St. Peter’s Basilica
On Tuesday, we went to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the morning, and the Vatican museums in the afternoon. St. Peter’s Basilica is where Michelangelo’s famous statue, The Pieta, (pronounced “pee·ay·taa“) is located. In the Vatican museums we would view famous paintings, such as the School of Athens, by Raphael and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.
One thing here in Italy that is awesome in the truest sense of the word, is the scale of things. For example, St. Peter’s square is enormous. I was told that it can hold three million people. THREE million! That’s the entire 2023 population of Chicago! Crazy! After visiting the Colosseum the day before which could hold 80,000, seeing this space built to hold more than three times that many is more than my mind can comprehend.
The line to enter the Basilica went very quickly. We stepped in to the church, which itself is so large, so vast, that I truly believe you have to see it even to come close to conceive of its size. It is the biggest church in the world; not even St Paul’s in London is as large.
Once inside the Basilica, we were immediately ushered to the alcove on the right. I was not aware of what was there; so my experience was that I turned the corner and there was Michelangelo’s Pieta. The statue, carved by the master sculptor at the age of 23 years, now sits behind plexiglass due to an attempt some years ago to deface it. The barrier takes nothing away from the majesty of the piece.
The Pieta evokes such deep feeling; my emotional response was immediate and consuming. We had limited time to view it, then we had to move on. After a quick summary on a few of the other grand works there, we were released for free time. I returned immediately to the Pieta. While there, I wrote these words.
Reflections on the Pieta
She looks young. I wonder if that is because it feels as if he was just born. She knew… She was told… She had a feeling… And she knew. But she thought she had more time; she knew it would be fast, but he was just born. He was just born! She doesn’t want him to save anyone! She just wants her son .
He’s so heavy. She wants someone to get her oils and sponges to clean his wounds. Maybe she could do something. Anything.
But she’s always known. She just thought there was more time.
I see these people looking at the statue through their phones and I wonder if it’s a little bit like all of the other ways we almost get it right. It’s OK. It’s close. But it’s not real and it’s not enough. These tourists try to get the right photo and they miss the experience. They study the statue through their phones but they could study it with their soul, take it inside themselves. They dash up, take a photo and duck away watching them I want to shout no stop be present experience this.
To say that the experience was transcendent, begins to touch what it felt like to be in the presence of that ancient beauty, that masterpiece of sculpture that so poignantly portrays the moments following the crucifixion of Christ. I left changed.
After lunch, we visited the Vatican museums. I had never thought about what all might be in those museums beyond the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; however there are countless priceless additional works of art there as well. For example, there is a hallway that showcases Flemish tapestries designed by Raphael, a gallery of maps—each one wall-sized—and the Raphael rooms which display, among other things, The School of Athens opposite another of his famous works called the Disputa. Both are the stuff of textbooks: works that I have seen and studied throughout my education.
Then, of course, there is the Sistine chapel. The ceiling is so iconic and so familiar and yet so fresh and alive. Seeing it in its home rather than in videos or college books was surreal. I still can’t believe that I saw it.
The colors are beyond brilliant. Michelangelo has depicted so many different scenes in this work, that it is nearly impossible to take it all in at one time. I suppose if we had rubbernecks, it might be doable: the leaning back to look up became taxing after 30 minutes or so. Still, it was amazing. I want now to study it more closely, so that I can understand it better.
The children are tired, and in need of rest, but Wednesday will be an early day. We are promised an afternoon of leisure though to catch up on rest or whatever else we might like to do. Tomorrow we go to the Borghese gallery; it is my sister’s favorite and she says we can absolutely not miss it. We leave the hotel at 7:30 am.