First of all, you need to know I’m not Catholic. I don’t go to church. When I was a kid, our mother sent my sister and me to Lutheran Sunday school, but we didn’t attend church as a family. If I stayed overnight at a girlfriend’s house and her family were church goes, I went with them. One summer, the parents of my best playmate signed her up for Bible School and I convinced my parents to sign me up, too. I remember the pleasure I took in using the box of eight crayons I’d been given to color an illustration of the Bible Story lesson each day.
Secondly, you need to know I think of myself as a spiritual person. Some of my experiences have convinced me this life is not the beginning or the end of being. In particular, I’d mention giving birth to our daughter Katie and our son Aaron. Cosmic to say the least. How else to explain feeling the presence of my father standing next to me after my brother-in-law Pete informed me that my father had just passed away. My mother, who had only a few hours to live, told me my father had come to visit her while I was off fetching a glass of water for her.
Why all the disclaimers and testimonials? They serve as a context for my visit last year at Easter time to the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was interested in them from an art and architecture point of view.
The Sistine Chapel: Silly me. I thought the Sistine Chapel was going to be an little, intimate place about the size of chapel attached to a hospital. Wrong. It’s very large and those famous ceilings, painted by Michelangelo, are up very, very high. The brilliance of the colors surprised me. No disrespect intended, but I immediately flashed back to my my box of eight crayons and the Bible School pictures I’d colored. There were so many panels on the ceiling, illustrating so many stories from the Bible, it was difficult to find the most famous, The Creation of Adam. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it. The painting is as spectacular as the moment it depicts. The walls of the Sistine Chapel are also covered with Michelangelo’s frescos and, at this lower level, it was possible to appreciate his unquestionable talent. Any further thoughts of a box of eight crayons vanished. I particularly loved the tapestries that also decorated the walls. I was able to get a close look at them and saw the threads made of spun gold, which made them a glow even in the filtered light.
Saint Peter’s Basilica: How can I describe the quite unexpected feelings and thoughts that overwhelmed me upon entering? Simple words and relying on your imaginations might be the best way to do it. Breath takingly big. (730 feet long, 500 feet wide, by 448 feet high!) Humbling. Its size reminded me that God is infinitely big and, in the scheme of things, I am infantesimally small. A lesson worth keeping in mind.
Familiar. For years, as I’d wrapped Christmas presents for our kids, I’d watched the broadcast of the Pope celebrating mid-night mass in Saint Peter’s. I looked at the familiar Bernini altar, the massive pillars, the seemingly draped canopy, and Saint Peter’s Chair. Quite surprising was the glow from the “Gloria,” which couldn’t be seen when the Basilica was lighted up for the TV cameras. With sunlight beaming through the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, into the subdued natural light of the interior, it was well…glorious. I looked up into the magnificent dome. Off to the side, in a niche, sat Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo managed to carve the cold, hard marble into the supple folds of Mary’s garments and Christ’s limp body. The sculpture is massive and the moment it captures is enormous and, at the same time, deeply personal.
Our group left by way of Saint Peter’s Square, which is defined by the graceful curves of colonnades that seem to embrace the open space. Our guide pointed out the balcony where the Pope appears on certain occasions. And, of course, the outside of the magnificent dome. We stopped at the souvenir shops. I waited outside, too moved by what I’d seen to look for something to take home. (Which I regret now.) I couldn’t help thinking, silly me. As it turned out, the Sistine Chapel atctually was a little, intimate place – compared to Saint Peter’s Basilica.