Rome: through the eyes of a pilgrim

Rome. Home of pasta, the Pantheon and the Pope. Here are the Colosseum where gladiators fought for fame, fortune or survival, and the Circus Maximus where Nero used early Christians as human torches for evening festivities. A bundle of contradictions, this ancient historical city is also a modern metropolis where anything you want is at your fingertips. I’ve wanted to visit Rome for some time, and finally, at the outset of my third year living in Belgium, I managed to get there.

Of course I wanted to see The Big Three: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Collage Big Three

Biggest disappointment: the Colosseum. Huge and, ahem, colossal, but truly in ruins inside. Nevertheless, the gravity of all that happened there made an impact as I wandered through with the crowds. Twelve euros but if you buy a Roma Pass, you can get in free. Most surprising: the Pantheon, which I found completely by accident when looking for a restaurant for dinner.

Grandest: Saint Peter’s. Besides housing Michelangelo’s stunning Pietà (be prepared to be taken aback by this beautiful piece of Mary mourning her dead son), the place is massive, from the soaring ceilings and thirteen foot statues to the seven feet wide ribbon that runs along the ceiling containing the recorded words of Christ to Peter, like “upon this rock” (meaning Peter) “I will build my church, and the powers of hell won’t overcome it.” And the piece de resistance? The tomb of the Saint is under the crypt, below the basilica! (Take a deep breath, and then let it out slowly: WOW.) I was disappointed that you can’t actually see his tomb; but I walked by the spot that is over it (it is well-marked) and for me, it was enough to release some gratitude and admiration for the fisherman turned apostle and friend of the Lord. Free, but not easy; there are a lot of crowds.

The places I desperately wanted to see, however, did not disappoint this pilgrim. I was looking for historical relics of my faith, and I found them. In spades.

San Giovanni in Laterano was the first Christian church building in Rome. Dedicated in 324 and named for John the Baptist, it is the official cathedral of Rome and the home church of the Popes, and it even contains the chair the new pope sits on upon being named. It also has a giant statue of Emperor Constantine, under whom Roman Christians were finally free from persecution, and the towering main doors were salvaged from the Curia, or Imperial Senate. High over the altar are impressive and highly detailed mosaics. And if all that isn’t enough, the church contains two important  and oft-disputed relics: the heads of Saints Peter and Paul.

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

The soaring interior leading to the altar

The soaring interior leading to the altar

Collage San Giov4

The glorious mosaics, housing the relics, and the papal seat

Across the street from San Giovanni in Laterno is the next stop: La scala santa. The Holy Stairs are the very steps Christ climbed in the very early morning, after he was arrested and beaten prior to his crucifixion. It was at the top of these stairs somewhere that Pilate asked our Lord, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Made of stone, they have been covered with wood and contain little glass-covered holes that you can look into and see what are purported to be drops of the Savior’s blood. The stairs were transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem by Helena, mother of Constantine. If you want to climb them, you can, but only on your knees, and only if you’re prepared to pray on each step. The only cost to do this is paid in knee pain.

Italy Scala Santa (2)   Italy Scala Santa (3)

I didn’t climb them. I considered it, but then I thought about my right meniscus surgery. And so I didn’t. The events of that night and early morning hang like dew in the air of that place though, and they demanded a right response; for me, the response was to pray, and so I did.

Next on the list: San Paolo Fuori le Mura, or Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. As the name suggests, this church sits outside the ancient city’s walls. Also original to Constantine and the fourth century, it is one hundred percent new since the nineteenth century, after being destroyed by fire. But it is one hundred percent worth seeing for one reason: it contains the supposed remains of the great writer of much of the New Testament, Saint Paul. This visit moved me even more than I had imagined. Paul is arguably Christianity’s most influential human outside of Jesus, and Jesus is also God, so that gave Him quite an advantage. And I’m not sure I need to say “arguably” up there; he may have written as many as fourteen of the twenty-seven books of New Testament, for goodness sake! He ultimately died for his faith, in Rome, probably under Nero, at about the same time Peter did. Paul, because he was a legal citizen of Rome, could not be crucified and so was likely beheaded.

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

Saint Paul's eternal flame, the chains that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

Saint Paul’s eternal flame, and the chain that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

Final stop on this day’s pilgrimage: San Pietro in Vincoli, or Saint Peter’s in Chains. This is an unremarkable church except for two important items. The first item, you might’ve guessed, are Saint Peter’s chains, from when he was held prisoner. The second is Michelangelo’s masterwork, Moses.

Moses was intended to be a giant tomb piece for Pope Julius II, but Michelangelo kept getting pulled away from it to work on other things. He loved this particular work and you can really tell he did when you see it. Moses sits in the middle, holding the stone commandments, and he is depicted as he might have looked after just seeing the Israelites with their golden calf. His tensed leg, preparing him to rise, his arm reaching across his body, and his flowing beard all suggest motion. He is flanked by Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. The visit to the church is free but do take a euro to put into the slot so the lights come on and you can see it fully. (Hey, we all gotta make a living!)

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

Detail on the chains' case, the chains, painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Detail on the chains’ case, the chains themselves, and a painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Peter’s chains themselves are protected by a case made just for them. One of the details on the case makes reference to the death of the saint: an upside down cross. Unlike Paul, Peter was not a Roman citizen, and Christian tradition tells us that when it was apparent he was going to be crucified, he insisted that he be crucified upside down because he said he was unworthy to die like the Lord! (There is a very dark and moving painting of this in the Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.) The chains are supposedly two sets: one, the set that held him when in Mamertine Prison in Rome; the others, those which held him in Jerusalem. The latter would be the very set from which the angel released him, a story recorded in Acts chapter 12.

Seeing Peter’s chains was very moving for me, as was seeing Paul’s tomb and the Holy Stairs. I know it’s hard for some to believe the relics are actually real, and I understand that there is the distinct possibility that many of them are not what they are claimed to be. Nevertheless, the possibility that they actually are real affects me, and my introspective nature takes over; I think about the person associated with the item and what they mean to my life today, and hopefully these thoughts translate into actions and make me a better person.

There were too many places in Rome that I wanted to see; I didn’t have time or they turned out to be not worth the visit. For example, Mamertine prison, where Paul was almost certainly held, and where some believe Peter also was kept before his death. But I read in a guide that I like a lot, Rome by Rick Steves, the prison isn’t worth seeing anymore; it’s owned by a tour bus company and the artefacts were not preserved. Too bad; Paul did a lot of writing there. But perhaps it’s best; too much introspection isn’t good for one’s mood!

All the churches had extravagant nativity scene. My favorite was the one at San Pietro in Vincoli because it was simple and colorful. Maybe you’ll like it, too.

San Pietro in vinculo (11)


About Sunny

I'm an American with a Spanish heart, and one foot in France. But both feet are in Belgium, along with the rest of me.
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4 Responses to Rome: through the eyes of a pilgrim

  1. Katherine Armitage says:

    We spent several days in Rome about 3 years ago. Loved our visits to many of the places you mention, except for the Vatican where crowds were just too, too much on the day we visited for one to see anything other than all the colorful flags tour guides held high to keep their groups together. We stayed at a very small hotel (8 rooms) just across the river from the Vatican–so got a lot of good walking in around and about. Happy 2015! Love, Katherine

  2. Peter says:

    This was a very special post. I thoroughly enjoyed the photos but your commentary made the experience very real to me. I’ve never been and probably never will but you’ve brought me some vicarious pleasure. Thank you very much.

    • Sunny says:

      Aw, come on, Peter — there’s no reason you “probably never will” visit Rome or anywhere else you want to go. The world is smaller than you think. I’m glad you liked the post. Yes, it was special to me, too. It’s extremely moving to be in places that hold history that is so important to you personally. Thank you for reading. And for commenting.

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