Easter seems to be a good date on which to discuss the heart of the Roman Church, the altar and the structures that surround it. At the crossing point of the nave/apse and transept, directly under the dome, is the altar. This is where the ceremony of the Eucharist is performed during a service. Protecting the altar is the baldacchino, reminiscent of the canopy that stood over a throne or royal bed chamber. By tradition, the spiraling columns of some baldacchino were in the form of those brought back from the temple in Jerusalem, representing the Old Covenant. Of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection brought a New Covenant, in Christian theology, replacing the temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 ACE when they thought that they were suppressing one more of those pesky Jewish riots. In many churches, beneath the altar, or sometimes behind the apse, are kept and displayed the relics. For this final post on Building a Roman Church, we shall explore these three elements together
The baldacchino vary in size and degree of decoration, depending on the period in which it was constructed and the size of the church. Above is the baldacchino in the Basilica of St Peters at the Vatican. You do not get much larger or elaborate that this. Of course, the space is immense, thus it too has to be in proportion to the area that it fills. In contrast, to the right is the baldacchino at San Lorenzao Furoi in Mura. This is an older and more austere church. Stone columns and the open wooden beams of the roof trusses are better suited to a smaller and plainer baldacchino. Proportionally, the altars of both churches is similar size. However, the altar of St. Peters is nearly lost in the huge space of the nave, while at San Lorenzao the altar appears much more prominent.
You may also note that at St. Lorenzao, the altar is placed on a raised platform. This suggested that there is something below. The altar at St. Peter’s also stands above a crypt, though you cannot see it from the position of my photo above. Both contain artifacts sacred to the church. In St. Peter’s, below the altar are the tombs of various popes, and after descending several levels the ancient necropolis with the traditional tomb of St. Peter, as he was martyred at this location.
In San Lorenzao, what is kept below the altar is the artifact and symbol of his martyrdom: the grate on which he was roasted. Yes, descend the stairs to the right of the altar, and there it is, a metal grate leaning against the marble wall. If you view a paintings of St. Lorenzo, you will see this element of martyrdom in the painting (usually with Lorenzo on it).
Martyrdom is a rather gruesome business, and often an element venerated by those who seek out relics. The saints did not have cushy lives in the early centuries of Christianity. By tradition, many forsook wealth and status to follow Christ, became enemies of the state, and died in various tortuous ways: beheadings, burning, skewered with arrows, drowning, etc. Often Plan A did not work, thus Plan B was implements. St. Cecilia was first threatened with rape as she was a virgin, but she talked the Roman guards out the act. Then they botched beheading her, only managing to cut her neck severely, such that she lived for three days. In her name-sake church, a sculpture of their partially decapitated head rests below the altar. By tradition, centuries later, when her body was exhumed, it had not decayed. No, be warned, if you decided to seek out relics, you are going to find lots of displayed skeletons, bones, and other body parts. Guess this is what we did before computer graphics allowed us to blow up people on the silver screen.
For those of us growing up and worshiping in the USA, relics seem distant and easily dismissed with skepticism. The disciples did not have missions here. Jesus did not set foot in American (or at least not outside of Salt Lake City). Relics do not serve a purpose for us directly.
Many of the relics on display in churches in Roman (and other locations in Europe) have more “tradition” than traceable providence from saint to church. Some were kept in graves, others folks’ garages, for centuries before they were brought forward. Of course, if someone you revere is killed by the state or a mob, you don’t just say, “Hey, can I take those chains home?” No, you slip them away, hide them, and tell the stories of your faith to you family and other believers. Those oral histories become legends and myths. Then when the oppressors abate, someone discovered something that fits the mythology.
Thus, the chains, with which Peter was bound in the prison in Rome, surface centuries later. You can see them below the altar of the church of that name, San Pietro in Vincolli (St. Peter’s in Chains). There you go.
Having explored the altar and relics, we will conclude this series on Building a Roman church. Many of my sources for this history have been travel guides and souvenir books from the churches that we visited. Usually, in our American perspective, we anticipate that these are public relations devices. I find, though, that many of the Italian translations of the church guides are quiet frank in stating what is historically known, what is ledge, and the culture traditions behind questionable antiquities. In the guide for San Giovanni in Laterano, I came across this paragraph, which I found profound:
In all ancient basilicas, especially Early Christian one, the area of the chancel with the cathedra and altar was the site par excellence. The starting point for the builders of that time, more than the aesthetic, was the theological concept. If the center and fulcrum of the church is the altar, this had to be given privileged position with respect to the rest of the church, and if artistic decoration was involved, it had to function to communicate immediately this idea of centrality. In the following epochs, especially after the liturgy had lost some of reference to the essentiality and functionality of the signs and symbols of the celebration, all the space of the church offered a place for embellishment, and the magnificence of certain interiors ended up distracting the faithful from the natural referent of the celebration.
In the case of San Giovanni in Laterano all this is evident, perhaps even more than in other major basilicas. Too many things, some of them worthy in their own right, distract from the whole, and especially from the chancel and apse which seem hidden and diminished. It is true that at least from an artistic point of view these are very interesting elements, but it should be clear that a church is never just a museum or a collection of art works, but the place in which a community celebrates its faith.
Having grown up in the Protestant-Puritan traditions of the USA, where austere Congregational churches removed all distractions, and Post Modernist 20th century churches can hardly be distinguished from stage and movie theatres of the same era, I find glory and comfort in 1800 yeas of Christian art in churches. Yet, I agree that some of these seem to be Jesus stored in the attic in which overwhelming figure-ground issues distract us from the purpose of the church building.
Th next time you are in Rome, check out not only when churches are open for touring, but when they hold Mass. Go at that time. Sit, reflect, absorb. Reflect on why the church was built at that location and is in the form of a cross, what the stories are in the mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures, and what is being re-enacted at the altar. If your are not Catholic, respect their tradition by observing the Eucharist, but not partaking. But, remember the word “catholic” (lower case) means “universal”.