Roman Churches


If there is one thing that we saw often in Rome, it was churches. Churches were literally on every corner. And these were not the austere types of churches that I have attended all my life. They were all architectural masterpieces filled with priceless sculptures and other artwork. Two of the bigger churches served as bookends for our time in Rome: the first church we entered was St. Peter’s Basilica and the last one we saw was the Basilica of St. John Lateran (or the full name – Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran).

St. Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. According to Catholic tradition, it houses the bones of its namesake, the apostle Peter.

Us with Apse of St. Peter's in background

Tomb of recently Beatified Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica

Front of St. Peter's Basilica

The dome of St. Peter’s reaches 452 into the air, and it can be seen from any clear view in the city.

View of City from Castle Sant'Angelo with St. Peter's in Background

The last place we visited in Rome was the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This is the highest church in the city in terms of authority, and it serves as the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, commonly called the Pope.

Front of Basilica of St. John Lateran

Nave of Basilica of St. John Lateran

The nave is lined by ornate statues of the twelve apostles.

Statue of St. John the Evangelist

These churches were truly a shock to the senses. The words that come to mind are extravagance and opulence. St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican certainly rival any king’s palace. I left pondering the propriety of such displays of wealth for a church. Should churches like this be built?

Whatever you think about that, one can see the logical impulse behind their building. David in the OT had a similar thought in 2 Samuel 7. Recognizing that the Lord deserves the best, David figured that the temple of God should at least rival his own personal palace. On that occasion, the Lord states that he did not request such a building, but he does allow David to build it.

It is not that I am against aesthetics. Our sense of beauty is a gift of God. The arts show an area of human creativity related to our bearing of God’s image. It makes sense that aesthetics should play some role in recognition of God. Yet, I get the sense that God might respond in the same way today, stating that this is not something that he asked for.

So, what does God want from us? I have some question about these churches, but I know that God desires our hearts be given in complete devotion to him. God is more pleased with the two mites of the widow than mere wealth (Luke 21:1-4).

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7 Responses to Roman Churches

  1. Curtis says:

    Good Jeremy. It is a little hard to think of the tabernacle’s design from God and the attitude of lets just put the cheapest and plainest down. Then we see where the Christians simply met with their hearts in someones home or in a school. Whether it was under the old covenant or new covenant… the relationship desired by God was one of the heart bound up with His. I need to work at it…
    Thank you for the thoughts.
    but…Solomon built the temple from David’s design. 🙂
    Terri

    • Jeremy says:

      Thanks for the comment Terri. I agree that God has always simply desired our hearts to be “bound up with His.” It is interesting to consider how that plays out in different areas of our lives. I’m not sure I would characterize God as wanting “cheapest and plainest” or extravagance. But I do know that he wants our hearts, and yes, I need work at that, too.

  2. Preacher man says:

    The indulgences sold to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica provoked Martin Luther to post his 95 theses.

    BTW, I am totally jealous if the trip.

    • Jeremy says:

      Jason, thanks for the historical reference. That certainly helps put things into perspective. We’re not the first ones to ask some of these questions.

  3. Chris says:

    The analogy of the temple is a good one, I think. It was an elaborate and richly decorated structure, as the Old Testament histories describe it.

    Jason, your point about indulgence money being used to pay for the Renaissance-era temples is right on. I doubt we could say the same thing about the motives of the earlier cathedral builders, though (i.e. those who built Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres, and Durham). The motivation behind those structures, built before things really went off the rails in the late Middle Ages, seems to have been much more worthy.

    Good post, Jeremy. May this stimulate us to ask questions about exactly why we tend to prefer the kind of church architecture that we do.

    • Jeremy says:

      Thanks for the comments Chris. It does cause me to think about architecture and the amount of decorations in the building. It also made me think about other points where this discussion could come up like our dress in worship and music style (4 part harmony). In all of these there is a discussion of giving God our best vs. simplicity (not that these are mutually exclusive).

  4. Pingback: Top 11 Posts from 2011 | Theological Sweets

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