April 20, 2005

Ratz on the Balcony


If it had been up to John Paul, those cardinals would have better timed the news cycle. 

Because the ‘Zinger from the Vatican occurred in mid-day in the States, the story missed the papers.  However, this was the image that fronted the NYT website for most of the day.  (You can refer to a subsequently cropped version here.)

The caption read:

Under the crucifix that was carried before him, Pope Benedict XVI, “a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” blessed pilgrims from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

One interesting thing about this shot is how little context it has to the balcony.  (In fact, in all the photos I’ve ever seen of that balcony, I don’t recall such a prominent view of a side wall before.)  With the lack of enthusiasm for the selection here in the west, does the image reflect the tendency to look askance at what’s transpired?  Could it be a case of isolating the new Pope before he gets the chance to do the same thing to more liberal Catholics, or to the secular or the Islamic world?

Also, the angle is disturbing.  It creates an inability to orient to the ground.  The framing marginalizes the new Pope and the icon, making the blackened corner the central focus.  It seems like a strange statement, but what is there to make of it — if anything?  Is the church suddenly off balance now?  Is the institution entering a black period, or working itself into a corner?   

Above all, you have to wonder — in this critical first shot of a Pope introducing himself to the world — how we could appear so isolated.  It would seem even the world’s most reclusive man would come off like a great populist at a moment like this.  In this image, though, there is no sense of the crowd and only the slightest connection to it.  Rather, we have Benedict as close to the house as he could be.

Ratzinger, however, is not just set back.  He is also situated to an extreme side.  Of course, this might suggests any number of things.  (Not the least, that he’s an extremist.)  It could also telegraph that the man has his own edges to deal with.  It raises the possibility — at age seventy-eight — he could have only marginal impact.  Considering the stature of his predecessor, it might reinforce the concern he’ll be seen as a side act.  Or, given the amount of time John Paul was ill, it might hint Ratz had already been running the show from the sidelines.

The other thing that’s notable is the prominence of that crucifix.  To me, its luster seems less about spirit than treasure.  (Of course, a Pope also prays for that.)  There was another thing that struck me about it, though.  If you count the five figures, it makes Ratzinger the sixth man in the picture. 

On your first day on the job, when the stage is yours alone, it seems a little tough to be so isolated, but, at the same time, to not quite stand out.

(image: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters in nytimes.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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