A message from Father Nick 61

Last Judgement, by Michelangelo

A change of perspective

Before we turn our attention from St Peter’s, we should perhaps note another aspect of its symbolic power. This remarkable building, with its beauty, history and lessons in stone, has been seen by many as a sign of division rather than of unity.

Michelangelo Buonarotti painted the ceiling of the famous Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II between 1508-1512. A pinnacle of High Renaissance art, its images remain sublime. This is where cardinals meet in conclave to elect each new pope. And this is where they will always be reminded of the beauty of God’s creative purpose.

But in 1534 when Paul III was elected pope, he asked the same artist for something different. Paul commissioned Michelangelo to paint the dominating altar wall as a scene of final judgment. Of course, this too turned out to be a masterpiece, including more than three hundred figures grouped around a muscular, majestic Christ. It is beautiful but also profoundly disturbing.

And it reflects the shock of Rome’s recent experience. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther had made his first act of protest – symbolically seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To compound it, on 6th May 1527, Rome itself was sacked by rebellious soldiers of the Emperor. The Swiss Guards were massacred, Pope Clement VII fled to Castel Sant Angelo where he was besieged for a month, and Rome was devastated by acts of sacrilege, rape and murder (it is estimated that perhaps 10% of the population perished during the sack).

                            Castel St Angelo, Rome

New forces of nationalism were involved in all this, but there was a theological dimension to it too – and a problem of cash: how was the building of St Peter’s to be paid for? One way was through an indulgence, authorized by Pope Julius to finance its construction.

Indulgences were not new.

They had appeared centuries earlier when the sacrament of penance became a private rite administered by a priest. In its simplest form an indulgence did not remit sins, rather it set aside part or all of the penalty that was required to pay for those sins. That penalty, or penance, consisted of religious actions such as giving alms, saying prayers, visiting shrines, viewing relics and fasting. Performing those actions paid the penalty for sin even though the guilt incurred had been removed by the death of Christ. An indulgence, therefore, did not forgive sin or its guilt but exempted the sinner from some or all of the penalty. The original intention was compassionate.”

Now, however, they were being sold for money. In 1515, Pope Leo X extended the offer to Germany, and John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was sent to promote it. Tetzel was no crook, but his message with its catchy, modern-sounding sales pitch was to say the least problematical:

“As soon as the gold in the casket rings
The rescued soul to heaven springs.”

Luther, a devout Augustinian friar and theologian, was outraged. His initial protest against this and other abuses was not an attempt to split the Church. Rather, he wished to see it cleansed of such practices. Local German rulers, however, rallied around him for their own reasons; Rome’s representatives were high-handed; and Luther himself was stubborn. The rest, as they say, is history.

Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder