One of the most remarkable things about Rome was the fact that almost every other narrow street would open upon a decorated plaza with at least one beautiful church on the corner; and oftentimes a relatively small church would house some fantastic work of art. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, for instance, was practically hidden away in a tiny church on a street that had no less than three churches on it.
However, though Rome is filled with beautiful churches, cathedrals, and basilicas galore, certain ones stand out for being exceptionally grand and lovely. St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran–most of these names will ring a bell, not only to Catholics but to everyone who has an inkling of appreciation for what is beautiful in art and architecture. Walking into one of these churches immediately impresses on the observer a feeling of awe and reverence, of humility in the presence of something far greater than oneself. The sheer size of these places is of such fantastic dimensions and filled with such overwhelming beauty that jaws automatically dropped as we walked inside.
In St. Mary Major, for instance, the ceiling was carefully designed, three dimensional baroque patterns of solid gold; stunning paintings hung everywhere, along the walls were many beautiful side altars and chapels. Above all, I loved the little crypt, where a golden Child Jesus lay upon the rough remains of what, tradition says, is the manger of Bethlehem. (How fitting, I thought! The crib belongs in no place better than Mary’s special church in Rome!)
In St. Paul Outside the Walls, there are vast mosaics across the dome and ceiling above the sanctuary, so painstakingly pieced together that they look like virtually flawless paintings, and fashioned in colors so bright and vivid they catch and hold the wandering eye, inducing reverent contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. There are columns of gigantic proportions, marbled floors of incredible design, windows made of alabaster cut so thin that a soft golden glow shines through them.
In St. John Lateran, the walls were lined with colossal statues of the Twelve Apostles, full of movement and so lifelike–with billowing cloaks, and muscular arms, and stunning details like veins on the hands and feet, wrinkles and strands of hair–that they seemed like living Titans caught in an eternal climactic moment. Some figures that impressed me especially were St. Andrew, strong and powerful, clutching his gigantic X-shaped cross, the instrument of his martyrdom; St. Matthew, former tax-collector, symbolized his abandonment of worldly goods for the sake of Christ by carelessly trampling a bag of gold, and the huge coins realistically spilling out of the statue’s niche; St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, holding out his own limp hide, his face visible upon it, as if to say “This I suffered for Christ.
In all these churches, there were so many beautiful things to see that we could hardly absorb it all, taking into consideration the short time we were able to spend in each place. Everything was beautiful, everything was stunning, everything seemed to rise higher and shine brighter and look luminously more splendid than anything I had seen before. (Even the holy water fonts were epic-looking: giant shell shapes with countless dramatic baroque curls swelling up from their edges like frozen waves.) This was not, however, just a sight-seeing tour; not a trip just to look at pretty things. The churches were not built for the sake of being beautiful, for making generations marvel at the artists and artisans who designed them. In each church, the message was clear: This is for the glory of God. Look up! Raise your eyes to Heaven! Praise Him! It was with unmistakable clarity that one could see why these churches were built: to imitate–and therefore praise–the glory of God and raise the minds and hearts of the faithful to Him. It is impossible to walk into such a church and not feel the urge to fall to your knees and worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose glory exceeds all the wonders around you, the loving God who gave us eyes to see such things and minds and hands to fashion them.
That being said, there was one other nagging impression in the back of my mind as I softly treaded such sacred floors: those churches make our American modern-built churches look like something assembled by a ten year old out of cardboard. Well, perhaps that gives them too much credit. A ten year old at least knows how to draw a regular, traditional shape like a cross or a square. To compare the mind-blowing beauty of the churches in Rome built generations ago by people who hardly had running water and had never even dreamed of electricity to the latest church built in America with power tools and diocesan funding was, to say the least, depressing. The so-called “Cathedral” in Oakland looks like a big upside down coffee-cup next to these churches. Still, I thank God I had the chance to see such beautiful churches as I did in Rome.
As we left Rome and passed through the panoramic Italian countryside, another thought occurred to me. Those churches were astounding, incomparable, exquisitely lovely. Man has built nothing more beautiful. Yet, the greatest achievement of man in the field of art and architecture comes no where near to the glory of God displayed in His creation. He covers the sky in beauty morn and eve; He makes every droplet of water sparkle when touched with light, He shapes towering mountains with the palm of His hand, scatters monumental clouds across the sky in fabulous patterns, stirs the thunderous waves of the ocean; He wills each tiny wildflower strewn across our path in the hope that one human soul might look upon it and be reminded of His love.