St. Peter's Rock

An afternoon at the Vatican

by Yves Jaques


November 1999



My wife and I stand nervously in the line of people waiting to enter Saint Peter's. We never seem to be dressed quite right. You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church, and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  So it is writ in gilt above the tomb of St. Peter, but the keys won't work unless you have your shoulders covered and your knees hidden.

As we wait, I notice a group of Filipino pilgrims in shorts. They slump against a set of pillars. They look shattered, as if their belief is being sorely tested. Perhaps this was their one chance to visit the very navel of the Catholic world, and they didn't bring the right wardrobe.

Ahead of us, a group of older American women get by the gatekeepers, although two of them have skirts above the knee.  A moment later, an attractive blonde is turned away, though her skirt is lower than the two women who only moments ago passed muster. I, with my ghetto-boy shorts and T-shirt make the cut. My wife pulls hard on her dress and hunches down, but she's barred entry by a scowling guard.  She's showing some knee.

We back off and join the group of shattered pilgrims.  My wife is seething.  There's nothing that enrages her more.  A painter raised by atheist hippie parents, she sees the Vatican as an art gallery. Its social role as the center of the world's largest religious denomination means nothing to her.

As I watch the procession, I muse on the fact that Jesus himself would have difficulty entering St. Peter's, and if he did he'd probably rend his clothes in fury at the heady opulence of the place. Then again, the Catholic Church has never had much to do with Christ's message of humility and open-armed love. From the moment wealthy and powerful Romans embraced Christianity as the new religion of choice, the Church's status as an engine of social and spiritual revolution was shattered.  It's not hard to see how its monotheistic backbone provided a stripped down mechanism for the rich, who were tired of paying costly tributes to a hundred different gods. But as the rich invested, the poor were divested. Or more to the point, they had to be properly 'vested'.

Suddenly, there is the changing of the guard, and we try our luck again. This time my wife slides right by, the new gatekeepers seemingly uninterested in her. And I realize that this is the functional criteria for allowing women into St. Peter's: sexual arousal. If the guards are attracted to you, and your clothes aren't right, stay out. If you do nothing for the guards, you stand a fair chance, regardless of the way you dress. The guards are a type of white blood cell in the priestly immune system, their difficult job that of fighting off the dreaded virus Eros.

Now breathing easy, my wife lets go of her hem and we pass through the enormous bronze doors. Entering St. Peter's is always a curious, multi-layered experience. One can't help but contrast the wealth of the Church with the poverty of the majority of its adherents. Perhaps this has always been one of its fundamental attractions. The Church is one of the few wealthy institutions that allow entry to the (penitent and correctly-dressed) poor.

If the economic wealth of the Church is stupefying, its artistic wealth is even more so. St. Peter's is a gallery from end-to-end, graced by the work of many of history's most talented and well-known artists. From the masterful mosaic dome of Michelangelo, to Bernini's graceful brass baldacchino, the interior is a Who's Who of Renaissance artists.

As we wander the place, marveling at the work of Duquesnoy, Canova, and Algardi, we feel a strange sense of suffocation. Something about the art is stilted. We're bowled over by the quality and quantity of the masterpieces, but there is in the content the heavy hand of the propagandist. The Church was the first institution to use artists on a massive scale to systematically produce works of propaganda, works to aid in the 'suspension of disbelief'. And so ultimately, one finds oneself shifting focus, from the art, to the conditions and purposes under which it was made. If artists now find themselves bowing to the pressure of museum curators and arts-funding organizations, in the past they bowed to the pressure of the Church in its relentless drive to be the sole empire of the spirit.

The Church in essence, owes all of its power to artists. They are the ones who have taken the Word and made it manifest. From the buildings, to their trappings, to the very robes the priests wear, all that is compelling or beautiful about the Church was and is produced by artists. And yet artists have no real place in the Church, either then or now. They are not beatified. They are not canonized. And as always, the Church views their characters and their works with skepticism, and mistrust.

It is perhaps this that infuriates my wife more than anything. That her access to the works of her 'people', her community of artists, is controlled by an institution who cares nothing for art and artists beyond their purely propagandistic uses. The Church has by its power and authority expropriated from the public sphere works of genius that it allows access to only in the way that suits it, and not out of any motives of cultural enlightenment or appreciation of beauty.

We realize the place is making us feel strangely foul. Surprised, we have to leave. As we walk out of St. Peter's and into the square, it is ringing with the babble of a hundred languages, and we breathe deeply once again. There is a sense of oppression lifting from our shoulders. We've just made it out of the world's stuffiest museum and into the world's most beautiful city.

Past Bernini's graceful colonnade and into the streets we go, passing a string of street artists selling religious pictures and doing chalk paintings on the cobblestones. I recall what one of our Roman friends told us, that Roman artists have always hated the Church, because the Church has used them to get everything, and they have nothing. As a group of Vatican VIP's shoots by in a fleet of black Mercedes sedans, enveloping the artists and their work in a cloud of dust, I understand what our friend meant.

Yves Jaques can be reached at