Madonna's Roman Outrage; A Singer Crosses the Line, and a City Shrugs

Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 17, 2006 ( Blame it on the August heat, but I've been in high dudgeon all week.

On Aug. 6, 2006, Rome was sacked. This time it wasn't by Visigoths running rampant though the streets, or by mercenary soldiers murdering and plundering. But the same blasphemous spirit that drove the Landsknechte to stable their horses in the Sistine Chapel permeated the city once more. This time, however, many Romans joined right in.

The occasion was pop singer Madonna Louise Ciccone's only Italian concert. Like many barbarians of old, she showed no respect for religious traditions. In fact, she exploited the history of sacrifice and mocked the most sacred imagery of Christianity to provide hype for her show. During her number "Live to Tell," she staged a "crucifixion" of herself wearing a crown of thorns on a mirrored cross. As background video, she mixed footage of Benedict XVI together with Mussolini and Hitler.

From her earliest appearances, Madonna has used Christian imagery to shock the public and boost sales. Wearing a rosary around her neck and flaunting the name of the Blessed Virgin, Madonna was clearly out to get attention. Rebellion against her Catholic upbringing, and most obviously her Father -- in every sense -- worked to put her on the map. She has used Christian themes in almost every album, at times to her own detriment, as when her "Like a Prayer" video lost her a lucrative contract with Pepsi for its blasphemous content.

Pathetically, Madonna at 47 remains stuck in the rebellious teen-ager phase. After 25 years of outrageous behavior, she still can't move beyond taking shots at the tradition that she could not have existed without.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story, though, concerns the majority of Christians among the 70,000 who crowded into the concert venue that night. It is strange that no hint of disappointment, resentment or moral disapproval was voiced during or after the show. If the faithful take Christ's crucifixion as just an image to be distorted or manipulated at will, perhaps the vivid and brutal rendering of Christ's death offered by Mel Gibson was even more necessary than many thought.

Ironically, while Gibson is being castigated in the press for his drunken anti-Semitic statements, Madonna, stone-cold sober, was hailed for her "art" as she mocked the most important image of Christianity, and compared the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to Hitler and Mussolini. If she went to Jerusalem and staged a number where she sang inside a mirrored gas chamber, one wonders whether she would still be praised for putting on a good show.

Rome houses the memories of many women and men who were tortured and killed for their belief in Christ's redemptive sacrifice. Piazza Navona, where St. Agnes (not "like," but really, a virgin) was stripped and humiliated before being beheaded, or Santa Cecilia, where the material-girl-turned-martyr gave away all her clothes and jewels, are but two of scores of places where Christians can find role models that offered a freedom more authentic than Madonna's tired mantra of sexual promiscuity.

In this city, we tread in the footsteps of apostles, saints and martyrs who taught us to "express yourself" as believers in Christ even unto persecution and death. And yet, on Aug. 6, modern Rome allowed their memory to be mocked without even a word from her citizens.

Several clerics spoke out against the show, asking Madonna to at least abstain from the crucifixion number. Father Manfredo Leone of the city's Santa Maria Liberatrice Church warned Romans that it was "disrespectful."

"A blasphemous challenge to the faith," was the comment by Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, speaking with the approval of Benedict XVI.

But what about the lay people? Strangely silent throughout. Pop culture is part of the secular world, a world that lay people in particular are called to evangelize. If lay people really want more "responsibility" in the Church, a good start would be learning to take responsibility for how their own actions affect the culture. Buying the tickets, the CD and the videos isn't neutral or harmless; it tells the world that Catholics don't take their own religion seriously.

Yet Rome's Christians seemed only too happy to separate their faith from their entertainment on Aug. 6. One celebrity attendee of the show was Francesco Totti, the Roman soccer star still basking in the glory of the Italian World Cup victory. Totti has made much of his Catholic faith, with public vows at the shrine of Divino Amore. Yet after witnessing Madonna's onstage antics, he didn't say a word. No objection, no regret. If the idol of every Italian child won't speak up for his faith, who will?

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Milanese Misfire

Madonna's Italian tour met quite a different reception from lay people in Milan. While Cardinal Tonini and Father Leone were fighting a lonely battle in Rome to uphold the sacredness of religious imagery, clerics in Milan were selling sacred space to the highest bidder. Even as Madonna was mocking the crucified Christ and Pope Benedict, the Cathedral of Milan allowed a giant poster ad for a clothes company featuring Madonna to be placed on the scaffolding covering the facade.

This time it was the lay people who rose to the occasion. Residents, neighboring townspeople and even tourists recoiled at seeing Madonna's face under the golden statue of the Blessed Virgin crowning the Cathedral of Milan.

The golden Madonna of Milan has watched over the city through plagues and invasions for centuries. The archpriest of the cathedral, Monsignor Luigi Manganini, however, told Italy's Ansa news agency: "It's just an ad, certainly not a canonization. When it was accepted, the poster seemed all correct and appropriate for its place, and it still is.''

One wonders what the illustrious and saintly archbishops of Milan past would make of this. Somehow I doubt that St. Ambrose, who stood up to the emperor Theodosius, excommunicating the most powerful man in the world until he did public penance, or St. Charles Borromeo, spearhead of Church reform, who walked among the plague-ridden victims of the city, would have stood by in silence.

Archbishop Federico Borromeo of Milan, immortalized in Alessandro Manzoni's novel "The Betrothed," among his many reforming efforts wrote the treatise "On Sacred Art." In those pages, he deplored the collapse of the distinction "between the sacred and the profane," and took to task artists who have more respect for the "rules of art than the piety and sanctity of places, times and things."

Perhaps someone ought to circulate a copy.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].
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