The Gift of La Sapienza

(photo by ex novo from flickr)

On this Solemnity of Pentecost, I am reminded of a piece Zenit’s Elizabeth Lev wrote on the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, designed by Francesco Borromini. Ms. Lev originally wrote back in January after students and faculty at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) protested the Pope’s visit there. Her piece reminds us of the University’s papal beginnings, Sant’Ivo’s design as an answer to the tower of Babel, and what responsibilities come with a Christian education and our sealing with the Holy Spirit. Note the urns and the ring of tongues of flame at the apex of the tower. Read her complete column here.

The exotic spiral perched atop the cupola has been endlessly photographed by tourists, surprised to see such an eccentric touch in Roman architecture. The exterior of Borromini’s church elaborates the same theme as the interior in the lantern at the top of the dome. 

The peak of the dome twisting toward the sky recalls the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11. The grandiose construction was planned by men who thought they could reach heaven through their own ingenuity. God thwarted their plans by confounding their speech so they would not understand each other. 

Borromini crowned his Tower of Babel, however, with a ring of tongues of flame. Here, he evoked Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the gathered disciples, giving them the ability to speak in many languages and still understand each other so as to proclaim the Gospel among the nations.


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