Call me a hypocrite, but my favorite part of traveling through Europe as a kid was all the cathedrals and churches I got to poke around in along the way, from Westminster Abbey to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, where I witnessed an enraged monk flinging a thick chain against a stone wall and had nightmares about it for weeks. It’s not the religious aspect for me, but more the architecture and art. Old religious art scares the shit out of me, which only makes me want it more. It’s why I have a small (but growing!) collection of it in my bathroom. Nothing will top that $2 mosaic of the Last Supper made from aquarium rocks, though.
The Vatican of course always had the greatest impact on me. Even just waiting to get inside is scary. It’s been awhile since I’ve been there – over a decade – so I’m not sure if the rules are as stringent, but from what I remember, shorts had to be at least knee-length if you wanted any chance at all of eking past the Swiss guards. (I took a picture of them once and I thought my family was going to have a heart attack. “DO NOT TAKE THEIR PICTURE! DO NOT EVEN MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THEM! IN FACT, JUST STOP BREATHING!”) And don’t even think about slipping inside the Vatican with exposed shoulders. I always brought a windbreaker with me on days where any sort of religious facility was going to be toured, just to be safe.
Plus, it’s as icy as Herod’s heart in those fuckers.
Once inside the Vatican, I would always cry. Always. The history alone is enough to make you catch your breath, but then you look up at the Sistine Chapel and it’s the most realest Shut the Fuck Up moment you might ever experience in your life. Just knowing that one man accomplished that expansive work of art, it’s just, I can’t even. And to stand below it, to see it with your own eyes? Even if art isn’t your thing, I can’t imagine anyone looking at that and not feeling something. Even if that something is just a slight sense a vertigo.
My most vivid memory though has nothing to do with St. Peter’s Basilica or Bernini’s baldacchino (I will have someone make me my own baldacchino before I die, count on that), but of an Asian tourist kneeling down on the ground to take a photo and promptly being converged upon by guards and escorted out without so much as a warning. Let that be a lesson to all you Asians and kneeling aficionados!
I am not a spoiled little rich girl anymore, and God only knows (haha, see what I did there?) when or if I’ll ever make it back over there. So when I heard that Vatican Splendors was rolling into the Heinz History Center, I sent out a frantic tweet to find someone who would be down for ogling priceless religical relics; Kara immediately replied. (Kara is my go-to-girl for looking at things and eating weird food.) This was in September.
Two weeks ago, I was in the car with Henry and Chooch when I saw that the billboard for Vatican Splendors now had a warning of FINAL DAYS! slapped across it. Slight panic set in. “Oh shit,” I said to no one who cared. “I forgot that for a split second I was interested in that!” Kara and I quickly solidified plans after that; great marketing plan – the sense of threat always makes me less ambivalent when it comes to plan-making.
It was packed when we lined up for the tour last Friday. Groups are sent through every 30 minutes, and the groups themselves didn’t seem too overwhelming, but that wasn’t accounting for all the die hards in earlier groups who would pause for eternity in front of an ancient mold of a man’s head and ask their companion, “Now how do they know this was a man’s head?” at which point their pretentiously-scarved scholar friend will swan dive into a dissertation causing the rest of the groups to pile up and shuffle impatiently in place behind them because we too want to see this half-destroyed chunk of cranium-shaped stone and hey bitch, just go home and GOOGLE THAT SHIT.
Inside the exhibition, it was quite literally a Red Sea of fanny-packs, velour track suits on liver-spotted bodies, dentured smiles framed with coral lipstick. This one old broad kept running into me, so I started “accidentally” elbowing her, smashing my purse against her broad backside, purposely planting my feet a few seconds longer in front of a particular reliquary that has her craning her Aqua-Netted coif over my shoulder and shaking her blood pressure pills, that’s how badly she can’t wait for it to be her turn.
I quickly remembered that I don’t get along well with other people who want to look at Jesus art.
“There are so many people here I hate,” I whispered to Kara, and she gave me a knowing nod. She carried her billion-pound slumbering baby through the whole exhibit, so I think she was probably more focused on hating her own life at that point.
While the demographic was mostly in the 65 – Holy Ghost range, there were a few kids there as well. One guy behind me was quietly observing a painting with his son, who was probably five or six, and asked him, “What do you think is going on in this picture?” at which point they had a quiet, intellectual dialogue. It gave me pause. I tried to imagine Chooch there with me, but all I could hear ricocheting around my head was: MOMMY I CAN SEE THAT ANGEL BROAD’S BOOBS! WHO’S THAT DEAD BASTARD? WHY IS DEAD JESUS LOOKING AT HIS MOM’S BOOBS??? DOES JESUS HAVE A WEENER? AW, CHRIST.
This is why I leave my child at home with his uncultured father.
At one point, a pernicious tickle cropped up in my throat. I knew this tickle well, we go way back. He likes to present himself anytime I’m in a situation where I’m in a crowd of people, looking at things, and trying to be respectful. He was at my child’s Baptism. He was at the Salem Witch Museum during a presentation where everyone was asked to STFU, and there I was, trying to smother myself in Henry’s side to silence my uncontrollable coughing.
“Do you think I’ll get yelled at if I sneak a sip of my water?” I whispered to Kara, who probably couldn’t have cared less about my tickling throat situation, considering her arms were about to atrophy under the weight of her slumbering baby. There were History Center employees ducked into shadowy doorways and corners all throughout the place, but I chanced it. I was fine after that, but unfortunately I didn’t put the cap on all the way so water slowly spilled out onto the contents of my purse the whole time I pretended to read the plaques next to things like Very Important Deeds Behind Glass. I wouldn’t discover this until I was on my way home, of course. Good thing I didn’t have my Mogwai smuggled in there, am I right?
Of course, there was no photography of any kind allowed, which is a shame, because I was mostly interested in taking photos of all the people I couldn’t stand.
Like an old lady and her even older mom, who I think was handicapped, actually I think they both were. They were behind me for awhile, and the daughter had some gilded nugget of information to add to every artifact. Like the Pieta.
“They say the replica is so similar to the real one, that it’s hard to tell the difference!” she cooed to her mom, who muttered an “mmm” in response. Then they dipped out of line and flitted off yonder. “But I was learning so much from them!” I whined to Kara, whose baby-cradling biceps had inflated to the size of dwarves by that point and it’s a good thing they weren’t that big on the way in because she probably would have been charged admission for them. You know how the Church is.
There were definitely a few moments where I got all choked up, not because I was having some crazy religious awakening, but just being face-to-face with so many pieces of history. Even looking at one of Michaelangelo’s tools encased in glass, I got a little awe-struck. I don’t necessarily believe in God and all that, but I do believe in art, and the existence of Michaelangelo, Bernini, Botticelli, Guercino. (His Christ with Crown of Thorns was there and I seriously almost lost it; that painting is so goddamn scary to me, I can’t even. My favorite part was when two teenage girls pushed their way through the crowd and one of them yelled, “Hey! That’s that really famous painting!” They looked at it for .005 seconds from about 10 feet away, then took off.)
So, you know, don’t think it’s so weird that I bumped elbows with Vatican fuckers for an afternoon.