Saint Peter’s Basilica is the universal symbol of the Catholic Church. It stands as one of the best “show and tells” of all time since within its walls, and among its artistic treasures, we see multiple depictions and reflections of the truths of the Christian faith. It’s all there!
This Sunday, as we hear of an encounter between the Lord Jesus and Saint Peter, we can turn to this central basilica and find inspiration.
On the ceiling of the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica, over the main entrance, the mosaic image called the Navicella, or “little ship.” It was made by the Umbrian artist, Giotto, for the Jubilee Year in 1300 AD. It is one of the few original masterpieces that was preserved from the first Saint Peter’s Basilica, as it was demolished to make way for the second, current basilica.
Giving artistic life to our Gospel Reading today, the Giotto mosaic shows Saint Peter sinking in the waters of the Sea of Galilee and being rescued by the Lord Jesus.
The full account from the Gospel describes how the Lord sent the apostles ahead of him by boat. Once he was ready to join them on the other side of the sea, he began walking on water. This is one of the few out-of-the ordinary miracles performed by the Lord. Most of his miracles pertained to healing bodily ailments or disabilities, feeding the hungry, and casting out bad spirits. Today, however, the Lord by-passes his usual discretion and literally walks on water.
Once Peter realized who it was, he called to the Lord Jesus and asked if he could come to him. In response, the Lord beckoned for Peter to join him. Peter left the boat and began to walk on water towards Jesus. Once on the water, however, Peter became distracted and frightened by the waves and winds of the waters around him. He began to sink.
As Saint Peter began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus, we are told, “immediately” reached out his hand and caught Peter.
In creating the scene, Giotto was so moved by the account that he actually placed himself in the work. The keen eye will notice that the artist humbly put himself in the lower left-hand corner of the mosaic, fishing and on the shore and watching the exchange between Jesus and Peter.
The obvious location of the mosaic can evade us, but it bears significant importance. As mentioned above, the mosaic is over the main entrance of the basilica’s portico. In such a location, few people will notice it while entering the church. Most pilgrims and visitors will see the masterpiece on their way out of the basilica.
And that’s precisely the point.
Exercising faith and rejoicing in it are easier to do within the walls of a house of worship. It’s comforting to confess a trust in God and a reliance upon him during public worship. It’s a consoling thing to pray and have our hearts lifted in adoration with other believers. But, eventually we have to leave our house of worship. Eventually the command, “Go…,” needs to be heeded and we have to reenter the world, with all its fallenness, disappointments, and darkness.
As the various visitors and pilgrims leave Saint Peter’s Basilica, they are reminded of this Gospel challenge. The mosaic depicts Saint Peter’s lesson from the school of hard knocks, namely, as you leave spiritually walking on water, don’t be distracted or overwhelmed by the demands of this life. Do not let the struggles and sufferings of this life overtake you and sink you. Stay focused on the higher things. Do not lose your soul. Keep your eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus.
As believers leave any house of worship, they are spiritually given the same exhortation. Do not abandon what you have been given. The waves and winds will come, but with the Lord, anyone can walk on any water and overcome any hardship or sorrow.
This is the saving lesson that inspired the great Giotto to make his mosaic and to include himself in it. He knew that he needed the instruction of the encounter as much as any person.
As this scene between Jesus and Peter is proclaimed at Mass this Sunday, we are also invited to be there spiritually, perhaps on the shore fishing with our artist-friend from Umbria, and to witness the power of God’s grace. We do not have to sink. We can walk on water.
Whether it’s pandemics, violence on our streets, health concerns, financial instability, and tension in our families, we can persevere, overcome, and excel beyond them by keeping our focus on the Lord Jesus and the higher things of life.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby