I MANAGED, I am pleased to say, to notch up 17 Caravaggios. If another five had not annoyingly been on loan to Tokyo for the exhibition “Caravaggio and His Time: Friends, rivals and enemies”, it would have been 22, but, hey! It means I’ll have to go back to Rome.
I have just taken the first part of a sabbatical. Originally, it was to have been six weeks, but it was squeezed to three because of a colleague’s death at one end of the time, and parish responsibilities at the other. It was still, however, hugely productive. There is an amazing, brutal power about these paintings: they are profound, moving, and disturbing. As one of his biographers points out, any painting unfortunate enough to be in the same room as a Caravaggio is drained of drama or energy in comparison.
I think the Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, struck me most: the blockbuster he painted in 1600, which made his name. I think it is possibly his most characteristic painting. In a darkened space, several contemporarily dressed card-sharps and dodgy-looking customers from the murky underworld Caravaggio knew well (and of which he was, tragically, a part) are sitting around a table. To the right, in the shadows, Peter and Jesus, dressed in timeless togas, have just come in, and a shaft of light follows Jesus’s pointing finger to an incredulous Matthew standing up in the group.
“What, me?” you can hear him say.
I sat and gazed at it for a long time on three occasions, watching with curiosity the crowds washing in and out around it. I noticed with wry amusement a sign that the streetwise Caravaggio would have well understood: “Beware of pickpockets”.
Buzzing with visitors
I TOUCHED base with Anglicanism while I was in Rome, and was, as ever, struck by the Church’s internationalism, of which a parish priest like me can often be oblivious.
At the Anglican Centre, housed in the Doria-Pamphilj Palace, we were warmly welcomed, and were immersed in an international throng. As well as parish groups from London, there were an Oxford college chaplain studying John Donne; a priest from Latvia on retreat; the Lutheran Bishop of Gotland with a large group, on a conference; an Australian priest following his choir on an exhaustive and exhausting choir tour; and clergy visiting from the United States.
It was much the same at All Saints’ Anglican Church on the Sunday morning that we were there: a great, bustling, multilingual buzz. Baptisms taking place during the service embraced family members from Italy, Canada, France, Mexico, and Algeria.
I loved the fact that the indigenous Italians were joyfully taking selfies throughout, and that, at the very point when water was being poured over the baby’s head, a member of the regular congregation crashed in with boxes of pizza. It was good to see a church rumbustiously alive.
Encounter with Mary
ONE of the most moving places I went, though, was part of the Forum. At the foot of the Palatine Hill, where in ancient times a ramp wound up to the Imperial Palace, a series of rooms and halls had, in the fifth century, been transformed into a church: Santa Maria Antiqua.
For a while, in the eighth century, this was the focal papal church in Rome, putting St John Lateran in the shade; but in AD 847 an earthquake caused some of the overhanging palace to collapse, burying the complex for a millennium.
Rediscovered in 1900, it has just been reopened after extensive restoration. Its frescoes, painted one on top of the other during periods from which few other examples survive, are a wonder, and have led to its being called by one historian the “Sistine Chapel of the Early Middle Ages”. They are stunning: fragments from another world, bright and fresh, and in dialogue with us.
What struck me most, though, was something else entirely. In the centre, hanging from the chancel arch, is a great, golden, modern icon of the Virgin and Child. I assumed that it had been commissioned to celebrate the reopening, but, looking more closely, I realised that the faces of the figures were ancient encaustic paintings.
It is, in fact, the remains of one of the oldest icons in existence, dating from about AD 455. For centuries, it hung there as a focus of veneration, and then, removed to another church after the earthquake, after 1000 years it had come home. Seeing it there was intensely moving.
If I only had time
CARAVAGGIOS, internationalism, and ancient homecomings — having been back a week or so, they still resonate. But perhaps the most important thing that has stayed with me is the time I took just to sit and read under the blossoming lemon trees in the garden of our borrowed flat.
Maybe that is what I need to learn from all the excited rushing around: just being still, and open to the promptings of the Spirit, is the most valuable part of a sabbatical.
Anyway, Titian in Venice, next.
The Revd John Wall is on sabbatical.