While we were in Rome, PJ and I visited the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m not quite sure now what I expected. Gold plated everything, I’m sure. I knew that the Vatican has an unparalleled art collection, but it was hard to imagine how a religious institution is also a museum.

I’m not nor have I ever been a Catholic. I do love following papal successions, though the only one so far that I’ve actually followed live is Pope Benedict’s ascension to the papacy. During that process, I read as much as I could about popes and conclaves and the history of each. As a side note, I have to say that I expected a great quantity and a much greater quality of scholarship on these topics than I actually found. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough, but what I found wasn’t very good. Are historians not going into papal history anymore?

We decided to visit the Vatican on Wednesday morning. We read that it’s easier to get into the museum during the Pope’s weekly audiences, which turned out to be true. We practically just walked right in.

One of the first things you see in the Vatican Museums is this lovely lady:

This is part of the Vatican’s collection of Egyptian artifacts, but it seems like a really bizarre way to start visitors through the collection. If I were in charge, I think I would arrange the art and artifacts in a more religiously thematic way. Otherwise, the Vatican Museum ends up seeming just like any other museum, which seems fine to me, but I would think that the Church would want to use it for more religious purposes. But I guess not!

The Vatican Museums have a lot of statuary. One of their most famous pieces is the Apollo Belvedere:

What sounds out to me about this statue is that is demonstrates that not all of the men have been covered with fig leaves (though this one’s lost his manhood over time!). Rick Steve’s Guide to Rome points out that all of the fig leaves could be removed at any time, since they’re just plastered on. He suggests that patrons suggest that the Vatican remove the remaining ones.

Here’s another nude, and a better example to prove the point, a statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa:

But lots of the men are wearing fig leaves. This picture is one of my favorites from our trip. I don’t actually remember what the statue is of, but I love the angle of this picture:

The museums also have a lot of tapestries. Not only was this next work my favorite tapestry it was also my favorite image of Christ. It’s of the resurrection.

I like that this Jesus is muscular and even a little Abercrombie and Fitch. He needs a tan, but he’s definitely a more robust, athletic Christ than many of the Medieval depictions we saw during this trip. I also love the vibrancy of the red and gold cloth covering his essentials.

What I liked most about the Vatican Museums was their eighteenth-century ceilings, like this one:

These ceilings approach my expectations of everything being gilded, but they are beautifully so. The intricate patterns and images on the ceilings are amazing. Some of the ceilings have fake three-dimensional art painted on them, tricking the eye into thinking that they are reliefs. Again, all I can say is that they’re amazing!

Here’s a golden one:

Of course the Vatican’s painting collection is amazing too. This work, The School of Athens, is huge:

It depicts various classical philosophers and rhetoricians of Athens but with a twist: Raphael casts his fellow Renaissance artists and thinkers as these classical figures. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, stands in for Plato. Raphael himself also makes an appearance. He’s on our far right in the black beret.

We also visited the Sistine Chapel, of course. You’re not allowed to take pictures in the chapel, so I didn’t (though the prohibition didn’t stop lots of other people). Michelangelo’s paintings are wonderful to see in person, of course. One of the things that stood out to me is how relatively small the chapel is. I also recalled that the convocation of cardinals that selects the pope meets in the Sistine Chapel. It was mind-blowing to sit in this room and think about all that’s happened in it over the years.

One last work that I really liked in the Vatican’s collection of paintings is one of St. Sebastian attributed to Girolamo da Sermoneta Siciolante. The picture I took of it didn’t come out very well, so here’s one I found on the internet, though it’s not much better:

One of the things that I’ve always wondered is why St. Sebastian images have become such a gay icon. We saw lots of Sebastians on this trip, so I had lots of opportunity to think about it. This painting kind of answered the question for me. This one, painted in the sixteenth century, seems much more erotic than many of the Medieval ones. This Sebastian has muscles and his loincloth seems to be covering something rather than just a part of the iconography. I’m not ready to start collecting them, but this St. Sebastian makes me understand the gay fascination with this image a little better.

From the museum we went around the block to St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. Here a picture of the basilica I took while still inside the museum:

Here’s a closer look:

Here’s my pic of the Pope’s apartments:

Again, I remember watching CNN during Pope John Paul II’s final hours while the cameras were zoomed in on the window here. It was crazy to be standing in St. Peter’s Square almost right below the window.

The statues you see in the above picture are of saints. Here’s a closer look at a few of them:

Here’s one of my pictures of the Swiss Guards:

I was surprised that they weren’t sexier. If I were the pope, I would demand more attractive guards! (That’s probably one of many reasons why I would never be pope!)

Here’s the famous porch on the front of St. Peter’s Basilica:

Again, it was difficult to fathom being this close to such a historically important spot. They should sell tickets to let people stand up there and wave to the crowds below!

This is my picture of the inside of the basilica itself:

I was trying to be a little arty, but I don’t think I achieved that effect. PJ wanted to go up in the basilica, but I absolutely refused. It was humongous and really high up. I’m pretty sure I would have just fainted if we had done it. I guess I should have at least tried, but I felt faint just thinking about it. I also almost hyperventilated in St. Paul’s Cathedral once; this is much higher and bigger than that.

One of my favorite parts of St. Peter’s Basilica was seeing Pope John XXIII’s body:

Apparently, when he was undergoing the beatification process, they decided to take a look at his body, which was so well preserved that they decided to move him into the main sanctuary. I couldn’t help but contrast it to the Egyptian mummy in the museum.

This monument stands on the site where St. Peter was supposed to have been crucified:

And finally, the last work of art I took a picture of  is Michelangelo’s Pieta:

We saw lots of these too in Italy, two by Michelangelo while we were on this trip. This one was probably my favorite.

All in all, I enjoyed our visit to the Vatican. We also walked down the road and looked at the Pope’s fortress, Castel Sant’Angelo. We didn’t go in, but the fortress itself looked good:

By that time, we were getting tired and needed to back to our hotel for a nap. It’s a huge difference between looking at ancient ruins and looking at the Vatican’s art collection and buildings. It just goes to show how much Rome has to offer!

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