No sooner did I raise
my eyes but I was in heaven: saint after saint, angels, powerful archangels, playful cherubim and seraphim, ruddy and agile; a
radiant feast in ranks that stretched into the distance; among the clouds illustrious popes, young martyrs, severe doctors, ecstatic
virgins, austere hermits; all there, countless men and angels, scattered through the expanse of heaven until they reached its
highest circles: here were the ancient patriarchs, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, the Apostles, the Virgin in her splendor,
and, at the center, the dazzling heart of life itself: the eternal Trinity.
I was not "outside
of myself," but beneath the cupola of the Church of the Gesù in Rome, to revisit the great fresco of Baciccia, "The
vision of Heaven," one of the most beautiful and ornate of all the frescoes in the City of the Popes.
So I was not in mystical
ecstasy, but in that admirable mass ecstasy which the faithful have attained, in adoration, for two thousand years, ever since,
in the divine mysteries, a God has truly descended, and – as Romano Amerio says – this God truly becomes tangible.
For thousands and thousands of years, whether in catacombs or in cathedrals, the Trinitarian liturgy that takes place in heaven
descends among his flock under the forms of the sacred species. The liturgy descends and Christ, priest and victim, is made substantially
present. And the Church, with the wisdom of her spouse and as mother of those called to the sacrosanct mysteries, takes care always
to make the flock aware of this reality: not only by teaching the most correct doctrine to it, but also by bringing it almost
to touch the reality that is procured, placing it, as Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity used to say, "face to face, although
in darkness," with the Glory of God.
It is because of this intimate
and religious necessity, in fact, that very early on the walls and vaults of the sacred rooms intended for the Eucharist –
beginning with the chambers hidden in the catacombs, then the pagan temples converted to the worship of the Trinity, and then
all of the sacred buildings of every dimension and style that rose up wherever Christianity arrived – began expanding to
make room for the saints, becoming flecked and overlaid with stars, opening wide not only for the glorious past of the Church
militant, as with the ranks of virgins and martyrs in the basilica of Ravenna, but also to the future, already present in a mysterious
way, of the triumphant Church, to the exultant heavens of the cupolas that we are looking at, signifying in pictorial form their
effective but hidden descent.
What was really received
by hearts was what was surrounding those hearts; the reality invisible on the altar was visible around the altar, and the faithful
forgave the benign deception suggested by the artist, knowing very well that they were seeing "artificial" heavens –
inspired by realities already mysteriously at work – but not "fake" ones; in other words, they were not mistaking
reality. These heavens were, therefore, "prophetic" of realities to come, while the faithful received in their mouths
the "true" heavens, and their hearts were widened to a reality already present in all of its divinity and all of its
The Eucharistic reality
– around which the people gathered, constituting the Ekklesia, assembly of those called, Church – immediately called
out to be taught and made visible. If necessary, the Church would engrave in gold leafing, as it did at the time of the medieval
codices, the characters of the pages of doctrine, so as to highlight their nobility, their lofty superiority, or better, the divinity
that these contain.
In some way, Truth and
Beauty are accompanied by the same urgency: that of the Truth, to erupt fully within hearts, and that of Beauty, to shine in its
splendor upon the walls.
The inspiration of giving
sacred buildings the form of a cross springs directly from the sacrality of the Eucharist, so that it almost seems to the faithful
that they are entering directly into the wood of the cross, and into the very body of Christ – to which they truly do gain
access – almost as if that mystical incorporation into the ecclesial sacrament, anticipated from eternity, were truly happening.
In the fifteenth century,
Filippo Brunelleschi added to the walls, that with their cruciform arrangement made physical reference to the mystery of the incarnation,
the architectural figuration of that other and higher mystery, the Trinity, and in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence
reinvented the cupola as the "cosmic space" for appropriately crossing the longitudinal and transversal arms of the
Christian basilica precisely where the heart of Christ beats, where the Sacrifice is carried out, thus allowing the church to
infuse other necessary and lofty thoughts into the faithful: there where Heaven descends upon the altar, "lift up your eyes,"
O faithful, and "see" everything that has passed from the altar and into your hearts.
With his use of the cupola,
the ingenious architect – as after him all of the greater and lesser architects of the Renaissance and the Baroque –
allowed the church to suggest to Christendom perhaps the most complete and profound metaphor of the Trinity that can be conceived
under the trappings of art, at least as this is described to us above all in the pages of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas,
illustrating with the greatest accuracy the inexpressible and supreme mystery where the heart of Christ beats. The heart of Christ,
in fact, beats for the Father, the Father who generated him "before the daystar" (Psalm 110:3), the Father to whom he
offers his own sacrifice to open the floodgates of his mercy – which are, in reality, himself: Christ.
And what do the great doctors
of the Church say about the Trinity? Saint Thomas in particular presents in the section "De Trinitate" of his "Summa
Theologiae" (I, 27-43) the most complete formulation of all the truths written about by the holy theologians on this topic,
offering us the most exhaustive synthesis – and in some ways, the most comprehensible to us – to conclude that the
Most Holy Trinity is similar to a mind that in its operations thinks and loves.
Saint Augustine also refers
to the same analogy, in particular in his "De Trinitate," X, 10, 18, which would in fact be the inspiration for the
developments of the Angelic Doctor. Naturally, the Trinitarian mystery stands above any sort of comparison, at least because of
the fact that what is compared to a mind is in realty a Person, the same being true of the thought, another Person, and the same
for their "spiration," which is the Third. But the analogy proposed by the two doctors is still useful at least "to
clarify," as Battista Mondin summarizes well in his 'Dizionario enciclopedico del pensiero di san Tommaso d'Aquino', "how
it is possible that there could be in God, at the same time, the subsistence of three distinct individuals sharing one nature,
without falling into polytheism."
One can appreciate all
the more the maternal work of the Church when, after developing this comparison adequately in theology, putting its highest and
most holy minds to work, it would move this from the books onto the walls, in the influence that this idea would have on its artists,
in such a way that the Church would appear almost like a boundless Ambrosian Library and Gallery, where books and paintings are
placed side by side and form a single whole, and the Trinity could be adored both in books, and when men would lift their eyes
up to the great Roman cupolas, toward the powerful curves of the cupola of Saint Peter's, and when a countryside parishioner would
raise his eyes to the humble little cupola of his rural church.
But let us try to understand
the relationship between the cupola and the Trinitarian mystery, and even before this, to understand how Saint Thomas explained
A mind that understands – Aquinas says – generates or emanates a thought, which is the "logos," the "verbum."
The mind is the principle – before which there is no other – of the thought that is breathed forth from it, and this
is the reason why the divine Person from whom the Only-begotten is generated is called "Father": because a mind has
paternity over the thought that is generated from it.
But what is born from the
mind – the thought – would not be a thought on its own, but would be nothing if it did not reflect within itself the
mind from which it proceeds, if it did not reflect its nature. There would be no thought if this were not the perfect image of
the mind from which it is breathed.
It is thus that beside
the "Logos," or the "Verbum," there emerges forcefully the concept of "Imago": the name, the reflection,
the face, thanks only to which the resemblance between Son and Father is perfectly upheld. As Saint Thomas explains: "The
Son proceeds as Word, and the concept of 'word' implies a likeness of species with the subject from which it proceeds [and that
is the Father]" ("Summa Theologiae" I, 35, 2).
In the case of the Trinity,
the thought generated from the mind of the Father is the thought that speaks everything that is in the mind from which it is born
and of which it is the faithful and complete reflection. It is the thought of "being," in conformity with what God says
about himself when to the question of who He is, what his Name is, He responds: "I am who am" (Exodus 3:14). The mind
is the powerful reality of being, and the thought generated by the mind expresses the "being," it is the Word of this
being, the infinite, positive, powerful Word of "I am who am."
This matter is more easy
to understand if we return to our cupola, which bears a certain resemblance to a human head. The cupola is raised high in the
sky, curving in toward the center, toward the lantern from which it receives light. Its stones distribute their weight along the
ribs, and these powerfully transmit it toward the bottom, in such a way that as it arrives at the lower facade, the opposing forces
of the braces in the nave channel this weight and keep it within the area of support. This should be noted, because this entire
powerful structure is thus built, in a certain way, as the architectural counterpart to what in the Trinity is provided by the
person of the Father: the powerful stabilization of "Being," and this is no accident, because stone has always been
used by man to testify to the solid firmness of eternity; one could think, for example, of all the times when Jacob raises stone
monuments to establish that, in those particular places, the memory of the Lord who spoke there will be preserved "forever."
In its massiveness, the
vault of the cupola is, therefore, the Father, and like the Father, it is. And it powerfully is, vaulting the sky with a broad
immensity held upright by immense pilasters. And note that, again like the Father, the vault of the cupola breathes forth from
the power of its stones the fresco of the skies; as the Father emanates the Son, generating upon the infinite surface of his "being"
the Thought that reflects the Father and his power. How does he generate him? With the most exhaustive illustration of his essence,
of everything that the Father sees within himself. What we see, as if we were inside the Mind of the Father, is the Logos, the
vision of the Glory of God as God himself sees it within himself, and this almost by an osmosis of shapes and colors from the
stones of the cupola – like the action of the Holy Spirit – so that the stones of the cupola "speak," and
reveal in what consists the blessedness of the celestial firmament itself.
and fresco form a single whole. So the cupola almost breathes forth and emanates the fresco, and the fresco expresses and manifests
the vault of the cupola. Where the cupola is not visible, the fresco is, as when Jesus says "Whoever has seen me has seen
the Father" (John 14:9). Whoever sees the "Logos," "Imago," and Fresco of the Father, sees the Father
who has generated him, sees the divine Cupola that the Being gives to itself and to its intellectual spiration.
The analogy of the cupola
brings forcefully into play what certainly presents itself as one of the most significant theological discoveries of Saint Thomas
Aquinas, but one that was never explored afterward in its highly noteworthy scholarly and philosophical implications. I speak
of the second Name of the Son, "Imago," which, on the solid foundation of the Sacred Scriptures (John 14:9; Colossians
1:15; Hebrews 1:3), the Angelic Doctor places beside the first name, "Logos," just as the representation of a thought
must be placed beside the thought, the guise of a concept beside the concept, the expression of a notion beside the notion. How,
in fact, could a thought be expressed – or, from the etymology, "press forth from itself" – if not through
its face, its effigy, its image? On the contrary, Saint Thomas deduces, a thought would not even exist if it did not formulate
itself in an expression: it would be a blankness, a blot, a noise.
In the era through which
we are passing – of relativism, weakness, and the decoupling of art from religion – the fact that the Son has two
names instead of one, or that the Son is as much the "Imago" as the "Word" of the Father, permits re-establishing
a strong supernatural bond between Beauty and Truth.
The comparison of the cupola
clearly cannot be satisfying in every way, but it seems to be the architectural figure most easily associated with the Trinity,
and, not by accident, signals with unequalled iconic power the Catholic identity of an edifice.
It would therefore be a
notably religious action to reinvent the cupola in contemporary terms, as rich as we are today in elastic materials that almost
seem made to order for "Trinitarian purposes," so to speak. The important thing is that its sacred character as "theater
of the Heavens" be preserved, while respecting the golden ratio – an almost sacred measurement, through its strict
connection to the "Logos" – and exalting the golden mystery of the Trinity, whose sublime liturgy can give rise
to the most superb art. A truly "trinoliturgical" art, to render to the Truth the most appropriate divine Beauty.
(Pagina protetta dai diritti editoriali).
* * *
* Professor in Philosophy of Æsthetics, and head of the Department of Æsthetics
at Associazione Internazionale “Sensus Communis” (Rome).
He shares the chair of Theory of knowledge, subsection Æsthetical theory,
of the Pontifical Lateran University.