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zna ^ | December 13, 2009 | Elizabeth Lev

Posted on 12/13/2009 10:14:14 AM PST by NYer

ROME, DEC. 10, 2009 ( Five hundred years ago, St. Peter's Basilica was leveled after a millennium of glorious presence on the Roman cityscape. Horrified denizens of the Eternal City, the town where permanence was everything, rued the destruction of one of the most venerable churches in Christendom.

The zealous instigators of this architectural carnage were Pope Julius II and his chief architect Bramante, both of whom would reap only blame for their efforts. Erasmus would scathingly satire Julius' maltreatment of St. Peter's resting place and Bramante would be dubbed "Bramante, Maestro Ruinante."

Although we all know this story has a happy ending -- after all, who does not revel in our magnificent "new" St. Peter's -- mystery clouds what the old church, the one that witnessed the coronation of Charlemagne as first Holy Roman Emperor and bore 1,000 years of the finest artistic decoration, must have looked like.

A few traces of the glory that was St. Peter's still sparkle in the basilica. They are lovingly kept in the Treasury Museum of the Basilica. In these few small rooms, the memory of the ancient church remains alive.

The Treasury Museum has been painstakingly reconstructed and reorganized, and last Dec. 1, the most ambitious restoration thus far was completed. The Tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, once the most spectacular funerary monument of St. Peter’s, has been returned to its original splendor. Together with the newly restored Vexillum Crucis from the sixth century, the tomb comprises the Alfa and Omega of the glorious history of the Constantinian basilica.

Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere reigned from 1471 to 1484. During that time, he transformed Rome from the neglected ramshackle town still scarred by the papal abandonment to Avignon in the 14th century, into a dignified urban center. Not only did he repair aqueducts, build bridges and famously construct the Sistine Chapel, he was also concerned about his spiritual legacy, bequeathing the universal Feast of the Immaculate Conception to posterity, though the dogma wouldn't be proclaimed until centuries later.
He raised many nephews to high posts in Rome’s civic and ecclesiastical life, most of them ne’er do wells, except one, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who would one day become Pope Julius II and complete his uncle’s transformation of the city.

In his will, Pope Sixtus, a Franciscan, had asked to be buried simply in the earth, but Cardinal Giuliano had other plans. To celebrate the momentous achievement of Sixtus' papacy and to demonstrate his devotion to his uncle, Giuliano commissioned a monument by the most famous sculptors of the age, the Florentine brothers Antonio and Pietro Pollaiuolo. In his dedicatory inscription, Cardinal Giuliano claims that he put "more devotion than expense" into the tomb.

This tomb, made entirely of bronze (10 times more costly than marble) was an unprecedented object in the history of St. Peter's Basilica. Seemingly a floor tomb, it was raised up from the ground on two levels to a height of over two feet. Completed in 1493, the tomb was originally placed in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception in St. Peter's Basilica, consecrated by Pope Sixtus as part of his Marian program for the city. It faced an altar surmounted by an image of the Madonna and Child and would have relegated visitors to the sides of the chapel.

The Pollaiuolo brothers relished the challenge of this innovative monument and produced a masterpiece. Pope Sixtus, cast in a single piece, lies atop the monument, his tiara and dalmatic splendidly etched, chased and modeled with the family coat-of-arms of the acorn and oak leaves.

Surrounding the effigy of the Pontiff are a series of bronze relief panels representing the seven theological and cardinal virtues. Charity reclines above the Pope’s head while Fortitude and Justice flank his feet.

The great innovation of this work lies in the inclusion of relief panels of the liberal arts supporting the dais where the Pope rests. Female figures, reminiscent of the lithe maidens of Botticelli, represent theology, philosophy, astronomy etc., as well as perspective, a new entry on the liberal arts line-up, indicating the rise in status of the visual arts over the years. This was a particularly fitting tribute for a Pope who was such a grand patron of the arts.

Papal historian Ludwig Pastor was scandalized by these images when he saw them in the 19th century. His sweeping condemnation of the monument started with the observation that there was "no crucifix, no Madonna and Child or Biblical scene," and then moved on to deem inappropriate the young girls frolicking around the tomb as liberal arts. But for a Pope whose meteoric rise was due to his education and eloquence, the liberal arts were what assisted him to shine as a theologian. Similar to Nicola Pisano's famous 13th century pulpit in Siena perched upon figures representing the liberal arts, so Sixtus' tomb alluded to the arts as the pillars of a good teaching ministry.

With the construction of the new basilica, Sixtus' tomb was moved from place to place, from the grottos to the Blessed Sacrament chapel. Finally, in 1971, it found a home in the Treasury Museum. But the wear and tear of the years had begun to damage the monument, dimming its Renaissance splendor.

A two-year restoration came to a close last week, returning the tomb both to its original grandeur as well as to its rightful place among great papal monuments. Six restorers, 300,000 cotton swabs and 1,400 scalpel blades removed the patina of dirt, varnishes and corrosive agents.

This project was funded by the Knights of Columbus who have been quietly supporting many projects in the basilica. From the grotto chapels to Sixtus' tomb, the Knights of Columbus have shown a dedication to glorifying the site of Peter's grave that would have delighted both Sixtus and Julius.

The tomb of Pope Sixtus gleaming in the renovated Treasury Museum warmly recalls an age when the liberal arts supported virtue, serving as assistants instead of antagonists.

* * *

Enduring treasure

The Treasury Museum of St. Peter's Basilica also brings us back to an earlier age, the first centuries after Constantine's construction. The oldest monument in the museum is one of the white marble twisting columns that now frame the relic chapels in the piers supporting the dome.

The column, 15 feet high and made of creamy eastern marble, is decorated with low relief cherubs and vines. They are called Solomonic for their resemblance to the columns erected by Solomon for his temple in Jerusalem. A gift of Constantine, they framed St. Peter's tomb for more than 1,000 years until Bernini replaced them with the bronze columns of the Baldacchino, to fit the scale of the new and massive church.

But one special little treasure remains to recall the Age of Justinian, law giver, art patron and distant ruler of Rome throughout the sixth century. The Vexillum Regis, or Royal Standard, is a jeweled cross and reliquary containing a piece of the true cross; it was given by Justinian II, who reigned from 565 to 578, after the death of his illustrious father.

This extraordinary object, a little over a foot tall, was made of gold with a little chamber at the center to keep a piece of the cross of Christ’s crucifixion found by Constantine’s mother, Helena, two centuries earlier.

As most of the cross was brought to Constantine's new city of Constantinople, this gift, in its spectacular setting, bespoke of the continued commitment of the emperor to Christ and His Church. Large jewels decorated a precious frame -- sapphires, emeralds and pearls, typical of imperial treasures -- while on the back a delicate modeled Lamb stands among curling acanthus leaves.

The cross was used regularly in papal processions and celebrations over centuries, but slowly the reliquary was despoiled of its precious stones: three of the four sapphires replaced with cheaper stones, and the precious pearls simply taken. The restoration replaced the pearls, but left the mish mash of colored stones as testimony to the many vicissitudes of the Royal Standard.

The little fragment of the cross remains however; the glittering gems that so easily captivate men have come and gone, but the humble wood of his salvation is ever present.

TOPICS: Catholic; History
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at
1 posted on 12/13/2009 10:14:14 AM PST by NYer
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To: netmilsmom; thefrankbaum; markomalley; Tax-chick; GregB; saradippity; Berlin_Freeper; Litany; ...

Vexilla Regis

Croce processionale Gian Francesco dalle Croci.jpg

The Royal Banner forward goes,
The mystic Cross refulgent glows:
Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
Upon the Tree of pain is laid.

Behold! The nails with anguish fierce,
His outstretched arms and vitals pierce:
Here our redemption to obtain,
The Mighty Sacrifice is slain.

Here the fell spear his wounded side
With ruthless onset opened wide:
To wash us in that cleansing flood,
Thence mingled Water flowed, and Blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song, of old:
Unto the nations, lo! saith he,
Our God hath reignèd from the Tree.

O Tree! In radiant beauty bright!
With regal purple meetly dight!
Thou chosen stem! divinely graced,
Which hath those Holy Limbs embraced!

How blest thine arms, beyond compare,
Which Earth's Eternal Ransom bare!
That Balance where His Body laid,
The spoil of vanquished Hell outweighed.

O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passion-tide:
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant!

Hail wondrous Altar! Victim hail!
Thy Glorious Passion shall avail!
Where death Life's very Self endured,
Yet life by that same Death secured.

Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!
Let every living creature laud;
Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,
O guide and govern now and ever!

The hymn Vexilla Regis was composed by Saint Venantius Fortunatus on the occasion of the solemn reception of a Relic of the True Cross by Queen Saint Radegonde before the consecration of her monastic church at Poitiers. It is, by origin, a processional hymn. The Church sings it at Vespers from the Saturday Within the Fourth Week of Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week. The translation given here is taken from "The Psalter of Sarum": London 1852. The feast of Saint Radegonde is August 13th; that of Saint Venantius Fortunatus is December 14th.

2 posted on 12/13/2009 10:16:08 AM PST by NYer ("One Who Prays Is Not Afraid; One Who Prays Is Never Alone" - Benedict XVI)
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To: NYer

This kind of a thread needs pictures.

I’m just saying...

And God bless the Knights of Columbus for funding this!

3 posted on 12/13/2009 10:19:50 AM PST by vladimir998
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To: NYer
He raised many nephews to high posts in Rome’s civic and ecclesiastical life

Nephews was a euphenism for bastard children during that time. Altough whether this was true in the particular case I cannot say.

4 posted on 12/13/2009 10:25:38 AM PST by C19fan
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To: NYer
I was in Rome over the summer and the museum is truly an impressive place. God Bless the KCs for their patronage.

Be back later. Time to trim the tree.

5 posted on 12/13/2009 11:24:44 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: NYer


6 posted on 12/13/2009 11:28:57 AM PST by ArmyTeach ( Beware Taquiyah)
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To: NYer

****Horrified denizens of the Eternal City, the town where permanence was everything, rued the destruction of one of the most venerable churches in Christendom.***

It also laid the seeds that caused the worst split in Christindom.:-(

7 posted on 12/13/2009 1:18:05 PM PST by Ruy Dias de Bivar (Are my guns loaded? Break in and find out.)
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To: Ruy Dias de Bivar
Well, no: the effort to finance it laid the seeds (etc.).

(I recall a certain Gospel passage about embarking on a task without the proper preparation and supplies ...)

However, the seeds were really laid when the French took over the Papacy and the Black Death killed off many of the priests and religious in Europe.

What this article doesn't mention is that Old St. Peter's was structurally deteriorated to the point of being dangerous. If it hadn't been torn down, the "Collapse of St. Peter's Basilica" disaster would have occurred sometime around 1600 ... hopefully not during Easter Mass.

8 posted on 12/13/2009 5:18:26 PM PST by Campion ("President Barack Obama" is an anagram for "An Arab-backed Imposter")
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