As my friend Bob said today, “you don’t have to be religious to get a lot out of a visit to The Vatican Museum and St Peters”. However, I do think some understanding of church history probably helps keep it all in perspective. I will suggest that, if in Rome, go on an organised tour for two reasons. When we went straight in with our prearranged passes at opening time, the queue already extended for at least a kilometre!, meaning a wait of 2 hours. Secondly a guide not only gives you passion and knowledge about what you are seeing (and you don’t get lost!) but you also get through locked doors and chained off areas that others do not. That’s how I got into the ‘Bramante Staircase’, inside a large square tower, a dramatic spiraling structure, consisting of two intertwining staircases that form a DNA-like double helix, built of carved stone, created by Donato Bramante in the early 1500’s it was used as a model for the more recent replica created in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo, built to serve as an entry for the Vatican Museums and now used as the exit.
Besides its impressive stonework and design, the tower offers spectacular views across Rome and the Vatican property. While our guide lead the party down into the Museum, I sprinted up the top, leaned out one of the top tower openings and photographed this panorama of Rome as seen from one of the high points in the Vatican.
ROME FROM THE VATICAN TOWER
Now many modern camera make panoramas with the click of the shutter button and a slow pan across the subject. I would like to show how this is done without the clever camera software. The image above is actually made of seven separate pictures, each one overlapping about 20 percent. Ideally this would be shot on a tripod but since my tour group was receding downwards into a crowded Vatican corridor and my tripod in Australia, my camera was handheld with me pivoting from the waist, concentrating on keeping the horizon straight. Just rotating the neck gives a maximum view of 80 degrees so This image showing more than 180 degrees so the buildings appears distorted and the horizon is curved. This is how the pictures are stitched together in Photoshop leaving only the narrow strip in the middle to form the finished panorama. When you press the button in your camera on the “panorama” setting, this is what the software is doing for you as you pan across the view.
THE VATICAN MUSEUM
Down in the amazing corridors you move forward in the crowd, struggling to know where to look. The floor is Amazing, the walls are amazing , the ceilings are amazing and then there is art work on display every where. In cabinets like the vases and the crumbling Etruscan Terracotta statues more than 3000 years old, on wall are enormous Tapestries illustrating historic themes and there are marble statues on plinths just every where. Throughout the Renaissance centuries the Italian Popes competed to buy the best ancient art from all over and put it on display in these corridors. The very greatest of artists accepted their commissions and we are left to marvel at the human creative spirit.
All these images were taken hand-held, without flash in low light conditions, surrounded by crowds. I am happy that I have been able to capture just a little of the splendour and beauty.
ST PETER’S BASILICA
This is a statue of St Peter, the best known of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. He is a man we can learn so much from – it is a pity he is also somewhat controversial. He was a passionate man – the Disciple who declared Jesus first to be the Messiah, whose faith was declared by our Lord to be an exemplar for the foundation of the Church. He tried to walk on water to Christ. He promised to never forsake Him. He defended Him with a sword after Judas betrayed Him. He denied Him three times before the cock crowed. He wept with repentance for this sin. He was forgiven by Christ after His resurrection. He was a fearless leader of the new Church in times of terrible persecution. He accepted the rebuke of Paul when he was shown to be wrong in his partial treatment of Jewish Christians over the Gentile converts. What an example Peter is to us of Grace – the way we sinners are forgiven by Christ despite our feeble faith and used by Him despite our human nature.
Why then is Peter controversial? I think it is a Protestant reaction to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that Peter was given Primacy over the other Apostles, became the first Pope and therefore lends his authority to subsequent Popes who claim to be walking”in the shoes of the Fisherman“. It is tradition the that Peter served as Bishop of Rome for 25 years before being crucified, upside down by the Emperor Nero, during his persecution of the Christian sect that he blamed for the fire that had destroyed most of Rome. Actually there is no mention of Peter being in Rome in the Bible (as there is with the Apostle Paul). The first written report of Peter having been in Rome is by Clement in about 96 AD. While some claim that Peter’s first letter is written from Rome (He actually writes it is from “Babylon”), others believe that this could mean Egypt. The first St Peters Basilica was certainly erected above a burial site, said to contain the remains of Peter among other early church leaders. It was excavated in 1950 and many bones recovered. Pope Pius XII stated that none could be confirmed as Peter’s with certainty. Further bones, including those of a man in his 60’s, were discovered in 1968 and Pope Paul VI announced that they were Peter’s. The chief archaeologist however, said that he was not convinced that they were Peter’s.
Whatever is the truth about Peter,s leadership of the Church in Rome should not take away from what I have said about Peter in the first paragraph or the fact that in Rome there have been Christians worshipping Jesus for more than 2000 years. This is a magnificent building well worth a visit. Even if it is over ornate for my taste as a place to worship, I am glad I had the opportunity to visit, and to share the occasion with others.
The Pieta by Michelangelo was surrounded by a crowd 10 deep just to the right of the entrance to the cathedral behind a screen of bullet-proof glass in a darkened corner.
St Peters seen from the street outside as you would view it when the Pope addresses the crowd. The building on the right is where the Conclave of Cardinal meet to select a new Pope. The day we visited was being called “The Day of Two Popes” (except in Italian) because it was the first day that both the new Pope Francis and his retired predecessor were in the Vatican at the same time as Popes.