Exploring the treasures of the Eternal City, I’m reminded of that great truth of the faith explained by St. Thomas Aquinas: grace does not destroy, but rather completes and perfects nature.
This obelisk was brought to Rome from Egypt by the Emperor Caligula in 37 A.D. and dates, by one account, from 1835 B.C. It originally stood a little to the south of where it stands today, in the middle of Caligula’s “circus” where St. Peter himself was martyred. For the ancient Egyptians, the obelisk "was a solar symbol that represented a vital flow between heaven and earth, a way of communicating to the divine." When Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk moved to its present location in 1586, he topped it with a bronze cross containing a fragment of the True Cross. Caligula simply wanted to take for his own a brilliant artifact from a culture he admired; Sixtus wanted to make a theological point: the natural yearning for God that animates every human heart finds its ultimate point of communication with the Divine in the triumph of the Cross.
Similarly, the Pantheon, one of Rome’s most breathtaking structures, began its life in the second century A.D. as a Roman temple dedicated to “all the gods” (the meaning of “Pan-theon” in Greek). Cassius Dio, a Roman senator, speculated that this name derived either from the fact that the temple contained statues of so many gods or because the dome resembled the vault of the heavens. But from the 7th century A.D., when the Emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, the Pantheon has served as a Catholic Church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. The building that Michelangelo claimed to be an "angelic, not human design" now stands as a testimony to the glories of Our Lady–"our tainted nature’s solitary boast"–and to those who gave their lives for the Gospel. What nature may desire in many gods it can really only find in the one child born of Mary.
One of my most favorite spots in Rome, finally, is the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Museums, the home of the Renaissance painter Rafael’s famous fresco, "School of Athens." Yet this image depicting the glories of pagan philosophy (that’s Plato in the middle pointing to the heavens, and Aristotle pointing to the facts of the earth), is not meant to be appreciated alone. There are actually several frescoes in this room, all painted between 1508 and 1511, that represent the three highest aspirations of the human spirit: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The “School of Athens” and the fresco on the opposite wall,"Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament" represent the value of Truth. Goodness is represented by embodiments of the Cardinal Virtues painted throughout the room. And Beauty is represented by the fresco above one door, "Mount Parnassus," which depicts Apollo, the Muses, and the great poets of the ancient and medieval worlds. Notice that Rafael’s frescoes image the glories of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness from both pagan and Christian sources. We are meant, for example, to understand Plato and Aristotle on a journey toward the same truth that St. Thomas Aquinas himself, in the fresco opposite, finds hidden in the Blessed Sacrament.
For again, grace does not destroy, but rather completes and perfects nature.
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