March 18: Stepping Inside the Vatican

By Jesse Marx

March 18-

The Religio team explores the art and culture in the Vatican museums. Marie Telling / Religio.

The Religio team explores the art and culture in the Vatican museums. Marie Telling / Religio.

Ingrid Rowland stopped at a large picture window inside the Vatican Museum and pointed towards the Eternal City. There is the hill where Constantine protected the city from invaders, she said. There are the villas belonging to the Medici family, one of whose sons became Pope Leo X. If the point hadn’t been obvious through our previous excursions through the city on foot, it would become clear to us by the end of the day: Rome itself is a museum.

Rowland, an art historian who teaches at the American Academy of Rome, was our guide at the Vatican Museum, which we visited the day before Pope Francis was to be installed as the new pontiff.

The museum’s treasures are displayed in the elaborate villas and chapels of the Vatican. Jewelry, vases, frescoes by Raphael and Michelangelo—works of art firmly rooted in Italian, Greek and Etruscan history, many of which have religious connotations. They are, as Rowland explained, proof of humanity’s penchant for reinvention and experimentation and the profound optimism that comes when the past is recast in familiar images of the day.

During the Renaissance, for instance, Christ was depicted often in flowing, pastel-colored garb. Women were depicted as Greek goddesses, sometimes completely nude. Popes of this era thought it important to show the world that Rome was—and always had been—the center of Christendom.

A Renaissance fresco depicting the levels of order and beauty. Jesse Marx / Religio.

A Renaissance fresco depicting the levels of order and beauty. Jesse Marx / Religio.

Christian art changed after the Protestant Reformation. Paintings in particular took on an air of intransigence. Scenes of great philosophical discussions with Christ at the center were replaced by battling angels and the crowning of popes. One chapel ceiling shows an old Roman statue in pieces and replaced by a crucifixion. Pope Sixtus V, who reigned from 1585 to 1590, made it his goal to smash history and conquer it with Christianity. He was a man of strong will and little education, Rowland said. “He’s a less subtle thinker.”

Rowland saw  parallels to the present, particularly in the traditionalist backlash to the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. She noted hopefully that Pope Francis’ election may swing the church the other way. In the talk he gave on the night of his election, he referred to himself as the Bishop of Rome, a more modest title than Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.

Monday was the first day that the Sistine Chapel reopened to the public following the conclave, which last week chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope. Guards shushed us on our way—a touch of militarism to the starry-eyed wonderment of the room’s beauty. “Stay silent,” an Italian man bellowed in English. As if charging to get in wasn’t profane enough, Rowland said, aside. Leading us out of the chapel, she added, “This is why I’m a Protestant.”

Rowland first visited Rome in 1975 as a graduate student. She was inspired to live here for good in 2001, she said, after seeing some of the frescoes we saw today. Her story is apparently common amongst ex-pats. “Rome is a magnate,” Prof. Alexander Stille had said as we began the day. “It attracts people and they can’t leave.”

The museum tour helped at least one of our classmates, David Palacio, see the history he had only imagined in his studies. “It’s the realization of all the textbooks I’ve read,” he said. “You get it from the source.”

A fellow at the Instiuto Tevere plays traditional Turkish music. Marie Telling / Religio.

A fellow at the Instiuto Tevere plays traditional Turkish music. Marie Telling / Religio.

While our morning was spent touring the Vatican, by evening we settled into a more modest setting—the Instiuto Tevere, a Turkish research center in Rome that promotes interfaith cooperation between East and West. The center has two functions, according to Mustafa Cenap Aydin, the head of the organization. It speaks with the local ethnic and religious authorities about Islam, and it speaks with those back home about Christianity.

In answer to a question from our group, Aydin acknowledged that mosques do not qualify for tax-assisted funding in Italy—meaning Islam is not officially recognized as a religion. But he expressed confidence that Rome and the Catholic Church would continue a “human dialogue” with Muslims that began in earnest over the last couple years. After all, he said, they share a similar culture and history.