The highlight of a pilgrimage to Rome is to join Liz Lev for one of her increasingly famous tours of the Vatican Museums. Her high-energy presentation, vast knowledge, and enthusiasm are matched by her warm welcome, sense of humor, and genuine faith.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” In her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith – The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter Reformation Art, Liz Lev draws the two together to present a powerful argument for the importance of art for evangelization and education in the faith.

I spoke with Liz Lev about her work, her life, and an upcoming tour celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist Raphael.

DL: How long do your tours of the Vatican Museums take?

LL: There was a period when I did six hour tours of the museums! That was before the tsunami of tourism and everything was open and every day felt like going to an endless emporium of artistic delights! Today my tours take about three and a half hours but might stretch to four when people have a lot of questions and have great museum stamina.

DL: Rome seems busier than ever. How does one avoid the long lines of tourists?

LL: There is a lot of strategy in touring the Vatican these days. If you go online, you can get reservations early in the morning or late in the day. If you take time to study the map of the museum, plan to hit the smaller sections that are less travelled, then visit the major areas once the first wave of crowds have passed through.

DL: What are the top five “must sees” for a first-time pilgrim to Rome?

LL: After the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, I think the catacombs are an essential witness to the early Christian community. The excavation under St Peter’s, known as the “scavi” combines two fascinating threads of Christian history: the martyrdom of St Peter and his burial and the amazing story of the secret excavation and eventual rediscovery of the bones of the Prince of the Apostles. Remember! You must book tickets to tour the Scavi in advance.

St John Lateran should be on the list as well as St Mary Major—Pope Francis’ favorite church. Most pilgrims will also want to venerate the relics of the crucifixion at Santa Croce in Jerusalem and St Paul’s Outside the Walls—close to the site of St Paul’s martyrdom.

DL: What are the best kept art secrets in Rome?

LL: The best kept secrets are the multitude of wonderful art works that are waiting in the churches free of charge. Besides the famous “Caravaggio crawl” you can see dazzling Baroque sculpture in the Jesuit church, The Gesu. Breathtaking sculptures by Bernini, amazing illusionistic ceilings in Sant’Ignazio and fourth century mosaics in Santa Pudenziana are all there to enjoy. Explore, explore, explore! Rome is a trove of artistic treasures.

DL: What’s so great about Raphael?

LL: Raphael embodies three essential virtues that are worth cultivating today. This will be the focus of my “Divine Raphael” tour from April 23 to May 1. We’ll be traveling to key sites across Italy to admire Raphael’s work and learn about his amazing life. The three virtues are:

  1. Raphael’s art is graceful, subtle, and harmonious. Our world is strident and aggressive. Raphael creates quiet spaces with peaceful people that invite careful meditation and peace.
  2. Team building. Raphael ran the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company by the age of 30, employing as many as 50 artists in his studio. He wasn’t afraid to delegate or share his knowledge and contacts, so that many of those who worked with him emerged as great artists in their own right.
  3. Grace under Pressure. Raphael shot into the spotlight at age twenty-five, when he was put in direct competition with Michelangelo. In this ultimate heavyweight championship of painting, it was clear that Raphael was the underdog, yet he successfully faced the tremendous pressure of Michelangelo’s completely innovative style. During our tour, I can’t wait to bring people into the Raphael rooms and the Sistine chapel and recount the incredible story of this clash of titans!

DL: For you is it Michelangelo or Raphael? Why?

LL: Michelangelo lived to be eighty-nine and had a lifetime to produce art, architecture, and poetry. Raphael died at thirty-seven, so he doesn’t seem as complex as the older artist. Yet Raphael loved art in a way that Michelangelo didn’t. Raphael would try any medium, study any new discovery. He worked in textiles, experimented with the Venetian style, researched ancient techniques, and learned to paint in oil.

DL: Is fine art integral to the Catholic faith? Why?

LL: Of course it is! The New Testament says Christ is “the image or icon of the unseen God.” The Incarnation, God made visible, cries out for fine art! What could be more beautiful than salvation, salvation that walked among us, as one of us? Why would we not try to bring our greatest talents, to turn our imaginations to the greatest beauty our limited minds can muster to represent him? Look at the Gothic cathedrals, the mosaics of Ravenna and the painting of Raphael—the True and the Good are best expressed through beauty!

DL: Can modern art be Catholic?

LL: There are many wonderful modern artists out there. However, the tricky part lies in the strain in modern art towards abstraction and cynicism. Too often the modern artist presumes everything around us is unredeemable and that ugliness is the reality of the human condition. That attitude is incompatible with Catholic art.

Also, to be honest, abstract art, with very few exceptions, strikes me as incompatible with the aims of Christian art. We worship a God who became man, not a squiggle or a blotch. Catholic art is beautiful on its own, but it also has a function. It should help to teach and uphold the faith. This is what I tried to communicate in my book about Baroque art. During the counter Reformation, Catholic artists used their talent powerfully to help promote the faith.

DL: Give five tourist tips for Americans visiting Rome.

LL: That’s easy….

  • If you can, come in slow season—late November to end of February.
  • Make reservations ahead of time for the coliseum, Sistine chapel, and galleria Borghese.
  • Get off the beaten track, visit a special site like the Domus Aurea, or the Bernini/Borromini walk along the Via XX Settembre. Go out to Ostia antica or Tivoli and explore.
  • Try something new. A spritz, crostini toscani, truffle anything . . . the variety and wealth of Italian creativity is astonishing—art, architecture, dialects, food, wine—you’ll keep coming back to discover more!
  • Try to write, or draw something on your trip. Crazed picture taking with your iPhone results in a lot of unidentified pictures and little actual visual time. If you see something lovely, try to sketch it or describe it in words—it will stay with you better.

Learn more about Liz Lev’s Divine Raphael Tour here and be in touch at her website here.

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