|View from the top. Well, from a balcony on Monday afternoon.|
At about 3:20 Sister Margaret came into sight just behind the Swiss Guard's shoulder. At her word, he let us through the gate and our visit to the inner sanctum began! We started with St Peter's itself, going through the Holy Door and joining at a large circle of porphyry for a prayer. Sister Margaret explained that this maroon marble had come from the ancient Basilica of St Peter, the one built in Constantine's day. Taken from the spot that had been the papal altar, it was placed near the entrance of the nave for the laity to cross over, a reminder of their baptismal participation in the same mystery celebrated at the Eucharistic altar.
From the Basilica, we crossed into the Apostolic Palace. Looking right, we saw the Swiss Guard standing at the Bronze Doors. Looking left, a magnificent staircase with enormous pillars lining the whole way up. It was an optical illusion of sorts: the stairway actually grew more narrow toward the top, where two formerly separate buildings joined at an angle. Bernini placed the columns equal widths apart to make the stairway seem completely even. We turned our backs to the columns and went toward the Bronze Doors and then turned to go up a different set of stairs. (I remember going up this way to get tickets for the Papal Audiences when I was working in Rome. The priest who once manned the desk is now a Cardinal.) Sister Margaret explained that the (many) staircases have names. She takes the "stairs of death" to get to her office. (The grim name is due to the historic reality that when a Pope died upstairs, this was the way his body was moved to St Peter's for the funeral.) I don't remember too many staircase names, but I do recall that the Pius VII stairs were singularly unimpressive. (After all the poor man suffered from Napoleon, I would have thought they could have given him a nicer set of stairs!)
As we approached the Saint Damasus Courtyard, a black car pulled up. The priest who got out greeted us in a friendly manner. Sister Margaret mentioned which office she worked in, and we got
As His Eminence went toward his office, Sister Margaret explained the layout of the famous courtyard. Its arched windows were meant to evoke the Colosseum, and originally formed open walkways (that kind of open-to-one-side walkway is called a "loggia"). As with many Roman buildings, the columns alongside the window openings were different on each floor, getting more ornate the higher up they were. We were coming during a lull in the workday, so we got to pass through the various loggia of the Apostolic Palace. I think it was the highest one that featured ceiling-high maps of the world circa 1700. There was no Australia, and South America had a map of its own, marked "America." (North America appeared elsewhere, with Canada appearing as New France.) A floor below was the famous Raphael loggia: the ceilings told the entire story of salvation. (Alas, we were not free to take pictures, but Wikipedia offers some!) Sister Margaret briefly told of the occupation of the Vatican (during the sack of Rome?) and pointed out the damage from the soldiers, as well as the graffiti left from petitioners of other eras who waited in this open hall for a chance to speak their pleas directly to the Pope.
We were beginning to hurry along now: a Canadian priest from one of the offices was waiting to show us the Sala Reggia, where the Pope meets heads of state (kings, queens, that sort of thing). We had to pass through the Sala Ducale to get there. This is where the Pope meets lesser nobility and important (but not that important) government officials. There is a funny protocol behind the positioning of the rooms: visitors to the Sala Ducale have to walk a few yards more than the Pope to reach the appointment, but heads of state have a journey equidistant to the Pope's for their meeting. Both rooms are pretty impressive, but I was most impressed with a room off the Sala Reggia: the Pauline Chapel. Here the Blessed Sacrament is reserved (indeed, Sister Margaret often makes her Hour of Adoration here), and the enormous frescoes by Michaelangelo (the Conversion of St Paul and the Martyrdom of St Peter) seem to have been painted last week, so bright and clear were the images. (The most recent restoration ended in 2009.) Sister Margaret also told us that when there is a conclave, it begins in prayer here, in the papal chapel, before processing to the nearby Sistine Chapel for the actual voting. (The two chapels are named for the Popes who commissioned them.)
At this point, sensory overload kicked in. Despite the promise of a quick peak at the Sistine Chapel, I had to leave the group and head back to our residence via the familiar bus 881. I had only one free day left in Rome: something to share in a future post!