In my role as an Art History professor at Seattle Pacific University, I have accompanied students to Rome, Italy six times. We stay there for about a month, visiting umpteen million churches, in addition to wonderful museums, grand palazzos, and major archaeological sites.
Among these sites, the churches are the real treasures – pedagogically, artistically, and financially. Free to enter, they are living monuments still used the same way they were used hundreds of years ago. Often, they display multiple eras of architectural and liturgical history in one, rich, eclectic package. And they house myriad beautiful artworks still viewable in their original contexts. (It’s one thing to see an altar panel mounted on a museum wall. It’s another thing altogether to see it in an apse in the candlelight).
And these churches also have certain other, precious things the guidebooks don’t talk about. Tourists overlook them in their rush to see Bernini’s St. Teresa or Andrea Pozzi’s vast ceiling frescoes. Microphoned tour guides holding festooned sticks pass them by, sometimes with an air of embarrassment. Usually, they lay sleeping in silent neglect, covered by a thin film of dust.
They are dead bodies in pretty clothes.
I think the first one I ever noticed was in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, long before I became an art history professor. It wore crimson and white, and its face and hands were covered with hammered bronze. I did not quite realize it was an actual dead body at the time; the idea that a corpse would be displayed like that seemed faintly obscene.
Later, I began to notice these figures everywhere in the Eternal City. Some wore metal masks like the fellow in St. Peter’s, but others, like Bl. Anna Maria Taigi in the church of San Crisogono, had wax or silicone coverings that appeared fleshy and real. In the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, there is a skeleton encased to resemble a porcelain doll.
When I began to take students to Rome, I would point out these strange, silent companions. I thought the students would be fascinated by something so alien, or would at least be drawn by morbid curiosity. But my American undergraduate students seemed uninterested. The stiff, recumbent forms in glass coffins didn’t read as fully human, and they seemed unimportant, languishing in dusty, forgotten corners. They didn’t make an impression on eyes in search of the famous things you see in travel brochures and history books.
This year, though, was different. This was my first time accompanying students to Rome since 2018, after a year of cancer treatment followed by the pandemic. And in this year of new perspectives and fresh reopenings, the role of the dead seemed to have changed. The interest in well-dressed corpses had become acute.
The first time I noticed this shift was, again, in the mother church of St. Peter’s. The bronze-masked corpse I had discovered back in 2000 (Pope St Pius X) no longer lay in quiet neglect. Now it was surrounded by reverent pilgrims sitting prayerfully in pews. In the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, devout visitors knelt before the silver-masked body of Pope Saint Pius V. And in the church of St Ignazio, a stream of the faithful paused to keep watch on the corpse of St Robert Bellarmine. Gone was the sense of mouldering neglect. Gone was the sense of embarrassment at such primitive relics. There seemed, now, to be reverence and rediscovery. Remnants of the past were looked at with new eyes.
My students also showed more interest than usual. They gravitated toward these saints’ bodies and asked me questions about them. They paused in quiet to soak in the aura of the dead. When they found that a saint’s glass coffin had been removed from the chapel at the Pamphili Palace, they were disappointed. For my students, this head-on engagement with death was fascinating and courageous, and it opened doors onto the numinous in a fresh way. Though my students in 2012 may have found these bodies distasteful and barbaric, my students of 2022 found them sympathetic and mysterious. How to account for the shift? Why were they looking at the past, the dead, through an utterly new lens?
It seems evident now that the pandemic accelerated trends of cultural self-criticism. Beginning with the mass protests of 2020, and the hothouse internet debates that ensued, many long-standing attitudes were destabilized. Now, two years later, a reflexive preference for difference has made the strange take on a holy glow. This includes (maybe especially) the messy, the primitive, and the macabre.
But in our mostly post-pandemic 2022, it’s not just a matter of blind dialectical swings toward grass-is-greener opposites. Today’s students appreciate micro-specificity. They appreciate and strive to empathetically inhabit perspectives honed by unique and “abnormal” lived experiences. I think this new disposition toward empathetic engagement makes them freshly curious about the alien past and freshly appreciative of the embodied, unreproducible specificity of individuals, including the dead.
In pre-literate cultures, formative practices and transformative relationships trumped codified rules. When we criticize past religious authorities for being rigid or legalistic, we forget that they were attempting to channel a rich flow of micro-specific, embodied experiences that wended in millions of rivulets through the texture of a mind-bogglingly complex reality. Put another way, they were trying, with the thinnest of reins, to keep teams of wild horses from running off the occasional cliff. Certainly, past authorities could bend toward sometimes awful oppressiveness, but the conditions of life were utterly different than they are now.
Today, I believe, we are largely blind to the micro-texture of reality. Much of our experience is mediated by symbols – whether words or strategically scrubbed images. Though such hyper-mediation can help us avoid physical pain and difficulty by regulating our behavior in careful, cautious, prophylactic ways, it also causes psycho-spiritual angst. I think it’s no coincidence that the popular “mindfulness” movement, hailed as an answer to depression and anxiety, teaches us to get out of our heads and into the embodied moment. “Mindfulness” – an awareness of micro-textures and a bypassing of cognitive symbols – is really a basic re-entry to the normal state of human beings throughout most of time.
And what better way to elicit that normal state than the bodies of the holy dead? These recumbent saints are witnesses par excellence to the consuming facts of propulsive transience and ultra-specificity. They are totally unique and unreproducible, and their earthly theater of action is definitely past. Until the resurrection, the world will never see their like again. Yet they linger in their glass coffins like smoke, or better, like a slowly fading afterglow. To be in their presence is to sit downstream, for a moment, of one exquisite rill in the river of history that cannot be encountered anywhere else.
And so, I found myself, this summer, paying renewed homage to dead bodies in pretty clothes. I look forward to when I will see these figures again, in my Father’s heavenly house, where the streams of their lives (and their mysterious, wending after-lives) will be gathered up into pulsing, paradoxical, Christ-like bodies that, timeless, yet contain epochs within their immortal and leaping frames.
(Cover picture: Source – Flickr.com Author – dcfdelacruz License – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Link – https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tomb_of_Saint_Pope_Pius_V.jpg Changes – The image has been cropped to fit as the cover image of this blog)