This was the last week of classes here in Rome. As such, I’ve been a little busy with pressing things like assignments, Settlers of Catan and, of course, visiting churches. The omnipresent feeling of things winding down here has compelled the last of these activities. Indeed, this is the only context in which you will ever hear me condone anything even remotely related to “making a list and checking it twice.” Perhaps it is the timelessness of a warm, halcyon end-times in Rome, or perhaps it is merely a typical sleep-deprived brainlessness, but in any case, it seems more manageable and fitting to present a mirage of impressions than this hectic story line. So, here are some general thoughts that this time has presented to me.
First, I’ve been reminded of how much I love dark churches. After about 5 PM or so, you can take the most boring baroque bombasticism (go with it) and turn off the lights and it suddenly becomes a mysterious place of contemplation. This week, I’ve rediscovered this truth more in relation to Rome’s other distinctive type of church (central nave, often with mismatching columns; side aisles with lower ceilings; lots of squared off corners; Renaissance ceiling; few rounded arches; mosaic in the apse; etc. etc.). One cannot tell that they’re all the same when one cannot really see them! For instance, I give you San Martino ai Monti:
OK, beyond masking certain…imperfections…I also find the dark a meditative and contemplative environment for prayer. So I’m not a total jerk. The church above is one of the 25 or 28 tituli, which were basically the parish churches of the early Church. They’ve all been swagged out to greater or lesser effectiveness since, but it’s very cool regardless to be in places where God has been worshipped for thousands of years. Now, if you know me, you know that “very cool” usually translates to “let’s take this way further than it needs to go.” Since I had visited several of these tituli by chance in the past few days, I decided to see how many more I have to visit to get all of them. In a fittingly symbolic way, excluding the ones that have been destroyed, lost to history or are run by nuns who don’t like sharing, the number is 7, most of which I’d already made plans to visit anyway! I have a new quest.
Now, in doing all the requisite research for quests like these, one often comes upon rather strange things on the Internet. For instance, the website for a church that will remain anonymous hosts a link to “Adorazione On-Line.” Morbid curiosity got the better of me, and as I had feared, this is a link to a streaming web-cam of a monstrance. You could tell it was real, too, because there was a guy in the background who kept scratching his head with his rosary. That this exists is wrong on SO many levels.
Permit me to cleanse your palate with this cool statue, found in San Pietro in Montorio.
I liked this statue because it shows Paul’s rich complexity (no, this is not an apostolic dating site, although even that would be less appalling than Adorazione On-line). He is leaning on his sword, embracing his martyrdom completely (he would fall over if it was taken away), and yet the position still makes him hunch his shoulders, showing how it is, well, unnatural and undesirable. The book is open and he looks out to the world. This could obviously mean a lot of things, and this is a necessary characteristic of good art (though, I should add, not a sufficient one).
Another notable church I visited this week was San Marcello al Corso. This painting, found inside, interestingly summarizes why I found the church itself meaningful:
As some Saint or another is praying (or possibly dying, but either way, he’s looking devoutly towards the skies) Jesus is about to come and greet him from a direction he hadn’t ever imagined. The rich spiritual notion that Christ is always coming to us in ways we never could have expected was refreshing (such as when you are searching for Chopin variations and come across the Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme of Chopin). This theme struck me several times in this church. For instance, I’m usually able to walk rather quickly past these Saints adoring types of paintings, since they’re all quite similar. So, I certainly didn’t expect to find such a meaningful one! The same can often be said for baroque churches, yet this one had a disproportionately beautiful collection of artwork (in addition to the piece in question), another surprise. One meaningful example of this church’s treasures: there was a crucifix in one of the side chapels. It was rather plain, but above it, there was a fresco of Adam and Eve being banished from the garden of Eden, with a dry, leafless, dead tree in the background. Oh the symbolism! A final unexpected gift: when I turned to leave, the back wall had a gorgeous depiction of the crucifixion. Normally that space is reserved for tombs and boringness. This church was a real treat.
Completely unrelated, I accidentally went to a “youth Mass” held in English on Tuesday. This adds to my suspicion that any good thing can be immediately rendered undesirable by inserting the word “youth” (or some fitting variation) in front of it. Try it. But it wasn’t a waste of time! Obviously, it was a Mass, so it wasn’t a waste of time. But it was also a great experience because, as far as I could tell, no one participating in said Mass (except for me) was actually a native English speaker. The most amusing result of this was that Isaiah 11:7’s beautiful imagery got changed to “the cow and the beer shall be neighbors.” I won’t say that one can improve on the Word of God, but if one could, this would be the best way to go about doing so. Since why not, here’s a picture of the place:
Somewhat egotistically, I am proud to announce that I have now visited over 100 different churches in Rome, not counting repeats. I will be calculating my per-diem average at some point soon, in the hopes of converting my pride to slight disgust.