Modern Ambiguity Amid Baroque Splendor

We are all familiar with the truism that a picture is worth a thousand words, and there are likely few places in the world where its use is more appropriate than the Eternal City. Rome is a city of messages. To walk in centro—that is, through the historic city center—is to move figuratively through three millennia of living history. With each successive layer, a silent story is told.

In particular, the triumph of the Cross over pagan Rome is visible around almost every corner; indeed, even palpable. Perhaps the most readily identifiable monument to this triumph is the church of Santa Maria dei Martiri, more commonly known as the Pantheon.

The irony of any ancient Roman work being converted to Christian use is obvious, but the Pantheon is especially notable. Built in AD 126, it had come to be associated with all the mythical Roman deities, in a sense symbolizing the Empire in its entirety. It was standing for most of early Christian history, when the new faith was illegal and its followers endured periodic persecutions and martyrdom at the hands of that same Empire.

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After the liberation of Christianity, the Pantheon was shuttered until Pope Boniface IV converted it into a church in honor of the Blessed Mother and the martyrs in 609. To this day, one passes through the entrance portico and beholds a high altar with statues and paintings of saints around the perimeter. The powerful implicit message is unmistakable: after a peaceful triumph over her earliest persecutors, the Church has moved in and taken up permanent residence.

Aside from that which is ancient, however, there is a much later layer that is arguably even more ubiquitous in Rome; something that flamboyantly illustrates the triumph over a crisis not from without, but from within. That crisis was the deeply engrained corruption in the hierarchy that led to Martin Luther’s revolt in 1517, and the Catholic response was a period of intense self-purgation and reassertion.

Reformed and reenergized by the Council of Trent, the Church began to actively advocate for an architecture capable of overwhelming the senses and readily leaving a strong impression on the peasant masses. A brand new style evolved alongside and out of this need, and the resulting churches served as a clear message to all who encountered them: the Church had seen the error of her ways and had come back holier and stronger as a result.

This new style came to be called Baroque and is so prevalent today throughout Rome, that its significance runs the risk of being lost on modern citizens and tourists alike. However, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was truly revolutionary.

Just a five minute walk to the southeast of the Pantheon, one comes upon the hulking presence of the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù, or the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Consecrated in 1584 and familiarly known to Italians simply as Il Gesù, it is the mother church of the Jesuit order, and features what is believed to be the first truly Baroque façade.

Within Il Gesù rest the full remains of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and the commissioner of its construction; and also the right arm of St. Francis Xavier, cofounder of the order. These two saints were instrumental in responding to the Church’s call for internal recovery of holiness and orthodoxy, while simultaneously helping to refute the doctrinal errors being spread through Europe by Luther and his cohorts.

When I visited this church last year, it was, for the most part, the same as I remembered it from a decade prior when I was last in Rome. Everything about the layout flows seamlessly and harmoniously, and the hierarchy of spaces needs no explanation, because it is self-evident by the very nature of the design.

One walks in the front doors and is instantly immersed in a journey through the nave, culminating at a communion rail that encloses the high altar and tabernacle in the apse at the eastern end. With every step in that journey, exquisite decoration fills the senses, leaving vivid mental pictures of a Church that is vibrant, unified, and possesses a deeply renewed piety.

Also during this most recent visit of mine, however, something felt a bit off-putting. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was different, but as I moved further up the nave and beyond a group of tourists, the cause of my sense of discord became glaringly apparent. There, in the midst of the glorious church, sat a barren grey platform, whose texture and hollow appearance resembled that of carpeted plywood. On top of the platform sat a cube-like object serving as a communion table, flanked by a tall and thin cylindrical object serving as an ambo, and a tall slab-like object serving as the celebrant’s chair.

The entire setup was very reminiscent of a collapsible stage in a hotel conference room. Its placement showed little regard for the existing stone floor patterns, even covering parts of what appeared to be tomb slabs. The communion rail now formed the back of this new makeshift sanctuary. The true and permanent sanctuary beyond the rail now featured rows of common use chairs, presumably for a choir, which faced outward with their backs to the high altar and tabernacle.

Suddenly, that seamless and harmonious flow that I had remembered so well was muddled at the very point in the architectural journey where it mattered most. It had been interrupted by a tenuous looking insertion that seemed completely foreign to the original layout and intent of the rest of the building. The high altar, formerly the focus of all attention, was now itself a mere onlooker behind the last row of chairs.

As I took in the entirety of this new scene, I became more and more distracted and disoriented. I could not help but wonder to myself what message I was supposed to take from this. Is it that we now participate in a human-centered gathering to which God is invited as a spectator? In the Mass, are we truly stepping into the eternal mystery of our redemption; or are we folded in on ourselves for a largely symbolic act, limited only to the present moment?

It is true that all parts of the existing interior have been diligently preserved, with this single and fairly minor alteration appearing to be gently set on top of it all. Yet its presence is enough to impair the original message of the building, and the irony is astonishing. In plain sight of the remains of two great saints, instrumental in rebuking the budding theological aberrations of the protesters, now sits a centerpiece of which Luther himself would likely be proud.

To be sure, we now live in an age far enough removed from 1517 that Catholics and Protestants are friends who peacefully coexist.  Given this, it may be argued that I am reading into things.  Defenders may say that this latest layer is nothing more than a harmless practical installation for the purpose of making the liturgy more “accessible,” which could easily be dismantled without a trace at any point in the future. Still, my question remains: why is it necessary at all in the present?

Why willingly drop an ambiguous and destabilizing element into a layout that is otherwise so unquestionably clear? Is this an ecclesiastical about-face? Are we now witnessing a voluntary retreat of that victory displayed a few blocks away in the Pantheon; and the slow but sure triumph of a low church revolution over the faith of the Apostles and the Church Fathers?

Any well-catechized Catholic knows, of course, that the answer is a resounding no. However, how many nominal Catholics or non-Catholic tourists—upon witnessing this obviously alien flash of minimalism in an otherwise gorgeous house of God—begin to subconsciously believe that the ancient Church instituted by Jesus has chosen to start understanding herself as just one among many man-made contemporary Christian denominations?

Why do all of these questions even matter? They matter because the built environment is the first and possibly only exposure many people will have to the Catholic faith. Even the most articulate defense of the makeshift sanctuary addition is not capable of changing the visual fact that the worthy and majestic Baroque altars sit as largely retired museum pieces; while the sacrifice of the Lamb is manifested atop what resembles a faux finished cardboard box. As Catholics, we do not celebrate and proclaim mediocrity, so why invite such a misunderstanding?

The point is that, when words and images conflict, images always have the final say. Visually, what exactly is this latest layer of Rome telling us, and over what previous message has it triumphed? A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, this image may not convey the intended meaning.


  • Michael Tamara

    Michael Tamara is an architect who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He holds a BA in architectural studies and art history from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and an M. Arch I from Syracuse University. He studied in both Rome and Florence.

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