Vatican art book quenches thirst for beauty

In his newly released book “Meditations on Vatican Art,” author Legionary Father Mark Haydu encourages readers to experience masterpieces from the Vatican art collection in a meditative and prayerful way.

“People need and want beauty, they’re starved for it,” Father Haydu told the Denver Catholic Register Nov. 16 while at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial during a stop on his U.S. book tour. “On a moral level beauty is holiness, so they’re starved for interior peace. On an aesthetics level, they’re starved for harmony, beauty and transcendence.”

“Meditations on Vatican Art”—which quickly sold out 500 copies at the Centennial signing—is a 216-page, full-color hardcover collection of works thoughtfully selected from the 300,000 pieces contained in the 12 Vatican Museums. It includes pieces by masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Cano and Pinturicchio. Each is paired with reflections based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, scriptural meditations, history and contextual notes to help readers understand the artist’s perspective and meaning, and questions for reflection.

“It’s enough art to put you in the context, learn something new, and increase your cultural background,” the priest said. “And just what you need as a platform to go into the message of the art and have a spiritual experience.”MeditationsonVaticanArt_book cover

Father Haydu, 41, originally from Akron, Ohio, has lived and studied in Rome for 12 years. He has served as the international coordinator of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums for the last six years, since his 2007 ordination. In that role, he guides the activities of patron chapters in both Europe and the United States, including a Colorado chapter, and manages the development for restorations.

The book was born of his desire to evangelize with art, he said: “To share the faith through art as a priest, and not just a fundraiser; but as someone whose first concern is helping people discover God through beauty.”

Father Haydu has also served as a spiritual director for seminarians, offering expertise in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He holds bachelor’s degrees and licentiate degrees in theology and philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.

“It’s important for Catholics, for anybody really, to learn to go to God through what they see,” he explained. “Our path to God is always through our senses, so if we’re able to educate our senses to see things, hear things, smell things; then connect them to a spiritual message, we do our spiritual life a huge service.”

It mirrors Jesus’ approach to evangelism, he said.

“(Jesus) took the mundane and ordinary and gave it a supernatural message,” he said. “He saw his Father in everything, so all he needed was a seed or tree or vine or water, to connect to God and put out a life lesson.

“That’s huge help for our spiritual life if we can do that.”

Divided into five sections—Encountering God’s Love, Encountering Self and God’s Mercy, Encountering Jesus Christ, Jesus’ Passion and Death and Living the Beauty of Resurrection—the book can be used to create a personal retreat, Bible study, text for prayer group or a spirituality group, guide for personal prayer, or simply used to relish the beauty of art.

“Find a time within your daily routine that will enable you to spend 15 to 30 minutes with God,” he suggested. “And may the images and meditations enable the Spirit to move and lead you on your own journey to God.”

The book is available at www.liguori.org, on Amazon or in Catholic bookstores.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.