold and splashes of red velvet met our eyes. Around us were the works of many of the greatest artists of past centuries.
“How ever much is all this worth?” a young boy asked.
“Obviously, it is impossible to calculate the value of everything it contains. However, I can tell you this: By order of Pope Julius II, the basilica built in the days of Emperor Constantine was demolished and begun to be rebuilt as it is now. The popes financed the construction by selling so many indulgences as to arouse a wave of indignation that is said to have accelerated the Protestant Reformation.”
Over to our right we saw the famous Pietà by Michelangelo, representing the dead Christ laid across the knees of his mother, Mary. After having drawn our attention to the pervading mildness and dignity expressed by the statue, Carlo guided us toward another one in bronze. A number of people already were in front of it; some of them awaiting their turn to go forward to kiss its right foot. When there was room, we managed to get nearer.
“Look, Mummy! Daddy, can you see?” John cried. “They’re kissing its foot!” In fact, we saw that the toes of the statue were almost worn smooth! “Over the centuries, the lips of millions of faithful worshipers have worn part of the toes away,” our guide explained. “The statue represents St. Peter, but its origins are obscure. According to tradition, it was made from a melted-down statue of Jove. Recent opinion has it that the statue dates back to the 13th century.”
During the afternoon, we visited parks, monuments and squares. Our overall impression was that Rome is indeed a beautiful city, with its characteristic dark-red buildings and its gardens where lofty umbrella-shaped pine trees seem to be etched against the sky.
Later, as we traveled on to Florence, we talked about the many beautiful things we had seen in Rome and the singular mixture of sacred and profane, which cannot fail to strike the attentive observer.
Although Florence is much smaller than Rome, its art galleries are the richest in the world, being full of fine paintings and sculptures. Surrounded by enchanting Tuscan hillsides, the city has always had its own particular elegance.
My wife and I were very impressed by our visit to Piazza del Duomo, one of the main squares. It is one of the most beautiful in the city and contains the Cathedral and the Baptistry, where young babies are baptized. When Carlo said, “Let’s go and look at the Door of Paradise,” our curiosity was immediately aroused. As we neared the Baptistry, he showed us the bronze door by the Florentine artist Ghiberti. It owes its name to Michelangelo, who said that such a beautiful door was worthy of paradise itself. Its 10 panels portray episodes from the Bible. We went closer and saw that the artist had depicted the creation of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and his son Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David and Solomon.
Inside the building we noticed a striking contrast to these Biblical themes. The mosaics decorating the dome were dominated by a horrible picture of hell. “Did you know that the scenes of hell depicted in Italian churches are similar to those painted by the Etruscans?” Carlo asked.
This was news to us and we were extremely interested in knowing more. Our guide went on to mention the book La Civiltà etrusca (The Etruscan Civilization) by Werner Keller (published by Garzanti), which I have since managed to obtain, thanks to his help. This book states:
“Why should we be surprised, therefore, if in the religious paintings to be found in Tuscan churches and those in central and northern Italy, we find the disquieting hell scenes of Etruscan times cropping up all over again, complete with the fearsome demon figures and winged creatures which once accompanied the dead on their last journey? The creatures which had populated the Etruscan realm of the dead simply migrated into later places of worship and have survived in the sacred art decorating these churches.
“The portrayal of the horrors of hell . . . came into its own in ancient Etruria, where it assumed more violent and sinister forms than elsewhere . . . The dominating figure presiding over the infernal torture and the anguish of Christian purgatory, is Satan, the clear counterpart to the demons populating the burial chambers of late Etruscan times.”
This discovery was yet further evidence that in Christendom pagan beliefs have so profoundly altered the teachings and the very spirit of early Christianity.
At the end of this tour we left Florence and undertook the long journey on to Venice.
Venice, often called the “Queen of the Adriatic,” made an extraordinary impression on us. Built on various islands of a lagoon, it is a truly unique city, with its canals and vaguely Oriental palaces inlaid with delicate marble tracery. It seemed rather like something out of the “Arabian Nights.”
St. Mark’s Square is fascinating. It is shut off on one side by the basilica, which is a cross between a Byzantine church and a Moslem mosque. Four enormous gilded horses in bronze, standing on the terrace, adorn the facade. Although I was partially distracted by John, who wanted to have a ride on them at all costs, I managed to hear what Carlo was saying about them. “These large horses, examples of third- or fourth-century [B.C.E.] Greek art, are copies of the original statues that recently have been taken away to be restored. Look at the decorations around the arches of the church. This one has a hunting scene on it, with a centaur fighting a dragon. That one represents the months of the year with the signs of the zodiac, and over there you will see another one portraying the Labors of Hercules . . . This sculpture depicts four warriors in a friendly embrace. They are believed to be the pagan emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius.”
Scenes from mythology, astrological symbols and statues of warriors—what strange decorations for a church!
We ended our holiday in style by taking a moonlit trip in one of the famous Venetian boats, or gondolas, from which we watched the city unfold before our eyes.
At the end of our brief tour we had much food for thought about our firsthand view of the blatant mixture of sacred and profane in Christendom’s art treasures. The pomp and grandeur of many religious buildings brought home to us the superior value of possessing an edifying understanding of true Christianity. The numerous works of art, fruit of human genius, prompted us to reflect on the superior wisdom of our Creator, whose artistry is so marvelously demonstrated in the way he made us.
[Picture on page 16]
Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square
[Pictures on page 17]
Statue of Peter, of uncertain origin
The Pantheon, originally devoted to pagan gods
[Picture on page 18]
Scenes of hell, in the Catholic Baptistry in Florence