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On a More Serious Note

You can't walk more than a few feet in Rome without running into another church - each more beautifully decorated than the last. But there is nothing the least bit "spiritual" about the effect. On the contrary: the overwhelming impression with which a guy like me comes away is that here, in Rome, the gospel's message of other-worldly austerity was quickly forgotten, and absorbed into a sort of neo-pagan competition for status among the great wealthy and powerful families: the Borgia, the Medici, the Barberini, the Farnese, the Pamphilj, and so on and so forth.

"Faith" has here become merely a vehicle for worldly display. All the symbols of humility and piety are grossly abused, in pursuit of...well, what, exactly?

There was one point where I almost got angry: in the magnificent Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a colossal statue of Pius IX kneels before a reliquary said to contain a fragment of the manger...

Why, I asked myself, is this statue of Pius IX *colossal?*

Comments (35)

From Wikipedia:

Blessed Pope Pius IX (13 May 1792, Senigallia – 7 February 1878), born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, was the longest-reigning elected Pope in the history of the Catholic Church, serving from 16 June 1846 until his death, a period of nearly 32 years. During his pontificate, he convened the First Vatican Council in 1869, which decreed papal infallibility. The Pope defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, meaning that Mary was conceived without original sin. Pius IX also granted the Marian title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a famous Byzantine icon from Crete entrusted to the Redemptorist priests. In addition to this, Pius IX was also the last Pope to rule as the Sovereign of the Papal States, which fell completely to Italian nationalist armies by 1870 and were incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. He was beatified in 2000.

Also, an interesting video about "theological sizes" in art:

Never having been to Italy, I can only imagine what "overwhelming impression" I might have to the streets of Rome. When the great good fortune comes to me that a trip to Italy is available, I will not neglect to consult Steve for advise. Sounds like a great summer.

Nor can I speak to the details of Italian architecture, except by the merest means of contact with photos and replicas and suchlike.

But what I can say is that the way the phrase "gospel's message of other-worldly austerity" appears in this typically mischievous post, cannot but arouse the suspicion of an effort to deliberately disparage the contrary imagery of the gospel.

Put another way, how a man who spent his working life giving generously of himself amongst the poor, the sick, the squalid and beaten down, may be criticized for leaving behind a teaching of "other-worldly austerity," is something of a puzzle to me. A man might as well accuse Johnny Cash of monkishness and aloofness from the gritty world.

Steve, two questions: first, is the size something the artist was using intentionally to convey a specific impression, such as (just as one possibility among many) even a colossal giant of a man must kneel down in humility to the babe in a manger. Probably those with better aesthetic sense than mine could give much more valuable insights. I am a bit of a bull in a china shop when it comes to actually grasping art.

Second, is it possible that the sense you get by osmotic impression something that might be significantly, or even very heavily, tinged by the seeming reality that Italians are not really very Christian even in surface senses like going to church every Sunday, so that even in their own country they have become strangers to the underlying meaning of all that architecture and art? When a whole people fall away from holiness, it goes in stages, and one of those stages is where they still outwardly perform the works of religion, but don't (in varying degrees of lukewarmness) let that religion center their lives. A later stage is when they forsake practicing even the outward forms, but give lip service to the glories of those forms as something to be remembered. This latter stage is more full of hypocrisy then the former, though both are subject to the accusation.

And yet, beauty and truth are called connected, are they not?

Indeed, "searching for a beauty that is foreign to or separate from the human search for truth and goodness would become (as unfortunately happens) mere asceticism and, especially for the very young, a path leading to ephemeral values and to banal and superficial appearances, even a flight into an artificial paradise that masks inner emptiness."

And so, beauty in churches, beauty in liturgy, serve as a reminder, a pointing, an arrow, to the longing in our soul for final beauty. Surely, such beauty may be corrupted and turned to worldly purposes. But, in the case of churches, it might be better to accept and love the beauty, to grace them with charity. Once, talking with a Russian Orthodox, I asked whether my attraction to the liturgy and beauty of their churches would result in salvation for my soul. He replied, basically, "Who knows what vehicle God will use for salvation - when it is not evil that is the means, then why deny?"

Sounds like those Renaissance paintings of the rich bourgeois patrons, with their wives and kids, hanging out together with the Virgin and Child. You're surprised that ostensibly religious motives are sometimes less than pure?

To be honest, Steve, I confess to having the same reaction. To the degree that one's spirituality is a matter of taste, I have no taste for it. To the extent that it's a matter of theology, it's a theology to which I cannot consent.

For those reasons and more, I am heartened to read that "in my Father's house are many rooms," not just this one. Nevertheless, for all those whom God has called to live with Him in this mode of piety and under this kind of artistic and ecclesiastical instruction, I offer my prayers and brotherly support. But I do so only while continuing to make different affirmations. To me, given the arguably idolatrous nature of the statue, and given what I see as the arrogance and innovation of Mastai-Ferretti's efforts (mentioned above), I find the statue ironically appropriate, on the one hand, and I maintain my dissent, on the other.

Why, I asked myself, is this statue of Pius IX *colossal?*

Santa Maria Maggiore is a colossal basilica. Colossal buildings, colossal statues, paintings with colossal heroes, colossal fountains, colossal tombs, and colossal ruins are ubiquitous in Rome. The coliseum is perhaps the best known example of 'colossalness'.

As we all know Rome wasn't built in a day. And over the centuries its grandeur has been associated with the public show of material wealth and power. Grandeur expressed by the boastfulness of mere 'bigness' is an antithesis of spiritual austerity.

Well this is a rather Protestant bit of blathering. I thought that was Lydia's portfolio? Since it's been answered repeatedly by the entire Tradition of the Church, I see little reason to respond to it with substance.

Step2 - as always with James Burke's stuff, that video is fun to watch, but, in the end, doesn't seem to add up to much. It's just too unfocussed.

Paul, we seem to be having a failure to communicate.

In what way have I even *suggested*, here, any *criticism* of the gospel's teaching of other-worldly austerity?

I sort of thought that I was criticizing the Renaissance & Baroque era Popes for their grossly obvious *flounting* of that teaching!

I've never been a big fan of Martin Luther - but I must admit that, walking the streets of Rome, and investigating its churches, I entirely understand why he was shocked to his very core when he visited in 1510-11.

Tony - Unfortunately, I couldn't find a good camera angle (and I'm a terrible picture-taker to begin with). But here's a good one from the web:


I just don't find in this sculpture any genuine expression of humility whatsoever.

And everywhere you go in Rome, it's like that. Gigantic tombs, sculptures, plaques, portraits, and other monuments to the popes and other, lesser, princes of the church, the former consistently emblazoned with the legend PONT. MAX. - i.e., Pontifex Maximus, the highest office held by Julius Caesar.

You've *got* to get a bit of a jolt out of that.

Grandeur expressed by the boastfulness of mere 'bigness' is an antithesis of spiritual austerity.

Mere? Who's talking "mere" anything? Steve calls Santa Maria Maggiore "magnificent." But it is also grand and big, and who are you to separate its grand size from its magnificence? But the grandness of grand cathedrals and colossal statues (Mike's "David", anyone?) has a heck of a lot more thought behind it than the boastfulness of "bigness".

Austerity is not the only virtue. It is not even the queen of virtues, not by a long margin. There are lots of ways of expressing truth and beauty, and using magnificence to speak of God's grandeur is one of them.

To me, given the arguably idolatrous nature of the statue, and given what I see as the arrogance and innovation of Mastai-Ferretti's efforts

Michael, do you have any evidence that Pius IX is the one who commissioned that statue? I could not find such. All I found was this:

The statue of Pius IX, the Pope of the Immaculate Conception, was sculpted by Ignazio Jacometti and placed in the crypt by Leo XIII.

If you don't have evidence that the statue was of Pius IX's doing, then I think your remark is quite nasty and offensive. Protestants (and others) have accused Catholics of idolatry in relation to their art for centuries, but it has never been true in any standard sense of the word. If you don't like images, by all means put your attention elsewhere.

I _think_ Michael Bauman means by "idolatrous" the idea of bowing to a fragment of the manger--that is, that it would be idolatrous to bow to a fragment of the manger. This is a standard Protestant position. I'm not sure that it would matter to it one way or another who commissioned the statue, would it? I mean, it's a theological question.

Titus - well, yeah, whatever.

None of the Popes ever abused their office in the name of self-aggrandizement.

Not even Alexander VI.

...in the end, doesn't seem to add up to much. It's just too unfocussed.

Okay, I laughed out loud. Good zinger Steve.

This is a standard Protestant position.

Why is bowing to the manger (or a fragment) considered idolatrous? In previous discussions you've asserted at least in theory the concept of holy objects. If they are holy what is the theological problem with revering them?

I didn't say it was _my_ position, Step2. But then, I'm not a standard Protestant, so I don't always take standard Protestant positions. Sometimes yes, very Protestant, sometimes no.

It's considered idolatrous by many Protestants because it's just a physical object, so it's supposed to be like bowing to a god made of wood. Some would extend that also to crucifixes, but I suppose someone could take the position that at least the crucifix is a visual representation of Christ, whereas a reliquary containing a fragment of the manger is even farther removed from worshiping Christ. (I've never known anyone who holds that position.)

I wasn't trying to argue the theological position, though. I was just suggesting that maybe Tony had misunderstood M.B.'s use of "idolatrous," because it doesn't seem that the question of whether or not Pious IX commissioned the statue would be relevant to the theological position that I assume lies behind MB's use of the term.

Step2 - what "zinger?" I wasn't trying to score a debating point - just expressing my usual reaction to James Burke's stuff: lots of interesting info, insufficiently digested.


I like Jonathan's 11:22 PM comment from yesterday.

Another thing that struck me when reading your post is that I'd much rather have my elites competing for status over public buildings (and parks and statues), like churches and museums, rather than over large McMansions filled with fancy cars and other ephemeral personal goods.

Lydia, that's a fair response.

May I point out that, first of all, it is not a human being bowing to the manger, it is a statue. That is to say: to the exact extent that the manger is just a THING, so also is the statue in the attitude of bowing. But to the extent that the statue represents the person, so also the manger represents the Person of the Son. And it is certainly reasonable to depict persons bowing to God in the second Person of the Trinity. The artwork is no more idolatrous than any painting of people worshiping Jesus.

Which, I suspect, is precisely why Lydia did not own the Protestant-type argument as her own.

It's considered idolatrous by many Protestants because it's just a physical object...

To any nonbeliever it is just a physical object. The point being that if you do have faith the object is holy, why would you (as a believer) be committing a sin by revering it? There is no requirement that I know of that a holy object must "visually represent" the deity in a particular way.

Step2 - what "zinger?"

On a show concerning a mathematically proportional realistic perspective and focal points, you said it was unfocussed. C'mon, work with me a little bit.

Step2, Protestants who take the position I was describing do not believe in holy objects. That is _itself_ considered an idolatrous position--that a non-personal physical object can be holy.

I've often thought that this strong anti-holy-object position runs up against a problem concerning the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament.

A more moderate position would be that literally holy objects are very rare and that we should not believe that any physical object is holy absent direct divine revelation.

Tony, good point. I suppose a response would be that presumably Pious IX is being portrayed doing something that should be taken to be generally okay for people to do--that is, if he is represented bowing before a reliquary in a work of art, doesn't this mean that live people are allowed to bow before a reliquary in real life?

Not that I think the work of art _is_ idolatrous. I was just spelling out the position.

I suppose a response would be that presumably Pious IX is being portrayed doing something that should be taken to be generally okay for people to do--that is, if he is represented bowing before a reliquary in a work of art, doesn't this mean that live people are allowed to bow before a reliquary in real life?

The main act of physical worship in Catholic practice is genuflecting to Jesus as present in the Eucharist. In Catholic theology, of course, this is precisely NOT any form of respect for an "object", because it is understood to be Christ Himself, really and wholly present. With this background, I believe that the art should be understood as the pope humbling himself before the manger as occupied, so it is not to the manger as an object at all, but to the Person.

Is it considered OK to bow to an object in Catholic practice? The only case I know of is the practice of bowing to the altar upon which the sacrifice of Mass will be re-presented. And yes, this altar is considered in a very significant way to be the direct descendant of the Ark of the Covenant, a matter of the Holy of Holies. And further, a careful distinction is made: it is right to bow to the altar, but NOT to genuflect to the empty altar, genuflecting is reserved for Jesus Himself. Because that distinction is made, it is clear that the bow is, precisely, NOT an act of worship but an act of respect. (We consider it acceptable to bow to ordinary humans as well, which is an act of respect.) Because this distinction is universal, deeply rooted Catholic practice, it should be clear that the depiction the artwork is representing is that of the Pope kneeling before the manger as occupied by its Divine resident.

1. While there is surely plenty of ego to be sure of the vast wealth poured into the churches of Rome, I would be extremely hesitant to condemn it, citing the wastefulness of spikenard as precedent.

While the list of Italian nobility that lived lives of sumptuousness and decadence is great, there are no few exceptions to this rule, even attaining membership of recognized saints. Rome is old, very old. Even if one aristocrat in every other generation were to have opened his treasury to the glory of God, the churches of Rome would be many and magnificent.

This is not to say that the many great benefactors of the richly decorated churches of Rome were saints, even those who gave earnestly. After all, there too is precedent of men who started pious and ended wicked.

2. Holiness is to be separated, apart from the worldly, and devoted to God. I suppose that most Protestants (at least those willing to cite such things as the Ark) can grasp that there is a matter of degrees in holiness of objects.

If say, the Ethiopian Ark were the real thing, or a splinter of the True Cross were actually to have its pedigree authenticated, in triplicate, to St. Helen's discovery, and furthermore carbon dated to the early/mid first century A.D., including pollen grains found on the surface to be from the general vicinity of pre-war Jerusalem, it would have vastly more significance than say, a given window in St. Paul's Cathedral, which may rank yet further than the vestments worn by Gene Robinson.

I see your point, Tony--as if the Pope is kneeling before the Baby in the manger.

Would it be correct, then, to say that genuflecting, kneeling as opposed to bowing, before a reliquary containing the bones of a saint (as opposed to a fragment of the manger) would _not_ be considered appropriate in Catholic doctrine and that one wouldn't expect to find a statue of a Pope doing so?

step2 - well spotted. Sorry, but that wizzed right over my head.

Point yours.

But I still find James Burke's stuff...kind of diffuse?

The worst bit of the video is where the guys in medieval/renaissance costume advance upon the 19th Century Facade of Florence's great Duomo.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

@ Jeff Singer: "I'd much rather have my elites competing for status over public buildings (and parks and statues), like churches and museums, rather than over large McMansions filled with fancy cars and other ephemeral personal goods."



I have no idea why you think the statue can be what I termed "arguably idolatrous" only if the Pope himself commissioned it. It never occurred to me that he had. It is the statue itself, and its positioning, that make it theologically dubious, not its commissioning. The papal stone colossus itself, not that to which it is ostensibly looking, dominates the space and the attention. That it bows to a material fragment is disturbing as well, for some of the reasons Lydia already articulated. Further, I, along with so many others, deny that the such fragments are authentic, something that should have been obvious for many centuries now, ever since Calvin and others made an inventory of alleged relics Europe-wide and demonstrated the impossibility of their authenticity, and of proving it.


Its rather cheeky of you to invoke "Tradition" in defense of a pope who ushered in as articles of faith notions that two of the three major traditions (Eastern Orthodox and Protestant) have never acknowledged and that were not even part of Roman doctrine and practice for centuries and centuries. Indeed, in the years immediately before this council, a number of Catholic theologians overtly denied the idea of papal infallibility and declared it a detestable Protestant invention designed to undermine Rome. In that sense, making the pope a colossus that dominates the space in which he exists is true to history, though not to true theology.

Michael, if the person who commissioned the statue was someone else, wouldn't that mean that this other person was idolizing Pius IX? Since I don't recall anyone in Rome ever declaring a hankering for Pius IX taking over in place of Christ as the Godhead, that seems a bit of an unlikely stretch to me. Maybe it was in bad taste. Maybe even very bad taste. So what.

That it bows to a material fragment is disturbing as well, for some of the reasons Lydia already articulated.

The disturbingness of it has been refuted.

Further, I, along with so many others, deny that the such fragments are authentic,

That's up to you, of course. I myself don't put much stock in their authenticity either, but that's probably because I don't put much effort into relics anyway - they are so definitively a side-show to true faith.

ever since Calvin and others made an inventory of alleged relics Europe-wide and demonstrated the impossibility of their authenticity, and of proving it.

Let's get something straight here: you cannot logically prove the unauthenticity of any SPECIFIC relic by doing a catalog of all the relics around. Certainly SOME relics are authentic and provable. But aside from that, no matter how many thousands of trees would have to be cut down to fill the lists of all the claimed relics of the True Cross, that cannot possibly make X individual one unauthentic. And proving that many, most, even the vast majority of relics must be fakes does not logically disprove THIS one.

(Just as an aside: for a God who can multiply 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, such a God can also make the wood of the True Cross extend to many, many tens of thousands of slivers. Logical reduction upon the extensive lists of relics cannot preclude the possibility that many of the supposed relics of the True Cross or the manger of Bethlehem are actually valid even though the mass of them far exceed a forest of full sized trees, and even if their authenticity cannot be established completely.)

Now, I don't really worry about whether Luther was right in his estimation of the amount of relics claimed, but some people have carefully studied the issue and come to different conclusion than Luther:

In 1870 a Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, catalogued all the relics of the True Cross, including relics that were said to have existed but were lost. He measured the existing relics and estimated the volume of the missing ones. Then he added up the figures and discovered that the fragments, if glued together, would not have made up more than one-third of a cross. The scandal wasn’t that there was too much wood. The scandal was that most of the True Cross, after being unearthed in Jerusalem in the fourth century, was lost again!

Was Fleury right? I don't know and don't much care. But Luther was far from the last word in perfect accuracy, completeness, and logic on the matter.

Since we are at least partially on the subjects of the Immaculate Conception and the Ark, it may be relevant that many Catholics give Mary the title Ark of the New Covenant. From the supposed perfection and incorruptibility of the original Ark they try to derive Mary's purity of soul. The whole notion seems a little objectifying and dubious, I don't know of any OT verse that describes the Ark as perfect, although it is safe to assume it would be well crafted.

If say, the Ethiopian Ark were the real thing...

The wildest story I've ever read about the Ark has a weird kind of logic to it, in that it proposes the blood of Jesus on the Cross fell through a crack in the ground to a small cave that contains the Ark. Apparently this completed some sort of sacrificial circle. The intrepid discoverer also found the still living blood of Jesus and encountered four angels (because of course he did), so I would suggest not reading his story while sober.

Suppose the post is true. The same is true in Tulsa, or better yet, OC, California.

Step2, I don't think that any serious grounding of claims of Mary's perfection rests on the Ark's perfection. I certainly never heard one, growing up and being educated in Catholic schools. The analogies and arguments run along different lines, I believe. For example, the Ark was given great reverence for carrying God's word, so also Mary should be given great reverence for carrying God's Word. Proof of Mary's perfection rests on other things, like the angel Gabriel's greeting "full of grace", (or, from the greek Kecharitomene: one who has been completed in grace). There are other arguments too, but I am unaware of any resting on the Ark.

Step2, thanks for the link. First I have seen of such a suggestion. But you must admit that the "perfection" of the Ark is pretty small potatoes in the article, and is pretty much only an implicit reflection of the fact of being covered in gold inside and out. To the extent that the Ark is more than merely wood and metal, it becomes so wholly on account of the Spirit of God overshadowing it upon its taking up its formal function. This differs from Mary, who is "full" of grace even before she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. The rest of the article goes into all sorts of OTHER comparisons, besides the Ark's presumed perfection.

In any case, the Ark is but one facet of a many-faceted approach by which Catholics explain Mary's perfection.

I'm living in Italy right now, and I've come away with much the same impression, especially in Florence, the seat of Medici influence. It's full of magnificent works of art in churches where tourists outnumber worshippers ten to one. My thought is that this is what happens when your faith becomes part of your culture instead of the focus of your life.

We face much the same risk at my home in the Bible Belt, but our works of art aren't as impressive.

Respectabiggle: I guess it's inevitable that, once a church in Florence or Rome gets "on the map," so so speak, the tourists are going to outnumber the worshippers.

I think maybe some of the smaller & less famous churches are another story. Our hotel room in Rome featured a balcony overlooking the lovely cloister of the neighboring Church of S. Prisca, where services seemed to be fairly frequent and fairly well attended.

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