Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle. Andrew was the brother of Saint Peter, and originally was a follower of Saint John the Baptist before being called by Our Lord. After preaching the Gospel in Greece, Andrew was martyred by crucifixion, and it is traditionally believed that his cross was in the shape of the letter X. Saint Andrew has long been the patron of Scotland, which is why this X-cross can be seen on the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. (Did you know that?)
And here in Rome, events surrounding Andrew’s martyrdom on an X-shaped cross have been brilliantly depicted by the great 17th-century painter Mattia Preti. He was commissioned to paint a series of works for the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, which literally means “Saint Andrew of the Valley,” since originally its location was a bit lower in elevation than the surrounding area. Today, the church is smack in the center of Rome; and that valley is long gone, thanks to the wonders of street-paving.
Preti was paid by a wealthy sister-in-law of then-Pope Innocent X, and he did not disappoint. A visit to the absolutely spectacular church bearing Andrew’s name will show that the sanctuary is decorated with three of Preti’s paintings, showing Andrew’s gruesome manner of execution. Here, you can see him being hoisted aloft with ropes, and nailed to the cross after it was already planted firmly in the ground.
In actual fact, the Romans would never have tried to crucify anyone in this way. In real life, the victim was affixed to the cross while it was still on the ground, and then the cross was raised up, with the martyr already attached to it. But Preti was an artist, not an ancient historian, so he presumably painted what struck him as the most visually dramatic method of crucifixion.
Later, Andrew’s fellow-Christians obtained his dead body from the Roman executioners, and buried him nearby. The tomb of Saint Andrew is today in an elaborate Orthodox basilica in Patras, Greece, although some of his relics are in a couple of churches in southern Italy as well. And Rome itself used to possess the head of Saint Andrew, which was kept in its own chapel inside Saint Peter’s Basilica until 1964. At that time, in a gesture of ecumenical good-will, it was given to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople by Pope Saint Paul VI. We can tell you all about it!
These paintings by Preti are reason enough to visit this church dedicated to Saint Andrew … but they are actually only a small sampling of the fabulous Renaissance artwork which covers the walls and ceilings of Sant’Andrea della Valle. Come to Rome to see it, and prepare yourself for a jaw-dropping visit!