The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Statues in the Lateran, Iconoclasts, and Islam

Constantine at the Lateran
The first time Dear Diane and I traveled to Rome, during the Holy Year of 2000, the first church we entered happened to be what is commonly called the "Basilica of St. John Lateran" or simply "The Lateran." It's full, official name is quite a mouthful: the "Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran." I suspect the basilica's office receptionist uses one of the abbreviated versions when she answers the phone. The Lateran, though, probably deserves an especially long name; after all, it's the first church built for public worship in Rome, and perhaps in all of Christendom; hence, it is the mother of all churches. The original structure was built by the Emperor Constantine (306-337) in the early 4th century on land donated to Pope Miltiades (311-314). The archbasilica was officially dedicated by Pope Sylvester I in 324.
Lateran Facade

The Lateran, and not St. Peter's Basilica, is the pope's cathedral church, something many Catholics don't realize. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it is also the home of the pope's cathedra, or cathedral seat. The Lateran, therefore, takes precedence over the other three major papal basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. 

Of course, the current church is very different from the church built by Constantine. Over the centuries fires and earthquakes, barbarians and wars, decay and neglect, renewal and reconstruction, and dramatic shifts in artistic expression all brought about major changes and gave us the church we see today. Anyway, I digress...


Statue of St. Peter in the Lateran
On that first visit back in 2000, I was almost knocked off my feet by the statues that line both sides of the Lateran's nave, statues of the twelve Apostles, each standing in its own niche and each larger than life. Indeed, these marvelous Baroque statues seemed almost alive, and as I moved toward the high altar from one Apostle to the next I realized how much I liked -- no, how much I needed -- a church filled with statues and other works of art. It suddenly dawned on me why I had never felt at home in those minimalist churches built back in the 1970s, buildings that tried to imitate so many bare-bones Protestant churches. To me they more closely resemble barns than churches. 
Minimalist Catholic (Cistercian) Chapel

The Baroque churches of Rome are in no way minimalist. They were constructed or renovated in a style that broke away from the classical, elegant styles of the Renaissance. In a sense they broke all the architectural rules and presented the world with an in-your-face richness designed to display the deep and varied theology of the Catholic Church. Patriarchs and prophets, archangels and cherubim, the Virgin and the Apostles, martyrs and saints, popes and bishops, friars and monks  -- all come alive and all point to Jesus Christ, leading the faithful more deeply into the church and to the altar on which the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered. It's enough to take your breath away. And I think that's exactly what the Jesuits hoped to achieve when they supported the spread of Baroque architecture in the Church. One need only visit the 16th-century Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus where the Church Triumphant is on obvious display. When I first entered this church, I could do nothing but stand there agape in a vain attempt to take it all in. I simply did not know where to start, and so I didn't. I just sat down and let it fill me.
The Gesu (Jesuit Mother Church) in Rome

I give thanks to those many early popes who strongly resisted the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Empire, a movement influenced in part by the Muslims in the Middle East. In those dark days virtually all the worldly power was in the East, but the popes remained in Rome in the chair of Peter. Some, like Gregory VII and Innocent III, were powerful and influential, protecting the eternal Church from kingdoms doomed to disappear. Many others were weak, but even they resisted the attempts to strip the Church of its beauty, to make religious art something other than religious. 

Even today, some Protestant Christians still consider any religious images to be nothing more than idolatry. (A few years ago, in nearby Wildwood, Florida, a young lady working in a grocery store called me an "idol worshiper" because Catholic churches contain statues. Not particularly good public relations, but I gave her a pass.) And certain elements in Islam -- e.g., the Islamic State, the Taliban, and the religious leadership in Saudi Arabia -- have spent much effort destroying ancient historic structures, shrines, and other religious sites.

St. John Damascene, one of the last of the Early Church Fathers, lived his entire life under Muslim rule and wrote extensively against the iconoclasts. He saw iconoclasm as something indeed evil:

“Does anyone who has divine knowledge and spiritual understanding not recognize that [iconoclasm] is a ruse of the devil? For he does not want his defeat and shame to be spread abroad, nor the glory of God and his saints to be recorded.”

Yes, we can all thank the popes and saints like St. John Damascene for holding the line against the iconoclasts and allowing art to thrive in the Church. Without it, we would be much poorer and certainly much duller.


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