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On Popes and Artists

We are in Rome because of my mother's long standing dream to see the Pope. Her parish priest has arranged for us to attend an audience with John Paul II. We pick up our tickets at the North American College near the Trevi Fountain on Tuesday afternoon for the papal audience the following day at which approximately 15,000 people are expected.

On Wednesday morning, we get up early and dress in our Sunday best. There are people already queued up to enter the temporarily enclosed square when we arrive at St. Peter's. We have to pass through a detector machine since the current pope was the target of an assassination attempt.

It's early so we find good seats and while waiting, we let our eyes roam and admire the beautiful colonnades by Bernini, the dome of St. Peter's originally designed by Michaelangelo and the Swiss Guards in their striped uniform and beret.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's symmetrical colonnades consists of four rows of 300 Doric columns. Built during the papacy of Urban VIII, Bernini described his work as the "motherly arms of the church" because of its shape. It is just one of many projects he completed in his busy lifetime. The father of Baroque art, Bernini also designed the baldacchino which is the bronze canopy supported by twisting columns framing the high altar inside St. Peter's Basilica.

The Pieta (Mary and the dead Christ sculpture) by Michaelangelo is in the first chapel to the right as you enter the main doors of the Basilica. In the past, it was possible to approach the Pieta for a close-up look. It is behind protective glass today after a vandal tried to damage it in the '70s.

The faithful rises when the Pope makes an appearance in his motorized vehicle. Accompanied by bodyguards, he goes around the piazza to greet the multitude before he proceeds to the platform in front of the Basilica. He reads his welcome address and at times, he pauses for a few minutes to catch his breath before continuing. He is in frail health. Then he blesses us and extends this blessing to our families back home. We are moved by this profound experience, as are many in the crowd, and tears well up in our eyes.

We spend the rest of the day in the Vatican museums with its dizzying collection of art spanning the ages. Many popes were great patrons of the arts and recognized the talented artists of their time by contracting them to work on various projects in the Church. Pope Julius II, the warrior pope, had both Raphael and Michaelangelo working for him at the same time. Raphael painted the papal apartments while a reluctant Michaelangelo was assigned to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel is the venue for the election of a new pope. Michaelangelo and his assistants labored for four years under difficult conditions to complete the fresco on the curved ceiling. Work was stopped for almost a year while Michaelangelo waited for Julius II to return from war and recover from an illness. Restored between 1980 to 1989 amidst controversy, the ceiling shows the brilliant colors Michaelangelo applied after hiding under soot for centuries. Of about three hundred figures he painted, I find the Prophets and Sibyls to be exceptional works considering their sculptural quality, the dynamic colors of their flowing gowns and the rather tricky poses Michaelangelo sketched to bring his subjects to life.

Nearly twenty-two years after completing work on the ceiling, Michaelangelo began painting the Last Judgement above the altar at the behest of Pope Paul III. The exuberance of the ceiling contrasts with the more subdued mood of the altar. To the left of Jesus are the damned souls on their way to hell while to his right are the virtuous ascending to heaven. 

I'm in heaven at this very moment. My spirit soars to new heights when I behold great art. And to be surrounded by it is to be twice blessed.

How to get there: Delta Airlines flies from San Francisco or Los Angeles to Rome via Atlanta or JFK. Outside the arrivals area, follow the sign to the train station which is connected to the airport. The train goes to Termini Station in central Rome where there are bus and metro connections to the rest of the city. Termini Station is the point of departure for services from Rome to the rest of Italy and Europe.

Where to stay: The four-star Hotel Universo is near Termini Station and Piazza della Repubblica. Its address is Via Principe Amedeo, 5/b.

Papal Audience: This may be arranged through your parish or through the North American College in Rome NACVISOF-FROME@pnac.org.  Tickets should be requested as early as possible to ensure availability. Pick up tickets Tuesday afternoon between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Via dell'Umita,30.

Reading recommendation: The Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.

*This article was published in the Manila Bulletin USA in the Dec. 23-29, 2004 issue and is recreated here from an old blog post.

*****

Image by TravelswithCharie


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