The Denial of St. Peter by Caravaggio (1610)
I was a little girl in Sunday school, a faithful and devout Catholic, when I first heard that one of the apostles, St. Peter, out of fear of being arrested, had denied knowing Jesus Christ, not once, not twice, but three times on the night of the crucifixion.
Like a little kid, I vowed that I would never deny Christ. I did wonder what Jesus was talking about when he declared, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I shall build my church.”
Some rock, the little kid thought to herself. Pretty shaky foundation.
Quo Vadis by Annibale Carracci (1602)
Another story about St. Peter illustrates his human frailty. Peter was fleeing Rome out of fear of being crucified, when he passed Jesus on the road. “Quo vadis?” Peter asked the Lord. “Where are you going?” Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” This vision apparently gave Peter renewed courage to face his martyrdom. He returned to Rome where he begged to be crucified upside down, as he felt he was not worthy to be crucified the same way Jesus had been.
This upside-down position has always troubled me, because I know that Satan does everything in reverse.
The Apparition of St. Peter to St. Peter of Nolasco by Francisco de Zurbaran (1629)
Then, as I grew older and heard about popes having children, I began to think maybe Jesus was being ironic when he called Peter a rock. Holding up the Sarcasm Sign, as it were. I did hear that he had had an odd sense of humor. Where I heard that, I couldn’t say, just fell on my ears one day, and I was listening. I’m always listening. Maybe Jesus was saying that the Catholic Church was a lot like Peter. Rocky. Leaving it for us to decide.
Of course, when the white smoke appeared on the night of March 13, the square at St. Peter’s was, as usual, filled with thousands of papal devotees who had decided. The faithful. Will they always be there? How long before they catch on?
One doesn’t need to single out this pope. He is a figurehead, a representative of the Catholic Church, which has not changed much. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” St. Malachy and Nostradamus both predicted this pope to be the final pope. Of course Pope Francis is against all the things the Catholic Church is against: women, gays, gay marriage, abortion, women in the church, divorce, sex outside of marriage, contraception, unwed mothers, single mothers, illegitimate children (though Jesus was technically illegitimate and Mary a single mother until Joseph married her) and much more. Here are a few things the Catholic Church has not come out against – war, sex slavery, artificial foods, GMOs, pollution, poverty, fracking - let’s stop there. I don’t want to fill up this post with sins of omission.
I want to talk about the Vatican comedian, Cardinal Bibbiena.
While I was researching the sexual morés of the late 17th Century for the sequel to When Two Women Die, (soon to be released), I was surprised to find out many things that shocked and amazed me about sex in the late 17th Century. Yes, the sequel will be shocking and amazing. But, in my research, I also found, in a book entitled The Sinner’s Grand Tour by Tony Perrottet, a chapter called, “The Pope’s Pornographic Bathroom.”
Let’s be clear, not This Pope. I’m not sure if this bathroom is still in use, but in 1516 it was commissioned from none other than Raphael by the Vatican comedian, Cardinal Bibbiena.
Oh, yes, Cardinal Bibbiena was a comedy writer who penned La Calandra, a baudy romp if ever there was one, a play of sophisticated wit complete with cross-dressing, love triangle, and mistaken identities. The main character, Calandro was borrowed from Boccaccio’s Decameron, itself a sexy romp. The current rumors of cross-dressing priests carousing in Rome echo those celebrated in this play. Why would a play about sexual debauchery ever be performed at the Vatican?
The play was performed for Pope Leo X (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici) who was also Pope at the time the bathroom was painted. Leo, Raphael, and Cardinal B. were all fast friends who hung out together and supported each other’s work. Cardinal B. asked Raphael to paint the bathroom according to the adventures of Venus and Cupid, on the top floor of the Papal Apartments, (a place for bathing, toilet being separate) which he did, with graphic pagan scenes of satyrs and nymphs. Why pagan? The pagan element of this bathroom fascinates me. Why not humans? Is it because only pagans indulge in debauchery at the Vatican, never humans? I think the Church could just up and surprise us one day and say they are really pagans!
Why does someone who took a vow of chastity need or want a pornographic bathroom? Ahem.
Very few people have actually seen this bathroom. In 1536, a German scholar, Johannes Fichaud viewed the room and wrote about a bronze female nude that poured hot water into the tub. In one of the frescoes described by Perrottet, the half-goat god Pan displays a huge erection as he sneaks up on a nymph who is, appropriately, bathing. The models for the bathroom art came, as Perrottet describes, “from the underground.” Holding a torch, Raphael was actually lowered by rope into the catacombs of Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace in Rome. What Raphael witnessed there and reinterpreted for the walls of the bathroom inspired a trend for erotica in the grotesque style, which meant at the time, “from the grotto.” (Raphael’s students created copies of the master’s original drawings and distributed these around Rome.)
(It must be noted here that both Raphael and Cardinal B. died under mysterious circumstances soon after the bathroom was finished– Raphael succumbed to his own excesses after an orgy and Cardinal B was poisoned – according to rumor.)
Pope Leo X was known to have said, "Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it." He liked to party and was known to lead an elaborate parade through Rome, featuring panthers and clowns, riding his pet white elephant, Hanno.
Hanno by Raphael
None of this debauchery concerns me really. I don’t care if they all dance naked on the dome. Except for the glaring white elephant in the room.
Hypocrisy. Millions of faithful and devout Catholics suffer. Until 2010, when the Church finally said it was okay to use a condom to prevent disease, devout Catholics lay awake worried that they had committed a sin by using a condom in the marriage bed. Meanwhile their trusted parish priest was raping their children.
Not to mention The Holy Inquisition, which lasted from the 12th Century in France to 19th Century in Rome wherein thousands of people were tortured and killed in hideous ways, for heresy, which included all crimes, from disagreeing with your husband for which you could get to wear The Branks to being a werewolf, which got you any number of devices from The Breast Ripper to The Wheel. The tortures of the Inquisition would make waterboarding feel like the waterslide at Atlantis. Officials charged money to their victims for the use of these devices, also other torture fees, including paying for the officials’ dinner feast that followed. Torture worked up quite an appetite.
The Inquisition is, thankfully, over. But, the hypocrisy continues. No one in the Vatican has properly taken responsibility for righting the wrongs of the child-abuse scandals. And, no one stands up for the poor, not really. The Vatican Bank is still one of the largest and wealthiest banks in the world. Many good works are done by the Catholic charities, but think about how much suffering the Catholic Church could alleviate with its billions of dollars – possibly all of poverty – if it wanted to. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” But, we know now from a recent OxFam report that profits from the world’s millionaires can eradicate world poverty, not once, not twice, or three times, but four times over in one clean sweep. Kind of makes up for St. Peter's denial.
Maybe Jesus wanted us to surprise him.
Meanwhile, more and more scandals seem to pour out of the Vatican itself, from bankers to butlers to juntas to cross-dressing romps in secret brothels.
Would anyone care about their having wild, weird adult consensual sex if they were honest about not being celibate and told Catholics to also have sex freely? If they were kind and compassionate? If they were generous with their money? If they were truly helping people? If they were not raping children?
What if the Catholic Church truly walked in the footsteps of Jesus? Can you see Jesus kissing a jeweled ring? The one and only time Jesus got angry was at the moneylenders in the temple.
There’s a white elephant in the room.
©Patricia Goodwin, 2013
Patricia Goodwin is the author When Two Women Die, an historical novella about two women who died and became legends in a New England seacoast town. She is currently working on the sequel about the terrible ordeal of 11-year-old pirate, Ned Low and the arrest of his mother for witchcraft in 1692, and in 1995, about the ghost of Beth Treadwell.