Vatican’t

The overwhelming nature of the Vatican Museums and my fundamental inability to understand Catholicism.

Hall of MapsI’ve got to admit I just don’t “get” Catholicism. I was raised going to southern Pentacostal churches — where “Halloween” had to be renamed the “Harvest Festival” and grown men and women would suddenly stand up in the middle of services and begin speaking in tongues — and I still think that all the Signs of the Cross and rosaries and Latin and standing up and sitting down and those swingy smoky ball things are a little weird.

But as I understand it: the Pope is supposed to be something of a manifestation of the Holy Spirit here on Earth, and the Vatican is a visible representation of the power of the Catholic Church (and by extension, Christianity). I’m sure that’s an insulting or possibly sacrilegious over-simplification. But now that I’ve been there, and the Holy See is now the Holy Seen, all I know is that Vatican City is a physical manifestation of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

I avoided going anywhere on the Vatican side of the river on Easter Sunday, to avoid what I was sure was going to be an obscenely enormous mass of humanity. (A couple at the hotel assured me afterwards that it was every bit as crowded as I’d expected. They’d been to New Year’s Eve in Times Square and still hadn’t seen as many people gathered in one place). Still, even on an “off” day, the place had more humans than it could support. I quickly gave up on the idea of getting inside St. Peter’s Basilica, since the lines circled over halfway around the entire plaza. The Pieta will only exist in pictures for me.

Besides, I was really there to see the Vatican Museums. Even with two separate tour books in hand, I still had to ask someone for directions. As it turns out, you have to leave St. Peter’s plaza and walk around the outside of the walls to find the entrance to the building that used to be just a few hundred feet away. It felt like miles, but Google Maps tells me it was just about a kilometer and I should stop whining already. I kept thinking back to what the narration on the tour bus had said — that Vatican Hill was the site where hundreds of Christians were burned to light a Roman banquet — and I felt undeservedly martyred and somehow vindicated. Two thousand years later, and Rome is still torturing Christians: first by burning them, and now by making the chubby and sedentary ones walk marginally inconvenient distances.


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The museum itself seems like a structure designed not so much to display works of art as to drive people from the street into the Sistine Chapel. You’re given one choice at the beginning, letting you take a brief diversion to see some medieval-era religious art, but once you get back on the “main” route, you’re in a line behind tour groups fifty-or-sixty strong all plodding towards The Only Ceiling They’ve Made Movies About.

My first impression was that it was a disappointingly low-rent display, with a hallway of statuary open to the air, each one of them presumably a priceless work of antiquity, but jumbled together as if they simply didn’t have room to keep it all. As it turned out, this was just the warm-up. You soon end up in increasingly ornate and overpowering halls, with each alcove containing something priceless. I’m told that the palaces, chapels, museums and churches of Europe were built on the assumption that displays of wealth == displays of power, and the hallways of the Vatican Museums all seemed to designed to deliver the message Don’t Mess With the Roman Catholic Church.

After a stretch of this, you’re given the option to stray from the path and check out the ancient Egyptian and Etruscan museums. I skipped the Egyptian section — impressive, no doubt, but I had a Greek and Roman theme going, and I didn’t want to have to adjust to something else that I didn’t have enough historical context to appreciate. I got back on the route to the Sistine Chapel, and it’s around there that the whole thing reaches a tipping point. What had been an overwhelming but majestic display crossed the line and became frankly ridiculous.

It becomes a stretch of one impossibly large hallway after the other, the entire space crammed with details fighting for attention. It’s not just the case that there’s no time to stop and think; it’s actually dangerous to. You can look at the ceiling and realize that any one of these paintings was probably a person’s master-work, the thing that his entire life was building up to. And that there are hundreds of these in this hall alone, and no indication of how many hallways are left to go.

And at the end of each hall, a sign drawing you forward towards the Sistine Chapel. There’s no real pretense that you’re here to see anything else; from the moment you walk through the ticket area, there are arrows pointing you towards the Main Attraction. At first, I’d been disappointed, because I naively believed that the “Sistine Chapel ahead” sign meant that it was just in the next room — but that was before an hour and a half of Halls of Maps and Halls of Tapestries and Halls of Mentholyptus (probably not real; I quickly lost track). It didn’t take long for me to hit the point of saying “okay I get it just get me to the Cappella Sistina already,” but there was still a long way to go.

And the museums don’t seem to get the idea of a “climax,” either, since they keep throwing more ornately-decorated rooms of impossibly priceless art at you after you’ve seen the Sistine Chapel. I’ve no doubt I walked briskly through masterworks of incalculable value, ignoring everything except for the one sign that said “uscita.”

One of the only sections of the museum that had been pointed out to me before-hand was the “Raphael Rooms”. In any other environment, they’d probably be a highlight, but here they just seem like a last obstacle towards the final destination. At least when I was there, they were kept dark and cave-like, and there wasn’t enough space for all the tourists to get through comfortably. So we just plodded on, following the arrow.

And just when you think you’re close, the Vatican Museums throw one last curve-ball at you: a long series of stark white rooms off the main path, each a gallery for 20th century religious art. These got the biggest disservice of all, ripped of any context they might’ve had and positioned as one last hurdle before the finish line. Especially after seeing hundreds if not thousands of master-works of representational and realistic art, attempts to present the Crucifixion or the Resurrection or the Assumption of the Virgin in a modern style just come across as sketchy, amateurish, or downright ugly.

Then finally, the Main Event. There are countless signs and notes and pictures and other reminders that photography isn’t allowed in the Sistine Chapel. I haven’t seen a rule so blatantly and casually ignored since “SPEED LIMIT 6 IN GARAGE.” Walking into the chapel is like walking through a mass of paparazzi where someone forgot to lay down a red carpet. Blinding flashes going off all around you, hands holding digital cameras and video cameras and phone cameras all stretched towards the ceiling. You’re also reminded to keep the noise down, but there was a roar of voices louder than at Grand Central Station. Every language known to humanity was being spoken; I’d swear I overheard people talking in Klingon and FORTRAN. I didn’t talk or take pictures; even if they were going to ignore the rules, I was going to stick to them if only on principle.

There was plenty of security making its way through the crowd, doing nothing to enforce the “no pictures” or “keep it quiet” rules. It’s not that they were bored, since their eyes were darting everywhere. I’m guessing that, like me, they were just simply overwhelmed. I’d seen such an excess of art by that point that you couldn’t get my attention with anything less than an entire ceiling painted by Michaelangelo. Even then, I didn’t really care, because I was too exhausted to do much more than say “I was here” and then head back to where I could get an internet connection and really see the painting. I think that the guards had stopped looking for the small-time offenders and were just concentrating on finding people with cans of spray paint or bombs. There’s not much more that they could’ve done, since there were simply too many people.

And to that I say: Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you guys made birth control a sin.

4 thoughts on “Vatican’t”

  1. I have a couple-three “I read it somewhere” things that I’ve heard about modern Catholicism (as opposed to the kind that was all Inquisition-y) that I think are pretty cool.

    1) It’s explicitly non-fundamentalist. It acknowledges that much of the canonical texts are allegorical and not historic.
    2) As a corollary, it suggests that the Bible can be studied as a means of contemplating deeper truths, and that its primary utility is not as a means of validating rigidly regressive proscriptions of human behavior. (Nutty Catholic ideas on birth control, etc., notwithstanding, one of the reasons Obama was able to get some support from Catholics is that at least some of them try to see the big picture. I.e. they believe helping the poor is more essentially religious than, say, picketing abortion clinics.)
    3) The current Pope, while apparently more interested in being separatist than inclusive towards other religions, nonetheless does so from a pretty deep analysis of his faith, and makes interesting arguments about it. For instance, he caused a kerfuffle by saying Islam and Catholicism were fundamentally irreconcilable. Not politic, to say the least. But his argument was intriguing, to me: as I understand it, he said that whereas one of Islam’s central ideas is that God is unknowable, and therefore unquestioning submission to Islam is the only true path for believers, modern Catholicism holds that intellectual inquiry can be useful in deepening faith. In essence, one religion forbids thought while the other advocates it, so how can you believe both to be valid? That’s a much more sophisticated argument than “our God’s the real God and yours isn’t,” not to mention one that even atheists could see some merit in. It’s a pedantic point, sure, and probably actually harmful to the cause of peace on Earth, but also, you know, interesting.

    Of course, there’s also the other thing I’ve heard, which is that these are fairly sophisticated points, and not widespread. Many Catholics may not even be aware of them, making those individuals, in practice, hardly distinct from fundamentalists.

    So that’s a lengthy ramble about stuff I maybe know about the Catholic faith. Not that you asked.

  2. My favorite part in the Vatican museum was the ancient Sumerian pottery fragments that they labeled as being 9000 years old. But wait! I thought you said earth was only 4000 years old!

  3. Cory: wrong religious denomination. Modern Cathlolicism does not view the Bible as an infallible document, and doesn’t make any anti-scientific claims based on it. Go talk to the Protestants about that stuff.

    Chuck: after posting an insanely irrelevant digression, I realize you weren’t talking about “getting” Catholicism on any theological level. You meant the pointy hats.

    I don’t know anything about those pointy hats.

  4. Heh. It sounds like you wanted the Vatican to have a Level Designer go over your experience a little. 🙂

    Your post reminded me a little of my thoughts while visiting the Uffizi in Florence. Maybe we Americans are too used to the MET or Chicago Art Institute.

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