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Ceilings of Stolen Gold

St. John's in RomeI visited Rome with a friend who wanders somewhere between being an agnostic and an atheist, but is militant about neither. He loves visiting old churches. As we sat in St. Johns, the Bishop of Rome’s church (meaning, of course, the Pope’s church), admiring the huge high magnificent gold encrusted ceiling, I said to him, you come to these churches with no baggage at all.

Gold Ceiling in St. John'sWhat I meant was that the Christian story and the history of its earthly representative, that is the institutional church in all its many forms, in no way impacts his appreciation of the beauty and grandeur of the large cathedrals dotting the earth.

Roman Senate Doors in St. John'sSt. John’s is impressive for many reasons but three stand out for me. First is the size. It is a large grand structure, and while it is now dwarfed by St. Peter’s, in its day it was the first of the big cathedrals. The second is the ceiling inlaid with actual gold, but not just any gold. This gold is from the first haul of gold stolen from South America by the Spanish invaders. Spain gave the gold to the church as a gift, which the church obviously accepted using it to glorify its house of worship. The third noteworthy feature of St. John’s are the front doors. Not only are they huge, they are the original doors of the Roman Senate. Imagine that. Gold stolen from a peoples half way around the world and doors from the great political and military power that was Rome. In a church.

While St. John’s is amazing, it is put in the shadows by St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s basilica amazed and offended me in equal measure. It is a truly wondrous structure, huge and hugely grand and filled with some of the most beautiful art in the world (it is in the basilica where you can see, for example, Michelangelo’s Chapel of the Pieta). But to say it is huge does not do it credit (the photos here cannot really convey the scale of the thing). I couldn’t help but wonder how it was constructed and at the time it was constructed. And it offended me.

St. Peter's in RomeNot wanting to negatively affect my friends appreciation of the church or dampen his enjoyment of its beauty, I nonetheless stopped him in front of the huge Papal Alter and Baldacchino and said something like this:

This building is offensive because it has absolutely nothing to do with a humble rabbi who told his disciples to go out into the world with nothing and preach good news to the poor. It is the opposite of preaching good news to the poor. It has nothing to do with justice for the poor. This building does represents something to world but that something is not the gospel. It shouts wealth and power. It is wealth and power. If aliens from another part of our galaxy happened upon earth, knowing nothing of the Christian story or the church and nothing of our theology and faith, walked into St. Peter’s they would not say, “Oh this represents the human species care for the less fortunate among them; this building must be about justice and serving the poor; this building must be really good news for the powerless and a frightening threat to the powerful.”

Michelangelo’s Chapel of the PietaNot satisfied I continued:

This building is a symbol of humankinds utter inability to fully embrace and maintain an attitude of and dedication to humbleness, sacrifice, justice for the unjustly treated and the poor. The church started as a radical reassessment of the status quo, of power and how it affects people, of the worth of all human beings, even those who had little power, stature and wealth. This church building represents a collusion with the powerful and elite. It emphatically declares what is important to it. The church could have built a humble and functional building as its headquarters and that building would also have said something to the world. But the men who created the church and built this structure did not remain true to that radical reassessment. What is a church doing with this edifice? What does it symbolise? Yes, this structure is utterly magnificent and many no doubt say it speaks of the glory of God. It does, but not of the God of the poor. Not of the God who challenges power. It worships the God of wealth and power. It speaks to human lust and not divine sacrifice.

(Don’t forget, the Vatican is a quasi-state with representation in the United Nations, a status it will not give up any more then it will give up its tremendous art collection its private central bank, its property and its Swiss guards.)

Papal Alter and BaldacchinoSo, stolen gold that was the beginning of the almost complete genocide of a people. Doors of political and military power. Untold wealth and influence. Amazing magnificence and stature. Welcome to the church of Jesus Christ.

OK. I realise I am not being totally fair. I could be accused of picking on the Roman Catholic Church while other churches also possess vast wealth, power and grand buildings. Just for the record, I haven’t forgotten them. And it could be said that St. John’s and St. Peter’s do not represent all that the Catholic Church does in the world, and that would be true. But they do represent something and they didn’t just happen. These churches, as do others in other countries, represent choices by human agents: to accept the gold and the doors, to spend vast wealth on building huge structures which sit more easily, perhaps naturally, with the powerful.

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica If you were a itinerate preacher telling the masses they have worth despite the evidence, and if you were attracting a following of people to go out and serve those masses, not in power and wealth but in the name of love and justice, would you build St. Peter’s? Well, perhaps not at first, but after the years had passed, someone  probably would. We human beings love building huge expensive, and yes beautiful, edifices to our gods.

Having said all that, if you go to Rome, do visit St. John’s and St. Peter’s. They are truly beautiful and amazing. Just leave your baggage outside the really big doors.

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger

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  • Response
    Response: superior paper
    Old is gold. Everyone knows it and the thing is that the Rome is one of the oldest city known to man. By watching such mesmerizing scenes, the ceiling of gold, beautiful wall decorated with amazing and spectacular pictures is just wonderful. Really loved it.

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