As you know, I am in Rome at the moment, as a member of the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. When we sang for Mass at St. Peter’s on Sunday and again when we went there for a rehearsal last night, we have been allowed to enter the church not through the main security gate but, by special permission, through a side entrance. Not wanting even to appear to compromise the security of the Vatican, I will not tell you how we got to this entrance, but it will not matter if I tell you that it goes through the door that the Pope or cardinals often use to enter the sanctuary of St. Peter’s to celebrate Mass.
If you have been in St. Peter’s before, it is the door under the jaw-dropping marble sculpture created by Bernini as the monument to Pope Alexander VII. It shows, above, the Pope kneeling in prayer and, below, the figure of Death, holding an hourglass, partially covered by a flowing drapery, sculpted in spectacular colored marble. That sculpture may be the most remarkable thing that Bernini created for the Vatican, and that includes the Gloria in the apse, the baldacchino at the crossing, and the colonnade in the piazza out front. The pictures above show the door opened and, from inside the hallway beyond the door, the view of the dangling legs of the skeleton of Death, which the Pope sees above him as he enters the church. The doors in the hallway, which are not accessible to the public, have the most fanciful handles, small sculptures of floating angels and grimacing grotesques. The grotesque on the left in the image shown here only appeared last night.
The rehearsal took place after the official closing of St. Peter’s, meaning that we had the experience of seeing the largest Catholic church in the world, empty of visitors and mostly dark. The music, especially the Haydn Mass being led by Helmuth Rilling, rang out in the stillness, a sound memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The Mass at St. Peter's takes place today at 5 pm and will be broadcast on Italian Catholic radio. We will be singing unaccompanied motets by Victoria, João Lourenço Rebelo, and Heinrich Isaac.