Rome Bone Church Painting + Adventure in the Western Schism

The patron of the Catholic parish in Rocky Mount, Va: we mark the 795th anniversary of his death today.

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This Caravaggio painting hangs in the museum attached to the Capuchin Church of St. Mary of the Conception, in Rome.

I had the chance to gaze upon the painting, shortly before I flew home from Italy. It falls in my favorite category of paintings: St. Francis memento mori.

To be honest, I didn’t make a special trip to the “Bone Church” this time. I just stopped-in to kill an hour. The nondescript-looking building sits around the corner from the pharmacy where I had managed to get an appointment to have a coronavirus test. (I needed a negative, in order to board the plane the following day.)

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I had prayed in the Bone Church before, twenty years ago. It enraptured me then. It is an artistic masterpiece.

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Capuchin Crypt in Rome

This time, though, I came away with a different thought.

The graves that the anonymous 18th-century Franciscan artist disturbed, in order to decorate his unique chapels–those graves should have been left in peace. Yes, we need to remember how short life is, every day. But not by disturbing other peoples’ bones.

…Before I got to Rome, I visited a number of ancient cities in Tuscany. I encountered monuments from the 14th and 15th centuries, monuments that turned my little Italy trip into An Adventure in the Western Schism.

Dante Vergil Delacroix
The Barque of Dante by Delacroix

Back in 2013, we remembered Pope Celestine V, the last Roman pontiff to abdicate, prior to Benedict XVI.

(Do not confuse Celestine V with Celestine III, who reigned during St. Francis’ lifetime. The earlier Celestine wanted to abdicate, but the Cardinals talked him out of it.)

We have this in common with the great Florentine poet Dante: living through a period with two living popes. One reigning, one retired. Dante was 29 when Celestine renounced the throne of Peter, in 1294.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante puts Celestine V in the antechamber of hell. There dwell…

the souls unsure, whose lives earned neither honor nor bad fame…

neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him.

[They] chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.

Now heaven expels them, not to mar its spendor,

and hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart take glory over them.

Mercy and justice disdain them.

Benedict pallium Celestine V
Benedict lays his pallium on the coffin of Pope Celestine V, in 2009. (L’Osservatore Romano photo)

About Celestine himself, Dante writes:

I beheld the shade of him who make the Great Refusal,

impelled by cowardice, so at once I understood beyond all doubt that

[in this upper circle of hell we find]

the dreary guild repellent both to God and His enemies,

hapless ones never alive.

Anyway, Pope Boniface VIII succeeded Celestine V in late 1294. And thus began a dramatic century+ of history–history that unfolded, in part, in the cities I got to visit last month.

Ecumenical Councils were attempted in Pisa and successfully accomplished in Florence; the pope resided for a decisive week in Lucca; Rome had the first-ever jubilee year, with hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city–and shorlty thereafter the papacy moved to France, for three-quarters of a century.

More to come on all this…

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