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An Artful Pope; Knights of Honor

5/12/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Alexander VI's Redeeming Legacy

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 12, 2006 (Zenit) - Generally in the history of the papacy, Pope Alexander VI Borgia does not make it into the list of the top 10, 20 or 30 for that matter.

Indeed, when Alexander VI's former master of ceremonies Jacopo Burkhard decided to retire on the earnings of a tell-all book and French poet Apolloniare chose the Borgias as the poster children of his anti-clerical program in the novel "The Rome of the Borgias," Alexander became to the papacy what Nero is to the Roman empire, the Pope critics love to hate.

On April 27 the Vatican Museums unveiled the recently restored "Sala dei Misteri," or Room of Mysteries, in the Borgia apartments, the residence of Alexander VI from his election until his death in 1503. The splendid paintings by Bernardino Pinturicchio shimmering on the walls and the thoughtful iconographic program made me wonder if this could also be an appropriate occasion to pick away at the filth and grime of Alexander's reputation and see what might be revealed.

Alexander VI was born Roderigo Borgia in 1431 near Valencia, Spain. Through the offices of his uncle Pope Callistus III, he rose to cardinal, then, as favorite of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, he was elected Pope in 1492 -- the same year that Columbus discovered America in the employ of the same Spanish sovereigns.

Contemporaries viewed this election with much trepidation as all the contracts and titles related to the vast enterprise of the New World would be firmly in the hands of the Spanish. This backdrop put him in an unfavorable political light from the beginning.

The Pope himself did little to court public opinion, exasperating many by leading an openly licentious life and favoring his children, particularly Cesare Borgia, who was accused of several murders during the pontificate and protected if not abetted by his father. Alexander VI exercised his papal authority to establish a state for his dissolute son, a maneuver common to many other popes of this very temporal era.

This broad-stroke sketch of Alexander VI already hints at why many tour guides, when noting a yawn or a glazed eye, will shift the subject to the scandalous life and times of the Borgias. Many Catholics, however, end up wondering what the Holy Spirit was doing during the conclave of 1492.

This is a mystery best contemplated in the Pope's Room of Mysteries. This chamber, painted from 1493-1495 by the miniaturist-turned-painter Pinturicchio, served as an anteroom from the grand entrance hall to the papal receiving room, the Hall of the Saints. Though the pope was not only the spiritual leader of the Church but also the king of central Italy, visitors awaiting audience were not bombarded with images proclaiming his temporal authority but with seven scenes drawn from the joyful and glorious mysteries of the rosary.

The two scenes that open the cycle are the Annunciation and the Nativity. Mary and Gabriel kneel on opposite sides of a triumphal arch as God sends the Holy Spirit toward Mary. In this work, Pinturicchio uses the architectural language and decorative motifs of the Roman Empire to enhance his rendering of Christ's triumph over sin. Stately painted marbles and fine detailing add monumentality and splendor to the scene.

The Nativity scene, however, presents a marked contrast. In a dense landscape setting, with no grandiose imperial architecture in sight, Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds gaze adoringly at the infant Christ who lies alone on the ground. No representation of an exalted king here, but the abject humility of Jesus' birth.

Instead of using fresco, Pinturicchio used a special technique to infuse his humble setting with a divine nuance. Applying paint to drywall gave him the greatest range of bright colors possible. The artist then applied plaster dots in relief all around Baby Jesus gilding them with gold leaf. The sparkle caused by light reflecting off these golden beads gives the impression of dazzling divine radiance. The shimmer of the images and the richness of the colors invited visitors to contemplate heavenly mysteries.

This complex Pope's devotion to the Virgin Mary was manifested in several ways during his pontificate. It was Alexander VI who, according to tradition, donated the first gold brought from the New World to grace the ceiling of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and his reign saw Michelangelo receive the commission to sculpt the Pietà for St. Peter's Basilica.

The image of the ...

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