Friday, November 23, 2012

Overpowering emotions

St. Peter's Basilica, seen from one of the
bridges crossing the river,

I am definitely not the sentimental type, easily given over to emotions or tears. People like me have strong emotions, we are just more adept at keeping them to ourselves.  Once in a while, we surprise ourselves with an overwhelming emotional reaction to something we never dreamed we could shed a tear over.

One of dozens of large sculptures
that line both sides of the bridges
that cross the Tevere River headed
into the Vatican area.
Sheila, Ann, and I spent our first full day in Rome on Sunday. They are Methodists and knew of a Methodist church near the Vatican, so while they attended the church service I hiked the streets along the Tiber (Tevere) River that separates the old Roman city (the Roman Forum) from Vatican City.  That was the day we discovered the cat sanctuary (see the previous post), looked for the best pizza in Rome (which was never open, even days later), and saw numerous fountains that were on my "must-see" list.

It was nightfall. Being unfamiliar with the city, we weren't sure what bus to take that might get us back into our neighborhood, Trastevere. (Tras = across, Trastevere = across the Tevere) At the far end of the street we could see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Sheila got very excited and said, "It doesn't look that far, let's just go see what it looks like outside". We were all tired and our feet hurt, but we decided to do it.

A woman begging in front
of an angel on the bridge.
The Basilica was lit up but not brightly. St. Peter and St. Paul's statues flanked the front facade and we could see a Swiss Guard standing ramrod stiff and perfectly still guarding an open arched entrance. Other security types told us we were at the exit and needed to go way back out almost to the street and around the many barricades designed to herd people into the Basilica. The whole scene reminded me of standing in line at Disney World, where you creep forward in a snake pattern getting ever closer to the ride entrance, only to find, once inside, the line extends in the air-conditioning an equally long distance. The big difference in this scene: it was night and there wasn't a single person in the line. We quietly moved aside some barricades and crossed over into the entrance.

Statue of St. Peter in front of the Basilica.
There was no entry fee, and once inside, my jaw simply dropped open. Off to the right was Michelangelo's Pieta, carved when he was only 23 years old. Designed to be seen from some distance, the body of Jesus, a grown man, is smaller than it should be in real life, but the composition works beautifully. The emotion of that one sculpture alone can bring tears to the hardest of souls, and that was just the beginning.

A choir was singing, music filled the air till is seemed angels flew over our heads. We gestured to the security men that we would like to join the mass and sat on folding chairs at the back. Everywhere, on every wall, covering every inch of floor, there was exhibited the pinnacle of human artistic endeavor, devoted entirely to the human ideal and idea of God. In the soft light, sculptures and paintings by Bernini, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, and hundreds of others, the best artists of the last two thousand years, sat in niches and formed parts of the nave, the ceiling, the canopy and St. Peter's tomb in the center of the enormous room. High overhead the domes were painted with scenes, the woodwork gilded; they were works of art entirely unto themselves. I had never been inside such an intense concentration of the world's best talent, in any place so profoundly religious, reflecting the desire of human beings for more than this life can provide, the desire for an eternal existence.

It was beautiful and so powerful, it was overwhelming. Tears ran.