The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.
For someone who grew up Southern Baptist, like me, understanding the complex hierarchy of churches within the Catholic tradition can be a bit bewildering. Having visited the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican during my 1994 tour, I was aware of that church as a particularly special one. What I hadn’t realized was that three other churches in Rome have nearly the same stature (in one case even greater stature)!
Our opportunity to visit two of these churches came on our first full day in Rome. We spent the time before lunch at the National Roman Museum, and then we paused for a delicious lunch at La Mela D’Oro, right by Saint Mary Major. We were delighed to discover that people with celiac disease can find safe food at most restaurants in Italy. The food culture of Italy makes it particularly important not to force people to eat separately from their friends and family.
Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major
August 28, 2021
Our first view of Saint Mary Major was from the Piazza dell’ Esquilino. I’ve grown accustomed to the French Gothic style from our months in Paris, and I’ve come to expect a high central nave with some flying buttresses and maybe a couple of towers. Saint Mary Major looks nothing like that. From the northwest, one is looking at the apse, a curved structure that comes at the top of the choir, the farthest part from the main entrance of the church. The middle part of the church is not particularly high; instead, we saw two domes rising on either side, each marking substantial side chapels of the church.
I was even more confused when I saw the southeast facade of the church. A fountain and a high column stand in Piazza di Santa María Maggiore (the Italian name for the church). A two-level colonnade comprises the loggia or “porch” on the main entrance of the church, with a high campanile (bell tower) appearing to the right. We are far, far away from a “look” like Notre Dame in Paris! I felt so confused about the church exterior that I wondered if I was going to be disappointed.
To enter the church instantly dispelled that worry. The Saint Mary Major interior just blew me away. The wood ceiling gleams with gold, and these pair well with the mosaic art appearing in the apse. The current church structure was consecrated in 434 CE; St. Mary Major had been standing for seven hundred years when Notre Dame in Paris was begun! Naturally, it has been substantially upgraded over time; the golden ceiling was a relatively late addition, reflecting the increased availability of this metal after colonization efforts in the New World.
The mosaics, by the way, are probably the most unique work of art housed by the church. Many date from the fifth century CE, with twenty-seven of the original forty-two still in place. Some of the heavy hitters of the Renaissance are represented there, as well. I hoped to see Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel, but it was unavailable for photos. Natasha and I both remarked at the rather modern stained-glass window in the main entrance.
We paused in the Borghese Chapel to look at the fine decoration of the space and to look upwards at one of the two domes we had seen from the outside. The icon painting at the heart of the chapel seems a bit confusing to me. I have seen enough Eastern Orthodox icons to recognize one when I see it, but what is it doing in the heart of a key Roman Catholic church? I was really interested to learn of its incredible longevity. It was part of an anti-plague procession by Pope Gregory I (590-604 CE) and was restored by the Vatican Museums in 2017. If this is indeed the same painting from the sixth-century procession, it would pre-date the split between eastern and western churches by 464 years!
I am including an image of a gilt angel holding a stand for candles in the Capella Sistina Presepe opposite the Borghese Chapel so that it won’t feel left out. When even the candle holders are this sumptuous, every step is an aesthetic treat.
When we left the Borghese Chapel, we noticed a little stairway leading down below the high altar (marked by four high and wide columns). I loved the prayerful statue of Pius IX, but I was unsure what the little reliquary he faced represented. When I looked it up later, I realized that this was the relic par excellence for this church; it purports to be boards from the manger in which Jesus was born.
Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran
August 28, 2021
If you have reached Saint Mary Major, it’s a pretty easy walk to reach another church of special significance. The Via Merulana will lead you directly to it! Natasha and I strolled down the road hand-in-hand. Merulana felt very much like a Parisian street, with businesses on the ground level and housing above. Paris would regulate that the first levels are all uniform heights off the ground as well as a high degree of uniformity in the colors and materials of the facades. In Rome, each buildng was its own beast, appearing in a riot of colors. We had to cross the Viale Manzoni, a substantial highway, but soon enough we had reached our goal.
Saint John Lateran is the only “Archbasilica” in the world. The church is considered supreme in this way because it is the church presided over by the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The “Lateran” part, by the way, refers to buildings on the lands of the Lateranus family of the Roman Empire. When they lost their lands to Emperor Constantine, he re-gifted them to the Catholic Church in 311 CE. The first Christian Church on this site was in place by 324 CE. This makes it the oldest basilica in the world! That said, the church has burned a few times, so the current structure may not share any “bones” with the old.
At first we tried to enter by the facade presented ot the end of Via Merulana, but that loggia is not open to visitors. We followed the road around to the east. During that walk we passed the Scala Santa, claimed to be the stairs that Jesus had to climb to reach the Sanhedrin, relocated to Rome by the mother of Constantine. The devout are allowed to climb the stairs only on their knees. We continued onward to the eastern side of Saint John Lateran to find its main facade to the world, with majestic columns. We passed through its massive bronze doors, perhaps even the ones originally crafted for the Roman Senate.
The interior of Saint John Lateran was another story. A church approaching 1700 years of age should look pretty ancient, right? The interior, however, was heavily remodeled in the seventeenth century by Borromini, creating a series of arches lining both sides of the nave, each with a saintly figure at roughly double life size. The riot of color that we saw at Saint Mary Major was very different than the serene monochrome of Saint John Lateran. The ceiling, on the other hand, was richly worked with the colorful insignia of the pope.
As usual, Natasha had spotted several things I missed. I lost sight of her for a moment and then found her inside a side chapel with an aged tile floor. She pointed out signs of use in the floor; these mosaics tell a story of many generations of faith. I was happy to see several elements representing the early days of the structure throughout, and a trip to the restroom revealed an opportunity to look upward into the ancient timbers and stone of the structure without the layers of art masking them.
The part of the church that most appealed to me artistically, however, were the mosaics and frescoes surrounding the altar of the church. The apse is particularly beautiful.
I was curious about a small wooden madonna. After a bit of a web search, I learned that this was a gift to the Lateran by Pope Francis. Though I wasn’t a fan of the nave in this church, the church had quite a few elements of beauty throughout. I think Natasha and I would have enjoyed a walk in the thirteenth-century cloister, too, but we were both out of energy from our busy first day.
We returned to the outdoors and admired the view of the old city wall. I really liked a bronze statue group in a little park there, and the exposed artwork of a chapel on the courtyard before the Lateran also caught my eye. We struggled to discern which side of which street we needed to be on in order to catch a bus back to our neighborhood, crossing first this way and then that before realizing we needed to wait on an island separating lanes heading north to catch bus 81. The return trip gave us an enviable view of the Colosseum!
Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
August 30, 2021
I had never heard of “Paul Outside the Walls” until I read a book on medieval art. It extolled the church built atop the presumed tomb of Saint Paul, and I was determined that I should see it myself. Because Natasha was ready to get back in the shade after a sunny morning, I made my way down to the church on my own, taking the line B train south from the Colosseum. Someone was playing a hammer dulcimer for donations. When I emerged aboveground, I was in an entirely different part of the city.
The church was close to the train station, and I navigated a sidewalk sale of fabric to reach the abbey behind it. I couldn’t enter the abbey since it was closed on Mondays. The sun was beating down, and nobody was around, making me worry the entire complex was simply closed for business. I came to the bell tower and the eastern facade of the church, and again it appeared to offer no access. Had I come down here for nothing?
When I reached the “quadriportico” at the northwest corner of the complex, everything changed. A few military vehicles were present, and the soldiers reported that yes, the church was open as usual. I found the entrance between the quadriportico and a coffeeshop with building fragments in its garden. Unlike some of the other sites, I was waved through without someone even screening my backpack. There were very, very few visitors at the church for the entire time I was there.
Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls is a really ancient church. Paul’s followers erected a memorial at his grave, and it gained a church under Pope Sylvester in 324 CE. A much grander basilica had to wait until 386-402 CE. The church complex was fortified to survive raids by the Saracens in the 9th century, but an earthquake in 1348 CE damaged it extensively. The repaired church was mostly unchanged for a few centuries but then was immolated when a workman repairing its lead roof in 1823 started a fire. The Church decided to rebuild the church essentially as it had been, but the project took quite a while, with many tasks remaining at the reconsecration of 1854.
At first I thought the nave was roped off for a service, but then I realized the entrance was from the side instead. I entered, admired the wooden model of the church dating from the 19th century rebuild, and just gazed around the beautiful space for a few moments. It was very quiet inside with three or four people seated and roughly the same number of apparent tourists. I lingered for longer than strictly necessary, just soaking up the atmosphere.
Suddenly I realized that the exit door was actually a transition into the space behind the altar (where I had been able to see such beautiful spaces in the earlier two churches. I realized that the space beyond the arch was really large in St. Paul’s, with chapels and magnificent mosaic work all around. For me, the apse mosaic was simply enchanting.
The high altar of the church, however, was always lingering in my mind. You see, it’s built right above Paul’s sarcophagus. This historical figure who played such a key role in creating a Christianity that opened itself to gentile and Jew alike was buried right there. It was all a bit overwhelming to me.
The church is reputed to have a magnificent cloister, dating to the 13th century, but it was closed. An architecture walk downstairs was open, for the low price of just 1 euro. The site did a good job to depict the settlement that attended Paul’s burial site during medieval and early modern times. Their use of hanging strings to represent column positions along the entrance walk for the medieval basilica was rather evocative and beautiful.
Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican
September 2, 2021
In retrospect, it’s clear that scheduling our visit to Saint Peter’s after our visit to the Vatican Museums meant we would be on the low-energy orbit of the massive church. Natasha and I had a lovely lunch at “A gogo gluten-free” near the Ottaviano subway stop and then strolled down the road of the same name to the square before the church. In walking through the curved colonade to enter the square, it felt like an emergence from the city into a monumental space (besides crossing a national boundary, since the Vatican is not Italy).
We baked in the sun for a few moments and took silly photos of ourselves near the Vatican Obelisk (it has a less-distinguished history than the Lateran Obelisk). Just how did we want to experience St. Peter’s? Did we want to join the line for the cupola? Well, the line would take time, and neither of us does well with heights and vertigo just now. Instead we looked for the shorter line to enter the basilica at ground floor. The most common reason people were turned away was not for security but rather for wearing clothing that was judged too revealing for a sacred place (such as bare shoulders). Natasha and I were through the lines very quickly; most of our time was just walking through the baffles to reach the point of entry.
I was glad we could pause just after entering the church, because I wanted to gaze at Michelangelo’s Pieta. I couldn’t see a good option for an up-close photo due to glass reflections and tourist elbows, but I stood back a bit a bit and switched to my telephoto for this image. It is a striking work of art.
The nave of St. Peter’s seems far more gargantuan than the other major basilicas. It’s not just that it’s the longest and widest nave of the four, but its arched ceiling rises higher above above its floor than the flat ceilings of the other structures. Given that its capacity is listed at 60,000 people, the church felt as though it was quite empty even with maybe a thousand tourists running around. I appreciated that railing prevented the clueless (me) from crossing the aisle into an area good Catholics would avoid.
Given how I plotzed over the tomb of Saint Paul above, you might think I would be equally enamored of the tomb of Saint Peter. Oddly, I find that I get less excited about him because his church is so overwhelmingly popular among tourists to Rome and the Vatican. For the high altar to be scaled appropriately to the volume of this massive church, though, the 17th century baldachin in bronze reaches almost 29 meters in height (almost 95 feet). Many aspects of this church changed in the 16th century, since “Old Saint Peter’s” (pictured above in the schematic accompanying the Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls section) was replaced by the present structure during 1506 through 1626 CE. Considerable artistry has gone into making this space effective for a huge number of people to celebrate mass together.
Natasha and I both enjoyed a little pause at the apse, the farthest point from the entrance. Bernini’s 17th century “Cathedra Petri” draws your eye from quite a large part of the nave, with the light shining through the dove’s window representing the Holy Spirit. The sculpture also serves as a reliquary, though, since the chair below that window and supported by the Four Doctors is traditionally held to be the Chair of Saint Peter (though even its oldest parts apparently are not older than the sixth century). We loved the artistry of it all.
From there, Natasha and I took the stairs down to the Vatican Grottoes. While photographs are not allowed, the Vatican has made photographs available from the linked website. The grottoes are not cave-like at all, and it’s a really pleasant visual break if you are feeling dazed from immeasurable spaces and gilt all around you! We walked out into the sunlight, blinked our eyes, and set course for our home-away-from-home. The most magnificent churches on earth had made their mark on us both.