Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy – Part IV: The Art

So there’s probably close to a billion historically significant works of art in St. Peter’s Basilica, mostly by Italian renaissance artists who later lent their names to a ragtag group of martial arts knowing turtles. The former (unqualified) art history professor in me wants to show you some of the highlights, but I don’t really know in most cases who made what, nor do I feel like looking it all up on wikipedia and pretending I knew all along.

Unlike my previous posts, my comments about the art will appear above the photo. As if we’re on a tour and I’m speaking before you get a chance to look.

Here’s perhaps the most famous piece, Pieta by one Michaelangelo Buonarroti.

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The Baldachino by Bernini…

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One of the Apostles, who appears to have just hurled something at you.

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Followed by another Apostle, who perhaps caught what the first had hurled.

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Another Apostle (I’m crossing my fingers now hoping I photographed all four…)

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Myriad statues popping their heads out and looking around. It’s like a whole city of the biblically famous frozen in marble…

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Throne of St. Peter:

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I guess I didn’t get a photo of the fourth apostle at the dome, so we will have to travel back to Rome one day. However, upon exiting St. Peter’s you run headlong into Swiss Guard with their Halberds. Their uniforms are artful AF, aren’t they?

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So this will conclude my 4 part series on St. Peter’s Basilica. I think that anyone regardless of faith would enjoy a walk around in this church. There’s literally so much to see. If you attend a mainline Christian church, you will appreciate it from a heritage viewpoint. If not, there are all sorts of curiosities to indulge your brain. Plus the scale is just overwhelming altogether. I’d say St. Peter’s Basilica is not to be missed.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

I’m just going to jump in today on one of the most intimidating churches to write about that I can imagine, and maybe what might be, in my opinion, the most beautiful church on the planet. I’ve been avoiding writing about it because I want to make sure and do it justice, but today is the day. I’m finally going to write about La Sagrada Familia, the still under construction masterpiece of Gaudi’s in Barcelona.

Barcelona, SpainI’m not sure how anyone ever gets a picture of this magnificent church without cranes, but whatever.

One of the things I found absolutely fascinating about La Sagrada Familia was the “rough” texture of the outside of the building. As you approach it looks like the building is furry or something, but once you’re close you see that it’s all relief carvings of bible stories and stuff. Every single surface was covered with some sort of artistic display or symbolism. I believe one facade of the church is the Nativity, and the other side is the Passion.

Barcelona, SpainThe entrance we used to the church was under the Passion Facade

Barcelona, SpainMore of the Passion Facade

Barcelona, SpainEven the floor you walk upon in the entry is used to tell the story

The exterior of the church is fantastic, but the real size of the place really smacks you right in the face when you walk through the doors and feel the upward vertical pull of the ceilings, and the brilliantly colored light from the massive stained glass windows wash over you. I wasn’t exactly religious at the time that we visited La Sagrada Familia, but I was definitely moved when we went inside. I did have to ask myself Where did Gaudí get such inspiration? because it plainly seemed supernatural.

Barcelona, SpainThe heights inside La Sagrada Familia are truly dizzying, and it feels so organic with the tree-like columns

Barcelona, SpainThe amount and variation of color in the light in this place is otherworldly

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La Sagrada Familia is perhaps the brightest church I’ve ever set foot in

Barcelona, SpainThe very bright choir of La Sagrada Familia

Aside from the absolutely beautiful, bright, and airy design aesthetic, the building houses some amazingly beautiful art. Of course, Catalonia produced some of the best artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe you haven’t heard of them before. Guys like Picasso and Dalí. Oh yeah, those guys. Spain as a whole, and particularly Catalonia have such a rich art tradition that of course the art work in the most artful church on the planet would be amazing, right?

Barcelona, SpainEven Christ himself is beautifully artistically rendered in La Sagrada Familia

So in La Sagrada familia we have dizzying heights, beautiful light, and great art. Gaudí was clearly a masterful architect. He was also clearly a man with great faith that allowed him to still devote a huge portion of his life to the construction of a church, even though his own lifestyle was not accepted by the church. What kind of inspiration leads someone to so perfectly design every detail of such a huge space? I guess one of the things I love about church and cathedral hopping is that it always leaves me with more questions than answers.

Barcelona, SpainI mean seriously, that is a beautiful Chancel.

Certainly La Sagrada Familia is one of the most beautiful buildings of any type that I have ever entered, church or not, and it’s one that I would love to revisit – after construction is complete (if that happens in my lifetime). It’s also an example of architecture that for me, much like the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, raises the question “is this divinely inspired?”

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (aka omg so many famous dead Italians in one place!)

Florence, ItalyThe beautiful facade of the church that holds the remains of like, every important artist from the Italian Renaissance

Our Florence guidebook took us on walking tour after walking tour of the city, and each one was amazing in the sense of “I’m totally walking in the steps of some of my favorite renaissance artists and scientists.” When the guidebook took us to Santa Croce, I didn’t expect for all of those Renaissance masters to be freakin’ entombed in one place.

Florence, ItalyInterior of of Santa Croce with *womp womp* renovations at the chancel

The interior of the church was of course beautiful, although we could not clearly see the chancel for the scaffolding of ongoing renovations. When we got inside we paid particular attention to the Medici chapel as our guidebook suggested, took in some art, wandered around the expanse of the nave, and generally saw the sites…as you do when you’re church-hopping in perhaps the most church-rich country on earth. Then we started running into the “residents.”
Florence, ItalyBlast! It’s Galileo’s grave!

For example…Galileo. He’s been resting here for quite some time. For a few minutes it seemed that every important character you have read about from the Italian Renaissance, from art to science to literature was buried here.
Florence, ItalyMichelangelo Buonorotti

Michelangelo? Are you for real?!

Florence, ItalyDANTE!?

Dante is entombed here too! But not really. There’s a tomb for him here, but he never came back to Florence after he was exiled. He’s actually buried in Ravenna. The Florentines just wanted to take credit for his great work, which occurred mostly after his exile.


So it just goes on and on. Even the great Italian opera composer Rossini is buried here, though of course a couple hundred years after these guys.

Florence, ItalyThe pulpit with a beautiful starry sky

I really love the art style of the Italian Renaissance, with the deep colors and overcalled stars evidenced in the photo of the pulpit above.

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The entire nave is lined with famous people.

So round and round we walked, even snapping selfies in front of Galileo’s grave since our first “date” was kinda cosmic (mommyPrimate used my new telescope to show me Jupiter’s moons that night.)

Florence, ItalyReliquary in Santa Croce

I really don’t remember the story of Santa Croce (I’m guessing whose relics are in this reliquary), but I remember something about her head being separated from her body and I think it might be inside the case shaped like her head. Totally scraping the bottom of my memory pile for details remembered from our honeymoon, because searching the internet doesn’t seem to be helping at all. At any rate, super cool presentation of the reliquary.


Upon leaving the basilica we were immediately swept up by what appeared to be a 15th century marching band of sorts, with cool costumes, loud trumpet fanfares, and dudes throwing flags. I’m not sure what it was all about, but we followed them for a little while (some people followed them all the way across the Arno river) and got a coffee.

Florence, ItalyItalian Beer Drinkers

We were also treated to these dudes in felt costumes who were trolling the members of the marching band. Not sure what it was all about, but they said “Medici” quite a lot. Santa Croce and the Piazza della Republica in front of it sure had a lot to offer for one afternoon. Of course, if you ever need to sit down and talk to Machiavelli’s bones, you know where to do it now.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Rome, ItalySanta Cecilia in Trastevere

On a warm spring evening in Rome we found ourselves walking around Trastevere, wandering the narrow streets with the feral cats in the afternoon, looking at restaurant menus and trying to follow a map from the old guidebook we got with us to see the church where our niece’s name was chosen.

Rome, ItalySt. Cecilia in effigy

My understanding is that St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music, as she sang until she died during her execution. There is an effigy of St. Cecilia front at center on the chancel at St. Cecilia in Trastevere. It is graphic, showing the cuts on her neck from the sword blows, and her head twisted completely around 180 degrees.The effigy is titled Martyrdom of St. Cecilia by Stefano Maderno, and inscribed in stone at the foot of the statue is his sworn statement that this is how her body appeared exactly in 1599 when she was exhumed. Apparently her flesh was incorruptible – a sure sign of sainthood according to the church.

Rome, ItalySome of the art adorning the walls was very Roman/Byzantine looking, with the mosaic used to avoid making graven images

According to everyone’s favorite infallible resource, wikipedia, the original church in this location was built over St. Cecilia’s house sometime around 329 AD, maybe about 100 years after she was executed. Pope Urban I may have been the one who built it. That said, I have NO idea how much of the original church remains. The church as it stands today has a facade that was put on in the 18th century, before the United States was the United States. The art styles range from Roman/Byzantine (probably pre-byzantine) mosaic to baroque sculpture (see above) and renaissance paintings. It’s pretty freaking beautiful.

Rome, ItalyFresco over the Nave

Of all of the smaller churches we visited in Rome, this one had one of the most ethereal naves with the ivory white walls and ceilings, and the frescoes and such. I also felt this church had a really nice vertical balance, with the beautiful art on the ceiling and the mysterious crypt visible through a grate in the floor. Between the open airway to the crypt and the effigy of St. Cecilia, you really got the feeling that she is still down there.


Rome, ItalyLooking into the Crypt of St. Cecilia in Trastevere

Given that it was only a donation of a couple of Euros to go down to the crypt ourselves, we totally did it. Of course, this being Rome and all, the crypt was also an archaeological site. I’m not sure our guidebook mentioned the thing about this church being built over St. Cecilia’s home. But someone definitely lived here during Roman times, so I’m just going to put 2+2 together here and put some misinformation online saying that this is St. Cecilia’s home because I want to say I’ve been to the home of a saint. Just kidding. I’m not going to say that, but it is a pretty cool thought.

Rome, ItalyYeah, someone lived here.

Rome, ItalyI’m not a Latin expert or anything, but I think their spacebar was broken.


Rome, ItalyI’m not sure if this is a sarcophagus cover or what, but the look on his/her face definitely gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Rome, ItalySomeone lived here, and partied here.

Perhaps slightly disappointed that we didn’t get to see relics of Cecilia herself on a beautiful bed under a church draped with gossamer linens looking like an angel. But apparently there is a reliquary chapel that she’s been moved to somewhere on the surface level. We did enjoy every bit of our visit to St. Cecilia in Trastevere, though. Beautiful church in a beautiful city filled with beautiful churches.

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Now, I  think I need to go eat some cacio e pepe and drink a little wine, because all of the writing I’ve done about our tour of some of the ancient and beautiful places in Rome sure makes me wish I was in Italy right now.


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Masterpieces of Light and Space: Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

Rome, ItalyThe Nave of San Luigi dei Francesi

I remember our first day in Rome fairly clearly. We arrived by train, found our hotel, and since it was just an hour ride from Florence and not a horrific overnight bus journey, we were ready to go. We pulled out the guide book and got to it, walking from Piazza Cinquecento (Termini Station) by the Colosseum, Forum, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and one landmark after another all the way to St. Peter’s Basilica and back. I’m pretty sure we visited San Luigi dei Francesi on the same day.

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Caravaggios lining the walls of San Luigi dei Francesi

Though easily more impressive than probably any church in my home town, San Luigi dei Francesi might be overlooked on one’s trip to Rome, if not for it’s super impressive collection of paintings and frescoes by Caravaggio. I think I saw maybe one or two Caravaggio’s while we were in Florence, and there might have been one at the Prado in Madrid, but I REALLY wanted to see a few examples of his super high-contrast work. It turns out that basically all of them are in this one church in Rome (yes, complete overstatement.) My one semester as an art history teacher (not sure how I ever got that job) left me with an appreciation for Caravaggio that I would have never had without that experience. And I was standing. In a 500 year old church in Rome. Looking at Caravaggio’s handiwork.

Rome, ItalySee why I say Masterpieces of Light and Space?

If the decor makes you think “looks kinda French” it’s because this is the church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi, see?) St. Louis was King Louis IX of France. So you can kinda see what happened here. I imagine this was basically the French embassy during the days of the Holy Roman Empire, but that is purely conjecture on my part not at all based in fact.

I don’t have any exterior photos of the building – it turns out I was mostly focused on Caravaggio for this stop, but when I googled “San Luigi dei Francesi” the pic came up, and it kinda looks like the facade of every 16th century building in Rome. Pretty, but not super remarkable. Like an oyster shell with high contrast pearls inside.