Throughout October, I wrote a number of posts addressing the controversy involving the indigenous statues displayed in the Vatican Garden’s ceremony at the beginning of the Synod on the Amazon. This controversy was based on the notion that it is unacceptable to have displays of paganism in the Vatican, the geographical heart of the Catholic Church. Of course, the claim that this figure is pagan does not hold water, as I demonstrated clearly in several recent articles.
However, the idea that there are no displays of paganism in the Vatican is false. No, I am not talking about pagan statues in the Vatican Museums. Even if those are located inside the Vatican, they exist in a purely profane context. They are there for historical, touristic and cultural purposes, not religious.
What I am talking about are actual pagan figures represented inside churches where Catholic ceremonies and liturgies are routinely performed. Figures that, though pagan, have a catechetical message for the faithful. Since these representations exist in the Vatican, what can we learn from them? Can we apply that knowledge to the controversies around the Amazon Synod, vis-à-vis inculturation and syncretism?
When addressing the controversy around the nakedness of carved figure, I mentioned that the Sistine Chapel represented Jesus, and many saints completely naked (see figure below).
At the time of the fresco’s completion, this caused a great deal of scandal. The Papal Master of Ceremonies is reported as having said that such depictions were more suited to “public baths and taverns” than a “sacred place” like the Sistine Chapel. This rhetoric mirrors the one used in the past few weeks, so there is nothing new under the sun. Nevertheless, nowadays this “public bath and taverns” scene in the Sistine Chapel is considered one of the most sublime expression of human genius of all time, and is counted as one of the Vatican collections’ crown jewels.
However, I do not wish to linger on this argument here. This example just serves to explain the inspiration for this article, for it was by considering the Sistine Chapel that another artistic reference came to my mind. If we step back from the fresco of the Last Judgment and gaze upward, we will see the magnificent ceiling, also painted by Michelangelo. Instead of focusing on the main scenes, let us go to the peripheries, to the pendentives that support and frame those main scenes.
Around the center, we can see twelve figures, representing twelve prophets of the ancient world.
Seven of them are male biblical characters from the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, Joel and Zechariah.
The remaining five are female… and called Sibyls.
What are Sibyls? They are not Christian, and not even Jewish. They were pagan prophetesses from the ancient world, before Christ was born.
Why are they here? Every source I consulted on this topic is consistent: to show that Jesus did not come just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles as well. It is an expression of the universality (i.e. Catholicity) of our religion and of Jesus Christ’s redemption. According to the medieval and renaissance mentality, many of the statements of the Sibyls could be construed as predicting the coming of Christ. In this sense, the presence of the Sibyls shows that the yearning for the Messiah was not confined to the Chosen People, but extended also to the peoples who, at one time, were wandering in the shadows of paganism, unable to separate the One True God from their imperfect (when not outright erroneous and evil) understanding of metaphysical reality.
This beautiful catechesis, though, can be drowned if we stick too rigidly to certain undeniable facts: even if some of the Sibyl’s predictions could be construed as foreshadowing Christianity, they were pagan full and through. The Sybil I am more familiar with (and which is also depicted on the Sistine chapel) is the Delphic Sibyl, from the Oracle of Delphi. She uttered divine revelations in the name of Apollo (one of the pagan gods from the same pantheon the Manichees rejected and against which they went to war and suffered martyrdom). She would sit on a place full of vapors coming down from the earth, which would induce her to prophesy–according to some sources, by inducing an altered state of mind. The sibyl may not have been dancing naked with a feathered headdress and wearing facepaint, but this is still, at essence, a shamanistic practice. Papal critics of today, without any context, would not hesitate to call the Delphic Sibyl demonic.
And yet, the few things that she got right were Christianized, so that she was able to be depicted in one of the most sacred places of the Vatican, without any scandal. In fact, the presence of the Sibyls among the Old Testament Prophets did not cause as much scandal as the nakedness of the saints, for those kinds of representations were common throughout the Renaissance and even in the Middle Ages. I repeat: not just the presence of Sibyls was commonly depicted, but they were usually portrayed in the scenes with Old Testament prophets, without any distinction among them.
This is because we are representing the Sibyls; not because of what they got wrong, but because of what they got right. This is the difference between inculturation and syncretism. Syncretism would be to claim that the Sibyls should be represented as equals to the Prophets, and that therefore everything they prophesied, whether pointing towards Christ or not, would have the same value as the inerrant and inspired books the Prophets wrote. That is not the case. We are only reporting them relatively to what can be legitimately linked to Christianity.
This is similar to the Christianization of another common artistic motif with a meaning much similar to that of the Sibyls: the Magi from the East. They were so Christianized that they play an integral role in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative in the New Testament. Christians see them as the foreshadowing what would happen in the future: that the whole world, not only the Jews, would acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah. This is how the Magi are remembered. They are not remembered for having engaged in astrological practices that we consider superstitious and anti-Christian. I wonder what a Law-abiding Christian Jew would have felt about including that episode in the Canon of Scripture, alongside the Levitical prohibitions of Lev 19:26 and 20:27.
Of course, these examples aren’t exact parallels between the Vatican Garden ceremony and the Sistine chapel Sibyls. I am just pointing out that simply having a character or symbol that hails from a pagan origin and depicting it in a religious context does not make it wrong, or syncretic, or idolatrous. Such symbols and representations can be part of Christian catechesis–just as the Sibyls are–and what matters is whether such a catechesis is consistent with the Christian message or not.
This is why we should be wary of drawing rash conclusions. The boundaries of what is legitimate or not may not be as clear-cut as they seem. Prudence is paramount. To know whether something is compatible with Catholicism or not (i.e. whether it is inculturation or syncretism), it is important to know what message is being conveyed. In this sense, just saying that the Sistine Chapel features pagan prophetesses alongside Old Testament prophets does not cut it. We need to know why they are there. Once we understand that, we can acknowledge the Christian message they are trying to convey. By doing so, suspicions of undue paganism in the Vatican are lifted, unless such suspicions serve an ulterior motive.
This is why it is important to listen to the natives who are portraying the controversial figure, before we condemn them. This is why we should not comb through their actions and nitpick their words, searching for pagan references before actually understanding the whole of what they are telling us. This is why the Amazon Synod was important: before we condemn, or even correct, we must listen. For how can we condemn or correct that which we do not understand? We should also remind ourselves of the importance of listening to magisterial authority on such matters; the pope and the bishops teaching in communion with him. If the Pope asserts clearly that a symbol was used without idolatrous intent (even if not declaring so in an official way), Catholics should respect and consider his position.
The pagan Sibyls and the naked saints have taken a place of honor in Catholicism’s Apostolic See. Across the centuries, they have witnessed sacred Masses, solemn ceremonies, and elections of popes. They give glory to the kernel of truth that is present in every man’s heart. Those who once engaged in quasi-shamanistic practices are now preaching Christian truths that no one can deny without risking the loss of his soul: that God loves all of mankind, and that mankind yearns for God, even if imperfectly. There is something we can learn from these pagan references in the Vatican. And if we can do it in the Vatican, we can do it also in the Amazon and everywhere else.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.