I will never forget one encounter with art’s wondrous power. I was visiting Rome, and the first lady I arose well before dawn and took a bus to the Tiber River, just outside Vatican City. I stood on the bridge colonnaded with Bernini’s angels and watched the sun rise. Slowly, quietly, I walked the few blocks to St.Peter’s. I strolled its vast spaces at a time so silent that each of my steps echoed off its graceful walls. Except for a few nuns kneeling in prayer, I was alone.
After a while I climbed stairs to the roof, where I could examine the statues and look out over the plaza. I saw a long line snaking outside in the plaza. They were not tourists, rather a choir of two hundred strong bused in from Germany. As they filed in, I stood on the balcony of the dome designed by Michelangelo. Beneath me, the choir formed a large circle under the dome and began to sing a cappella. Some of the words were in Latin, some in German, it did not matter. Inside that magnificent sheltering dome with its perfect acoustics, I was virtually suspended in their music. I had the feeling that if I lifted my arms, the medium itself would support me.
Michelangelo, arguably the greatest artist who has ever lived, later confessed that his work had crowded out his own faith. As his life drew to a close, he penned these lines:
So now, from this mad passion Which made me take art for an idol and a king I have learnt the burden of error that it bore And what misfortune springs from man’s desire… The world’s frivolities have robbed me of the time That I was given for reflecting upon God.
Perhaps. But Michelangelo and others like him have through their labors helped turn us from the world’s frivolities and given us time for such reflection. For this one moment inside St. Peter’s I had inhabited a glorious space not on earth, a moment of time not in time. Art had done its work.From “A Goad, a Nail, and Scribbles in the Sand,” First Things, February 2009(38)