Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.

Postcard from Mexico City: The Lord of Poison and potent relics

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City also features a black statue of Christ, known there also as Lord of Poison which is a pretty interesting name for a Christ figure. This is the most venerated statue in the entire cathedral and… dates back to the 18th of August, 1602 when the Dominican Fathers came to Mexico with several Christ sculptures, all white.

Legend has it that this particular figure was installed in a small chapel in Tlanepantla where the regent archbishop prayed daily and at the end of a prayer, would kiss the feet of this statue. When his enemies saw what his routine was, they applied poison to the feet of the statue in the hopes that they could off him in this way after his next prayer. Alas, their cunning plan was foiled when the statue (faith, people, faith) shrank back from the archbishop’s approaching lips, thereby saving his life and providing for yet another biblical story. …the poison that had been applied by the evildoers… is what turned it black.

The story quickly got out and spread rapidly amongst the flock; the great back story and the fact that the chapel was not open to the public heightened the mystery and devotion to this black Christ. After being under wraps for many years (ie the marketing plan had worked and the product was ready) in 1935 the now heroic black Christ was moved from its private location to the Metropolitan Cathedral so as to be available for worship by all.

The Mystery of the Black Christ at Chumayel,” Lawsons Yucatan

The black figure of Jesus on the cross is somewhat of a newcomer to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Whether the version above or the story of the poison fed to Don Fermin by Don Ismael is preferred, the willingness of the figure to absorb the evil dark potion to spare the good man does make the Lord of Poison somewhat of a star attraction. The largest cathedral in the Americas actually is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If the halo-bearing statue below is of Mary, she appears quite shocked by her immaculately conceived swollen shape.

Construction of the first part of the church was begun under orders of Hernan Cortes in 1524. Original building materials were recycled from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of Huitzilopochtili, which stood on the site.

It would take more than a few Hail Marys to make a pass the entire length of the cathedral, as it measures the entire length of a football field, including the two endzones. There are two major gilded altars surrounded by 16 chapels. Ornate facades mark four major entrances to the cathedral. The main entrance was barred when we were there, and a crane appeared to facilitate an inspection or repair of any possible damage above incurred during the recent severe tremors.

Despite floods, fire, earthquakes and general sinking of the foundation, the church has remained steadfast in its determination to occupy the symbolic location in the heart of the city. As the huge capital city drained the water table, the cathedral continued to sink. Work to rectify that in the 1990s required extensive excavation. The successful stabilization project revealed ancient treasures, discussed here in a post-to-come.

The rather substantial first-class relics of San Vital housed in the glass case reside at the front of a gated chapel filled with portions of numerous saints. I am confused about whether these belonged at one time (until about the year of 304) to San Vitale, whose bones we first became acquainted with in the Cathedral of Bologna where they are enshrined combined with some of those of Saint Agricola. Or were they originally part of San Vitale who was buried alive, probably about the same time, for his faith in Ravenna, on the spot where a basilica now stands in his honor? Or someone entirely different?

Outside of the main chapel of reliquaries, unbeknownst to us, life-size wax statues of saints contain secret stashes of more human relics recently revealed via digital X-rays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Anyway, I’m totally uncertain of what causes this particular San Vital is in charge. But surely relics of this size are pretty potent, so go ahead. Pray for his help for anything.