April 2014

A Wingéd Horse or a Chariot of Fire

Trains and train stations are one of the pleasures of a visit to Italy. There are many things that don’t work quite so well in Rome and Florence as they do in the American Midwest—the Internet connections that don’t quite connect, the toilets that lack seats—but the trains are what trains are supposed to be. They leave and arrive on time—even though Mussolini has been out of power for some time now. They are uniformly clean. The dining cars and at-seat meal service provide actual food with actual utensils. The ride is smooth. My generation was raised to believe that everything—especially everything involving machinery—was better here in the greatest nation that has ever been, but the Amtrak ride from St. Louis to Kansas City, while charming in its own way, is slow, bumpy, and offers only the sort of tepid coffee and wrapped but nevertheless stale sandwiches one gets while on jury duty with the county. (I find this odd, since Amtrak is a federal program, and juries at the Federal Courts are offered the best sort of unhealthy snacks, hot, strong coffee, and all upholstered chairs in carpeted rooms.)

St. Louis, like other American cities, has a large and beautiful train station that is an architectural monument. Amtrak stopped using it years ago. Its trains depart from an “inter-modal” terminal convenient for those transferring from Greyhound busses, which is less depressing than the shed (that’s what they called it) Amtrak used when it first abandoned Union Station, but is still uninspiring. Union Station has been turned into a failed shopping mall and the sort of hotel where corporations hold meetings for middle managers. I catch the train at the quaint station in Kirkwood, which is also essentially abandoned and lacks every amenity.

In Europe, the grand old stations are still used for their intended purpose. They have been updated in mostly rational ways, though the Termini Station in Rome lacked a single working ATM when I was last there. The also have interesting artworks, as if they were important places. Next to the Termini Station in Rome, there is a new statue of Pope John Paul II, which is even the subject of controversy. But I am more interested in the statues from the 1930’s on the facades of Stazione Ostiense (Rome’s other public station) and the station at the Vatican.

If I were writing in the horrible lingo they taught me in graduate school, I would say that there is a dialogue between the two buildings. But buildings, being mute piles of steel and stone that cannot form intentions or feel the sort of emotions that lead people to top or correct each other, don’t talk to each other. The creators of these buildings, however, did have something to say, and to say to each other.

Here is what you find on the facade of the
Stazione Ostiense:

Rome Train Station

The sculpture is representative of much of the art of the first half of the 20th century, though not the sort of art that art historians most like to remember. It might be called art deco or some sort of realism, but you see it in New York, in London, here in Rome, and, in the extreme form called Socialist Realism (really Stalinist Triumphalism), in Moscow. Look at the buildings built for London Transport—look at Rockefeller Center.

That it chooses a mythological subject is not unusual in the high days of the mechanical age. Every American my age remembers the Texaco gas stations that displayed Pegasus as the symbol of movement and energy and progress. (We also recall the tune to “You can trust your car / To the man who wears the star— / The big bright Texaco star!” even though the guys in the sharp uniforms who pumped our gas and washed our windows and checked the oil are long gone, and we fill our own tanks and wipe our own windows and ignore the oil until the idiot light goes on and don’t really believe in progress any more.) Here is the pride of the mechanical age: man controls it all, and it takes him where he wants to go.

The train station at the Vatican speaks the same language:

Vatican Train Station

The railroad is once again compared to flying horses, in this case horses that drew the chariot of fire that took Elijah away when his earthly ministry was ended. Whether heaven is just the right word for his destination is something I’ll leave to the Old Testament scholars, but that is where we Christians know he was headed. He is not the only or the most important person who arrived there along with his most important piece of luggage, his body, but he and Enoch may be the only ones who didn’t have to make do without it for a time. Both Christ and (according to the doctrine of the Dormition / Assumption) Blessed Virgin Mary had to entrust theirs to that annoying porter or customs inspector Death before getting them back.

The difference between the two images is in who is controlling what. At the
Stazione Ostiense, we have Bellerophon bridling Pegasus with the bridle given him by Athena. It is clearly a celebration of the power of man—the Bridle given by the goddess of wisdom in this context can only represent science and engineering and man’s mastery over nature. (Bellerophon’s attempt to join the gods on Olympus and his precipitous fall from the back of his wingéd mount is a part of the story that would not reassure those boarding the train that they would reach their destination, so I am not surprised that there is no companion frieze depicting it.)

At the Vatican train station, the horses are unbridled. That is not because they are uncontrolled, but because their driver needs no reins. That driver is Lord himself, who appears only through the movement of his creatures. The horses taking Elijah to his destination are already on the move—and they need no wings—the wingéd angel acts more like a conductor than a charioteer, and he does not so much direct the chariot as ask the passenger to look forward, not back. Elijah himself is still pronouncing some sort of blessing on Elisha, even as the wheels turn and his mantle falls from his shoulder to be clutched by his successor.

If the public station says, “Man now has the power to go wherever he pleases whenever he likes,” the Vatican station says, “In all your travels, remember your final destination, and that you may be called there when you least expect it, leaving all your power behind.” I am afraid I have lost my early faith in what the public station says; the Vatican station’s message seems ever truer.