Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Saint Andrew and Bernini

Duccio, Calling of Sts. Peter and Andrew
Italian, 1308-1311
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
"As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."
At once they left their nets and followed him.
(Matthew 4:18-22)

Thus the New Testament describes the calling of the Bar Jonah brothers, Simon and Andrew. Simon, as we know, went on to acquire a new name, Peter, the leading Apostle and the “Rock” of the Church. Andrew is less well known, at least in the West. It appears from what evidence we have that Andrew’s mission, following the dispersal of the Apostles after Pentecost, was to the regions surrounding the Black Sea, including what is today northern Turkey, southern Russia , the Balkans and Greece. According to tradition, Andrew was martyred in 60 AD in Greece by being tied to a cross. Like his brother, Peter, who suffered his martyrdom in Rome a few years later, Andrew insisted on his own unworthiness to share the same method of execution as Jesus and, therefore, was crucified on a “cross” in the form of the letter X. 1
Jean Fouquet, Martyrdom of St. Andrew
French, ca. 1450
Chantilly, Musee Conde

Andrew, as Apostle to the Black Sea area, is considered to be the founder of the Church in Byzantium, which later became the capital of the eastern Roman Empire after its refoundation in 325 by the Emperor Constantine, who renamed it after himself. Consequently, St. Andrew is the patron of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the modern period, since the pontificate of John Paul II, the Popes, as successors of St. Peter, and the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, as successors of St. Andrew, have exchanged high-level missions to celebrate their feast days of June 29 and November 30 in brotherly fashion.

Camillo Rusconi, St. Andrew
Italian, 1708-1709
Rome, St. John Lateran

St. Andrew’s unique crucifixion, on the X-shaped cross, set him apart and also became his most recognizable attribute. It appears in almost every representation of St. Andrew (with the exception, of course, of those that depict Jesus calling both brothers).

It is the work of one artist/architect in relation to St. Andrew that I would like to focus on today. The artist is Gianlorenzo Bernini. Bernini is probably best known as an architect and as the designer of the interior of St. Peter’s basilica.

In 1658 Bernini was commissioned by the Jesuits to design a new church, dedicated to St. Andrew, for their new novitiate on the Quirinal hill.2  Work continued on the building until 1670. Bernini had personal ties to the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, the religious order of men, founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola. Bernini attended Mass every day in the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits. One of his sons was, for a time, a Jesuit novice. 
Bernini, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale (exterior)
Italian, 1658-1670

Bernini, Floorplan
Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

In conception this building, like his work in the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is imagined on a cosmic scale, bringing together in one space both earth and heaven. The design of the church may be modeled on the Pantheon, that amazing survivor from the 2nd century, originally a temple to all the gods of Rome, but converted in 609 into the church dedicated to Our Lady and All Martyrs, knwn as Santa Maria Rotonda. Bernini, however, plays with the form and designed S. Andrea as an oval.  The fabric of the building is conceived in such a plastic, organic manner that it almost seems to breathe, as he manipulates its solids and voids, scooping chapels from its substance.

Bernini, Interior, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

The interior is sheathed in marble in greys and pinks, making it one of the prettiest churches in Rome. This, plus its small size, makes it a favorite venue for weddings.3

Guillaume Courtois, Martyrdom of St. Andrew
French (Burgundian), ca. 1660

The painted altarpiece shows St. Andrew in his final agony on the X-shaped cross.4  But, where most artists and designers would have stopped at that point, Bernini goes further. The altarpiece is lit by light from a hidden window and carried by gilded stucco angels.

The whole altar area is framed in a classically inspired aedicule with a broken pediment. Through the break we see St. Andrew again, bursting, as it were, through the divide between life and eternal glory in heaven.

Bernini, St. Andrew Ascending to Heaven
Italian, ca. 1660s
Rome, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

Borne aloft on clouds, all his attention is bent on reaching toward heaven.

Bernini, Dome of St. Andrea al Quirinale

Heaven, is the dome, divided by rays of gold and filled with figures of angels, including a threshold at the top, from which more small angels peep down.

All leads to the golden dove symbol of the Holy Spirit, which is lit by a circle of windows.
Bernini, Holy Spirit at the top of the dome
Sant'Andrea al Quirinale
Through the work of Bernini we, the living who stand or sit on the ground level of the church, become witnesses to the martyrdom of St. Andrew and to the flight of his soul into the realm of heaven, events which are happening right before our eyes. "While praying in the oval space of the church, the congregation participates in the miracle of the Saint's salvation." 5 We also become time travelers, witnessing in our own time, events which took place in the 1st century, presented to us by a man of the 17th century. Cosmic indeed!
1.  MacRory, Joseph. "St. Andrew." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 30 Nov. 2011
2.  People are sometimes confused between the words "novitiate" and "novice".  The novitiate is the period of time in which an aspirant to membership in a religious order spends in "formation" (the study of the origin, charism and rule of life of the organization which he or she wishes to join).  A novice is the term used for the candidate him or her self.  Novitiate also refers to the building in which novices live, if it happens to be different from the building in which the "professed" or full members live.
3.  You can take a virtual tour of the church at
4.  The painting itself is the work of the French painter, Guillaume Courtois, known as "Il Borgonone" (the Burgundian).  The stucco work is by the specialist stucco worker, Antonio Raggi.  Bernini employed many assistants, especially those with specialties to assit in executing his conceptions.
5.   Wittkower, Rudolf.  Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second Edition, 1968, p. 27.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Jean Cousin the Younger, Last Judgment
French, 1585
Paris, Musee du Louvre
"Jesus said to his disciples:
"Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'" (Mark 13:33-37)

Welcome to the season of Advent, that annually repeating time of preparation for each Christmas that also reminds us of our position in time. We look backward to the long wait of Israel for the Messiah at the same time as we look forward to the day on which He will come again.

The readings for these weeks strike many notes, working backwards through time, as it were. We begin today with a warning about the final Judgment, for the next two weekends we will hear about John the Baptist and, on the final Sunday of Advent, we will hear about the moment of the Incarnation.

Advent images that come to mind focus on the Annunciation and Visitation, the specific advent of the Child Jesus. And we will look at them when we get there. But, for this first week of Advent let’s look at images of the Last Judgment.

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Romanesque (French), 1130-1135
Autun, Cathedral of St. Lazare

The Last Judgment has been a favorite topic for much of the history of western art. It was the image of choice for the tympanum (space between the top of the door and the top of an archway) in many Romanesque and Gothic churches during the Middle Ages. One of the most famous and well-known examples is the tympanum from the Cathedral of St. Lazare at Autun, made between 1130 and 1135. Most unusually for a work of medieval sculpture, the tympanum is signed by the sculptor “Gislebertus hoc fecit” (Gilbert made this). Gislebertus must have been highly respected to be allowed to name himself.

The lively figures surrounding the large figure of Christ in glory tell the story of the last day, when the dead are raised and divided into those who are saved and those who are damned. 
Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Detail:  Weighing of Souls

Among the scenes are those of the interaction between the Archangel Michael and the Devil, as Michael weighs souls in a balance.

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Detail: Soul Dragged to Hell

The Devil tries hard to cheat, and gain more souls for himself.

He pulls down on the balance, even as the claws on his feet horrifically grab a frightened soul in the lintel below by the head and begin to drag it toward hell.

Some of these same details appear three hundred years later in the great Last Judgment polyptych (multi-paneled painting) painted by Rogier van der Weyden for the Hotel-Dieu at Baune in Burgundy.
The Hotel-Dieu was built from 1443-1452 by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Fair, as a refuge for the sick poor (more like what we would today call a hopice than a modern hospital) during the unsettled century that saw the Hundred Years War and continuing outbreaks of the Black Death.
Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment Polyptych
Netherlandish, 1446-1452
Beaune, Hotel Dieu

Here Michael’s weighing of souls takes center stage, directly beneath Christ. As the heavenly court hover above them, the souls of the dead emerge from their graves to face either an angelic welcome into heaven (at the left) or a horrifying descent into hell (at the right).

Interesting as these images are, however, they can be said to represent the Judgment already in progress. For an image that can illustrate this Sunday’s warning to ‘Watch!” is the great image of the Last Judgment that Michelangelo produced for the end wall of the Sistine Chapel (1536 - 1541), thirty years after his work on the Sistine ceiling.
Michelangelo Buonarotti, Last Judgment
Italian, 1536-1541
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

In its dynamic image we see, as it were, the Last Judgment at the moment “when the lord of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35). There is an immediacy and an urgency as Christ breaks once more into the terrestrial world, the dead rise from their graves and the judgment takes place. Those who are to be saved are assisted by angels and the blessed to reach heaven, while angels and the blessed resist those who are damned but are trying to escape their punishment.
Michelangelo, Last Judgment

To the right of center is a figure whose horror at being pulled down to hell is reminiscent of the little soul from Autun whose head was gripped by the Devil’s claws.

Images of the Last Judgment seem to have tapered off after about 1600, perhaps replaced by a greater emphasis on the particular judgment that follows each individual death than with the general judgment of the final days. But, at Advent each year, the Church reminds us of that still-to-come last act in salvation history and of its byword “Watch!”

© M. Duffy, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Hail Bright Cecilia!" -- Great Patroness of Harmony

Carlo Saraceni, St. Cecilia and the Angel
Italian, ca. 1610
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica
Although we have few concrete details about her life and martyrdom, Cecilia of Rome has been one of the most popular saints of the Church in all the centuries since the 4th. The date of her martyrdom is uncertain. It may be as early as the time of Marcus Aurelius in the mid-2nd century or as late as the time of Diocletian in the early 4th, only about 10 years before the Edict of Milan gave recognition to the Christian Church.

What we do know is that, as early as the years immediately after the Edict of Milan, she was one of the most respected of the Roman martyrs. What was probably her home was one of the early Roman “house churches”, called tituli. And, by the 5th century her name is among the list of martyrs cited in the Roman Canon, the principal Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, along with other male and female saints, such as Lawrence, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Agnes, Anastasia, Felicity and Perpetua. 1

Her name, Cecilia, derives (as the names of Roman women always did) from her family name, in this case the Caecilii (for a male family member the form would be Caecilius, which survives in the English given name, Cecil). Presumably, St. Cecilia was a member of this prominent, noble, old Roman family. She undoubtedly also had another, personal name, which is now lost.

Legends surround her life and death, although it is entirely possible that some of them may, in fact, be true. We simply don’t have the documentation to know for sure. The best-known tale is that as a young bride, vowed to perpetual virginity, she converted both her husband and brother-in-law, themselves prominent Romans, to the Christian faith and that, for this reason, both they and she suffered martyrdom. By tradition the first attempt at killing her was to suffocate her in a hot bath. I had always thought this was a weird way to kill someone until I learned that the Empress Fausta, Constantine’s second wife, was reported to have been killed by this technique. Perhaps it was a Roman way to execute high born women. However, while it may have succeeded with Fausta, in Cecilia’s case it failed. Instead, she was killed by a more conventional manner, by beheading.

Carlo Saraceni, Execution of St. Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1610
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The chosen executioner must have been incompetent because, according to tradition, he hacked at her neck three times, wounding her, but leaving her still alive. Such an incomplete beheading might well have left her alive and conscious, though probably at least partly paralyzed, for some time. According to the story, she lived for three days, giving her enough time to make gifts to the poor of Rome and to donate her residence to the Church. It is certainly possible that this event may actually have happened, although the three days may be more a reference to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ than to a real time span. However, a slow death lasting from several hours to one or two days could be reasonable. Legend has it that she also sang hymns during this time, which, while remotely possible, is unlikely. 2

Her body was buried in a place of honor in the catacomb of St. Callistus. In the 4th century a church was constructed above what probably had been her home, the titulus Caeciliae, now known as Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Remains of the original Roman buildings have been found under the church foundations and can be visited. 
Facade, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Italian, 5th through 19th centuries
Rome, Piazza Santa Cecilia

In the 9th century, coinciding with the renovation of the church, her body was removed from the catacomb and placed in the church.

The church has been renovated several times, most recently in the 19th century.

Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1600
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

In connection with one of these renovations, in 1599, her remains were examined and found to be intact. The sculptor Stefano Maderno was commissioned to carve a statue recording how it looked. He engraved a marble plaque testifying that he had reproduced exactly what he had seen. In translation it reads:
"Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in the tomb. I have in this marble expressed for you the same saint in the very same posture".

Maderno’s white marble figure lies in front of the main altar of the church (which is crowned with a beautiful baldachino by Arnolfo da Cambio, which dates to around 1290). It gives dramatic testimony to Cecilia’s death. She lies, face down, on her right side. Her hair is thrown forward, revealing the deep cuts in her neck. Her fingers have been arranged to deliver a message. Three fingers of her right hand are extended, as is one finger of her left. She is signaling belief in the mystery of the Trinity, of the Three in One.
Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia (detail)

This elegant and moving white sculpture is strikingly set into a stone framework that is a brilliant blue, like lapis lazuli, with gilded decorations of angels and the figures of other, related, saints. It stands at the beginning of the Baroque period, with its emphasis on presenting the reality of the suffering of the martyrs. 3

Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

However, it is her association with singing and, by extension with all music, for which she is chiefly remembered. It has made her the patron saint of music and musicians and one of the best known subjects in the history of art.

Numerous paintings honor her, depicting her with a variety of instruments.  But, unlike Maderno’s simply clad figure, most of these turn her into a fantasy figure. She appears in various headgear and dress, often very elaborate and exotic. Occasionally her husband and fellow martyr, Valerianus, and his brother, Tiburtius, also martyred, appear with her.  An angel or angels may be in attendance as well. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, St. Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1616
Rome, Galleria Spada
Guido Reni, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1606
Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum

Domenichino, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1617-1619
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Jacques Blanchard, St. Cecilia
French, 1630s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Nicolas Poussin, St. Cecilia
French, c.1635
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Edward Burne-Jones, St. Cecilia
English, 1890s
Private Collection

Orazio Gentileschi, Sts. Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius
Italian, ca. 1620
Milan, Brera Gallery

In addition, she has been honored in many musical compositions, such as the 1692 “Ode to St. Cecilia” by Henry Purcell (closing chorus below). Her name appears in the names of not only churches, but in the Academia di S. Cecilia in Rome, organized in 1585 as a musicians guild, as well as in numerous contemporary choral groups, orchestras, concert series. She is commemorated on November 22nd.

Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
Who, whilst among the Choir above
Thou dost thy former Skill improve,
With Rapture of Delight dost see
Thy Favourite Art
Make up a Part
Of infinite Felicity.
Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
1. Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Cecilia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

2. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.)

3. Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600 to 1750, Pelican History of Art, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 84.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Presentation of Mary

Il Sodoma, Presentation of Mary
Italian, 1518
Siena, Oratory of San Bernardino
November 21 is the memorial of the presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple.  I've written about it in relation to its place in the story of St. Anne here Presentation of Mary in the Temple.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” – Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Christ in Majesty, Codex Aureus of Lorsch
German, 778-830, folio 72v
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
Matthew 25:31-32

Portion of Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King,
Year A, November 20, 2011

The idea of Jesus as king of the universe goes back to the earliest decades of Christian life. In Philippians 2:9-11, written sometime between 55 and 63 AD, St. Paul quotes what is believed to be one of the earliest Christian hymns which proclaims “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” at whose name “every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:11 and 10).
In Christian art, however, the visual representation of Christ as King and Lord of the universe took a while to develop. It was not until the 4th century, when Christianity had become a tolerated religion and was free to construct buildings specifically for Christian worship, that this image began to appear. Earlier, images of Christ, made during the days of persecution and a need for concealment, had been symbolic (such as the well-known sign of the fish) or had been disguised (as for instance, the image of the Good Shepherd or the Philosopher). 1  With the easing of these pressures, and the accompanying sudden acquisition of Imperial favor and Imperial involvement; as well as in the course of thrashing out the Church’s understanding of the nature of Jesus as both human and divine, these images were superseded by others which reflected the kingly understanding already apparent in the hymn quoted by St. Paul.

Augustus Primaporta,
Roman, 1at century
Vatican, Vatican Museums

The obvious place to which 4th century Christians looked for ideas in how to portray the human-divine person of Jesus as King was to already existing images of the Emperor. These images went back as far as the time of Augustus in the early 1st century (as for instance in the Augusta Primaporta) and were as recent as Constantine’s own colossal statue of around 315. This gigantic statue, parts of which can be seen today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, was placed around 315 in the secular basilica, now known as the Basilica of Constantine, close to the Coliseum. Modeled on the famous colossal statue of the god, Zeus, at Olympus, it showed Constantine seated, holding a scepter in his upraised right hand. Reconstructions suggest that he held an orb in his now missing left hand.

Colossal Statue of Constantine
(Computer reconstruction)
Rome, 4th century
The marble parts are today in the
Capitoline Museum in Rome

It is, therefore, not surprising that the earliest images of Christ as King portray Him in a similar way. In one of the two apse mosaics from the tomb of Constantine’s daughter, Constantina, dated to around 350, Christ appears as if an Emperor. As described by Prof. Johannes Deckers “Christ is portrayed as Pantocrator, enthroned atop a transparent blue sphere symbolizing the cosmos. Although he still wears the traditional costume of a philosopher, consisting of tunic, cloak and sandals, now his garments are either gold or purple adorned with wide gold stripes like those of the emperor. His bearded head is surrounded by a nimbus, a device employed in earlier Roman art to distinguish gods, personifications, and deified emperors. Christ hands Peter a pair of keys symbolic of the powers entrusted to him. Peter receives the keys in humility, his hands draped in his cloak. …. it is as though we are witnessing a ceremony at the court of the emperor of heaven. Peter approaches Christ in the way etiquette demanded that an official approach the emperor on receiving an appointment. .. Christ appears like the lord of heaven between fiery clouds, enthroned above the spherical cosmos. To see how explicitly Christ is cast in the role of n emperor, one need only glance at a traditional formula adapted for various rulers in Roman times.”2 

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Roman, c. 350
Rome, Santa Costanza

However, there are also significant differences between the image of Christ and the image of the Emperor for Christ holds, not a scepter and an orb, but keys and a scroll, very much as He had in the image of the Traditio Legis. He is not the worldly ruler, but a ruler whose kingdom is one of heavenly power, based on the Scriptures.

A few decades later, in the last decade of the 4th century, the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana was decorated with an apse mosaic in which the theme of Christ as ruler is still close to that of the Emperor. This image shows Christ, seated on a throne and surrounded by the Apostles, as well as by two female figures that may represent the Old and New Testaments.

Christ in Majesty,
Mosaic, Roman, ca. 400
Rome, Santa Pudenziana

Compositionally, it is not unlike the silver plate, called the Missorium of Theodosius I, which is almost exactly contemporary. However, again there are points of departure between the images. In Santa Pudenziana, Christ once again holds a document which now begins to resemble a codex (a bound book, instead of a scroll) and His right hand begins to assume a blessing gesture.
Silver Plate known as the Missorium of Theodosius I
Roman, ca. 388
Madrid, Academia Real de Historia

From this point on the image of Christ as King, also called Christ Pantocrator or Christ in Majesty, seems to have become fairly well set. 

We can trace it in many different media through the remainder of the early Christian period,

into the Byzantine

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Byzantine, ca. 526-47
Ravenna, San Vitale

Christ in Majesty
Ivory, German, 11th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum
Christ in Majesty
Enamel book cover plaque
French, Limoges, early 13th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum

Christ in Majesty, Psalter of St. Louis and Blanche of Castille
French, ca. 1225
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 28
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

and Renaissance periods, where it sometimes fused with the image of Christ the Judge at the Last Judgment.  

Fra Angelico, Christ in Majesty
Italian, 1447
Orvieto, Cathedral, Chapel of San Brizio

Hans Memling, Christ Surrounded by Angels
Center of triptych
Netherlandish, 1480s
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Raphael, Disputà
Italian, 1510-1511
Vatican, Stanza della Segnatura

Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail)
Italian, 1537-1541
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

This visual tradition leads right up to the 20th century, with the huge mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C., executed by Jan Henryk de Rosen, completed in 1959.

Jan Henryk de Rosen, Christ in Majesty
Polish, 1959
Washington, D.C., National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
On December 11, 1925, at the conclusion of the 1925 Holy Year, Pope Pius XI established the feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with his encyclical, Quas Primas (The first (encyclical) which). In the encyclical Pius XI traced the roots of the title in the Bible and in Sacred Tradition and its meaning for the entire world.  He fixed the date of the feast “on the last Sunday of the month of October - the Sunday, that is, which immediately precedes the Feast of All Saints”.3

On February 14, 1969, following Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio, Mysterii paschalis (The Paschal Mystery), promulgated a revised calendar of liturgical celebrations for the universal Church.4  As one of the revisions the Solemnity of Christ the King was moved to its present location of the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, as a fitting way to mark the close of the Church’s liturgical year. This move gave to the feast a slightly different, more cosmic, emphasis, an emphasis that had, in fact, been latent in the image of Christ in Majesty for centuries. For, at this time of the year, that is in the weeks leading up to and including the first Sunday of Advent (the Sunday which begins the new liturgical year), we are presented with readings that deal with the end of time and the final judgment of the world when, at His second coming, Christ will return to judge the world. Therefore, the image of Christ as King of the Universe and Lord of Time, with its undertones of relationship to scenes of the Last Judgment has found a match in the liturgical feast.

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
1. Spier, Jeffrey; Fine, Steven; Charles-Murray, Mary; Jensen, Robin M.; Deckers, Johannes G. and Kessler, Herbert L. Picturing the Bible: the Earliest Christian Art, Catalog of the exhibition held at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, November 28, 2007-March 30, 2008, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 13, 51-64. For information on this past exhibition see

2. Spier, et al., p. 95.



© M. Duffy, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul – November 18

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
During this month of November the Church commemorates the construction and dedication to Christian worship of some of the earliest structures specifically built for that purpose. In her first three centuries Christians had been meeting in whatever location they could find that was suitable for the purpose of performing the developing liturgy. This might be in a private house, in a meeting hall or in buildings such as apartment houses, owned by members and renovated to provide space for the congregation and the priest. (In Rome, these were the tituli, some of which still survive through the churches constructed later on top of them.)  There were also gathering places in association with the graves of the deceased, especially of the highly venerated martyrs, in locations such as the catacombs of Rome or in other, open air cemeteries in Rome and elsewhere. But none of these were on anything like a par with the temples of the Greek, Roman or other religious cults of the time.

It was not until Constantine, the Augustus of the West, and his co-Augustus, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan in October of 312 that the Christian Church could contemplate creating large, purpose built structures for the liturgy. As we have seen, one of the earliest of these structures, the Church of St. John Lateran, was begun almost immediately after the issue of the Edict, with the active involvement of Constantine himself. Similarly, at about the same time (319-324), another huge basilica was under construction across the Tiber River. In this location there was an open air cemetery on a hill a short distance from the banks of the river. It overlooked a road and a circus (racecourse) built by Caligula, but then known as the Circus of Nero. Nearby was the large circular tomb of the Emperor Hadrian.

Model of the "Trophy of Gaius" over the burial place of St. Peter
in the necropolis underneath the basilica.
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican
This cemetery was not very different from our own contemporary American cemeteries. There were numerous mausoleums, owned by rich families, and there were humble graves, set directly into the earth.

One of these simple graves was special to the Christians of Rome and to Christian visitors, as indicated by the inscriptions found all around it. In it was buried Peter, leader of the first Apostles, and first bishop of Rome, who had died in the persecution of Nero. He had been crucified (upside down according to tradition) in the circus just across the road, and his body had been carried into the cemetery where he was buried. Within a short time after his death
a small marble monument, resembling a miniature temple façade, was erected over the grave (see model at right).

As Richard Krautheimer, the great historian of early Christian architecture, points out, it was only the graffiti that surrounded the location that makes this resting place different from hundreds of others in the cemeteries surrounding Rome.1  For, the inscriptions indicate that the man buried in this commonplace grave was Peter, leader of the Apostles and first bishop of Rome, the “Rock” on whom Jesus said that He would build the Church.2

The importance of the grave to Christians can be clearly seen in the way in which Constantine’s architects planned the new building. With Imperial power behind them, they leveled the hill, removing the roofs of the private mausoleums and filling the shells with the dirt and debris of their excavation. Above the grave of Peter they constructed the altar, the focal point of the huge new basilica.

This basilica stood for over a thousand years, until in the late 15th century the decision was made to replace it with a new church. 

While Constantine’s building rose in less than 10 years, it took nearly a century to build the new one, which we see today.

The “new” St. Peter’s was built over the Constantinian basilica and there is one constant point of reference. The altar of today still stands directly over the grave in the Roman cemetery. The “Rock” still lies in the deepest layer. 3

This cross section of St. Peter's shows the three layers we see today:  at the top in brown ink is the current basilica, below that in black ink are the remains of the Constantinian basilica (now called the grottoes and open to the public), at the lowest layer in purple ink is the necropolis, where the tomb of the Apostle lies.  It may be visited by appointment.  Below the cross-section is the plan of the excavated parts of the necropolis.

Another look at the relation of the layers of St. Peter's through a comparison of floor plans.  In red we can see the layout of the necropolis, on top of this is the straight lines of the basilica of Constantine in purple, with radiating chapels built out of it that are shown in green, and finally we can see the huge outline of the current church.

The original St. Peter’s was destroyed in the process of building the current structure, but we can get some idea of how it looked from old drawings. 

Cross section of old St. Peter's

Maerten van Heemskerck, St. Peter's Basilica
Dutch, c.1535
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

In addition we can gain an idea of what it was like by looking at the second building that the Church commemorates today – the Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the –walls.

Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-walls

This basilica was constructed about 70 years after St. Peter’s and appears to have been based on it. 4 Built over the resting place of St. Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, it stood for 1,500 years before partially succumbing to a fire in 1823.   The nave was badly damaged, but the apse was barely touched.

Engraving of the aftermath of the 1823 fire

It is fortunate that its destruction came so late in time. Had it occurred in an earlier era the building would doubtless have been rebuilt in a contemporary style, just as had happened to the other great early Christian churches of Rome. But, the damage came after a full century of archaeological exploration had placed a high value on the style of past ages. Hence, it was reconstructed to look exactly as it had before the fire and reconsecrated in 1854.

The bones of Saint Paul lie underneath the main altar. In 2006 the sarcophagus containing them was uncovered for the first time in centuries and can be seen through an opening below the altar.5

St. Paul-outside-the-walls, Interior
In St. Paul’s we can gain a good idea of what the Constantinian churches looked like. These were simple structures with long naves (central part of the church), side aisles and a semi-circular apse at the end opposite the entrance. The interior space is vast and clear, obviously intended to handle large crowds of worshippers. It was also richly decorated. In front of the building there is an open space called the atrium, surrounded by colonnades.

These were significant structures, intended by their Imperial sponsors to make a statement about the importance of Christianity and of the persons buried underneath them. 6
1. Krautheimer, Richard. Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 20.

2. Some relevant texts: Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:1-10, Acts 1:15-22, 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, Chapters 10 and 11.

3. It is possible to visit this subterranean world by applying to join a tour group through the Vatican Office of Excavations (the Ufficio di Scavi). Information at

4. Krautheimer, op cit., pp. 42-45.


6. You can participate in virtual visits to these two churches, plus other papal basilicas and chapels at The speed of the servers seem to vary greatly by location.

© M. Duffy, 2011