I will admit it: I'm not a religious person. I am, at times, spiritual. Seeing a gorgeous sunset, viewing the world from a top a mountain, or tasting the salty sea air while lounging on a tropical beach all give me moments where I truly feel spiritual, like I am one with the universe. But I have never been, and most likely never will be, one for organized religion. This is not to say I consider it "bad" - it is just not for me. In fact, there are some things about organized religion that I admire, particularly religion's penchant for aesthetics and beauty. No matter what religion you study, you will always find that it breeds beauty in architecture, art, and music.
|The "Sphere Within a Sphere" sculpture in the Vatican Courtyard|
A prime example of this can be found in the heart of the Catholic Church's world: Vatican City. I have been there twice now, and each time marvel at the treasures it holds. (Quite honestly, I believe the Vatican alone could solve world hunger if only they were to sell and equally distribute the abundance of gold, valuable paintings, and other treasures they have acquired over the millennium.) The Vatican holds rooms upon rooms filled with marble statues, priceless paintings, gold-leafed books written by masters, ancient tapestries adorning the walls... even the floors are art pieces, with mosaic tiling forming storybook images. I could visit every year and still not even scratch the surface of what the Vatican holds (and if "Angels and Demons" can be believed, no one is even allowed to see a complete inventory of what the Vatican possesses).
|The Vatican had rooms upon rooms filled just like this with precious art and artifacts|
It is a true adventure to walk through the Vatican Museum, where each hallway is more spectacular than the last. One hallway is filled with giant, ancient maps filling the walls from floor to ceiling; another is filled with detailed and vibrant tapestries. One room boasts artifacts taken from conquered Egypt, while yet another toys with shading and chiaroscuro to make each painting seem 3-D. The ceilings are decorated, the floors are carefully and artfully tiled - your neck hurts from craning it this way and that as you gaze at the beauty around you.
|Just one of the amazing hallways in the Vatican, which act as art galleries|
I've been to Rome twice, and incredibly, have been guided by the same tour-guide each time. Carla is extremely intelligent and sure knows her stuff - as she very well should. According to her, all guides in Rome must register with a guild, and are tested every year on their knowledge to ensure they are giving visitors to the remarkable city the best experience possible. It was Carla who told us that each room in the Vatican Museum hallway is more impressive than the next due to the competitive behavior of the popes - each pope wanted to leave his mark on the Vatican as an art connoisseur, and wanted to outdo the pope before him.
|Posing with an Egyptian relic in Vatican City.|
As amazing as the Vatican Museum was, the hallway eventually ended, and we found ourselves outside a simple wooden door. Carla stressed to us the importance of being very quiet, for we were about to enter one of the holiest chapels in the world: the Sistine Chapel.
There aren’t really words to describe the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. Immediately your eyes are drawn to the roof, as it is the pivotal part in the room if you know even the slightest bit about art. If you are lucky, you can find a spot to sit and feast your eyes upon Michelangelo’s masterpiece. However, there is a shortage of seating in the Sistine Chapel - with some benches on the side and in the back, but mostly open space in the middle. You are not allowed to sit on the floor or the marble stairs leading up to the front of the church. (The pulpit? Great, now my ignorance in organized religion is beginning to show!) We saw a few teens shooed away by the “hushers” for sitting on the stairs.
|Hmm... what to confess?|
Perhaps “hushers” isn’t the correct term for these men, but that’s what we called them. Among the many rules in the Sistine Chapel, such as the one about sitting on the floor, you are also not allowed to bring in food or drink, take pictures (although many of us sneaked in one or two, without flash), or speak. You are expected to be absolutely silent (perhaps a whisper here and there) and drink in the sights quietly to yourself. However, in a room of that size, with that many people crammed into it, there is bound to be some discussion. The noise came in waves. It would be very quiet, then people would start to whisper, then speak in low tones, then in a slightly louder voice, until the room seemed to be filled with a droning sound. That’s when the “hushers”, who were standing like security guards at the front and back of the room, would suddenly go, “SHHH!”, quite loudly. Then everyone would shut up again, for about 10 minutes.
|The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - it is amazing!|
Once we finished gazing at the ceiling, we then couldn`t help but stare at the front, where Michelangelo painted a somewhat creepy art piece called “The Last Judgement” in which he is holding his own shed skin in his hand. I actually think I like “The Last Judgement” better than the ceiling frescoes. It has so many hidden nuances and innuendos - honestly, check it out online and read up about it. It is a very interesting piece. But don’t think you will be done then: there are the many paintings on the side walls, some done by my absolute favorite artist, Sandro Botticelli. I could have stayed in the Sistine Chapel for hours, but we had to move on.
|"The Last Judgement" by Michelangelo (this pic is from the placard in the Vatican Courtyard)|
Our next stop was inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It was a humbling building to be in, which I’m sure was the intent when this massive structure was built. It can hold two football fields in its main gallery; to ensure visitors can accurately hypothesize its length, there are markers along the center of the main gallery indicating different churches around the world, and how they would compare if placed inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Only a few made it past the halfway point.
|St. Peter's Basilica - absolutely huge!|
The windows allow light to stream inside, highlighting the beautiful sculptures and carvings inside the church itself. (In fact, we saw one man being escorted from the Basilica because he had been standing in a Jesus pose in one of the light beams. Apparently the guard didn’t find it as funny and clever as I did. I took a picture of him.)
|A beautiful sunbeam filters through the window and into St. Peter's Basilica|
St. Peter’s Basilica, besides being grandiose and beautiful all on its own, also contains an artwork that I’m sure most people will recognize: La Pieta. The first time I was in Rome, in late January, there were not many tourists about, and I was able to get front and center with La Pieta and take some great pictures. The second time I went, in mid-April, it was much more difficult to get close to the sculpture (which is already roped off and behind glass). If you want to see the Vatican and its treasures a bit more personally, I recommend going to see it during the winter months.
|The beautiful "La Pieta" by Michelangelo, in St. Peter's Basilica|
I could honestly go on and on about how amazing the Basilica is. It is huge - you have to go there yourself and stand within its belly in order to really understand what I’m talking about. You don’t have to be religious to feel spiritual while standing there.
|Posing as close as I can with a Swiss Guard|
Oh yeah, on the way out, I posed with a Swiss Guard. They have great outfits!