A pearl found me yesterday while researching Vatican artwork for my church’s summer program. Together, two stories regarding art at St. Peter’s Basilica touched my heart with the message: “The humble will be exalted,” and especially, “The last will be first.” Hope this blesses you too.
If you’re a history buff, and you already know this, stay with me through the details. Together the art history and each piece’s placement reveal a magnificent representation of love for Christ and the Gospel’s truth.
The first story is about the Vatican Obelisk and the second is St. Peter’s statue outside the basilica and the story of his martyrdom. The obelisk was moved from Egypt by Nero to his circus in Rome in 37AD (where the Vatican stands today.) You probably know this. Many Christians became martyrs there, including, many scholars believe, St. Peter.
Originally it stood at the now location of the Sacristy. Pope Sixtus V moved the obelisk in 1586 from its original location to its present site in St. Peter’s Square—less than 900 feet. The obelisk is the only original standing Egyptian obelisk in Rome, and it was most likely in St. Peter’s vision as he died for his LORD.
Legend is that originally Julius Cesar’s ashes were in the brass dome on top. A couple of sites state that as it was moved the dome was opened (some say the then Holy Father opened it, some say the architect, some say workers) and they found only dust. The Pope sent the globe to a Roman museum and placed a cross on the top that contains a piece of the True Cross, the cross Jesus was crucified on. The cross and relic reach high into the sky: “The last will be first.”
The stones placed in the cobblestone around the obelisk mark the noon shadow throughout the zodiac—marking the darkness that came as Christ hung on the cross.
Today, looking toward the basilica, St. Peter’s statue stands at the left of the entrance, Christ and St. John the Baptist stand over his left shoulder on the balustrade of St. Peter’s façade. The obelisk is still in Peter’s sight, but now, his Lord Jesus’ victory over the grave, whom he gave his life for on that very site, stands memorialized at its apex. St. Peter stands in marble looking downward, his finger pointing toward the crowd with heaven’s keys grasped firmly in his hand reminding us still to love Christ first: “The humble shall be exalted.” St. Peter and the Vatican obelisk remind me that it isn’t about me.
As the pieces came together for me I could hear in my heart the question Christ asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and another question, one that St. Peter answered and gained victory, a question that ultimately points to Christ’s sacrifice of self for each of us, “For whom or what would you give your life?”