It is the pope’s private chapel, in the Vatican buildings. Subjected to a complete restoration, it again has the altar turned toward the tabernacle. But also new is the interpretation that Benedict XVI has given to the two frescoes by Michelangelo, especially concerning the expression of the apostle Peter…
ROME, July 6, 2009 – The illustrations reproduced above are two details from two frescoes by Michelangelo, facing each other in the Pauline Chapel: the conversion of Paul, and the crucifixion of Peter.
The Pauline Chapel is not open to visitors. Situated in the Vatican buildings just a few steps from the Sistine Chapel, it is a place of prayer reserved for the pope. After undergoing a complete restoration, it was reopened for worship on Saturday, July 4, by Benedict XVI, who presided over vespers there.
The news of the reopening of the Pauline Chapel for worship received scant coverage in the media, being overshadowed by the imminent publication of the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” and by the meeting between the pope and Barack Obama.
But at least two new developments must be noted.
The first is that the renovation included a restructuring of the sanctuary, in fidelity to the liturgical tradition.
In 1975, Paul VI had replaced the altar turned toward the tabernacle with an oval-shaped altar detached from the wall, to be used while facing the faithful.
He had also eliminated the wooden communion rail, and replaced it with an ambo in carved marble. The floor was covered with a red carpet. So were the side walls, up to the level of the frescoes.
Benedict XVI has put the previous altar back in its place, although still a short distance from the tabernacle, restoring the celebration of all “facing the Lord.” He has had the ambo removed, and the communion rail put back in its place. The red carpet has disappeared from both the floor and the walls, which have been restored to their original appearance.
The second important new development concerns the interpretation of the two frescoes by Michelangelo dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, in particular the interpretation of Peter’s expression.
The traditional interpretation says that Peter – while he is about to be crucified upside down – is turned to look at everyone who enters the chapel, to remind him that martyrdom can be the fate of those who follow Jesus.
In support of this interpretation, it is recalled that until 1670, many conclaves were held in the Pauline Chapel. Peter was looking into the eyes of the cardinals preparing to elect his successor. And the newly elect, who from then on would go into that chapel to pray, would exchange glances each time with the first of the apostles.
Those in charge of the restoration, in presenting the renovated chapel to the public on June 30, also adhered substantially to this interpretative tradition.
So then, the new development is that Benedict XVI has distanced himself from it. In the homily for vespers with which he reopened the Pauline Chapel for worship, he gave a new interpretation of Peter’s expression in the fresco by Michelangelo.
The pope said that Peter’s gaze, instead of being directed at the visitor, is instead intended to be directed at the face of Paul on the opposite wall: at Paul, who bears within himself the light of the risen Christ. “It is as if Peter, in the hour of the supreme trial, were seeking that light which gave the true faith to Paul.”
Naturally, the pope added, this does not change the fact that this dialogue of gazes between the two apostles is a great lesson for those who enter to pray in the Pauline Chapel, and in particular for the successors of Peter.
The following is the central passage of Benedict XVI’s homily at vespers on July 4, 2009, in the Pauline Chapel, dedicated to the two apostles frescoed by Michelangelo:
“The two faces of Peter and Paul are across from each other . . .”
by Benedict XVI
[…] The eyes are drawn first of all by the faces of the two apostles. It is already clear from their position that these two faces play a central role in the iconographic message of the chapel. But, beyond their placement, they draw us immediately beyond the image: they question us, and prompt us to reflect.
First of all, let us examine Paul: why is he represented with such an old face? It is the face of an old man, while we know – and Michelangelo also knew this well – that the call of Saul on the road to Damascus took place when he was about thirty years old. The decision of the artist already brings us beyond pure realism, it makes us go beyond the simple narration of events in order to usher us into a more profound level. The face of Saul-Paul – which is actually that of the artist himself, elderly, restless, and in search of the light of truth – represents the human being in need of a light from above. This is the light of divine grace, indispensable for acquiring new vision with which to perceive the reality oriented to the “hope that waits for you in heaven” – as the apostle writes in the opening salutation of the letter to the Colossians, which we have just heard (1,5).
Having fallen to the ground, Saul’s face is illuminated from above, by the light of the Risen One, and, in spite of its dramatic nature, the depiction inspires peace and infuses trust. It expresses the maturity of the man who is illuminated inside by Christ the Lord, while around him turns a disarray of events in which all of the figures look like they are caught up in a whirlwind. The grace and peace of God have enveloped Saul, they have conquered and transformed him from within. He will proclaim this same “grace” and this same “peace” to all of his communities on his apostolic voyages, with a seasoned maturity not of age, but of spirit, given to him by the Lord himself.
Here therefore, in the face of Paul, we can already perceive the heart of the spiritual message of this chapel: the miracle of Christ’s grace, which transforms and renews man through the light of his truth and his love. This is what constitutes the novelty of conversion, of the call to faith, which finds its fulfillment in the mystery of the Cross.
From the face of Paul we move to that of Peter, depicted at the moment in which his inverted cross is being raised, who turns to look at those who are observing him. This face also surprises us. Here the age represented is correct, but it is the expression that amazes and puzzles us. Why this expression? It is not an image of suffering, and the figure of Peter communicates surprising physical vigor. The face, especially the forehead and the eyes, seem to express the interior state of a man facing death and evil: there is a sense of confusion, an expression reaching outward intently, almost as if seeking something or someone in the final hour. And the faces of the people around him are also remarkable for their eyes: a chain of restless expressions, some of them even fearful or dismayed.
What does all of this mean? It is what Jesus had told this apostle in advance: “when you are old, another will take you where you do not wish to go”; and the Lord had added: “Follow me” (John 21:18,19). And here it is, at this very moment is the culmination of discipleship: the disciple is not greater than his Master, and now experiences all of the bitterness of the cross, of the consequences of sin that separates from God, all the absurdity of violence and deceit. If one comes to meditate in this chapel, one cannot escape the radical nature of the question that is posed from the cross: the cross of Christ, head of the Church, and the cross of Peter, his vicar on earth.
The two faces that we have stopped to consider are across from each other. One could even believe that Peter’s face is turned toward Paul, who, for his part, does not see, but bears within himself the light of the risen Christ. It is as if Peter, in the hour of the supreme trial, were seeking that light which gave the true faith to Paul.
And so it is that in this sense, the two icons can become two acts in a single drama: the drama of the Paschal mystery: cross and resurrection, death and life, sin and grace. The chronological order of the events represented may have been overturned, but what emerges is the plan of salvation, that plan which Christ himself realized in himself by bringing it to fulfillment, as we have just sung in the hymn from the letter to the Philippians.
For those who come to pray in this chapel, and for the pope first of all, Peter and Paul become teachers of faith. With their testimony, they invite us to go to the depths, to meditate in silence on the mystery of the cross, which accompanies the Church until the end of time, and to welcome the light of the faith, thanks to which the apostolic community can extend to the ends of the earth the missionary and evangelizing action entrusted to it by the risen Christ. Here there are no solemn celebrations with the people. Here the successor of Peter and his collaborators meditate in silence and adore the living Christ, present especially in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. […]
The complete text of the pope’s homily on July 4, 2009: