As I write this post, I am sitting with my back to a column of the Vatican colonnade, with St. Peter’s square and Basilica before me. I wasn’t supposed to be here right now. I set out promptly at 6:00 for the general area of the Spanish Steps in search of the Anglo-American bookstore. Google Maps said the walk would take 30 minutes. After 50 minutes of veritable speed-walking, I was still only approaching my destination. The store closes at 7, so I turned back and crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo.
As I crossed the bridge, the omnipresent dome of St. Peter’s grabbed my attention and hypnotized me – as it is wont to do. Before I knew it, I was walking as if in a dream down the long corridor of Via della Conciliazione.
Now I sit in the square with a gray dusk closing up the day. The sky behind the dome is a smoky cloud with streaks of faintly golden-blue sky, creating an almost frightening effect. The columns of the key-shaped colonnade hem me in and the statues above me look like they’re jeering.
Why do I wax so dismal in this place of pilgrimage? Upon my first visit to the Vatican I was struck almost to my knees by the sheer grandeur and beauty of the place. It was a religious experience that taught me humility. Last Sunday I came here again for the 11:30 Mass, and was struck instead by a sort of disillusion. Throngs of gawking tourists trampled the ground of the Basilica, gnawing at the grandeur like it was Harry Potter World. I felt betrayed and insulted. It was as if a sacred icon had been spat upon.
On this third return, I feel something entirely new. You see, St. Peter’s isn’t really a Church. If you want a Church, check out the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. It’s not really a Patriarchate; if you want a Patriarchate, go see the sad memory of the Hagia Sophia. It’s not really a holy place or shrine; for that, see the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It’s not even a palace or a capitol – it doesn’t quite fit with Versailles or Washington, D.C. – although perhaps here it comes closer. It’s not anything anyone might mention. What is it?
It’s a war memorial.
It’s a victory monument.
It’s the Arc de Triomphe of Christianity.
Just look at the thing. It looks more like Vittorio Emmanuele’s infamous “birthday cake” than a basilica. It’s like a Taj Mahal with an Alamo façade. Amidst the saint statues that adorn the colonnade, one might squint and easily imagine an Iwo Jima statue among them. The stony Christ wields his cross with one hand like Samson bearing the Philistine gate, John the Baptist beside him clutches a herald’s banner reminiscent of Constantinian conquest, and nearby St. Andrew cocks the instrument of his martyrdom like a Grease gun, a Rambo to keep the crowd in line. And this is as it should be.
One symbol in particular stands out among the war trophies: lonely in the center of the plane, the tethered phallic symbol of the Egyptian obelisk looks almost like a serpent with its head emerging from the earth, only to be crushed back down by the cross strapped atop it. This basilisk obelisk crouches here in submission, forced to witness to an event from long ago that it wishes it hadn’t seen. It is literally a monument of ancient Rome, and was physically there to watch the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter. Now it is a prisoner of war. It has become a sign of its own shame, like the humiliated barbarians when they were force-marched under the victory arches of their Roman captors. The arms of the colonnade welcome all peoples into the square, but then hold them there to force upon them the spectacle: the serpentine Egyptian glyphs no longer speak of Gnostic secrets and daemonic names, but of a tiny cross – a tiny cross crushing down the whole gargantuan history of paganism.
This place is not Christ’s tabernacle, nor a cave of his mysteries. It is not an intimate place because it cannot be anything but a public spectacle. This isn’t the inner mysteries of mystical consummation with the Divine, but the public, democratic, universal, catholic, revolutionary, rebellious, underdog, common, simple, obvious, blatant, exoteric fact of Christ’s complete and worldwide victory over the physical and spiritual world. No mystery here because that would defeat the purpose.
The rock of Peter – the foundation of Christianity – isn’t a hermetic code for the mystically inclined, but an obnoxiously loud Gospel for all people to hear.