Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apostles and Onlookers: Santa Maria del Popolo

This week, our class was reading the Acts of the Apostles. If you haven't read this lately, I highly recommend it. I had remembered from previous readings of the book the sense it gave me of the incredible power of the Christian faith, the closeness of Christian community, and the sense of the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian believers. In the midst of Paul's travels, as he finds and creates community everywhere he goes (throughout the Roman Empire, of course), he remembers the community that has sent him, and he trusts God throughout, whether the process seems to be bearing fruit or not. Let's just say that, as I re-read this book here in Rome, its stories of faith and perseverance struck me anew.

Together with our reading of Acts, the class went this week to Santa Maria del Popolo. This church was built in 1099 and has an odd story of origin. The land on which it was built belonged to the Domitia family. The infamous emperor Nero was a member of this family, and after his suicide in 68, his ashes were buried on the family land. In 1099, a large walnut tree was growing on the site, and many crows hung about the tree, and people were convinced that the crows were in fact demons drawn to the site by Nero's spirit. With great ceremony, Pope Paschal II cut down the tree (and, some say, scattered Nero's ashes), and had a chapel built on the spot. Eventually, the church was rebuilt and renovated to become Santa Maria del Popolo.

It's a historic church, long served by members of the Augustinian order. When Martin Luther visited Rome in 1511 (then an Augustinian monk), he stayed in the cloister here. The artists who worked on renovations and side chapels (in various periods, obviously), included Raphael, Andrea Bregno, Bernini, and, of course, Caravaggio.

It was the two famous Caravaggio paintings that brought us here today. A little chapel at the front left of the church houses The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. You can see the paintings with the links (unfortunately, photos weren't allowed). We spent some time looking at each painting, as well as some time talking about each. It is striking how young Paul is at his conversion and how old Peter is at his crucifixion. Caravaggio's attention to the details is amazing; consider the dirt on the bottom of the bare foot in the bottom left of the Peter painting. Given the way martyrdom has already taken shape as a theme for the course, we were very drawn to the Peter painting. We were especially intrigued by Peter's eyes looking to the nail in his own left hand (Is he regretting that he let himself get into this? Or is he remembering how the nail marks looked upon the hands of the Risen Christ?) and by the man in the upper left whose eyes seem to be upon Peter's face and whose arms seem to be as much cradling Peter's legs as lifting them (Is he just looking where he needs to look to get the job done? Or is he wondering at the faith that allows an old man the courage to face this brutal death?). Likewise, we were intrigued both by Paul's eyes (closed, as he sees a vision that, apparently, only he sees) and the man who holds the animal, seemingly unconcerned with Paul or his vision.

Interestingly, in the book of Acts, the story of Paul's conversion is told three times. In Acts 9:7 we read the story itself, which reports that the people with Paul heard the voice but saw nothing (Acts 9:7). Twice later, Paul tells the story. In Acts 22:9, he reports that they saw the light but did not hear the voice. In chapter 26, Paul tells the story again (to King Herod Agrippa II) and reports that everyone saw the light and fell to the ground. He says that he heard the voice, but does not comment on whether his companions did.

I've been thinking a lot since class about those two onlookers and what it is that they thought they saw. Do you mostly see an animal you have to care for since its rider has fallen? Or do you know (or learn) enough about the rest of the story to see that this man is experiencing something that will change not only the course of his own life, but really, the course of the life of the world? Or, in the case of the other, do you just see another man condemned to die in one of Nero's bloody celebrations of imperial power? Or do you somehow manage to see and to learn of the faith that brought him to that point?

All of us, of course, are onlookers in others' lives, whether we are looking at the faces around us or at the faces that history (sometimes with the help of artists!) has left us. Learning to see them, both as truthfully and as charitably as possible, is one of the most crucial skills for us to develop. And, of course, seeing others--especially martyrs, missionaries, and visionaries, but even onlookers--helps us to see the possibilities for ourselves as well.

I love that Pope Paschal's instinct to cut down the walnut tree and dedicate a church to Our Lady has meant that Peter and Paul, and other Christian stories and works of art, claim this particular place (and all of Rome, of course) much more powerfully than Nero and his demons.

No comments:

Post a Comment