Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Annunciation sopra Minerva

Well, we are back from spring break. Between the students and myself, it looks like break was spent exploring Brussels, Amsterdam, Dublin, London, Barcelona, and Bosnia, not to mention more of Italy.

My course constantly explores the intersection of space and time, the ways in which a particular site has stood, constant and changing, throughout the centuries. Class this week was a particularly interesting intersection of these themes. Our syllabus included site visits to the Pantheon (also known as Santa Maria ad Martyres) and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, as well as reading Paul's letter to the Romans. But, by a happy (and providential!) coincidence, the class coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel's visit to Mary, announcing that she would bear a son. The feast is conveniently exactly nine months before Christmas. (Though the fact that March 25 was on a Sunday this year means that the feast was moved to Monday. Convenient for my class!)

We began class in front of the Pantheon, talking about Augustus's building campaign about three decades before Christ's birth. The emperor built about 20 buildings developing this area from something rather rural, to a real part of the city. His buildings included the original Pantheon (the current structure was the second rebuild, about 125 AD) and a temple to the goddess Minerva, which stood just around the corner on the spot where Santa Maria sopra Minerva now stands. (For those of you not up on your Italian prepositions, that's "St. Mary over Minerva."). Both before each of the buildings and as we explored each one, we talked about the history of this space being marked out, no longer for the "pantheon" of Roman Gods, but for the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, there is a connection, too, to our frequent theme of martyrdom. Around 609, when the emperor gave the Pantheon to the Pope, and he rededicated it as "Santa Maria ad Martyres," he also had the remains of many martyrs brought in, so that this place became their resting place, and was, in turn, blessed by the witness they had given to the faith. Just as their courage and sacrifice witnessed to the truth of the Christian faith, so the re-appropriation of these spaces witnessed to it as well.

I found it particularly moving to be in Santa Maria sopra Minerva on the feast of the Annunciation. The apse (pictured above) features the Annunciation largely. But I had never so fully appreciated as I did on this day the full meaning of this emphasis. Minerva (aka Athena) was a goddess of Wisdom and War who sprung fully formed from her Father's head. Jesus, though the Wisdom of God, did not (as Paul reminds the Philippians), cling to his divinity. Rather, he became flesh, made incarnate and incredibly vulnerable in his mother's womb. He was Word-made-flesh, Wisdom-incarnate, but he was no war-god. Rather, he emptied himself not only of divinity but also of resistance to evil. He turns Minerva on her head, as do the martyrs who witnessed to the faith unto death.

I failed to get a picture that shows it well, but the rest of the ceiling in Maria sopra Minerva represents all of salvation history unfolding: prophets of the Old Testaments, evangelists of the New Testament, Apostles, popes. Toward the end of class, our discussion turned to the connections between some of the New Testament themes we have studied and the art we had seen that day. One of the students spoke a bit about the ceiling, and the ways that it seemed the Word most definitively enfleshed in the Annunciation was enfleshed by so many others throughout history, and added a sense that, if one had a chance to worship God in a space like that, maybe it would be easier to live according to the Word, to feel called to participate in that history.

Of course, people in every time and in every space are called to participate in that history. But this week, we were in a great place to get a sense of that.

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