Monday, July 18, 2011

A New Pulpit for Papal Mass at St. Peter's Basilica

As our readers undoubtedly know, the use of the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican is reserved to the Pope. (Exceptions are made very rarely, and only by permission of the Holy Father.) Recently, a new pulpit has been placed next to it, and, unlike the other liturgical furnishings for the Papal Mass, left in its place after the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, although it is not scheduled to be used again for a while. In Italy, as elsewhere, older churches have suffered much from the addition of modern liturgical furnishings which are quite incongruous with their surroundings, some of them rather grotesquely so. (link courtesy of Orbis Catholicus.) As with other aspects of the liturgies celebrated by Pope Benedict, here we have a model of the hermeneutic of continuity in action, and one which we may hope will serve as an example to others of a better way to "update" a sanctuary.

The front of the pulpit shows the Annunciation, perhaps a reference to the Greek tradition in which the feast is known as the Ευαγγελισμός - the Evangelization or Proclaiming of the Gospel to the Virgin Mary. In the background is shown the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden: the fall of man proclaimed in the Old Testament, and his redemption in the New.

The left side (as you face the front) shows Saint Peter, and the right side Saint Paul. This represents a return to an important theme of the Constantinian basilica of St. Peter, in which the two Apostles of Rome were depicted together in several places: most prominently in the huge apsidal mosaic, but also on the marble baldachin over the altar and St. Peter's tomb. The ancient church was torn down in stages over the 16th century, and into the beginning of the 17th, to make way for the new structure of Michelangelo. In the new basilica, built at the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, images of St. Paul are very few; their absence highlights the importance of St. Peter as the first Pope, against the denial of Papacy itself by the early Protestants, and rebukes the Protestant emphasis on St. Paul's writings as a "canon within the canon" of Scripture. (Elsewhere in Rome, the two Apostles continued to be shown together very often.) The epistles of St. Paul form a very significant part of the Scriptural lessons at Mass, and two epistles of St. Peter are read among the seven Catholic Epistles; the images on the pulpit therefore also refer broadly to each of the three readings in the modern lectionary system.

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