Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

When I visited this church some years back, it intrigued me because it was the only Gothic church in Rome, and it was also the burial place of Fra Angelico and St. Catherine of Siena. From the outside, it's nothing special. In fact, it doesn't even look like much of a church. What's even weirder is the the stone elephant carved by the Renaissance master Bellini, carrying an authentic Egyptian obelisk on its back!

Once inside, however, it's a lovely space, with a glorious side chapel painted by Filippino Lippi in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas.

It took me a while to realize, however, that this mishmash of styles and artists, mystics and theologians, was a Counter-Reformation propaganda statement. The Catholics were, in effect, saying, "We're not dead yet, and we're on the upswing against you Prots." The two popes who contended with Luther, Leo X and Clement VII are buried here, and there is the famous Carafa Chapel, dedicated to the über pope Paul IV (d.1559), who presided over part of the Council of Trent. To get even more intense, there is a chapel commissioned by none other than Torquemada...of Spanish Inquisition fame! (Monty Python sketch: "No one ever expects the Spanish Inqusition!).

Thankfully, such sentiments have all died down, and the more important lesson, at least for me, is that art in the service of God is a healing instrument, and that long after the dust settled on the 16th century polemics, one can enter this building and literally touch the work of the greatest of masters. For example, there is an athletic Christ holding a cross, done by Michaelangelo. It is yellowish in color, except for one of his toes, which remains as white as the day it was polished - why? Every pilgrim coming to the church touches Christ's little toe. They do this to connect with Michaelangelo, to touch something he touched. I know I certainly did!

Within this peaceful space, there lies a mystic, an artist, and a chapel devoted to St. Thomas, the greatest of the Medieval theologians. That's a remarkable combination, and one which fills me with comfort and hope. For Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a nexus, an intersection for art, spiritual communion, and the sanctified mind. Oh, and it was built over the ruins of a temple to Minerva, hence the name, so take that you old pagans! If you are ever in Rome, why not visit this obscure church and get away from the tourists gaping at the usual sights. For here is truly a temple to Ars Theologica.


Blogger Steve said...

Great info and insights - thanks!

Where can I go to get the basics on art in Christian History? I'm reading Paul Johnson's History of Art right now...

I found in Israel and Turkey that many churches are built over pagan ruins. In fact, the "rock" at Caesarea Phillipi (Matt 16:13-18) was called the rock of the gods, it was such a (in)famous place for pagan worship.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I've always found Kenneth Clarke's "Civilisation" to be wonderful, and Pelikan's "Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries" is excellent. Gardner's old standard of Western Art is essentially a history of the church's patronage. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art is also a standard reference. I would also recommend Simon Schama's "Rembrandt's Eyes" and "An Embarrassment of Riches."

Thanks for the tip on Johnson! I'll check that one out

9:17 AM  
Blogger cwv warrior said...

Incredible! How can such a place of beauty hold such seething controversies in its history.
Speaking of controversy, how could your former blog hold any controversy that needed to be shut down! REVIVAL INDEED!

1:11 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Well, it seems that some objected to my equating the head of our denomination with Darth Vadar. It was only a joke, but the next day the website was in tatters. Could be a coincidence...

10:33 PM  
Blogger cwv warrior said...


2:56 PM  

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