When one contemplates Vatican City, one generally dwells on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or the astounding collection of Bernini and Botticelli paintings. If not, then perhaps they are too focused on the Giardini Vaticani, the Vatican’s expansive gardens or on the Piazza Pio XII, overlooked by the Pope’s apartment. What few consider is the importance of the Vatican to religions other than Catholicism and how a trip there can reveal a great deal about one’s own religious ideology.
I visited Vatican City as a senior in high school and as a Muslim. The religious art, iconography and warmth of the staff still remain in my forethought. Initially, I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the religious overtones, to be confused in the face of adversity. It was not until I began walking through the gardens that I realized how greatly my ideas were skewed.
Vatican City is not simply a haven for Catholics; it is an architectural and cultural spectacle to be witnessed by all races and religions. Its beauty transcends that of lone basilicas or churches, which cater to a specific group of worshippers and scholars.
Located in the heart of Rome, guarded by 60-foot tall stone walls and a collection of Swiss guards, Vatican City resonates an air of sanctity and beauty simultaneously. Within its confines are the colossal St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, both of which are adorned with priceless paintings, sculptures and tapestries: the major works of several great Italian artists.
A testament to the Vatican’s timelessness is its central obelisk. The obelisk dates back to the reign of Emperor Caligula around AD 40; it has endured through Saint Peter’s legendary and tragic crucifixion, through the Great Fire of Rome and through Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Now it stands, intact, outside the Pope’s apartment in the Piazza Pio XII.
I, however, found myself staring more at the art than the architecture. There is so much to be learned from the history lining the Vatican’s walls. Intimate details of saints’ lives, stories untold in religious texts and vivid depictions of Biblical narratives are interspersed throughout Vatican City in various forms. As a Muslim, I strove to absorb as much as I could, in hopes of better grasping Catholicism.
Although I had studied the religion in depth throughout high school, my trip to the Vatican made me realize how vivid the stories were and how much more I had to learn. I felt obliged as a scholar to learn what each painting represented and from where each sculpture originated: I began taking notes. I marked every detail, every artist, and every work; it was not easy, nor was it quick, but it was incredibly revealing. I soon started reflecting: How is this similar to Islam? What lessons can I learn here? The answer was far greater than I expected.
When I returned to the United States and spoke to my parents about the trip, I experienced a catharsis unlike any other. It was not the sheer religious art that affected me so profoundly; it was the devotion and care hidden behind each work.
To visit a holy site filled with so many astounding works and then to see such a variety of people beside me enjoying them as I did was incredible. Barriers between religion, class and race disintegrated as we all viewed the same art, interpreting what we would, gaining our own insights. Never before had I shared an experience with that large a group of strangers and felt as if I could relate to them immediately.
Just because people practice different religions does not mean they are fundamentally different. I saw the same beauty in Catholic art as I did in Islamic art. Devotion drives creation; it is not the specificity of the belief, but rather, the belief itself that incites creativity. While I find myself entranced in the arabesques of early Islamic calligraphists, I take equal astonishment in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The two works differ drastically when viewed, but their intent is the same.
I went to Vatican City expecting to better understand Catholicism. I left with not only what I was seeking, but also several new perspectives.
World religions may differ in ideology, but one must immerse one’s self in the others to better grasp one’s own faith. Traveling to Vatican City was more than a religious experience, more than a spiritual renaissance: It was an in-depth look at how devotees can interpret a religion and how beautiful what stems from those interpretations can be.