Stations at Colosseum; Basilica Perspectives

Faithful Flooding Site for Via Crucis

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 20, 2008 (Zenit.org).- In Rome, the sacred and the profane have long coexisted side by side. Even now, visitors to the Eternal City can be broken into two major groups: “pilgrims” and “tourists.” Though the two groups get along well enough, from time to time their differences make themselves felt.

Floods of pilgrims have been pouring into the city for Holy Week. Overwhelmed by the sea of yellow-scarved faithful praying in the basilicas, or tracing the paths of the saints, the few “tourists” in town have sought out secular retreats, such as the great stronghold of pagan sightseeing, the Roman Colosseum.

But even there, while listening to guided tours recounting tales of blood and gore, their ears have been assailed by chanted prayer as Christians returned to invade the ancient amphitheater.

Frustrated by omnipresent parish banners and papal flags ruining their photo-ops with the self-styled gladiators, befuddled tourists asked whether some movie was being filmed.

During Holy Week, even the Colosseum recovers its Christian guise as the city revives the old tradition of the Stations of the Cross. Lights and television cameras sit poised in anticipation for the arrival of Benedict XVI this Friday evening to lead the Stations of the Cross.

It seems like an absurd paradox -- the Pope and the amphitheater -- but the connection between the Christians and the Colosseum is an old one.

The Emperor Vespasian began constructing the Flavian amphitheater -- now known as the Colosseum -- in A.D. 70. For 450 years it hosted Rome’s bloodiest spectacles, from wild animal hunts to public executions, and of course, the gladiatorial games.

From Seneca to St. Augustine, wise men of the Roman Empire protested the bloodlust provoked by these games, but the Romans would not give up their entertainment until the empire crumbled beneath their feet in the fifth century.

According to one tradition, the gladiatorial games were brought to a close because of the monk Telemachus. Coming to the arena in 404, Telemachus was horrified by the games, and tried to stop the gladiators, but the enraged crowd took him out of the stadium and stoned him to death. According to this tradition, the martyrdom of Telemachus then spurred Emperor Honorius to put a stop to gladiatorial combat, although the animal hunts would linger on for another century.

Abandoned for centuries, except for a brief stint as a private family fortress, the Colosseum was gravely compromised in the earthquake of 1349. The southern wall crumbled and the fallen blocks of travertine were carted away to form the new buildings of a Christian Rome.

Ironically, St. Peter’s Basilica benefited the most from the Colosseum. The ambitious project for the greatest basilica in the world relied heavily on the blocks quarried from the ancient amphitheatre. The structure that had been the harbinger of death would now serve as the foundation for the promise of eternal life.

By 1750, the Colosseum had been so depleted that only two fifths of the original external surface remained. It was the papacy that rescued the edifice from complete destruction. Declaring the skeletal structure a martyrium, Pope Benedict XIV forbade any further quarrying of the building and dedicated it to the Stations of the Cross. Pius VII then restored the building in 1805.

As of 1757, numerous confraternities had nestled into the nooks and crannies of the ancient building. Edward Gibbon heard the songs and prayers while writing his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." St. Benedict Joseph Labre was one of the many who took shelter in the ancient amphitheatre and prayed for the souls of those who had died there.

Numerous crosses inscribed on the walls attest to this transformation of the Colosseum to a place of prayer and meditations on the sufferings of Christ for our salvation, as well as those of his followers who bore supreme witness to him. The practice of the Stations of the Cross was stopped with the unification of Italy when the confraternities were expelled from the site.

Pope John Paul II restored this practice upon his election to the papacy in 1978, and the tradition has become one of the most moving events of Holy Week.

In the great antagonistic spirit of the arena, a few die-hard pagan guides struggled to subdue the Christian enthusiasm. With studied expressions of scholarly seriousness, they dismissed the tradition of any Christian having been martyred in the arena.

It is doubtful that they can cite the source for that statement, but it dates to the early 20th century and the works of Jesuit Father Hippolyte Delehaye. The priest noted that no martyrology placed a Christian death in the amphitheater, nor did medieval guidebooks assign a special place to the Colosseum among the marvels of Rome. Therefore, he concluded, no one cannot say with certainty that any Christian was killed on the site.

Father Delehaye has become a poster child for many anti-Christian manifestos, championed as having torn away the curtain of lies fabricated by the Church. But these interpretations fail to note that Father Delehaye himself recognizes that Christians may well have died in the arena; we just don’t have their names and their stories.

So before we signal a “thumbs down” on Colosseum martyrs, let’s remember that early Christian venerated the resting places of the martyrs, not the sites of their deaths. St. Agnes’ death seems to have been an exception to the rule in the Stadium of Domitian, and the murder of St. Peter at the Circus of Nero appears to have been a one-time-only event.

The Colosseum proudly boasted 80 trapdoors in the floor to lift wild animals into the arena, and holding pens for all sorts of feral beasts. It was the principal place for wild animal hunts and executions. Few places seem better equipped to throw Ignatius of Antioch to the lions than the Flavian amphitheater, and no better hypothesis has been put forward.

Furthermore, the memory of the Christian martyrs has brought out the best in the ancient building.

No gladiator ever displayed the same heroism that John Paul II did when in his final days he was forced to watch the procession from his chapel instead participating as he had for 25 years.

At the last station, he took his balsa wood cross and leaning his weary head against it, taught the world what it meant to truly “live” the Stations of the Cross, uniting his suffering to Christ’s.

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St. Peter's in Pictures

The millions of photos snapped daily of St. Peter’s Basilica and its piazza have transformed this space into one of the most recognized landmarks in the world. Digital images and countless books, postcards and knickknacks with the colonnade emblazoned across them have rendered the basilica familiar to the whole world.

A fascinating little exhibition now at the Museo di Roma next to Piazza Navona examines the history of photographing St. Peters with pictures taken at the dawn of the art of photography in the mid 19th century to the present day.

Over 100 photographs, exhibiting different techniques and styles, offer a myriad of views of the church from that of awed pilgrim to the intimate insider.

The pictures were culled from the photo archive of Rome and were taken by photographers from diverse nations. The earliest date from the 1850s when the fledgling art of photography took its first steps among the august painters of Rome.

The early photos of St. Peter’s recall the “vedute” or view paintings popular in the early 19th century. In 1850, James Anderson, who began his artistic career as a landscape painter, captured two fisherman laboring in their boat on the Tiber, while the great basilica dedicated to Peter the fisherman dominates the background

One print from 1870 glows with a hazy golden patina as an elegant woman looks at St. Peter’s dome from the terrace of the Pamphlij Park. Following her gaze, the visitor experiences the viewpoint of the pilgrim, coming down the last foothill from the north to see the Vatican emerge from the rolling green fields.

The next room brings us closer to the basilica. Narrow rows of houses obscured the pilgrims view of St. Peter’s until Via della Conciliazione was opened in 1950. Photographer Robert Eaton caught the excitement of leaving the densely packed houses and entering into the surprising light and space of St. Peter’s Square.

Having entered the inner sanctum of the square, the next photos offer glimpses of the life that passes daily through the great stage of Bernini’s colonnade. One amazing picture by Leonard Freed in 1958 shows a group of priests in their broad brimmed hats huddled under a single umbrella, while Michelangelo’s dome curves above their heads.

Their black robes and umbrella are flecked with snow, which is falling liberally in the square. A young man looks over his shoulder at the viewer, inviting us to be amazed by this marvelous site.

In 1936, Lucio Ridenti snapped a picture of three religious sisters standing atop the colonnade and looking over the square while three of the giant statues of saints seem to watch over them.

These images of the St. Peter’s “regulars” give way to photographs of the square filled with faithful. Singing or praying, solemn or smiling, thousands of faces attest to the emotions that fill the square.

As long-time Papal photographers, the Felici family recorded official celebrations such as the Eucharistic procession in 1929 after the treaty between the Holy See and unified Italy.

Another photo captures the swell and weight of the crowd on Feb. 6, 1922, as the election of Pius XI was announced in the square. Then bright color and glossy paper transports the visitor to Family Day 1996 with tens of thousands of lit candles arrayed in neat rows in the colonnade.

Sadly, the first image from the third millennium proposes an improvised shrine of soda bottles and plastic refuse in front of the church built to house the body of St. Peter. But this essay in bad taste is immediately countered with Tommaso Bonaventura’s meditative vision of the faithful praying outside John Paul II’s window after his death in 2005.

One of the most beautiful images in the show comes from the funeral of the John Paul II, with the wind rustling the pages of the gospel and raising the scarlet robes of the cardinals. Between the mighty wind and flashes of red it seems that Max Rossi captured the Holy Spirit in the Square.

This small exhibit, open until the end of March, offers visitors a unique tour of St. Peter’s through both time and space. Intimate glimpses and grand vistas, great ceremony and precious private moments sit side by side, whether from a centuries past of our own lifetimes.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.