Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Keys of Forgiveness: The Loving Power of the Successor of Peter

by Sandro Magister, Timothy Verdon

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From the Rome of the Caesars to that of the Popes


Saint Peter’s Basilica turned 500 years old this year. Art historian Timothy Verdon explains the message conveyed by the stones and images of the Rome of the Popes.

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Sandro Magister, January 30, 2006

The publication of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” coincided with the final day of the week of prayer for Christian unity, which falls during January each year.

The pope called this coincidence, which was due to a delay in the preparation and translation of the text, “a gift from Providence.”

But this was not the only coincidence.

On January 25 – celebrating vespers in the Roman basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, together with representatives of non-Catholic Churches and communities – Benedict XVI noted that the day was also the feast of the conversion of the apostle Paul.

Paul and Peter – the rock – are the two apostles upon whom the Church of Rome is founded.

And the pope, citing the first words and the theme of his encyclical, said:

“’Deus caritas est’ (1 John 4:8,16), God is love. The entire faith of the Church rests upon this solid rock. The patient search for full communion among the disciples of Christ is based upon this. […] The Church of Rome, which, according to saint Ignatius of Antioch’s expression, ‘presides in charity,’ has been established in service of this unity in love. In your presence, dear brothers and sisters, I wish to renew this day the entrusting of my specific Petrine ministry to God, invoking upon this ministry the light and power of the Holy Spirit, that it may always foster the fraternal communion of all Christians.”

* * *

But as is well known, the “Petrine ministry” is itself one of the main obstacles to unity among Christians.

The power of the popes is rejected by the non-Catholic Churches and communities precisely as power, in the concrete forms that this has taken on over the centuries.

These forms are not purely doctrinal and theological. They are also architectural and artistic.

Their most vivid reflection is seen in the collection of churches, palaces, mosaics, sculptures, and paintings that compose the visage of the Rome of the popes, the most prominent emblem of which is the basilica of Saint Peter.

Saint Peter’s basilica – the one that can be admired today, and which replaced the previous basilica built on the tomb of the apostle by the emperor Constantine – turns 500 years old this year. It was 1506 when Pope Julius II initiated its construction.

This is one of the events that coincide with the beginning of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

* * *

But in what sense are Saint Peter’s basilica and the Rome of the popes images of power?

In reality, the message that they convey is one of power and forgiveness, inextricably interwoven.

Power and forgiveness: this is the interpretation made of the Rome of the popes by one of the leading historians of Christian art, Timoth Verdon, in a magnificent book on “The Basilica of Saint Peter,” from its origin until today. The book was published in Italy at the end of last year.

Born in New Jersey in 1946, Timothy Verdon is now a priest living in Florence. Educated as an art historian at Yale University, he has lived in Italy for thirty years, where he directs the office of the Florence archdiocese for catechesis through art. He is also a consultant for the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, a fellow of the Center for Renaissance Studies at Harvard University, and a professor at Stanford University and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. Benedict XVI invited him to the synod on the Eucharist as an expert.

The selection that follows was taken from the first chapter of “The Basilica of Saint Peter.” It demonstrates how the Petrine power incarnated over the centuries by the masterpieces of Christian Rome are all of a piece with the “Deus caritas est” as preached by the present pope.

From the Rome of the Caesars to that of the popes

by Timothy Verdon

The Vatican is a place of paradoxes. This little elevated patch of ground on the right bank of the Tiber river, which contains the remains of a practically illiterate fisherman, has as its bulwark and entryway the mausoleum of the most refined of the Caesars, Adrian, who reigned over the Roman empire from 117-136 A.D.

To the west of the mausoleum, the immense piazza that now accommodates pilgrims and tourists covers part of a circus constructed by two other emperors – Caligula and Nero – beginning in 37 A.D.

And at the center of the piazza – at the top of the obelisk brought back from Egypt and raised by the Romans as a symbol of their victory over the empire of the pharaohs – there is an urn containing fragments of the cross of that Christ, condemned around the year 30, for the sake of following whom the fisherman was crucified in this circus about 34 years later.

The key words here are “after” and “Christ.” The Vatican presents itself as the sign of a world “after Christ,” in which the paradox becomes the norm – a world turned on its ear. The humble fisherman who now triumphs where he died as a criminal is himself a figure of this inversion. Simon, called Cephas or Peter, the most important of the first followers of Christ, condemned to die on the cross as his master did, asked to be positioned upside down. He did not think himself worthy to leave this world with his head held high, because in a moment of terrible weakness he had denied knowing Christ. But in spite of his betrayal, Christ had forgiven him, confirming and extending the power he had already given to him, and this, too, was a sort of inversion.

These are, in fact, the main messages communicated by the place: forgiveness and power.

The Vatican expresses forgiveness through symbols of power, as Jesus forgave sins and then showed that he had the power to do this through miracles. In the Vatican, forgiveness is power, according to Jesus’s words to the fisherman Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose upon the earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

In the archaic language that Jesus used, having “the keys of the kingdom” meant having power over it, and “binding” and “loosing” mean, on a practical level, “condemning” and “absolving.” The power that Christ gave to Peter, and which the grandiose complex of churches and palaces built around the tomb of the fisherman is meant to convey, is precisely the power to remit sins, to pardon.

It may seem strange to insist upon power in a religious system which, in its sacred writings, favors meekness instead, turning the other cheek, and sacrificing oneself without resistance. And yet, when one considers the Vatican, the question of “power” is inevitable, even central, because everything within the Vatican speaks of it: the titanic dimensions of its buildings, its sumptuous decorations, the sacred solemnity of its rituals.

From the moment when, precisely in the Vatican and in the service of the popes, there was a revival of the expressions of ancient art and architecture – in the colossal weight of the basilica, in the superhuman force of the figures in the frescoes of the Sistine chapel, and in the “divine grace” of the frescoes in the Stanze (the official apartments of the Renaissance era) – it must be said that the very idea of power in European culture, as well as its visual representation, were born here. Here the most important works of the most innovative artists at the dawn of the modern era – the masterpieces of Bramante and Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini – define the meaning of Christian civilization in terms of unambiguous power.

* * *

The Vatican is in Rome, the capital of the most extensive empire that the world has ever known: the very name of the city is synonymous with universal power. During the first four centuries of the Christian community’s existence, the expression of Jesus that concludes the Gospel of Matthew – “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – must have sounded like a challenge to the representatives of Roman power, the emperors, who were considered not just the rulers of the world, but demigods.

In the same way, the continuation of that statement by Jesus – “Go, therefore, and instruct all the nations” – must have evoked a mission of civilization comparable, in its universality, only to that of the Roman empire. And again, in a Rome that was considered “the eternal city,” the promised “Behold, I am with you all days, until the end of the world” must have seemed a prophecy that was embodied within history: the eternity of Rome and its monuments now personally inhabited by the Eternal One.

Still today, the pilgrim or tourist in Saint Peter’s Square is led to connect the Vatican with ancient Rome.

Arriving at the Vatican after already having visited the Colosseum and the Imperial Forum, the Circus Maximus and the Pantheon, he finds the same splendor and the same titanic dimensions in the basilica with its square, in the Apostolic Palace with its frescoed halls and vast galleries. He gets the impression that the ruins of the ancient capital are born again under the aegis of the Risen Christ standing above the piazza, who proclaimed in John’s vision: “Behold, I make all things new again” (Revelation 21:5).

This impression is not due solely to the modernization of the Vatican complex that took place during the Renaissance, but goes back to before the fourth century, to the colossal basilica constructed over the tomb of Peter by the emperor Constantine. The basilica’s four rows of marble columns, demarcating five internal naves, as well as the dimensions of the central hall – 118 meters long and 32 meters wide – which is illuminated by eleven large windows on each side: everything reminded the fourth century visitor of the huge public halls of the Roman empire. It reinforced the sense of an uninterrupted continuity between the city of the Caesars and that of the popes.

Ever since the patristic era, the popes have cultivated the image of an uninterrupted continuity with the empire, on the basis of a vision of history that sees as providential the birth and initial spreading of the Church in a culturally homogeneous epoch, and within a universal geopolitical system. The common language, the common code of laws and behaviors, the admirable network of roads that facilitated communication and travel, and the attribution of a civilizing mission to a central power are essential elements of this vision, which has the popes as its principal architects and the Vatican as its emblematic place.

* * *

The Christian art of Rome during the fourth and fifth centuries illustrates this interpenetration of “romanitas” and Christianity.

For example, the great mosaic in a church built in a preexisting complex of hot baths, Santa Pudenziana, displays Christ seated upon an imperial throne in the portico of a palace beyond the walls of which the monuments of the ancient capital can be seen. This “Christus imperator” is enthroned among apostles dressed in togas, with saints Peter and Paul at the sides of the throne, being crowned by female figures who represent, respectively, the “Ecclesia ex circumcisione” (the Christians who converted from Judaism, because Peter’s mission was primarily among the Jews) and the “Ecclesia ex gentibus” (the believers who converted from paganism: Paul was sent to the pagans). Above these figures and the city, we see – among the symbols of the four evangelists – a great jeweled cross that summarizes the meaning of the transformations to which the image attests: where the power of the Caesars had sought to crucify the new faith, there now emerge concrete historical, political, and social expressions of the power of the risen Christ. The apostles, who appear as Roman senators, become the new “patricians,” and the city – the ancient capital of an empire that embraced the known world – reveals, in the end, the meaning of its universalist vocation, offering its splendor as the background for the triumph of Jesus Christ.

Another image that is suggestive in this sense is the mosaic in the apse of the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian, where the Christ of the Ascension stands out against a dramatic evening sky. Executed in a hall claimed from the complex emperor Vespasian had built to commemorate the Jewish war, the mosaic expresses the placement of the Church, the new and victorious Israel, over an empire whose sun has set. A few steps from the Arch of Titus, with its depictions of Jewish prisoners following the triumphal chariot of Vespasian’s adopted son, who had conquered Jerusalem, here is Christ, who, “ascending to heaven, brought captives with him and gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8; cf. Psalm 68:19). Christ’s pose as he ascends is taken from that of the emperors themselves – as seen, for example, in the famous statue of Augustus preserved in the Vatican Museums.

In the mosaic of the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian, as in that of Santa Pudenziana, the Roman triumph of Jesus also involves the community he founded. In the two mosaics, in fact, we see representatives of the Church standing near Christ and associated with his power, because the gifts that the Risen One distributes to men include ecclesiastical roles: “It is he who established some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the brothers to carry out their ministry, in order to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

In both mosaics, the first positions among those Christ placed in roles of service to the others are occupied by Peter and Paul, figures of the authority transmitted by the Risen One to the institutional Church.

* * *

Since the first centuries, in short, the Roman Church identified itself with him who, having been immolated, is now “worthy to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor, glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). It occupied and transformed the topographical and architectural spaces, but above all the conceptual ground of the ancient empire, seeing in this very process a form of divine revelation – as if God, in addition to manifesting himself in the moral greatness of Israel, had also manifested himself in the material splendor of Rome. Even more, the marble-surfaced splendor of the empire’s capital ended up as the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, the walls of which shall be covered with rare and precious stones (Isaiah 54:11-12; Revelation 21:18-21) – as if Christ, who came not to abolish the Jewish law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-19), had likewise intended to bring the glory of Rome to its fulfillment, purifying its historical meaning and completing its cultural mission.

In fact, Rome is, by way of rhetorical substitution, the city of the “apocalypse” – that is, of the revelation of the hidden meaning of history – and since the fifth century the iconographic layout of the most important Roman churches has placed apocalyptic messages before the eyes of believers. Christ in a golden toga, revealed as the “Dominus dominantium,” the Lord of lords, seated on a throne or standing with the commission of his divine power in his hand, and before him the twenty-four elders who adore him day and night, burning incense that symbolizes the prayers of the saints: these are the images that dominate the apses of the churches referred to earlier, and later those of Saint Peter, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, and Saint John at the Lateran.

In various basilicas, these scenes pregnant with eternity completed the grandiose historical cycles on the lateral walls, with episodes of the Old and New Testaments, thus reemphasizing that heavenly glory is the fulfillment of earthly history. During the Middle Ages, this message would be represented on the outside of Saint Peter’s, with a monumental mosaic on the façade of the basilica which placed before the eyes of faithful and pilgrims the Lamb, the elders, and the innumerable multitude of those who “stand before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white garments” (Revelation 7:9).

* * *

Even this characteristic of the ancient capital of the empire – the multitude – would take on apocalyptic connotations in Christian Rome. The city whose theatres and amphitheatres had held immense crowds became papal Rome, which regularly welcomed multitudes of men and women “of every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Revelation 7:9). This phenomenon explains the creation – first at the Lateran, and then at the Vatican – of vast spaces capable of holding the crowds of pilgrims coming from all over the world: this was an effort that spanned a number of centuries and was resolved, from the sixteenth century on, by the new Vatican basilica crowned with its dome, by Bernini’s colonnade, and, in the twentieth century, by the audience hall conceived by Pierluigi Nervi; this, too, takes its place within the continuity with the ancient empire and constitutes, perhaps, its most striking element. Today, as in the past, anyone who visits Rome, contemplating first the majesty of the common areas of the ancient city – the forums, the amphitheatres, the baths – and then Saint Peter’s Square, filled to capacity for some liturgical celebration, cannot escape the impression of something eternal: something that, in spite of the transformations of culture and religious faith over the ages, endures in this place through the passage of time.

This impression is, then, reinforced by other factors that influence the experience of those who visit the Vatican. The first is derived from the very character of the multitude that fills the basilica and the piazza on certain occasions: it is of a liturgical nature, and rather than a multitude, we should speak of an assembly. The well-ordered ranks of cardinals and bishops around the pope, together with the nine thousand persons who can fit in the basilica and the two hundred thousand in the piazza, all have chosen to participate in rituals that express their faith. Such a confluence of autonomous individuals – such a convergence of particular aspirations – raises the spirit above the present, and unshackles it from all purely local limitations: the participants are from so many different backgrounds, and have such distinct histories, that the assembly’s roots seem to extend throughout the entire world.

And then the fact that the assembly gathered together here is celebrating a ritual, and specifically a Christian liturgical ritual, reinforces this sense of continuity to the highest degree. The Catholic liturgy – in which it is believed that Christ is really present and is operating in the person of the celebrant as in the substance of the action that is carried out – abolishes temporal limits and opens the present to both the remote past and the end of time. And on the level of “traditio” – that is, on the level of shaping the religious life that is transmitted from father to son over many centuries – the papal liturgy in particular, where the celebrant is considered the linear successor of the apostle Peter, puts one almost tangibly in contact with the past, when Peter received power from Christ, as also with the future, which this power to bind and loose sins determines.

* * *

Such intuitions, which may seem laborious and abstruse to the non-believer, appear simple and clear to the faithful. As happened on the day of the first Pentecost, when, hearing saint Peter preach on the forgiveness of sins, many felt their hearts pierced through (Acts 2:37), so it is with Catholics before the successor of Peter: seeking forgiveness cleanses the vision of those who participate with faith in the great liturgies in the Vatican basilica and in the piazza. Only God can forgive, but God has made his forgiveness enter into history in Christ, and Christ has extended this power in Peter, a power that remains in his successors, the bishops of Rome, or popes. Taking part in the rituals celebrated by the successor of Peter, in the place where the empire that put him to death found forgiveness itself, thus has a profound impact upon persons. It is as if the very stones of the ancient capital were speaking.

When, at Easter, from the façade of the basilica the successor of Peter pronounces upon the crowd in the piazza the words “urbi et orbi” – the papal blessing “to the city and the world” – all the elements are woven together and superimposed: the city is blessed in the full spectrum of its pagan and Christian life, with a unifying vocation at the service of all races and all peoples; and the world is blessed – not only the geographical world once ruled by the Caesars, but the interior world of every man who, through forgiveness, is born anew to a new hope.


The book:

Timothy Verdon, “La basilica di San Pietro. I papi e gli artisti [Saint Peter‘s Basilica: The Popes and the Artists]”, Mondadori, Milan, 2005, pp. 210, with 155 illustrations, 20.00 Euros.


Benedict XVI’s homily at the “ecumenical” vespers on January 25, 2006, in the basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls:

> “In questo giorno, nel quale si celebra...”


On this website, Timothy Verdon’s contribution to the synod on the Eucharist held in the Vatican in October of 2005, at which he participated as an expert, at the invitation of Benedict XVI:

> The "Extra" Synod Father: Raphael (17.10.2005)


English translation by Matthew Sherry: > [email protected]

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Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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