Roman Pilgrimage: Churchgoing

On the trail of time and art in Rome.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Roma

I: Praying in Time

At the behest of a friend, I once sought out the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which is located in a park-like setting between the-Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla. (“The place always seems to me the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner,” wrote Henry James, “ — a place you would think twice before telling people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go.”) I was urged to descend from the modern church (modern! The Romanesque exterior dates from the 11th century, while the interior-was remodeled in 1718) — which was constructed on top of the fourth-century basilica (remains of which are still evident) built by Saint Pammachius and significantly damaged in Alaric’s sack of the city in 410 (to say nothing of the earthquake in 442) — into what is known by tradition as the “House of Saints John and Paul” below. This house, as the Blue Guide once described it, with admirable but not entirely appropriate reserve, is “an interesting two-storied construction, with 20 rooms, originally part of three buildings: a Roman palace, a Christian house, and an oratory, decorated with frescoes” of the second through fourth centuries.

The morning I made my way to Santi Giovanni e Paolo, there was no sacristan in attendance to shepherd me into these earlier epochs. I had walked a long way to get there, however, and I was determined to take away some discovery. I snooped about, and, following a guidebook’s lead down the right aisle, crossed a portion of the altar to pass through a partially draped door. Before me was a staircase barred with a velvet cordon lazy enough to invite transgression. I transgressed and descended the steps into the dimly lit labyrinth of rooms. Suddenly, strangely, I was wandering among walls decorated with frescoes: pagan frescoes of boats manned by-Cupids, of peacocks and of other birds; Christian frescoes of martyrs and praying figures; architectural frescoes, too. Up and down steps, from chamber to chamber I passed, trying to remember my reading about the Christian burial shafts and Roman baths that had been discovered here in excavations, but content to be uninformed about most of what appeared before me. Awed by the dim, dank preservation of the past I had stumbled into, I spent what seemed hours in the bowels of the basilica. Reclimbing the stairs — recalled to stealth by the bright light of the sacristy — I stepped bewildered through a different draped door and found myself on the altar in front of a crowd of people: a wedding was about to begin. Holding my guidebook solemnly in the palms of my hands, I used all the wiles of my Jesuit education to imitate an acolyte stepping slowly over the altar rail and moving intently down a side aisle to the church’s portico, where I wound my way through a gaggle of flower girls and back out into the street. “Its own language in time” indeed.

Detail of Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saint Paul

II: Caravaggio and the Saints

The chapel which holds the Caravaggios — officially the Contarelli Chapel — is to the left of the main altar as one makes one’s way to the front of the church. The three canvases are large, dominating the otherwise nondescript alcove. On the viewer’s left, ”The Calling of Saint Matthew” depicts Christ’s summoning of Levi the tax gatherer from a party of associates. “Who, me?” the future Matthew asks, pointing to himself in response to Christ’s beckoning hand. The static, silent narrative is charged with drama. Across from “The Calling,” a more dynamic composition portrays the saint’s martyrdom. Over the altar, and most easily visible of the three works, is Caravaggio’s rendering of “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew,” which shows the evangelist, pen in hand, being visited by an angelic muse. Matthew’s face — so realistically painted, so common in its features, so uncertain in its eyes and aspect — is a marvel of imagination, his hands and bare feet sure and subtle emblems of his earthliness.

The power and vitality of these paintings is stunning, the physicality and immediacy of their embodiment of otherworldly themes stark, almost brutal in its lucidity. One longed to look longer than the light allowed, to see into them more deeply and latch onto the meaning of the mysteries they made manifest, and then to find, in the same kind of surroundings, as many other Caravaggios as one could. Next stop, then, the Piazza del Popolo, where the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo holds additional treasures by the artist, namely “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” and “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” works executed not long after the Matthew series.

Like all Caravaggios, yet unlike most religious painting, these make us think of first things first: the “Crucifixion” is a billboard of bodies, naked and clothed: the only light in the darkness that grounds the figures falls on the torso of the saint, on his legs and arm, his toes; on the arms of his tormentors, and on the broad back of one and the broad rump of another. Peter’s face is weary with humanity. The dramatic subject of the second painting is delivered with a perversity of focus that is telling: the stricken Saul is sprawled in the foreground, and two-thirds of the canvas is devoted to his unmanned horse. The flank of the animal dominates our vision, and the horse’s forelegs (and one raised hoof, seen from beneath) occupy the center of the frame. The view of Saul’s face is oblique. Strangely, the concentration on carnality and the realism of sensual detail highlights the force — the impetuousness and irony — of divine intervention. Unlike Raphael, who can paint drapes so heavenly we can surely climb them to salvation, or Michelangelo, who carries us to godly heights on the shoulders of his giants, Caravaggio rubs our eyes with veined hands, shocks us with the bottoms of dirty feet, animates the struggling body of humanity with the startling clarity of his illumination, envisaging — by his furious insistence on the presence and primacy of flesh, apprehended though it be by divine light — the mystery of incarnation: that simple, strong imagining of the intimate relations between body and soul, mortality and memory.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.