Friday, February 21, 2014

Well Said: The Marvels of Rome and the Length of Human Memory

More H. V. Morton's A Traveller in Rome comin' atcha. This is lengthy but I love the vivid illustration of how few generations it takes to span a very long period of time when passing along memories.
One of the marvels of Rome is that the traditional portraits of St. Peter and St. Paul have been preserved in the catacombs, and every artist who has painted the two Apostles owes something to this tradition. The portraits were engraved in gold leaf on the bases of the glasses or chalices which, as the Salesian Father had told me, were embedded in the plaster round the bodies. There are hundreds of these glasses to be seen in the Vatican Museum, and the type of portrait never varied. Both Apostles are shown as men of middle-age and both are bearded, but while St. Peter has a fine head of curly hair, St. Paul is almost bald. Those who have studied the portraits believe that they embody a tradition which goes back possibly to the days of Nero and to those who knew the Apostles by sight.

I was reminded of a story which the late Monsignor Stapylton Barnes was fond of telling to illustrate the length of human memory. His mother, who died in 1927 at a great age, could clearly remember, as a small girl, hearing Victoria proclaimed queen in 1837. When a child she was often taken to see a very old lady who remembered the French Revolution and the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793. This old lady had spent her childhood in Philadelphia and had known Benjamin Franklin, who was born in 1706. Thus it would have been possible for Franklin to have described some event of his early childhood--perhaps the great fire in Boston of 1711--to the little girl, who could have told it in her ld age to another little girl, Mrs. Barnes, who could have passed on the story to her son in the twentieth century.

In his book The Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, Monsignor Barnes refers to the great sweep of human events commanded by such lives, and says 'it would have been possible for a Christian child in rome in the year 67 to have been actually present at St. Peter's martyrdom and to have seen him nailed to the cross, and still to have been alive and able to tell the tale in 150. And the child to whom he told it then could have told the story again in his extreme old age to one who lived to see the peace of the Church in 312 under Constantine.'

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