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Vatican City, and the Giant Pinecone

This was my second bucket list item in as many days!

Today, you say the word Vatican and everyone thinks of the center of the Roman Catholic Church, or some, the center of Christianity itself.

Some, such as your ever irreverent travel blogger, think of a place where secrets are guarded in order to not upset the power of the church. I’ll get to that soon.

So where does the word Vatican come from?  If you translate the roots of the word you get “a hill of oracles”.  Indeed this piece of land on the bank of the Tiber is where soothsayers gathered every day for the early Romans to come have their fortunes told. That is the simplest, least conspiratorial, explanation of the origin of the word. Others link it to a hallucinogenic plant called the vatika which was turned into wine and was drunk by the vaticinators.

So why is the belly button of Christendom located here? Well, this is where St. Peter went to preach. He was not exactly preaching to the choir with this crowd. Somehow he got the attention of the emperor Nero and was either crucified or buried here. The Church will tell you that his remains are deep beneath the Basilica. Throughout history many other Popes have been buried in the crypts of St. Peter’s.

Anyway, a church was built here in the 400’s, but it was not until the 1500’s that the present edifice was commissioned and built. Michelangelo designed the dome using the Pantheon as an inspiration and Bernini is given credit for most of the rest of the design.

It is of course the largest church in the Christian world. The scope of everything inside St. Peters shrinks humans. If you watch someone walk into a knave, they get smaller. Not from distance, from the surrounding size of things. On the floor of St. Peters you will find markers denoting the dimension of other great churches. About a third of the way from the front alter I found that this is the dimension of St Patrick’s in NYC. That is a huge church itself, but you could put three of them in St. Peter’s!

Everything in this place is really special.

But I am ahead of myself. Vatican City is more than St. Peters.

Once again we signed up with Dark Rome Tours. We had to meet them at what seemed like the crack of dawn in front of a coffee shop called Vatican Coffee. This was across the street from the entrance to the Vatican Museum. The line of people who did not pay for a tour and had to wait until the official opening time. They  looked a bit perturbed as we  brushed past them, listening to our guide on our radios.

vatican  museum

Even the entrance sign is ornate.

As you might know, or expect, the museum is huge. The tour is very well designed to show you in a mere couple of hours what took hundreds of years to put together. You wander past sculptures by great masters and paintings by geniuses. This is the only reason I could imagine not having a guide, being able to stop and spend as much time as you want trying to absorb the great works of art.

Two places inside the museum floored me.

The first was the Gallery of Maps. The gallery was commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII.

The work fell to the hands of a friar and cartographer from Umbria by the name of   Ignazio Danti.

The maps are incredibly accurate to scale and detail.  They are not only beautiful, they represent an effort in cartography that could not be bettered with satellite imaging. This gallery makes up a long hallway, probably a hundred yards long, and has detailed maps of all of Italy.

This is just one of dozens of regions of Italy portrayed on the walls in great detail.

Just as I was catching my breath from the map room, we walked into the Raphael rooms.  His work called the School of Athens is a fresco that covers a wall with dimensions of about 5 meters by 7 ½ meters.  Yes that is large, but size does not matter. The painting is the masterpiece of a man who painted nothing but masterpieces.

school of Athens by Raphael

In this painting he portrayed all the great minds and artists. He used people he knew as models for some of the personages. For instance he painted Michelangelo as Plato. He did this while Michelangelo was flat on his back on a high scaffold painting some ceiling somewhere else.

raphael as apelles

The only face in the painting looking out at you is a self portrait of Raphael. He seems to be asking, “so, you like my painting?” He is portraying himself as the Greek painter Apelles, so he got away with it.

From here we walked out into what is called the Courtyard of the Pine.

courtyard of the pine, Vatican city

This is a very large courtyard surrounded by official buildings of the government of the Vatican. It is dominated by this huge brass pinecone. I wondered why, and the guide basically gave me an answer that sounded to me like “because its there.” So, in my pursuit of excellence in blogging I got home and investigated this damn thing. Read on for my favorite conspiracy of the day.

During my studies I discovered  the symbolic meaning of the pinecone is to represent the Pineal gland, which (as some of you know) controls the melatonin in your body and is shaped like a pinecone, hence the name. Some also call it the “third eye”. Why then, is it present in the Vatican City? What kind of meaning do they (the church) tie to it?

Our “Pine”al Gland, is at the geometric center of our brain and is intimately linked to our body’s perception of light. The Pineal modulates our wake-sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, remains uniquely isolated from the blood-brain barrier system, and receives a higher percentage of blood flow than any other area of the body save the kidneys.

It is considered by many to be our biological Third Eye, the “Seat of the Soul,” the “Epicenter of Enlightenment” — and its sacred symbol throughout history, in cultures around the world, has been the pinecone.

Oh I could go on and on about the pinecone in religions throughout history. I could tell you that we only have one pineal gland and therefore we can only have one thought at a time.  But there are many of you who if not already rolling your eyes or reaching for the mouse are saying, “look man, sometimes art is just art” Then I ask you to explain…

Papal staff pine cone

…why does the Papal Staff has a pinecone on it? Maybe this is a plot for the next Dan Brown novel.

This is after all an irreverent travel blog.

Now we entered the great Sistine Chapel. I will not tel  my readers  the stories behind Michelangelo and the Pope who commissioned him to paint the ceiling. I’ll just tell you to rent  The Agony and the Ecstasy.  What I will say is that there is nothing to say that can describe the feeling of actually being here.  You just have to do it yourself. No photos, no movie and no amateur blogger can begin to give you that feeling.

Sistine chapel

This is the picture everyone knows of Michelangelo’s ceiling. I had to snap this shot secretly because some Japanese firm paid for the restoration of all the paintings on the ceiling in return for the copyrights to the art. If they sue me, I’ll settle up with Michelango.

This is where I lost the tour group, for a while. I sort of wandered off to get a feeling for this chapel where new Popes are chosen behind locked doors. Before I knew it I was out of radio range from our guide, so I just wandered towards the Basilica where I knew they were headed.  Our guide was a bit pissed off, not that I would miss out on her commentary or get lost,  but that I had the radio which she was financially responsible for.

When I walked outside I found “the Chimney”where the black or white smoke comes out after each vote for a new pope.

Papal chimney

You can barely see it, but at times it is the most watched icon in the world.

doors of St. Peter's

This is one of the set of brass doors at the entrance to the Basilica. The brass supposedly came from a colossus statue of a pagan god that stood outside the Coliseum, (which is how the Coliseum got its name). The church took the brass statue and melted it down for the Vatican’s use.


This is probably the most famous sculpture inside St. Peters. Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Pieta was his first major work. He sculpted this when he was in his early 20’s. Some jealous artists claimed he could not have done it, so he grabbed his chisel and carved his signature into it. It is the only piece he ever signed. It is Mary holding Jesus after he was crucified. Mary is made to look like a teenager to show her eternal youth.

This is where I caught up with the tour group. I knew they would have to come see the Pieta, so I hung around and enjoyed it until they caught up. We toured the massive Basilica for quite some time and saw very little of it. If I ever go back to Rome, I’ll go in the dead of winter (less crowded) and get in line for St. Peters at about 6 in the morning, so I do not have to wait in the eternal line that forms.

tomb of Jophn Paul II

The last thing I’ll show you is the tomb of John Paul II. He was recently promoted up in the ranks toward sainthood, so they moved his sarcophagus where people can see it. When he makes the majors (sainthood) I guess he gets some other special place. Maybe with a pinecone?

Thanks for reading. Share with a FB friend. Don’t tell the Japanese guys I ripped of a photo, and whatever you do, take care of your pineal gland!

Next post…the best 5 hours in Rome. Stay tuned.

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