Friday, April 8, continued
After we visited Rome’s Homeless Jesus, we joined the group for a visit to the Basilica of San Clemente. There was some complication about where we were to enter, plus we were running late due to our Homeless Jesus stop, so when we arrived we were well past our scheduled entry time. Lucky for us, they let us in anyway.
Basilica of San Clemente
The Basilica on the actual surface is a 12th century church of extraordinary beauty. Because we were so late, we didn’t get to see much of it as we scurried on down to a 4th century basilica below it. It looks like a cave of arches, pristine and precise arches surprisingly light in color. It was Good Friday when we visited, and whether for that reason or as a matter of habit, a spotlight shone on the fresco of Christ on the cross. I felt a great crowd of witnesses in this ancient house of worship; it felt oddly familiar and welcoming to me–warm despite the subterranean chill.
This space would have been used in the 300s by early Christians trying to sort out their understanding of their new faith. They would have spoken of the difficulty of loving one’s neighbor and the impossibility, but for the help of Christ, in forgiving one’s enemy. They would have huddled in these spaces, passing the peace of Christ one to another, sharing Eucharist, and saying the Lord’s Prayer together in their ancient Italian, “Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome . . .” I felt their presence there, the veil between heaven and earth barely holding its form. I felt at home.
We left the 4th century church and descended another layer of history to find a 1st century Roman house with its Mithraic temple. I didn’t quite get the dates clear, but the house was built no later than the 1st century. The attention to details like ceiling decor and floor patterns . . . Unbelievable! All this without power tools. Crazy.
The Basilica of St. John Lateran
When we left there, we were very close to The Basilica of St. John Lateran, the church of the Pope. It is massive. To our great fortune, a mass was in process when we arrived. I was so grateful to be in church on Good Friday that it mattered not one bit that I did not understand the language or the customs. What I did understand was worship, holy and habitual. The choir sang several selections while we were there and the organist accompanied them. I’d like to learn more about this organ because it seemed diminutive for the space. I had noted the pipes earlier, but questioned later if those were merely for aesthetics. In any case the music was beautiful, the moments sacred, and I felt grateful.
Saturday, April 8
Domus Aurea of Nero
The following morning, we went to the Domus Aurea, the Golden House of the Emperor Nero. Nero’s has long been considered a vicious madman; but recent scholarship treats Nero as the victim of generational mental illness and other so-called ailments that made him a target for judgment and unfair critique. Looking at this Domus Aurea, a house he hoped would be worthy of his greatness, I struggled to see beyond his egotism and self-aggrandizement. It is never-ending. Archways and garden areas, high ceilings and stylized floors: it’s both impressive and grotesque in its lavishness. While there, we got to participate in the virtual reality component of the tour which recreated a section of the original compound. It felt as though we were in the actual palace, gazing out on gardens and fountains. Extraordinary! From there, we entered a large room with arches and a vaulted ceiling. The preservationists had recreated a waterfall that would have cascaded down the back wall. The hologram fooled me for a few seconds before my brain kicked in!
Comic (without) relief
A funny aside: while we were waiting to get into the site, we advised the students to drink lots of water as they had been getting a bit dehydrated. We were convinced that there would be a restroom at the entrance as there had been at every other place we visited. Much to our surprise, there was no sign of such facilities anywhere on the premises. We entered in two groups and mine was mostly girls. By the time we got through the virtual reality portion, they had reached maximum bladder distraction. And then came the very realistic waterfall complete with the sound of it echoing in the huge space. I tried not to laugh at their predicament, but their potty dances made it impossible! Lucky for them, their bladders had not suffered the insult of years and childbearing!
Santa Maria Supra Minerva
Following our tour of Nero’s expansive palace, we had free time until dinner. Dawn and I visited churches. The first one was Santa Maria supra Minerva where we viewed Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross. It’s just a bit larger than life-size, though the size of the cross is unrealistically petite. The figure of Christ is nude, but for a bronze loin cloth added 25 years later. Somehow, Michelangelo has sculpted from marble form of Jesus that truly represents both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. It is astounding.
San Luigi dei Francesi
Next, we went to San Luigi dei Francesi and got luckier than we dreamed we would: we had a perfect spot to view the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. I could write a whole post on that painting alone. It is haunting and compelling, inviting and foreboding. I cannot believe I got to see it.
Finally, we went to Sant’Ignazio to view the most impressive fresco ceiling in all of Rome; and yes, I do include the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel among those it surpasses. Oh my word! Dawn pointed up and said, “That’s flat.” To which I responded, “No, it’s not.” I thought she might have been confused; after all beautiful church ceilings are all over Rome. “Yes. It is,” she insisted. I’m telling you, it looked exactly like a dome. I still can’t make sense of it. It looks as if angels are leaping from the faraway sky. It took my breath away, leaving me staring at it, mouth wide open, not wanting to look away even to take a photo. A perfect last stop for my 10 days in Italy!
I have one more post to write–a summary of some of the things I didn’t mention previously. Thanks for traveling with me so far. It’s been a dream of a trip and sharing it with you has made it all feel real. Ciao!