A reflection from my recent Rome pilgrimage.
The Vatican is called the Vatican because it is built on a small hill beside the Tiber that the Ancients Romans called Mons Vaticanus, after the vates, the poets and seers who used to live there, looking into the future. The word vates comes from vi mentis, meaning “force of the mind,” or, as Ross King says, the creative imagination, so that in a very real way the Church can be seen to come first not from Reason, from dogma and doctrine, but from somewhere deeper, somewhere only poets and artists can reach.
The medieval churches were the Bibles of the Poor, because the poor couldn’t read the Bible on their own. Even into the nineteenth century most of Europe was illiterate. The only way that the people could receive the stories of the Bible was through the preaching they heard and from the statues and paintings covering the walls of their churches—the chunky little angels of Giotto, for example, with their wings the color of popsicles, cherry and orange and grape.
I love those chubby faces. I love how you can never tell if they’re laughing or crying, even when they’re hovering in the dark air around the cross.