Rome Diaries - Week 43

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.

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December 21, 2007

I find myself again on the Via Margutta running through the art galleries. This time of year, all are open and ready to sell. One place must have been shut during my last visit. I would have remembered the dramatically lit collection of small marble sculptures, including what may be a rare example of the 15th century Florintine master Desiderio da Settignano. This sculptor is famous for his delicate touch with stone; the bust of John the Baptist as a boy has a haunting look. Desiderio, whoonly lived to his mid-30’s, had a distinctive style but his work is difficult to attribute. I can’t find out more about the sculpture without a discussion with the proprietor – something time will not allow tonight as I have been given a ticket to attend sung Vespers at the Sistine Chapel. Only about 70 people are shown through the Bronze Door entrance to the papal palace and up the ever-narrowing ramp to another flight of stairs and into an immense, frescoed antechamber, attended by a single Swiss Guard who salutes all who might look like a priest or a member of the papal household. We take our places at the marble bench that borders the area near Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment. A few members of the Sistine Choir assist us as we sing the prayers of Vespers from the books handed out to just as if we had been at a parish church. Someone from our group is asked to read to scriptures and, as if on cue, a baby in our group begins to cry and is taken out. It is a simple service but in an ornate and intimidating room. The colored marble patterns on the floor (opus sectile) copies pavements of ancient Roman imperial residences, but few can appreciate it when the Sistine Chapel is in its daytime mode of crowded museum. These Friday Vesper services are held in Advent and Lent and have only started in the past few years, as a way to experience the Sistine Chapel for the purpose it was intended once again.


December 25, 2007

I make the short walk to St. Mary Major, the place that holds fragments of the crib of Bethlehem. This is especially appreciated now as the Vatican created a bit of a controversy when it announced that its outdoor crib this year would depict Joseph’s workshop, a treatment that would favor Jesus being born in Nazareth. One Vatican spokesman declared, “It’s time for a change.” A newspaper reported the change “was inspired by two verses in St Matthew's gospel, chapter 1:24 and 1:25…which state: ‘When Joseph woke up, he did as the Angel of God ordered and took Mary into his house. Without them knowing each other, a child was born and he called his name Jesus.’” I’m sure it says that in the Bible, but the next chapter of Matthew has the Child born in Bethlehem…and that’s the way we like it. I am also told the Vatican wanted to show you could vary things but not resort to what some churches do to stay “relevant” – adding New York’s Twin Towers or an Elvis figure. But, between the media announcement and the actual unveiling of the Nativity scene, adjustments and the Bethlehem tradition was retained. Christmas is a feast you don’t want to celebrate too creatively. After gazing at the silver, gold and glass reliquary in the shape of a crib, I descend to the church’s basement museum and view one of the oldest Nativity scenes in existence (1291), a marble ensemble by Arnolfo di Cambio. The figures have a compact intensity that suits the humble birth of the Son of God. Neither Bethlehem stable nor Nazareth workshop is depicted so I can just use my imagination.


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