09. April 2005 · Comments Off on Church Eternal · Categories: General, History

The most striking thing about the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome is that it is immensely, overwhelmingly huge, but so humanly proportioned that the size of it doesn’t hit you right away. It sneaks up on you, as the grand vista unfolds, marble and gold, bronze and Michelangelo’s glorious dome soaring overhead… and then you realize that the chubby marble cherubs holding the shell-shaped holy water font are actually six feet tall, that what looks like ordinary wainscoting at the bottom of the wall opposite is itself six feet wide, and those are not ants crawling slowly along the polished marble floor, they are other people.

All the artistic genius of the Renaissance was poured out lavishly to build and adorn this, the center of Christendom, the palace, church and administrative center of Christ’s vicar on earth, the latest in a line unbroken (although it did distinctly thin, in some places) from Apostolic times. All this, built over a necropolis in what had been outside the ancient walls, across the Tiber River from the city on seven fabled hills, in which tradition held that the bones of St. Peter—apostle and martyr, fisherman, missionary and Bishop of Rome— were laid. Over a hundred years in the building, it absorbed the energies of architects and the papal treasury, even the bronze roofing from the ancient Pantheon were taken to make the baldacchino, the elaborate canopy over the high altar. “Not the barbarians, but Bernini” was the wry comment by ordinary Romans on this particular bit of sack and pillage. But, oh, it is a splendid place, built for the greater glory of God on the Vatican Hill, and it is worth seeing many times, even if one is not Catholic, just for the treasure store of painting and sculpture. When St. Peters’ was a-building, the Church was a spiritual authority to a degree hardly comprehensible to us now, and— even more incomprehensible— a mighty secular power as well. Said the wise man, “Fear not he who has the power of life and death, but he that has the power to cast thee into hell”.

For a thousand years, the church was the intercessor between sinful human beings, and the divine, the keeper of the gates of heaven and the doors to hell, intercessor, arbiter, final authority, before whom even kings and emperors quailed and obeyed. Lesser men and saints trod very carefully, in the majestic presence of he who held all-power in this world and the keys of the next. The Basilica of St. Peter was meant to be a fit frame and show-place, but ironically it’s completion sparked the fracture of that one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

In one of the small rooms on the upper floor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are gathered many of the small treasures and rarities, portraits and curiosities mostly. Visitors are admitted one by one by a guard, and the line circles the room slowly. The couple ahead of my daughter and I on the Sunday afternoon that we “did” the Uffizi were older Italians with a look of country people about them, but country people dressed in their best, and uncomfortable in it. The man’s black suit was old, and pulled across his shoulders and gut, his white shirt collar and knotted tie looked like they were about to strangle him and he had the faint grimy lines on his knuckles and under his fingernails of someone who works with machines or automobile engines. But he and his wife were extracting the most out of their afternoon of culture, reading very carefully all the little cards underneath the pictures.

At a pair of Cranach portraits of a husband and wife, though, he leaned down to read the little cards, then straightened up and practically spat with contempt when he hissed
“Protestante!, and moved on to the next item in the treasury. My daughter and I looked at the two portraits. I didn’t need to read the little card, these were faces I was already familiar with. The husband, a bulky man with the thick shoulders and broad features of a working man; shrewd, tough, confident, clad in plain, unornamented clothes. The wife, whose round features sparkled with intelligence, and the assurance of a woman who is entirely pleased with the life she has made for herself, having had the wit to have picked out her man and made her own match and their mutual married happiness… which had been very much to his incredulous surprise.

Dying in bed of old age, was not how Martin Luther had expected his tumultuous life to end. He himself, brilliant, driven and outraged by the corruption of the Church he served with devotion, fully expected to burnt at stake as a heretic, from the moment he defied Emperor and the Pope’s representative at the Diet of Worms with the ringing words: “Unless I am convicted by [testimonies of the] Scripture and plain reason…I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe…Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

(To be continued)

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