(no “great and abominable” or “great and spacious” jokes, I promise)
As I mentioned a couple of posts down, my wife and I have just returned from a week-long trip to Rome. Obviously, one of the essential stops for any tourist in Rome must be the Vatican. We were no different.
Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot.
Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.
Temple Square is clearly meant to impress. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor’s centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, a guest’s visit to Temple Square is a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so). Temple Square is beautiful, magically, at almost any time of year. For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Hinckley and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.
The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter’s and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men’s attempts to put God’s (and the Church’s) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin’s Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don’t think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because nothing this rich and powerful could not be.
Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to serve as a great example. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter’s is, by statute, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor’s centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican’s Rafael and Michelangelo.
For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy. While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.