Seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City
Pope Benedict XVI once said that, “art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for faith.” In other words, Benedict is saying that the beauty of sacred art and the lives of the saints can complement and deepen the traditional explanation and argumentation of apologetics. He further explains that it is the saints who show us a “great luminous trail on which God passed through history.” In regards to sacred art and architecture, the Pope Emeritus teaches that “they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.” Nowhere is the truth of Benedict’s teaching more apparent than in Rome. Rome is the place where thousands of saints have lived, worked, prayed and died. Rome is also the place where the beauty and grandeur of her sacred art and architecture makes for a city that is imbued with signs and symbols reminding us of, pointing us towards and manifesting to us the presence of God. If there is one thing I have taken away from my short time in Rome so far it is the need our modern age has for the transcendent beauty of Rome’s sacred art and architecture and the witness of the saints.
The modern world needs the witness of the saints because the saints show us by how they live their lives the Truth of the Gospel. St. Peter, for example, gives us an awesome example of courage and fortitude in the face of violent persecution. Tradition has it that St. Peter was martyred around the year 64. He was executed via crucifixion, however, because he did not think himself worthy to die as our Lord did, he request to be crucified upside down. The Romans obliged. There is a tradition in the Church that says when the persecutions of Nero broke out, St. Peter initially fled Rome. On his way out of Rome, He came across our Lord. St. Peter asked our Lord “Quo Vadis, Domine?” (Where are you going, Lord?) To which our Lord responded “to Rome to be crucified again.” It is as if our Lord were saying to Peter “I am going to do what you ought to be doing and are not.” Upon hearing this, Peter realized his mistake and returned to Rome to face martyrdom. When St. Peter returned to Rome he was martyred at Nero’s Circus. Now, despite its name, Nero’s Circus was like a large racetrack. In the center of the racetrack is where Nero ordered the executions of Christians, and that is where St. Peter was crucified.
On a worldly level, Peter’s decision to flee Rome makes sense. If he can survive perhaps he can still do much good in another place. Yet our Lord reminds Peter that if we want to follow Him we can only do so through the Cross. Perhaps the Lord will ask some of us to be martyrs like St. Peter, but regardless of our call we all must learn to pick up our crosses, both large and small, each and every day, and follow our Lord.
One last item about St. Peter’s martyrdom: at the center of the racetrack, near where St. Peter was crucified was an obelisk. The obelisk is a tall pole like stone structure that is Egyptian in origin. It was brought to Rome by the Emperor Augustus, and in all likelihood this was the last thing that Peter saw this side of Heaven. The beautiful irony is that today that same obelisk sits in the middle of St. Peter’s Square with a cross on top of it. The very place where the Romans thought they were vanquishing the leader of the Catholic Church is today marked with a sign of Christ’s triumph, the Cross.
An example of the apologetic potential of sacred art and architecture in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica is the altar dedicated to the Chair of St. Peter. Directly above the altar is a relic, a wooden throne once used by St. Peter that is encased within a gilt bronze sculpture of a much large throne. The chair is held up by four Doctors of the Church, and above the chair is an image of the Holy Spirit descending upon the throne in the form of a dove. On a catechetical level the message is clear: the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth, and he is guided by the Holy Spirit so as to shepherd the Church.
However, the beauty of the art work is such that it easily draws one into contemplation of the mystery of God’s providence as well as His goodness in giving to the Faithful the gift of the papacy. The papacy is given to the Church to guard her members from the snares of error, the papacy is given as a source of unity, and the papacy is given as a source of strength for the whole Church. Lastly, the artwork conveys a real sense of the power and grace bestowed upon the Successor of Peter. An unbeliever can look at this masterpiece and not only get a sense of the doctrine behind it, but hopefully be moved, with God’s grace, to repentance and conversion.
In our modern age a great deal of the beauty has been hijacked so to speak, and often the very idea of sanctity is disregarded as a façade or naiveté. However, when true beauty is before your face in the form of sacred art and architecture, or a person is confronted with the irrefutable presence of God in the holiness of a saint, such cynicism will melt away. Traditional apologetics arguments are important and still very valuable for providing a reason for our Faith, yet we must bring back our patrimony of Sacred Art, and never cease to hold up the example of the saints.