Fresco of… A Lady Pope? At Santa Maria in Trastevere?

I like a good mystery, which is part of why the Church is so fascinating to me. There’s no need for people to consume the cooked up stuff concocted by authors and charlatans who have a bias against the Church and weave turds of misinformation packaged as scholarship. The point of all that is to deliberately obscure what the Church is, which is downright unimaginative!

We are Catholics. The Church is holy, but there is always the human element, the part of us that has to do with our fallen nature. There are scandals and intrigue, signs and symbols, galore. Just open an art book or explore an ancient church.

While visiting the Altemps Chapel at Santa Maria in Trastevere, the following fresco caught my eye:

Council of Trent, 1588, Pasquale Cati

“Council of Trent” (1588) by Pasquale Cati

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Ancient mosaic behind the main altar of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Santa Maria in Trastevere is the oldest basilica in Rome dedicated to Our Lady (construction started in the 4th century), and perhaps one of the first places where Roman Christians openly celebrated Mass after the Edict of Milan. It features some of the most beautiful, ancient and symbolically-rich mosaics found in Rome.

The primary mosaic behind the sanctuary features Mary reigning in glory beside Christ. Notice the row of sheep directly below the main figures of the mosaic. Look at the center of the row of sheep. What do you see? What does that say to you about the Incarnation? Remember, the Incarnation says just as much about us (and what God thinks of us) as it does Jesus. Interestingly, a similar depiction of sheep in mosaic can be found elsewhere, including the Basilica di San Clemente, also in Rome. I wonder if sheep feature prominently in modern sacred art these days. Perhaps we’ve elevated our sense of ourselves, or lost sight of what the Incarnation means?

Regarding the fresco, I made some erroneous guesses about the central figure in the painting. I had to go look it up. Specifically, considering the name of the church, I initially thought that she might be Our Lady. But that’s incorrect. The answer is more intriguing than that.

The painting is entitled “The Council of Trent“, and was painted in 1588 by Pasquale Cati. My research indicates that Cati was a follower of Michaelangelo, if not a student. He’s not quite as good as Michaelangelo (who is?); the figures are rather one-dimensional, and his perspective isn’t very lifelike. But the painting is rich in symbolism.

Here you can learn a little bit about the Council of Trent, which took place from 1545 to 1563, and whose object was “…the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.”

Studying the painting more closely, the puzzlement is amplified somewhat. If the lady in the foreground is not Mary, who is she, and why is she presented as a pope, wearing items of papal regalia?

In the background, a row of scarlet-clad clerics (cardinals) preside over a gathering of black-clad clerics (bishops) (i.e., the Council). The goings on in the background appear rather mundane. The figures are almost static. We don’t have a great sense of movement. The doors are guarded by two additional figures. However, you do note the presence of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the dove within a heavenly body, near the upper left in the background.

The main action is taking place at the front. There, a woman wearing the hallmarks of papal office presides over a slightly more colorful assembly. Surrounding the “female pope” (wearing the papal, “triple-crown” tiara, and holding the crozier) are other women: holding a chalice, holding a cross, holding an eagle or falcon (another bird is directly behind the woman holding a cross), holding two stone tablets (the Law?), nursing babies/angels, dressed as a soldier, carrying some type of stone column while paging through a book. There is also a globe depicting the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

The figure of the female pope not a pope at all, but actually the Church Triumphant: the part of the Church which “reigns” in Heaven. You could also call the Church Triumphant by its more common name: the communion of saints.

It is “triumphant” because its members have already passed from life to death and have already met their reward: communion with God in Heaven for eternity. It’s the part of the Church that we, the Church Militant (those of us still working out our salvation here on earth) and the Church Suffering (those souls who have entered the purifying fire of Purgatory, who will eventually become a part of the Church Triumphant) seek to go.

Most of us will go to Purgatory first, and we should give thanks for that, because there are only two final destinations for souls. If we go to Purgatory, then we can give praise for having been spared the other option. Pray for the souls in Purgatory. They cannot pray for themselves, but they will get to Heaven with the help of our prayers (and God’s mercy).

The figure is a she because the Church is a she; the Church is the Bride of Christ. The figure is “resplendent in glory” in her doctrinal clarity, with the highest symbols of majesty (those of the papacy) to illustrate her success over the terrible heresies of protestantism and sin.

The globe tells us something about the spread of the Church, spanning continents of the globe, later all “four corners”, but again, universally exceeding protestantism. Inasmuch as the Council (composed of members of the Church Militant and guided by the Holy Spirit) reaches definition in teaching the Truths revealed by God, the Church Triumphant can be thought of as the Truth fully united with God, separate from and yet connected to the rest of the Church.

Were you hoping for proof of Pope Joan? It’ll take more than a bestseller in fiction to legitimize that tale.

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3 thoughts on “Fresco of… A Lady Pope? At Santa Maria in Trastevere?

    • Why do you assume that would be bothersome? Were that *possible*, “a” man would feel okay about it. The greatest shame that we feel in confessing should be from having offended God. If you’re embarrassed talking to a particular priest, find one you feel comfortable with. Or better yet, find a parish that uses a confessional, go there, and confess anonymously. The Church doesn’t say there’s ANYTHING wrong with that. The encounter is with Christ. My sins are not special. Father has heard them all already. What’s *special* is the way God regards our relationship with Him.

  1. Pingback: Thursday in 2nd Week of Lent: St. Mary in Trastevere | Quartermaster of the Barque

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