For a first-time visitor, Rome can be overwhelming. It's not the size of the buildings (nothing close to London, let alone New York) or the crowds (normal, for a tourist trap) but the mind-boggling wealth of architecture, history, and art. In some neighborhoods, the surfeit of arches, columns, fountains, statues, frescos, inscriptions, monuments, and on-going archaeological digs is so dense that you can hardly walk a block without being tempted to linger.
Take the ancient stone bridge over the Tiber below Castel Sant'Angelo. As a river crossing, it's unassuming – unremarkable in length and height, pitted and stained by weather and pollution. But it is strangely arresting. Part of it may be the span's classical poise: undergirded by five arches whose reflections create a row of slightly elongated spheres, it looks – in late afternoon light – as if the whole bridge could be floating. Part of it may be the lack of noise, once you're on it: though streaming with pedestrians, it's closed to traffic. What finally captures your attention, though, and then holds your gaze as you follow the edges of the deck toward their vanishing point, is the set of ten angels – five on each balustrade, facing in as pairs and stopping all but the most hurried passer-by.
In a city full of angels, these couldn't be more different. They have nothing in common with Raphael's putti – those baby-faced cherubs that peek down from places like the Sistine chapel. Nor do they have harps tucked under their arms or trumpets held to their lips. You wouldn't find them among the guardian angels of children's books. They're not the avenging horsemen of the Apocalypse, but neither do they evoke the good tidings of a Gabriel. No – these are angels of another annunciation: namely, Christ's agony at Golgotha. As such, each bears a symbol of the Passion (Latin: “suffering” or “enduring”), including a whip, a lance, a nail, a sponge of vinegar, the cross, and the crown of thorns.
As messengers (that's what “angel” means), the statues serve this specific bridge well. Carved by Gian-Lorenzo Bernini in the late 1660s, they have stood watch over three centuries of pilgrims to the Eternal City: travel-worn, dusty, hungry hordes in search of a cure – a blessing – healing – forgiveness – the promise of salvation.
The bridge itself was erected about a hundred years after Christ's death, under Hadrian. Rebuilt several times since, it was given its present name, Ponte Sant'Angelo, by papal decree, after an angel appeared to the city of Rome to announce the end of a devastating plague. In 1450, it was the site of tragedy – a collective drowning that occurred when, during a jubilee, an oversized crowd caused a partial collapse. In later centuries (right up to the 20th), the bodies of executed prisoners were hung here to deter crime.
As lifeless statues, Bernini's mute creations have no need to justify their existence – they are worthy objects of art, in and of themselves. But as sentinels who have witnessed, passing under their pedestals, enough human sorrow to fill a chronicle, perhaps they have something more to say.
Could these angels speak, perhaps they would remind us that their traditional representation as sweet, benign beings is a limiting one. That an angel with a whip, far from shocking us, ought to help us recall that when God speaks, it is not always with words of comfort.
For anyone remotely familiar with the Gospels, this should be no surprise. Christ was betrayed and abandoned by his closest confidants, publicly humiliated, and executed between two thieves. And while he prophesied each of his agonies with certainty, he did nothing to escape them. He submitted to them willingly – if with trembling – as to a divinely ordained fate. Further, he clearly admonished his would-be followers that they must do the same. As Luke 9 puts it, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself. Day by day he must take up his cross and follow me.”
In an age when, as a body, Christians have never had more power, influence, or possessions (and still complain bitterly about how the whole world is against them), such advice does not sit well. We live in a time where good works and good people are never in short supply, where planning can usually prevent adversity, and persecution is largely confined to the airwaves. Taking up the cross is not on very many agendas.
On an individual level, the result is a stubborn, deep-seated sense of entitlement to "happiness"– the assumption that we deserve the blessings of stability, prosperity, and good health. Few serious Christians would openly argue this. Most would concede that each soul must indeed travel the road to Gethsemane one day. But – let's be honest – it's more comfortable to note this from the side lines. It's decidedly not something we'd actually wish on ourselves or those we love. That's why, when bad things come our way, the natural first response is always "Why me?"
Which brings us back to Christ's words. He doesn't idealize stoicism, and he doesn't advise looking for martyrdom. There's no hint here of a spiritual masochist. His anguish drove him to such despair that he cried out, "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" And yet, in the end, he didn't rebel. The lesson is unmistakable (again, from Luke 9): that in order to truly save our lives, we must be willing to lose them; and that if hardship comes our way, we'd do best to yield and accept it.
That's why ten angels on a bridge in Rome speak to me. In short, they offer a startling visual reminder of two things: first, that the worst things in our lives pale before the Crucifixion; and second, that insofar as we avoid or refuse the burden of pain, we may be hindering a message from God.
Without cords and nails to hold us back, how often do we try to control our destiny or steer a situation to our advantage – even if getting our way (or the things we want) doesn't necessarily make us any happier?
Without a crown of thorns, how often do we welcome the halo of human praise? How often do we lap up flattery, even when we know the good things people say about us aren't entirely true?
Without a lash to drive us to our knees, how often do we brim with self-regard or drowse in the false assurance that all is well – meanwhile forgetting our true state, and our desperate need for prayer?
Without life's bitter pills – the galling recognition of utter failure, the ache of unrelieved loneliness – how will we ever learn the limits of "success," see the emptiness of superficial friendships, or discover the value of solitude?
And having never been cut down to size by a personal calamity – having never borne an unexpected blow – having never been confounded by a seemingly senseless dilemma – can anyone be truly stripped of self-sufficiency and pride?
Maybe, just maybe, the angels are carrying instruments of new life. Sadness so heavy that we are forced to leave our own crumbling props and lean on others for help. Wounds so deep they empty us of overconfidence – of the arrogance that makes us cavalier with our words and with other people's feelings. Losses that chasten us and turn us from cheerful peddlers of good advice into listeners who have come to the bottom of their own barrel of answers. Crosses that can be removed only by shouldering them, thus forcing us to draw from a Source of strength other than our own.
Bernini's angels don't preach suffering or press it on us. They know it doesn't necessarily ennoble. They know that not all of us are ready for it. They also know that as long as things are going smoothly, we are not likely to give them much serious thought – and that once we do, we'll probably see them first as obstacles or stumbling blocks. So instead of swooping down and accosting us, they simply wait.
Some stand in full sun, a regal glow warming their shoulders and wings. Some are already dappled by the play of long shadows. On the western end of the deck, a few have already gone dark – lost in thought and twilight. None of them have answers. They are only messengers. But they are there each day, standing watch not only over the Tiber, but over the bridges that must be crossed in every life.