Saturday, June 4
Touring the Heavenly Jerusalem: The Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul
by Matt Alderman
In honor of this month's feast of SS. Peter and Paul, a reprint from the November 2004 edition of the Advocata Nostra.
Of the four great basilicas of Rome, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is the least famous, while St. Peter’s is too famous to be truly understood. St. Paul’s is cool and quiet in its nobility, a place of palm-lined cloisters and refreshing shadows harkening back to the marbled, sober days of Pope Sylvester and Constantine, when Christianity at long last stepped out into the daylight. But St. Peter’s, wreathed round with hosts of stucco cherubim, is full of the titanic boast of the baroque and the pomp of the Church Triumphant, the saints who dwell outside of time.
Yet we recall the dedication of these two great churches, as different in spirit as the apostles whose names they bear, on the same day: November 18. The Church marks only two other such anniversaries on Her calendar. There is the dedication of St. Mary Major on August 9th; and the Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and much-neglected seat of papal authority, on November 9. We celebrate them because they are our churches, parishes to the world with confessionals advertising everything from English to Latin and Croatian to Maltese. St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, in particular, are twinned on this feast day just as their namesake saints are twinned in numberless icons, the two founders of Christianity in Rome, they should hold a special place in our hearts as the sheep of the Roman pontiff.
This feast recalls the gritty Roman cradle of the faith, the strange spicy stale air of the dank cemetery beneath St. Peter’s where the body of Simon son of Jonah was hastily stabbed into the ground by his followers after an ignominious death in the circus next door. But it also telescopes time and eternity, past and future, historical memory and eschatological reality, for a tour of these two basilicas takes us from the founding of the Church to the end of the world, and beyond.
St. Paul’s stands like a placid, low-lying monolith in an unassuming suburb of Rome, full of grubby Euro-modern apartment buildings, appliance stores and windowless faux-Irish bars. It’s the youngest of Rome’s basilicas: while founded in 324 by Constantine, the present building largely postdates the disastrous fire of 1823. Stepping into the courtyard, you enter another world. Before much of the old church was lost, the old atrium had already been long-gone and the church had begun to sag into tarnished decay. The reconstruction resurrected the old basilica’s true spirit, its granite columns gleaming, the façade’s gold mosaics with their vivid apostles and pearl-grey lambs flashing gloriously in the sun. It exudes the ancient purity of the first Christian basilicas; rather than present-day St. Peter’s, it suggests what the Vatican looked like to tired pilgrims for the first thousand years of the Church’s existence.
The apostle Paul is everywhere, in statues and relief and mosaic, holding his emblems: the conjunction of the book of his epistles and the Spiritus Gladus, the sword of the spirit. It hangs in marble, point downward, above the great bronze doors bedizened with silver and figured with scenes of his preaching and teaching and, ultimately, his martyrdom at the edge of another, more corporeal sword. St. Peter’s life and death occupy another panel in the great doors, and we see him receiving the keys of the kingdom—the power of the Papacy—from Christ, and then, with charmingly direct allegory, he is shown literally building the church in Rome like a visionary architect sweeping his hand out over a vast construction site, a Rome littered with pagan shrines and imperial columns.
The church within has the elegant simplicity of all early basilicas, with their harmonious ranks of pillars and mosaic portraits quietly gleaming in the pleasant grey shadows of a Roman afternoon. Rondels bearing images of the 264 bishops of Rome roost under the cornices, and a light shines on the 264 disk, bearing the face of John Paul II. After him, there were only three spaces left on the wall for his successors, occasioning apocalyptic gossip among the Italians, but, with characteristic practicality, he simply designated some more spaces up in another part of the side aisle for future popes. The tomb of the apostle stands beneath a slender gothic canopy, a red light winking before the grille. All is silence; out here so far from the walls, you don’t find the hoards of tourists that throng St. Peter’s.
St. Peter’s is a difficult church to understand. In the year I spent in Rome, I saw it in a dozen lights and at a dozen times, sometimes choked to capacity, other times virtually empty. Some pilgrims, accustomed to the antique coziness of the churches of the American heartland, or even, perhaps, the chill airplane-hanger church down the street, are left cold. It’s staggeringly big; and it doesn’t help that nobody has ever truly seen St. Peter’s; it’s too familiar to be seen. Our notions of it are already formed by pictures in art books or by dog-eared holy cards that show Maderno’s “incorrect” facade overshadowed by St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church.
To a modern mind, shackled by timid good taste, St. Peter’s seems incomprehensible. Gaudy, ostentatious, frightening, even, with its festoons of weightless angels and personified virtues hulking like stucco giantesses overhead, hurling down anathemas and thunderbolts on vice and heresy. The tranquility of the primitive that St. Paul’s represents is easier for us to understand. Yet, we need both quietude and baroque bombshells. For St. Peter’s images the Church Triumphant in heaven, the sea of glass and the Second Coming with all its fantastic and triumphant winged oxen and eagles. The celestial Jerusalem, St. John tells us, is built of sardonyx and topaz just as in St. Peter’s every surface is of fireproof marble or porphyry or mosaic.
We like to remember, in this day and age, that God came in a whisper to Elijah, but He also came in a sunburst of flame at Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. And it is a testament to the majesty of God that He can be reflected by two such different sorts of beauty in two very different churches. Let us keep the feast of these two apostles today by remembering their lives and sacrifices and charisms, but let us also remember the churches named for them and the sacred history they represent.