Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Lecture 3: St Peter, the Pope and the Eternal City

Rome as a religious centre? Pardon? Ok, what exactly did I know about Rome as a place of pilgrimage? I’ve seen Gladiator and I, Claudius(!), been awestruck by Nero’s golden house, paid homage at the Pantheon and I’ve even been on a private tour of the Villa Medici. I’ve never been to the Vatican because of the crowds and ‘Look at me, I’m the Pope’ so for me Rome is antiquity, pagan glory and the best baba al rhums I’ve ever had. Last night’s lecture was yet another excursion into the unknown. 

We started at the symbolic centre of Catholic, holy Rome with the authority of the popes – the c17th façade of St Peters, where the power of the Church is represented visually, an architectural creation of sacred place/space. St Peters is not the cathedral of Rome but it is the most important church. The focus is on the tradition and establishment of St Peter as head of the church in Rome. 

In the Sistine Chapel, Perugino’s fresco of Christ giving him the keys illustrates an episode in the bible in which Christ delegates terrestrial authority;

18 And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

This is clearly a significant moment and makes up one of the key scenes in the Sistine chapel. Obviously the Protestant theologians dispute this interpretation. Perugino’s image is a perfect example of idealised classic architecture, with the central building representing 'the Church'. Castello’s version of events is much less idealised and is perhaps more symbolic of what happens next with regards to the decline of the classical world. It is not about locating the real incident in an actual space. The people around the main figures add drama to the event and they are dressed in similar clothes, unlike Perugino’s whose background figures wear the fashionable clothes of 1480s.

The Raphael tapestry cartoon of 1517 illustrates the charge of Christ to peter to 'feed my sheep', again highlights the importance of Peter. He wanted Peter to lead the church and take care of the ‘flock’, congregation;

15 So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me more than these?” He said unto Him, “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He said unto him, “Feed My lambs.” 16 He said to him again the second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me?” He said unto Him, “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He said unto him, “Feed My sheep.” 17 He said unto him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me?” Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time, “Lovest thou Me?” And he said unto Him, “Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee.” Jesus said unto him, “Feed My sheep.

There is no historical, documentary evidence of St Peter going to Rome but according to church tradition he went there after the death of Christ to preach, set up the church and becoming the first pope. There is archaeological evidence of 2nd century cults around Christian graves. Annibale Carraci depicts him leaving Rome only to be met by a vision of Jesus. The classical back ground of the Via Appia shows the importance of place.

The Rome of the 1430s was a dangerous place, with murders aplenty and so the Papacy was trying desperately to reconsolidate its power. One way of doing this was commissioning art works; using architecture and the visual arts to establish their power. The stunning bronze doors by Filarete demonstrates the importance of place and the truthfulness of the church tradition  In the bronze it shows St Peter being crucified in Rome, a pictorial account of where he died so that the person becomes embedded in fabric of the place and building. Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of 1601 is pared down and striking.

All this was supposed to have taken place near the Vatican and the early Church built the old St Peter’s over the grave of St Peter – these early Christians celebrated the dead, saying prayers and honouring the early martyrs. The first ‘crossing’ occurred when they added a transept to the basilica's nave. Images of the interior of old St Peters were recorded and an early water colour shows the nave with a view of the apse at the end. There was an early canopy in the crossing which sat over the grave.

When the Emperor Constantine converted this was an important time for the Church – the conversion of Roman Europe to the new faith didn’t happen overnight but the persecutions ceased. This momentous event was illustrated by many artists, Bernini's conversion of Constantine (1670), Raphael’s 'Baptism of Constantine' 1520/25 and he became a key figure in Rome and the story of the popes.

Before departing to set up his Eastern Empire in Constantinople, he handed Rome over to Pope Sylvester so the pope was responsible for spiritual and temporal matters. This became known as the ‘Donation of Constantine’. Many images underline the power of this despite it being completely untrue. The writings of the humanist who proved the document was an early middle ages forgery, Lorenzo Valla, went on to the Index of Prohibited books. Still, it didn’t worry the popes that much and representations of this fake event were still painted.

These images of Peter and Constantine define the importance of Rome and the Pope. They were meant to be. In building up the myths through art and architecture, Rome repositioned itself as a centre of pilgrimage, with St Peter at the Head of the Church, granting salvation.

When the popes came back from exile, they moved from the Lateran to St Peter’s and the Vatican. And then the glorification and rebuilding began. Julius II started to rebuild St Peters and decorated his private rooms. Most famously is Raphael’s Deliverance of St Peter which is a political statement of divine intervention with the latest manifestation of St Peter looking suspiciously like Pope Julius. This demonstrates the pope as an embodiment of the institution - a bit like Dr Who...

The building of the new Church was designed to emphasise the importance of the grave of St Peter. Bramante’s dome over the crossing was instrumental in this. The words around the dome include, ‘you are my rock', Peter is the actual foundation stone of the church and his tomb has become the church. Maarten van Heemskerck’s sketches show the new St Peter's under construction in the 1530s. It was being demolished as it was being built making it an oddly fluid temporal architectural moment, a renaissance and baroque church at once.


The first student presentation was on Bernini’s Baldacchino which is the huge theatrical bronze canopy over St Peter’s grave commissioned by Clement VIII. It’s a combination of architecture and art, overwhelming in size and detail. It arrests your progress to the high altar. Its function is to cover the pope as he conducts mass. It took 9 years to construct and is central to the church. The confessio is right in front of it and these steps go down to the tomb of St Peter and the foundations of the church. The confessio refers to St Peter’s expression of faith.

Sketches of the space Pre Bernini show a small temporary structure so they needed something new to fit into the grandeur of the space. By fusing the permanent structure of a ciborum (a place for food) with a temporary fabric baldacchino  he produces something astonishing for his patron. Whilst simultaneously destroying a lot of antique bronzes – it was still a relatively rare alloy, therefore very expensive.

The second student presentation was concerned with the relics and statues around the crossing. These are important contact relics, because we don’t have any fingers, hairs etc of Christ. There are four niches containing relics which are rarely displayed so statues stand in their place: 

St Veronica, with the cloth she used to wipe Christ’s face
St Andrew’s head: was taken from Greece in 1461 but now returned
St Helen and the true cross
St Longinus and the holy lance

Despite the Church’s unease regarding some relics – they don’t claim that the holy lance is the real thing, they are important and pilgrims come to see these things

The church is rare in that it has two altars – the high altar behind the baldacchino includes Bernini’s Cathedra Petri. This is a huge sun burst, a view into heaven which spills out into the church. The Chair of St Peter is situated in the apse, the metaphorical rudder of church. It includes the doctors of church, both Greek and Latin, (unification of west and east), An actual seat of authority. The whole thing is a symbolic, supernatural spectacle which employed all arts to move and render the viewer speechless in the face of St Peter’s power.

We were left with the final image of St Peter’s Square and the announcement of a new Pope. The architectural arms of the buildings both embrace and command the crowd; a triumph of the continuing power of the Church of Rome.

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