Tag Archives: Rome

The dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

November 9, 2018

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Basilica of St. John Lateran

This feast commemorates the first dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran which took place in Rome on November 9, 324. Pope Sylvester I (314-335) presided.

St. John Lateran’s original name was the Church of the Savior, and its official complete name is the Patriarchal Basilica of the Most Holy Savior and St. John the Baptist at the Lateran. The church is under the dual patronage of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

It is the oldest of the four principal pilgrimage churches in Rome. The other three are St. Peter’s Vatican Basilica, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The Emperor Constantine (280-337) legalized Christianity through his historic Edict of Milan in 313, and shortly thereafter, he gave Pope Melchiades (311-314) a beautiful ancient palace that stood on the Celian Hill that had belonged to the Laterani family, and it was converted into an enormous basilica.

This feast is not so much about the building itself, even though it is magnificent architecturally and artistically, but about what the building represents spiritually. St. John Lateran is the first major church in Rome, and because it served as the headquarters of the Church from 313 to 1309, it is known as “the Mother Church.” Pope Clement XII (1730-1740) stated this explicitly when he had this Latin verse etched into the front façade, “omnium ecclesiarum Urbis et Orbis mater et caput,” “the mother and head of all churches of the city [Rome] and the world.” It is the one from which all other churches find their origins.

For nearly one thousand years it served as the official residence of the Pope, as well as the place where new popes were elected and installed in office. Ecumenical councils were held at the Lateran Basilica in 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, and 1512. St. John Lateran remains the cathedral church of Rome, the place where the Pope acts as chief shepherd of the local archdiocese.

The church building has suffered many setbacks as the object of two barbarian attacks (408 and 455), an earthquake (896), two fires (1308 and 1361), and a bomb blast (1993). The building has been repaired, rebuilt, and restored numerous times over the centuries. Reconstructions took place under Popes Leo the Great (440-461), Hadrian I (772-795), Sergius III (904-911), and Clement VIII (1592-1605). The most comprehensive renovation took place in the Seventeenth Century under Pope Innocent X (1644-1655). A new floor was installed in 1938.

The basilica is adorned with beautiful art. The roof above the entrance has 13 statues with the Risen Christ in the center flanked by its patrons, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. There is a massive statue to Constantine in the vestibule. The nave has marble statues of the twelve apostles, while the walls have reliefs with scenes from the Old and New Testaments and paintings of the prophets. The dome of the apse has a mosaic of Christ with his angels above a glorious Cross. The left side has full size images of Sts. Paul, Peter, and the Blessed Mother Mary, and a smaller image of St. Francis of Assisi, while the right has full size images of Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Andrew, and a smaller image of St. Anthony of Padua.

The Lateran Basilica represents the unity of the universal Church. The basis of our unity is Jesus and our common Baptism. It was Jesus’ fervent prayer that his disciples be one (Jn 17:21). There are many churches throughout the world, but all are one body in Christ, individually parts of one another (Rom 12:5), all united under the symbolic headship of St. John Lateran.

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An Irish Catholic girl reflects on St. Peter’s Square in Rome

June 7, 2016

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I came not expecting to be moved by this place.

I came expecting crowds and gimcracks and jabbering people with fanny packs and cameras. I am surprised. I was wrong. I cannot help but be moved by this place. St. Peter’s Square is, first of all, big. It is breathtaking and majestic. It is grand. I am surrounded by immense, imposing statues who hover over me, standing guard — the saints, the martyrs, the twelve apostles. All around me as I sit in the Square I hear voices, a multitude of languages, some I don’t even recognize. All around me I see nuns, bishops, women in their wedding gowns. I have landed smack dab in the middle of the “catholic” Catholic Church. From the very lively babies babbling in their strollers, to the nuns laughing together about something, to the teenagers posing for pictures with their “selfie sticks,” to the seminarians quietly doing their morning prayer, to the Chinese family saying a rosary together — in Chinese — everywhere I see a Church that has somehow survived every attempt to obliterate it. It is a Church which has survived even the grievous sins and moral failings of its own members.

Jesus Christ made two promises when he founded his Church: first, that when the Church speaks as Church, it will not teach error, and second, that the Church would not disappear from the face of the earth before he returned. Sitting here, I see everywhere the fulfillment of those two promises.  How, given its “colorful” history, the strings of “interesting” popes and cardinals, the concerted and skillful attacks of its many enemies — how has this Church survived? Money alone could not have sustained it for two thousand years. Power alone could not have sustained it for two thousand years. Only love — transcendent love — can account for this place, here, today — because only transcendent love could have created and sustained it.

Not our love for God, although that love is visible everywhere here. Every statue of Peter reminds me of his enthusiastic love for his Lord. Every statue of Paul reminds me of the inexhaustible energy with which he proclaimed the kingdom of God. They were martyred on the same day: Paul beheaded because he was a Roman citizen, Peter crucified because he was a Jew, and upside down because he asked for that, declaring himself unworthy to be murdered exactly as Jesus had been. Were they afraid? Of course they were. En route to his own beheading, Paul asked a woman if he could have her scarf, so that he could prevent himself from seeing the blade come at him. Peter convinced himself at one point that he ought not be martyred at all, that he should leave Rome alive and continue to evangelize. Only a vision of Jesus himself as Peter was on his way out of town prevented him from running.

They were both terrified. They were human. What can account for them, and for so many other flawed and frightened human beings, to allow themselves to be flayed, grilled, torn to pieces, pressed to death, crucified, beheaded? What can account for a Church that has survived its own popes sometimes: Borgia Popes, de Medicis, the popes who bought their office and used it for their own personal gain, Pope Julian III, who dug up his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and put him on trial, dressed in his papal regalia and dead as a doornail, this pope who found his dead predecessor guilty of all crimes and then tossed him in the Tiber? What can account for a Church that embraces both Peter and Julian III, while often disapproving heartily of both of them? What can account for me, standing here a few miles from the place where Paul was killed, standing on top of the place where Peter was crucified, looking at the obelisk he almost certainly was looking at as he died? It has to be God’s love — for the Twelve, for the Jews, for the martyrs, for every single one of us—for our corrupt, striving, beautiful, flawed, sorry human selves — only God’s perfect love could have created and sustained this place.

Peter’s bones are buried beneath the ground on which I sit. Beneath me, scratched into the wall of a crypt containing the bones of many martyrs, are the words, “Peter is Here.” Next to those words, in the wall, are a collection of bones, but there are no foot bones. When someone is crucified upside-down, they cut the dead body off the cross, leaving the feet behind. As I sit in the Square, Pope Francis enters and mounts the stage for his Wednesday audience. And here am I, an Irish Catholic Girl from Chicago, three days into a semester in Rome — cold, homesick, tired, confused — and yet, I am filled with joy and peace in this place. Surrounding me and grounding me and soaring over my head is evidence of the faith in which my Irish Catholic father from Chicago, Jack Maloney — my papa — raised me. And here I sit, atop Papa Peter, listening to Papa Francesco. And I am home.

Anne Maloney is department chair and an associate professor of philosophy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

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Take a peek inside the Vatican

March 8, 2013

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Vatican Diaries coverJohn Thavis, who covered the Vatican as a journalist for 30 years, betrayed his Minnesota roots when he wrote, “Attending these Rome academic conferences was like fishing on a slow day — you waited a lot and hoped something would bite.”

Thavis, a native of Mankato, Minn., and a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, hooked an author’s dream: His book on the inner workings of the Vatican was ready to be released when Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly announced his decision to retire.

Viking moved up the release date, making “The Vatican Diaries” as timely a read as a writer might hope for.

Thavis, whose byline ran in The Catholic Spirit for many years, retired just last year as Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.

That post and the many friends and sources he made in and around St. Peter’s often put him in unique position to observe and hear of any number of interesting goings on, some foolhardy, some machiavellian, some scandalous.

Anecdotes, even atrocities

There is, for example, the blatant disregard for an ancient cemetery by one Vatican City functionary, who is intent on bulldozing the monuments and the remains to add more parking to the cramped tiny space.

A lengthy chapter on the finally denounced, cult-like Legion of Christ gives a vivid picture of how power works in the Vatican, and it’s not a very nice portrait.

Thavis details how the once-revered founder of the Legion of Christ was protected by people in high places who refused to believe accusations made against him over the course of decades, and it was only when Father Marcial Maciel Degollado’s double life was revealed — that he had fathered children by two women, sexually abused his own son and hidden secret assets of nearly $30 million — that the Vatican finally intervened.

The incident has left an obvious black mark on the late Pope John Paul II’s record, but Thavis presents insight here that echoes in other Catholic locales around the globe.

He writes, “To a good number of Vatican officials, the calls for transparency and full accountability [in the Maciel case] were typical of moralistic (and legalistic) Americans, but not necessarily helpful for the universal church. . . As one Vatican offical put it, ‘We have a two-thousand-year history of not airing dirty laundry. You don’t really expect that to change, do you?’ ”

Thavis dives into the ongoing squabble over the ultra-conservative, breakaway Society of St. Pius X, sharing probably more than the typical Catholic would want to know about the battle over the validity of Vatican II by this hard-core group of naysayers.

Superb reporting, writing

There’s a terrific chapter that’s really a personality profile of the American priest who was one of the Vatican’s top Latin language experts — the fun, enlightening and eccentric Father Reginald Foster.

Foster — Thavis eschews his title throughout — is a reporter’s dream, someone on the inside who knows a lot, isn’t afraid to share and shares in colorful language. The chapter on “The Latinist” is of the quality of a piece you’d expect to read in the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker.

Thavis went along to some 60 countries with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and “The Vatican Diaries” includes hilarious anecdotes about life as a reporter on papal trips. There’s plenty about life covering the Vatican to enjoy reading, too, including the story about the pope’s preacher admitting he used Google as a source.

Readers will find that the halo they may have imagined above the heads of some high-ranking residents of Vatican City ends up, shall we say, “less glowing,” to describe it the way a Vatican official might, avoiding the use of the more accurate “tarnished.”

And that may be what Thavis does best here.

Important contribution

He offers sound reporting and analysis, to be sure. But he’s at the top of his game explaining how “The Vatican” sees things.

He translates Vatican-ese, putting in plain language what official statements really say, and in many cases what those statements say by not saying something directly.

Even when he gets into such minutia of a story that you wonder if all these details are necessary, Thavis seems to perfectly sum it up by interpreting the event’s significance. It’s as if, without using these words, he’s says, now here’s why this is important.

“The Vatican Diaries” is not only informative and entertaining. Published as the Catholic Church prepares to welcome a new leader, it gives us valuable insight into the organizational challenges the new pontiff faces.

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Bringing home lessons from Rome

March 18, 2012

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Bishop John Quinn of Winona, principal celebrant at Mass at the Altar of the Tomb in St. Peter's Basilica, was joined at the altar by his brother bishops March 9. (Joe Towalski / The Catholic Spirit)

Thirteen bishops recently traveled to Rome to meet with the pope and deepen their bonds of communion with the universal church. As I followed them to churches from one end of the Eternal City to the other for stories and photos, I found my own bonds of communion with the church strengthened and my own faith getting a lift.

The bishops — from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — were making their periodic “ad limina” visits, which always feature stops at the city’s major basilicas, including the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul.

It was at St. Peter’s Basilica one morning, down in the crypt area by the Altar of the Tomb, that the specialness of where I was standing struck me. All the bishops were gathered around the altar with their backs to a glass partition, behind which — not very far away — was the tomb of St. Peter himself.

What could it have been? Maybe 20 yards separating us from the earthly remains of the “rock” on which Jesus built his church some 2,000 years ago?

I felt a very tangible connection to history inside that crypt. So did Bishop Lee Piché of St. Paul and Minneapolis who was making his first “ad limina” visit to Rome. He told me later that he got “goose bumps” praying at the “confessio,” an area above the apostle’s tomb where the bishops sang the Nicene Creed before coming down for Mass.

Foundations of faith

Our stop at St. Peter’s reminded me of visiting the Holy Land, where people talk about the “living stones” — the Christians who live in the place where Jesus walked and where the apostles laid the foundations of the church. Those “living stones” connect us to our spiritual heritage in a unique way.

Pilgrims from around the world come to Rome to visit churches, like St. Peter's Basilica, above. (Joe Towalski / The Catholic Spirit)

Rome has stones, too — stones that make up the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, the great evangelizer of the gentiles. Stones used to construct magnificent churches, some of which date back to the first centuries of Christianity. Stones that have seen two millennia of joy and heroic witness to the faith as well as the church’s struggles, challenges and persecutions.

The sweep of church history within those walls is an awesome one. But so is the sense of the universal, worldwide church you experience — whether you have an opportunity to visit with Pope Benedict XVI (as our bishops did) or stroll around the basilicas and their squares, where in the week I was in Rome I heard people praying in Italian, English, Polish, Spanish and a few other languages I didn’t recognize. It was an important reminder that we are part of a faith much bigger than what we experience in our home parishes and dioceses.

“Our faith is such an amazing thing. It makes us — who are so very different — really strongly one. That has been a great source of renewal for me,” Bishop Piché told me on our last day in Rome.

It was a great experience of renewal for me, too. I hope some of the stories and photos about the trip that we printed in The Catholic Spirit and online at TheCatholicSpirit.com and on the newspaper’s Facebook page have helped in a small way to convey the deeper connection to the universal church that we in Minnesota share with fellow Catholics around the world.

If you’ve never been to Rome, put it on your spiritual bucket list of things to do. The “stones” and pilgrims there will no doubt reaffirm and recharge your faith — and you may experience a few goose bumps of your own.

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Two Women who Rocked the Early Church

March 7, 2012

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Altar of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Photo/david_shane Licensed under Creative Commons

Last week I said that none of the most popular superheroes could defeat the devil.  But one woman martyr did crush him in a vision–the day before she and her companions died gloriously for the faith in North Africa in the year 203.

In my opinion, St. Perpetua had as much valor as a Navy Seal and so did St. Felicity, both of whom share a feast day this week. They were among the most well-known and venerated martyrs of the early Church.

Besides their bravery in facing a savage death for professing to be Christians, these women show us their great faith, hope and trust in God. They also teach us something about parenting under extreme stress.

Perpetua was a noblewoman from the  city of Carthage, near the modern city of Tunis in Tunisia. Felicity was a slave. They and three others were arrested for their faith, and for refusing to pay tribute to the Roman gods. Perpetua had an infant son; Felicity was eight months pregnant.

The women were sentenced to be torn apart by beasts as part of the emperor’s birthday celebration. They were baptized before being led away to prison.

It seems ironic that they were arrested for being Christians before they were actually baptized into the faith but it was common at that time for believers to wait for baptism until they were near death. They understood that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and thus it was held with such value that many waited to receive the sacrament until right before dying.

Perpetua’s father visited her in prison with her son to convince her to abandon her faith. Eventually she was allowed to keep her son in prison with her.

Felicity worried that she wouldn’t be martyred with Perpetua and the others because Roman law forbade executing pregnant women. Two days before she and the others were thrown into the arena, she gave birth and her baby was adopted by a Christian couple.

Perpetua and Felicity’s Christian witness in prison resulted in the conversion of one of the jailers.

Perpetua’s vision of her battle with the devil was one of several she had while in prison. The day before her execution, she dreamed she was brought into the amphitheater but instead of beasts, she saw an Egyptian. Then a man taller than the top of the arena appeared holding a rod used by gladiators and a branch of golden apples. She was to fight the Egyptian and either he would kill her with a sword or she would conquer him and receive the branch.

She told of the gladiator battle in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman:

And we came nigh to each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caugth his head, and he fell upon his face; and  I trod upon his head. … And I went up to the master of gladiators and received  the branch. And he kissed me and said to me:  ‘Daughter, peace be with you.’ And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life. And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil, but I knew that mine was the victory.

When Perpetua and Felicity actually were martyred on March 7, they were first whipped and then thrown into the arena where they were mauled by a wild cow. They exchanged the kiss of peace and were killed by a sword.

Before her martyrdom, St. Perpetua professed her faith:

For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives.

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Stop mooning cuz there’s no Catholic joke. Here’s one for you:

August 10, 2011

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Astronomers recently concluded that, if there ever was a church on the moon, it most likely closed because, while the silence was conducive to a reverent celebration of liturgy, the place just had no atmosphere.

BUT THIS IS NO JOKE:

We’ve stepped up the video presence on our website thanks to Catholic News Service.

Click on http://thecatholicspirit.com/videonews/ to get the latest news each day.

This page is the larger screen; a small screen is on the home page at http://www.TheCatholicSpirit. Good video piece in  “Survivor founds museum.” And for an interesting feature story, click on “Telling Time in Rome.” Bet you didn’t know all the cool stuff about Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square.

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What’s a Catholic to think about the book version of ‘Angels & Demons’?

May 14, 2009

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“Angels & Demons,”
by Dan Brown

Okay, it’s taken me some time to get to “The DaVinci Code” pre-quel, but I figured I’d better read the book as well as see the movie if I want to have any credibility in talking or writing about the controversy that has some in the Catholic community feeling anxiety at the least and threatened at the most.

So, here on the day before the movie is released in the United States, let me say this about the book version of “Angels & Demons”: Potboiler.

Nothing special in the way of literature, writing or even a good mystery.

Clever use of the geography of Rome? Yep.

A compelling story? Nope.

A page-turner? Not really.

If you haven’t figured out half-way through the 700-plus pages where this puppy is going to end up, you need to read more paperback mysteries. If I tell you that the hero — the same guy who is the super sleuth in “The DaVinci Code” — gets the girl in the end, will you really be surprised?

The Catholic concern

So why do some in the Catholic community have their undies in a bunch about the movie “Angels & Demons?”

It’s not so much that the church is attacked by the plot. The action of some of the clergy and hierarchy might be something some would say clergy and hierarchy would never do, but nowadays with some of the news our priests and bishops make, that argument is specious at best.

What author Dan Brown does is continue an insidious train of thought about the Catholic Church that tends to drive Catholics crazy. It’s the matter-of-fact way of writing that makes statements about religion and about the church that have an anti-religion and anti-Catholic bias.

Some examples:
  • The theme behind the plot is that science is getting revenge on religion “after centuries of persecution” by the church. References to Galileo and Copernicus are one part of the evidence for that, but conveniently missing are references to the likes of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian priest who is rightly called “the father of modern genetics,” or Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, “the father of modern chemistry,” a Catholic beheaded during the French Revolution.
  • There’s a tangential passage that takes hero Robert Langdon back recalling a Harvard University classroom scene in which he cleverly points to Catholic rituals as being unoriginal and borrowed from other cultures. Take the Eucharist: How the “god-eating” rite of the Aztecs were supposedly “borrowed” by Christianity seems to be quite a stretch, given that a man such as the evangelist Paul, writing in the 1st century, and the writers of the synoptic Gospels for that matter — pegged between 60 and 115 AD, aren’t likely to have even known of the existence of the Aztecs, the first reference to which appears in the 6th century.
  • One of the minor characters sees the church as “an innocuous entity…a place for fellowship and introspection…sometimes just a place to sing out loud without people staring at her.”

And then, of course, there is that hauling out of the tired demonization of the Catholic Church for its “wealth.” Looking down a hallway at the Vatican, one character “was sickened by the opulence,” author Brown writes. “The gold leaf in the ceiling alone probably could have funded a year’s worth of cancer research.”

Is it jealousy that makes others point at the church and say it should give away all the timeless works of art therein to end poverty? Maybe the Louvre should do the same? And while we’re at it, let’s sell the U.S. Supreme Court Building to the highest bidder and put the court in the rented space of a closed auto dealership. Who needs artistry, craftsmanship and beauty? — bz

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Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

January 19, 2009

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“Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,”

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you’ve ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn’t connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide — Liz Lev — with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works’ place in history.

With “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It’s not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo’s world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist’s family background, his training, his benefactors — and most importantly his faith.


Graham-Dixon’s analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

“Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will.”

Using those God-given skills then, “Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be,” Graham-Dixon claims. “He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage.”

A superior user’s guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon’s interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures’ meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.


As a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.


Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture — especially the Hebrew Books — and that he aimed to paint “his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity,” the author states.


Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation — with God’s pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam — fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.


Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel’s altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.


Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” it is the small size of the pages — six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine’s ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn’t help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work — the brightness and the clarity — in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel” is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It’s a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.– bz

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