Magazine article The Christian Century

Within the Cross

Magazine article The Christian Century

Within the Cross

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE great gifts of the city of Rome is that anyone can walk into any church, free of charge, and experience art created for that very space. You can ponder Caravaggio's painting of Jesus calling Matthew away from the tax collector's table in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi or wedge yourself into the crowd around Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's, knowing that for hundreds of years others have stood before these same luminous works and felt their own callings and griefs blessed and transformed. To be able to stand at the intersection between our lives and theirs, between the present moment and the past, is a gift Rome gives to the whole world.

With Good Friday coming, images of the cross catch my attention and draw me in as I walk through the city. Low-church Protestant that I am, the crosses I grew up with were usually empty, proclaiming a resurrection already accomplished. But in Rome the crosses are full of bodies. In the mosaics of the church of San Clemente, an emaciated Jesus hangs crucified, his disciples perched up and down the arms of the cross in the form of doves. In the church dedicated to his memory, St. Andrew hangs on his X-shaped cross while angels beat their wings above him, waiting to bestow his crown. Caravaggio's decidedly angel-less depiction of the crucifixion of St. Peter draws crowds day after day in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Here Peter is a frightened old man who looks on helplessly as workers strain to lift his aging body nailed on an upside-down cross.

All of these images offer potent Good Friday meditations. But the cross that's struck me the most during these weeks of Lent is not drawing big crowds. It's a small marble cross that my daughter and I came upon in a corner of the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia. My Blue Guide calls it the least-visited museum in Rome, but it is full of amazing things--large, painted sculptures of Mary and her child, a dreamlike depiction of the vision of St. Bernard, a painting of Jesus arguing with those who want to stone a woman accused of adultery, and an altar piece with a Virgin of Mercy sheltering a crowd of people under her mantle, including a group of flagellants.

The marble cross caught my attention because it holds the Madonna and child. The 15th-century artist Andrea Guardi communicates in marble the warm tangle of their intimacy: the baby's chubby leg slung across his mother's arm, her hand on his knee. …

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