(An essay from my archive at www.ncobrief.com – retrieved for your enjoyment on a Friday afternoon. It’s a long one, originally in two parts. Yes, I can write about other than the 19th century frontier….)
The most striking thing about the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome is that it is immensely, overwhelmingly huge, but so humanly proportioned that the size of it doesn’t hit you right away. It sneaks up on you, as the grand vista unfolds, marble and gold, bronze and the glorious dome soaring overhead – and then you realize that the chubby marble cherubs holding the shell-shaped holy water font are actually six feet tall, that what looks like ordinary wainscoting at the bottom of the wall opposite is itself six feet wide, and those are not ants crawling slowly along the polished marble floor, they are other people.
All the artistic genius of the Renaissance was poured out lavishly to build and adorn this, the center of Christendom, the palace, church and administrative center of Christ’s vicar on earth, the latest in a line unbroken (although it did distinctly thin, in some places) from Apostolic times. All this, built over a necropolis in what had been outside the ancient walls, across the Tiber River from the city on seven fabled hills, in which tradition held that the bones of St. Peter — apostle and martyr, fisherman, missionary and Bishop of Rome — were laid. Over a hundred years in the building, it absorbed the energies of architects and the papal treasury, even the bronze roofing from the ancient Pantheon were taken to make the baldacchino, the elaborate canopy over the high altar. “Not a barbarian, but Bernini,” was the wry comment by ordinary Romans on this particular bit of sack and pillage. But, oh, it is a splendid place, built for the greater glory of God on the Vatican Hill, and it is worth seeing many times, even if one is not Catholic, just for the treasure store of painting and sculpture. When St. Peters’ was a-building, the Church was a spiritual authority to a degree hardly comprehensible to us now and – even more incomprehensible – a mighty secular power as well: Said the wise man, “Fear not he who has the power of life and death, but he that has the power to cast thee into hell.”
For a thousand years, the church was the intercessor between sinful human beings, and the divine, the keeper of the gates of heaven and the doors to hell, intercessor, arbiter, final authority, before who even kings and emperors quailed and obeyed. Lesser men and saints trod very carefully, in the majestic presence of he who held all-power in this world and the keys of the next. The Basilica of St. Peter was meant to be a fit frame and show-place, but ironically its completion sparked the fracture of that one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
In one of the small rooms on the upper floor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are gathered many of the small treasures and rarities, portraits and curiosities mostly. Visitors are admitted one by one by a guard, and the line circles the room slowly. The couple ahead of my daughter and I on the Sunday afternoon that we ‘did’ the Uffizi in late summer of 1985 were older Italians with a look of country people about them, but country people dressed in their best, and uncomfortable in it. The man’s black suit was old, and pulled across his shoulders and gut, his white shirt collar and knotted tie looked like they were about to strangle him and he had the faint grimy lines on his knuckles and under his fingernails of someone who works with machines or automobile engines. But he and his wife were extracting the most out of their afternoon of culture, reading very carefully all the little cards underneath the pictures.
At a pair of Cranach portraits of a husband and wife, though, he leaned down to read the little cards, then straightened up and practically spat with contempt when he hissed, “Protestante!” and moved on to the next item in the treasury. My daughter and I looked at the two portraits. I didn’t need to read the little card; these were faces I was already familiar with. The husband – a bulky man with the thick shoulders and broad features of a working man; shrewd, tough, confident, clad in plain, unornamented clothes. The wife, whose round features sparkled with intelligence, and the assurance of a woman who is entirely pleased with the life she has made for herself, having had the wit to have picked out her man and made her own match and their mutual married happiness – which had been very much to his incredulous surprise.
Dying in bed of old age was not how Martin Luther had expected his tumultuous life to end. He himself, brilliant, driven and outraged by the corruption of the Church he served with devotion, fully expected to be burnt at the stake as a heretic, from the moment he defied Emperor and the Pope’s representative at the Diet of Worms with the ringing words: “Unless I am convicted by [testimonies of the] Scripture and plain reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Then long folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seek strange strands,
To far-off hallows, couth in sundry lands;
And specially from every shires end
Of England to Canterbury they wend . . .
Chaucer, Prologue to Canterbury Tales
And make pilgrimage they did, in payment of vows, to seek healing, to acquire merit, to give thanks – and offerings. The great shrines of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury grew rich on offerings and benefices from the devout, as did any number of lesser shrines. Even more virtue attached to having made the much more difficult journey to St. Peter’s in Rome, the seat of Christ’s Vicar on earth, or the dangerous journey to far distant shrines in Jerusalem. To possess a relic, even one of dubious provenance, was a money-making proposition on the part of the ecclesiastical establishment which held proprietorship, especially if it appeared to have worked a miracle or two.
Many church treasuries in Spain and Italy still contain elaborate jeweled reliquaries, great things of silver and gold wrought to display little grimy brownish bits of bone and teeth, or a shred of crumbling fabric. I never felt myself so sternly a Protestant myself, as when I looked at these objects – those, and the rich vestments in silk, embroidered with jewels and gold, the episcopal rings with stones the size of walnuts, crosiers and crucifixes in ivory and gold, and more gems. The upwelling urge to begin gibbering incoherently about simony, idolatry and indulgences usually didn’t subside until I went to look at the stained glass or the stone carvings, or something. These present treasuries, although reduced by schism and war, give an idea of how very, very rich the Catholic Church was by the fifteenth century – and how very profitable it was to control the means of grace.
Of course, there had been other reformers, some of them later anointed with sainthood, who were troubled by how the church seemed to have been corrupted by power and riches, fallen away from it’s original mission, become distanced from the humble and devout. Early critics and reformers were co-opted, for a time seeing some success in establishing a more rigorous order, or having a particular reform adopted, but as the clamor of criticism became louder and more insistent, the Church tended to squelch it with a charge of heresy, a quick conviction and a public burning-at-stake. Martin Luther, priest and monk, a Doctor of Theology who had been intended by his father to be a lawyer, could not be co-opted and would not be silenced. Besides his own formidable intellect, he also had the benefit of powerful, highly-placed friends, and the newly popular printing press, which did to theological disputes what the internet did to the established mainstream news media. The flash of Luther’s insight, that man is justified by faith, rather than works, that grace and forgiveness were freely given – and could not be earned by pilgrimage, by generous donation, by turning over a few pennies or ducats for specific services rendered, had the effect of a bombshell on the carefully structured finances and schedule of benefits offered by the official Church.
It was, I thought, the most amusing of ironies that the Cranach portraits of Luther and his wife, Catarina von Bora hung in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, the city of the di Medici, those merchant-princes of the Italian Renaissance. While Luther was studying and preaching in Germany, a Medici was advancing steadily up the ranks, eventually to be enthroned as Pope Leo X. Born Giovanni de Medici, he proved to be as cultured and as worldly a patron of the arts as any of his ancestors, but without a shred of their financial acumen. Having emptied the Papal treasury, and with an extravagant lifestyle to uphold, and the Basilica of St. Peters’ to finish in style, the Pope authorized the sale of indulgences; automatic forgiveness of sins upon payment to the Churches’ representative. Luther, as outraged as a devout and thoughtful person could be in the face of a flagrant abuse and perversion of doctrine, wrote up a list of debating points and posted them as a challenge for discussion on a public notice-board, the door of the church at Wittenburg.
With a couple of taps of a hammer on nail, the established Catholic Church shattered like a bit of crockery with a flaw in it; it had to much invested in the system to entertain the notion of the sort of reforms that Luther and others wanted to see; and by the time that reforms were forced upon by necessity, the tipping point had been reached. Scholars and kings and cardinals had taken positions, and there was no going back – although occasionally someone like Mary of England would try. The monastery cloisters were empty; the bell towers silent, the brothers and sisters gone away, treasuries defaulted to the crown.
And one last little story, a Noel Cowardish 1930ies screwball comedy sort of story, of the clever woman who met the romantically clueless academician and made up her mind that he was the one for her. She had been a nun, Caterina von Bora, of a good family but an impoverished one. She and some of the other nuns wished to leave their convent; their escape was facilitated by a merchant who smuggled them out in some empty barrels. Doctor Luther and his friends pledged to help them: some of them returned to their families, and the others all found good marriages or a household position, all but Caterina von Bora. They respectfully asked her what she wanted; did she wish to be married, was there a particular man she would like to be married to? They would do everything they could to arrange that, if it were the case. And she said, yes, there was, Dr. Luther himself would suit her very nicely, thank you. He was nearly twice her age, had lived with the expectation of being executed as a heretic, in all the untidiness and disorganization that a single man tends to accept. It would amuse me to think he was flabbergasted at first, while all their happily married friends were gently and fondly amused – but it worked in the best sort of way. They had six children and were as happy as they could be and a great deal happier than most.
It may not have happened quite like that . . . but that’s the way I like to tell it.