When visiting Rome, especially on your first visit, it’s highly likely that you’ll want to step a foot (or two) into the world’s smallest sovereign country – Vatican City. Vatican City has the Pope as its head of state (both politically and religiously), and is the home of the Roman Catholic Church. While I’m sure it’s less busy at other times of year, we had the (good and bad) fortune of visiting on Christmas Eve. After we booked our flights to Rome the first thing I looked into was getting an early morning tour of the Vatican, with early access to the Sistine Chapel. I wanted to get the most of the experience here, and it was the only tour I booked for our week in the city. Early Christmas Eve morning we woke up, and walked in the twilight along the banks of the Tiber for 40 minutes to meet our guide outside the Vatican City walls. We were in a small group of 12, and entered into the museum first to get our tickets. Groups with these tickets have early access – which I thought meant the museum would be empty – but it just meant that us and the other two dozen tour companies with this special privilege were doing the same thing. I learned later that this was WAY less busy than the museum could be, but still by no means empty.
When we entered the Vatican museums we booked it straight for the Sistine Chapel (named after Pope Sixtus IV, who had the chapel restored). Like I mentioned above, we paid for this early tour for the less crowded experience, which still meant sharing the chapel with 100 other people. However, we were able to get a seat along the edge of the wall and take in Michaelangelos famed work (most famous?) – The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. A few years later he came back and painted The Last Judgment. These are not the only frescos in the chapel – other artists continubuted pieces along the side about the life of Moses and life of Christ (a dozen or so different pieces). And while lovely, it’s the ceiling that steals the show. The Creation of Adam may be the most famous part of the ceiling – the iconic image of God reaching out to touch index fingers to Adam – to bring the spark of life to him. That connection between God and man. I had always imagined it larger actually. But it is one of dozens of panels and dozens of people on the ceiling – it would be easy to mis it if you didn’t know what you were looking for. And yet it is captivating. That’s the great thing about Michelangelo – he saw the stories different. How he interpreted the human side of the biblical stories is seen in his art – as is the more muscular nature of man. He spent 4 years atop of scaffolding painting into plaster and waiting for it to dry – knowing that there was no fixing his work once it had. Painting frescos is tricky business. The entire ceiling is an amazing story, and I won’t recount it here – but wikipedia does a great job if you are interested (see here). This is the one room on our tour that allowed no photos and asks for silence. Guides can talk before and after, but not while in the chapel, and while many tourists try to take stealthy photos on their iPhones while walking through, if the guards see you, there will be yelling. About every 60 seconds someone comes over a loud speaker saying “Silence” – seems even tourist whispers are too much rumbling for their liking. The Sistine Chapel, while famous for its art, is also where the conclave meets to elect a new pope, with the famous fire place sending up white or black smoke after each vote. We only got to spend about 10 minutes inside before we left – but there was so much else to see.
Our guide then took us back into the museum, and toured us through select galleries – focusing on sculptures, the hall of maps, and my favourite, Raphael’s The School of Athens. There is a series of frescos, representing philosophy (including the aspects of science, theology, art and music). The painting is full of philosophers, including the greats: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There is also Pythagoras, what may possibly be daVinci, a likely self-portrait of Raphael, and one mystery character that may or may not be the pope’s nephew (also the source of the word nepotism). As I was standing there listening to the guide explain the nuances of this portrait I found myself more and more intrigued with the story it was trying to tell. Over the past decade I have grown to love art more and more, and this piece may just be a new favourite of mine.
We spent about 90 minutes of our time touring the main halls – but this is just a fraction of what is needed to see everything the Vatican has to offer. After we cut back through the Sistine Chapel, with line ups to get in and tourists packed shoulder to shoulder. While pushing through the crowds we lost 2 members of our tour group. At the exist of the Chapel, most people will head left, back into the museum, but there is a “groups-only” exist to the right, that is a short cut right into St. Peter’s Basilica. While they only allow groups to go this way, if you were to linger carefully behind one, you may be able to take this short cut as well – and it would save the 20 minute walk around the city walls to get there. We finished our tour inside St. Peter’s.
St. Peter’s is one of the largest and most famous churches in the world. It was designed by Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno – an architectural wonder and work of art in and of itself. It was consecrated in 1626, though various churches have been build on this same spot for centuries before it, in fact, since the time of Constantine. According to Catholic tradition, this is the burial site of St. Peter (hence the name). According to Catholic belief, Matthew 16 tells of Jesus handing over the keys to the kingdom to Peter (a famous painting inside the Sistine Chapel portrays this scene), making Peter the keeper of the keys and the first Bishop of Rome, or Pope (though he never actually bore the title of Pope). The church itself was build through funds raised by selling indulgences – the reduction of penance for sins or time in purgatory given due to a good work, such as a monetary donation to the church. Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, wrote a letter against such action (not just money collected for St. Peter’s construction, but indulgences in general), and eventually wrote 95 theses that he nailed to a door of the church in the town of Wittenberg, Germany. This was the start of the Reformation, and protestantism. It became very clear to us on our tour that there is not much love for protestants – in fact – it’s almost as if using the “P” word is forbidden on the property (or so it seemed from our tour guide!) We were glad to have a guide though – as we learned so much about not just the history of the Catholic church, but which items within the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica held the most importance to them.
St. Peter’s is a beautiful church, rich in Catholic history and in art. Michelangelo’s Pieta is there – one of his earlier statues, showing mother Mary holding adult Jesus after the cruxifixction. It was one of the few pieces he carved his name into. There is a crypt in the basement, with the tombs of past Pope’s, and, if you reserve a private tour, a visit to St. Peter’s (alleged) tomb himself. The cupola (the dome) is beautiful, and, because it was Christmas, the most beautiful nativity was set up inside the doors. Pope Francis had declared this a Jubilee year, and opened the Jubilee door – so there were many Catholics on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s, walking through the stations of the cross, ending at the alter in the front of the church. In addition to this, it was Christmas eves, to a group of cardinals, bishops and priests were setting up and preparing for the evenings service. The lines for confession – in 4 different languages – were long, and of course, tourists of all religions were huddled together listening to their whispering tour guides to get a sense of all St. Peter’s had to offer.
If you are a people watcher, as I am, St. Peter’s is a treat. While it is definitly flooded with tourists from all walks of life, it is evident how much more it means to those of the Catholic faith. So whether you enter through the Jubilee door, or the one to the left or the side, there is something special to be seen at St. Peter’s.