7 Grandeur and  Obedience





The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome and one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches.

 A patriarchal basilica (or major basilica) is a church in which the high altar is reserved only for the use of the Pope or his representative. It dates to the 5th century.



"If one climbs to the roof of Santa Maria Maggiore one can see long straight streets, stretching for miles up and down, end each ending in a piazza containing a famous church - the Lateran, the Trinita dei Monti, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme... This is papal Rome as it was to remain until the present century, the most grandiose piece of town planning ever attempted. The amazing thing is that it was done only fifty years after Rome had been (as it seemed) completely humiliated - almost wiped off the map. The city had been sacked and burnt, the people of Northern Europe were heretics, the Turks were threatening Vienna." p167


When I reflect on the success of the Catholic Church after the sack of Rome and the Protestant Reformation the ideas of the British Historian, Arnold  Toynbee come to mind.  When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows.  Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sink owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.  Toynbee believed that societies always die from suicide or murder rather than from natural causes, and nearly always from suicide.  He sees the growth and decline of civilizations as a spiritual process, writing that : "Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort."


"The last stone of the dome of St Peter's was put in place in 1590, a few months before the death of Sixtus V. The long period of austerity and consolidation was almost over, and in that decade were born the three great men who were to make visible the victory of the Catholic Church: Bernini, Borromini, and Pietro da Cortona."


Madonna with Pear

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna with the Pear, c. 1488, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo


"The great achievement  of the Catholic Church lay in harmonising, humanising, civilising the deepest impulse of ordinary, ignorant people. Take the cult of the  Virgin. In the early twelfth century the Virgin had been the supreme protectress of civilisation. She had taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion. The great  cathedrals of the Middle Ages were her dwelling places upon earth. In the Renaissance, while remaining the Queen of Heaven, she became also the human mother in whom everyone could recognise qualities of warmth and love and approachability. Now imagine the feelings of a simple-hearted man or woman - a Spanish peasant, an Italian artisan - on hearing that the  northern heretics were insulting the Virgin, desecrating her sanctuaries, pulling down or decapitating her images. He must have felt some part of his whole emotional life was threatened. ......"


"The stabilizing, comprehensive religions of the world gave the female principal of creation at least as much importance as the male....  It's a curious fact that the all-male religions have produced no religious imagery - in most cases have positively forbidden it. Israel, Islam, and the Protestant North."  p 177



"The leaders of the Catholic Restoration had made the inspired decision not to go half-way to meet Protestantism in any of  its objections, but rather to glory in those very doctrines that the Protestants had most forcible, and sometimes, it must be admitted, most logically, repudiated. ...... Ever since Erasmus, intelligent men in the north and spoken scornfully of relics: very well, their importance must be magnified, so that the four piers of St Peter's itself are gigantic reliquaries.  It had another great strength : it was not afraid of the human body." p 181


Bernini, Longinus, St Peter's. The statue holds a splinter from his spear.  (see  Longinus)


And if the Protestants abhor art: the Church endorsed the Baroque, with qualities that appealed to a very wide non-protestant audience. Later baroque delighted  in emotive close ups with open  lips, glistening tears, and restless movement. All the devices later rediscovered by Hollywood.


rococo Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, c. 1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome
On three different visits to Rome we trudged to the Borghese only to find it closed for restoration. On the third attempt we were able to enter and see this marvelous piece of art.

Apollo falls in love with Daphne and pursues her. She prays to her father to save her from Apollo and he turns her into a laurel tree. Her fingers are already turning into branches and leaves. How Bernini managed to carve that out of one hunk of marble is beyond me.
Baroque music is very appealing, but Baroque/Rococo architecture brings out my Protestant upbringing. I remember going into  a church in Germany, like the one below, and suppressing giggles. Then I saw a nun there kneeling in prayer with tear stained cheeks and I realized the distance between Catholics and Protestants. apollo and daphne





St Peter's Piazza Bernini could then turn around and design something as magnificent and large as the Piazza of St Peter's, completed in 1667.

Well, all of this leads the pilgrim into the interior, painted in all its Papal splendor by
Giovanni Paolo Panini in 1757.

interior of st peter's

Clark gives Caravaggio only one sentence and includes only one painting. He deserves more.  Caravaggio burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, The Calling of St Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, but he was a troubled soul. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope in 1606 for killing a young man.  He was described as swaggering about with sword at his side looking for a fight or an argument at ball courts. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by enemies, left him severely injured. At the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon. All that aside he was a great painter. Caravaggio's innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. It seems to me the perfect stage setting for an opera scene. Mathew when struck by divine lightening, rises, sings a long aria about being torn between Mammon and Jesus. Finally he throws down the bag of money and follows his Lord off stage right. Applause as the curtain falls.


Caravaggio, The Calling of St Mathew - 1606, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

His depiction of himself as the severed head of Goliath in David 1) might be a manifestation of Caravaggio’s  turmoil, a face ostensibly wracked in pain and regret. Some art historians believe the image of David was modeled after the young Caravaggio. Though David has killed Goliath, it is not done with a look of triumph or pleasure. Rather, David gazes at the severed head with compassion and care. He is neither cruel nor indifferent to the loss of this life, and thus, a sense of humanity is evident in the scene. There is a bond between David and Goliath that perhaps stems from the battle Caravaggio waged with himself and the world.


Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath -1610, Galleria Borghese


2) Others see a sexual intimacy between David/model and Goliath/painter  given that Caravaggio made David's sword appear to project downward, suggestively, between his legs and at an angle that coincides with protagonist's gaze to his victim.


3) And even others think the painting  may have been sent to his patron the unscrupulous art-loving Cardinal Scipione Borghese who had the power to grant or withhold pardons. So the pain on his face is theatrical.


"The colossal  palaces of the Papal families were simply expressions of private greed and vanity. Farnese, Borghese, Barberini, Ludovisi, these rapacious parvenus spent their short years of power competing as to who should build the larges and most ornate saloons. In doing so, they commissioned some great work of art and one can't help admiring their shameless courage. At least they weren't mean and furtive, like some modern millionaires. But their contribution to civilisation was limited to this kind of visual exuberance." p 192



8 The Light of Experience                                   Contents