CHANCES IN CHURCHES
If any one were to ask me which was the most beautiful church in Rome I should temporize, and perhaps I should end by saying that there was none. Ecclesiastical Rome seems to have inherited the instinct of imperial Rome for ugliness; only, where imperial Rome used the instinct collectively, ecclesiastical Rome has used it distributively in the innumerable churches, each less lovely than the other. This position will do to hedge from; it is a bold outpost from which I may be driven in, especially by travellers who have seen the churches I did not see. I took my chances, they theirs; for nobody can singly see all the churches in Rome; that would need a syndicate.
If imperial Rome was beautiful in detail because it had the Greeks to imagine the things it so hideously grouped, ecclesiastical Rome may be unbeautiful in detail because it had not the Goths to realize the beauty of its religious aspiration - that is, if it was the Goths who invented Gothic architecture; I do not suppose it was. Anyway, there is said to be but one Gothic church in Rome, and this I did not visit, perhaps because I felt that I must inure myself to the prevalent baroque, or perhaps from mere perversity. I can merely say in self-defence that, on the outside, Santa Maria sopra Minerva no more promised an inner beauty than Il Gesu, which is the most baroque church in Rome, without the power of coming together for a unity of effect which baroque churches sometimes have. It is a tumult of virtuosity in painting, in scuplture, in architecture. Statues sprawl into frescoed figures at points in the roof, and frescoed figures emerge in marble at others. Marvels of riches are lavished upon chapels and altars, which again are so burdened with bronze gilded or silver plated, and precious stones wrought and unwrought, that the soul, or if not the soul the taste, shrinks dismayed from them. Execution in default of inspiration has had its way to the last excess; there is nothing that it has not done to show what it can do; and all that it has done is a triumph of misguided skill and power. But it would be a mistake for the spectator to imagine that anything has been done from the spirit in which he receives it; everything is the expression of devoted faith in the forms that the art of the time offered.
In the monstrous marble tableau, say, of "Religion Triumphing Over Heresy," he may be very sure that the artist was not winking an ironical eye where he made Faith spurning Schism with her foot look very much like a lady of imperfect breeding who has lost her temper; he was most devoutly in earnest, or at least those were so, both cleric and laic, for whom he wrought his prodigy. We others, pagans or Protestants, had better understand that the children of the Church, and especially the poor children, were serious through all the shows that seem to us preposterous; they had not renounced something for nothing; if they bowed that very fallible thing, Reason, to Dogma, they got faith for their reward and could gladly accept whatever symbol of it was offered them.
No matter how baroque any church was, it could express something of this sincerity, and in their way the worshippers seemed always simply at home in it. In San Lorenzo in Lucina, where I went to see the truly sublime "Crucifixion" by Guido (there is also a bar of St. Lawrence's gridiron to be seen, but I did not know it at the time) I liked the unconsciousness of the girl kneeling before the high altar and provisionally gossiping with the young sacristan before she began her devotions. She gave her mind to them when he asked me if I wished to see the Guido, for I could see her lips moving while she shared my veneration of that most affecting masterpiece; the more genuinely affecting because it expresses the rapture and not the anguish of the Passion. I have no doubt she was grateful when the sacristan proposed my having the electric light turned on it, and when, though that I knew it would cost me something more, I assented.
They have the electric light now in all the holy places, and notably in the dungeon where St. Peter was imprisoned, and where the custodian was so proud of it, as the lastest improvement, and as far more satisfactory than candles. The shrine of the miraculous Bambino in the Church of Ara Coeli is also lighted by electricity, which spares no detail of the child's apparel and appearance. To other eyes than those of faith it has the effect of a life-size but not life-like doll, piously bedizened and jewelled over, but rather ill-humored looking, or, if not that, proud looking or severe looking. To the eyes in which its sickbed visits have dried the tears it must wear an aspect of heavenly pity and beauty; and I am very willing to believe that these are the eyes which see it aright. As it was, and taking it literally, it seemed far less mechanical and unfeeling than the monk who pulled it out and pushed it back on its wheeled platform. But he must get tired of showing it to the unbelievers who come out of curiosity, and very likely I should, if I were in his place, as nonchalantly wipe across the glass front of the shrine the card with the Bambino's legend printed in various languages on it, which you may then buy with the blessing from the glass for whatever you choose to give.