Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A hidden Renaissance gem in Rome just above the Spanish Steps: the Guerrieri Chapel

Perhaps one of the lesser known Renaissance works is the Guerrieri Chapel on the renowned church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti on the Spanish Steps. The church's construction began in 1494 when Pope Alexander VI granted the land to the Mirmite Friars, later it was enlarged by King Louis XII of France to celebrate the successful invasion of Naples. Some French Gothic elements from the first church, such as the crossing, still survive. However, that one particular treasure about this church is the Guerrieri Chapel. The chapel was established in 1513 and given to Melchiorre Guerrieri, a Neapolitan nobleman and Apostolic Chancellor. It is decorated by frescoes that have been attributed to the workshop of Perugino, the great Umbrian Renaissance painter and master of Raphael, as well as the author of three superb frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The decoration began in 1525 and the scenes, set in an imaginary loggia, represent major scenes from the Christian calendar, such as the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Pentecost, interestingly enough, and in true pre-Counter-Reformation style the Passion takes a relatively secondary role in this cycle and can be found in the above monochromatic frieze, the scenes are fifteen and represent the whole of of Christ's Calvary. The lunettes are decorated with major episodes regarding the Incarnation of Our Lord: the Nativity, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. On the ceiling, there is an interesting, but not so uncommon iconographical scheme, instead of the Evangelists, there are the main four Doctors of the Church: Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine of Hippo.

The first scene is the Resurrection of Christ, in the traditional Renaissance manner, Christ is triumphantly and symbolically "ejecting" himself from the sepulchre in an action filled with glory and splendour, symbolising the completion of His original message, he is holding the banner of truth, the banner of victory, the banner of glory and he is filled with light, with the light of triumph and of hope and angels all around him are praising and singing hosannah to the risen king, meanwhile the guards, dressed in splendid contemporary (Renaissance) uniforms are still resting or just going to wake up, the background is a rather common bucolic mix of Italian countryside, hills and mountains. In the monochrome frieze we can spot scenes from the Passion, now overcome, among them a rendition of the Last Supper is rather striking, Christ's sacrifice is now completed and ready to be fulfilled in its entirety on the nearby altar. 

This scene is the Ascension of Christ who rather harmoniously has taken place in his heavenly throne, a great golden mandorla surrounded by cherubim adoring him and by seraphim playing trumpets and singing incessant hymns of praise to Him and to this glorious process in which Christ "goes up with a merry song" but still gives us a sense that he is now up, so that he is not here anymore as a comforter or a friend or a teacher, but as God, full of glory, full of power, to love us even more. Even the trees are flourish before this glorious scene of heavenly enthronement. In the monochromatic frieze are scenes such as the mocking of Christ and his Flagellation, it is interesting to compare the two: the one God that humiliated himself for us, now rules over us all from the apex of heaven.

This scene represents the Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit and the the birth of the Church, together with the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ and of the altar, this is that moment in the the Holy Scripture that symbolises His true presence in the sacraments and in this way he validates the future ones to come, this is the first ordination. In iconographical terms, it is important to notice how Mary takes precedence as Queen of heaven, in a glorious yet humble way she receives the gift of the Spirit, symbolised by several "tongues of fire", around her are all the apostles, incredule and joyful to receive yet one more gift from heaven. Above is the Holy Spirit, in its traditional dove iconography, the dove in glory is in his mandorla and surrounded by cherubim. On the monochrome frieze are scenes from the Calvary and finally the Crucifixion and the Deposition.

On the left lunette is a rather traditional rendition of the Nativity, with somewhat of a Northern or Florentine feel as the ox and ass are in a sort of a manger, Christ is lying on the ground without a cradle, to symbolise that somewhat he is already aware of what is to be, of who he is while also underlining the vulnerability of the child he is. Saint Joseph is respectfully admiring and adoring the whole scene behind the tree that holds the crib together, to leave Mary and Jesus symbolically together, in the Italian fashion the Nativity is set inside of a brick-building.

It is here that the whole story of humankind and the whole story of the Incarnation begins; with the Archangel Gabriel bringing a special news to Our Lady. Saint Gabriel is in his tradition golden garments, he is holding a branch of fleur-de-lys that represent Mary's perpetual virginity while he is pointing heavenwards with his right hand, delivering that most important message from heaven. In between them there is a window, it is traditional in iconographical terms that there is always an "obstacle" between Mary and Gabriel. Mary was just reading the Scriptures on her desk while she is caught, she is surprised, she is shocked but eventually she realises what great gift has been bestowed upon her and therefore she bends and pronounces be it unto me according to thy word. The message is being delivered to her through the Holy Spirit's dove, flying just next to her, it is a very fluid movement: God being pointed at by the angel through whom he speaks, again, through the Holy Spirit, becomes incarnate in Our Lady, through the Son. This is the message of Salvation which will eventually be completed right under this lunette in the glorious Resurrection.

The last scene is the Adoration of the Magi, who even in their rich garments and precious gifts have the time and sweetness to acknowledge that little, vulnerable child who is playing and sweetly tries to catch the king's gift. It is an incredible intense movement, while at the same time it is the first manifestation of devotion towards the Lord, it is the moment in which Christ truly passes from Mary's womb to the people of the earth's hearts and devotion.

In the ceiling, there are the four Doctors of the Church, traditionally divided into the four sections of the rib vault. On the bottom is Saint Gregory the Great, recognisable for his tiara and for the dove of the Holy Spirit whispering into his ear. On the left is Saint Jerome, again a rather famous iconography: his Cardinal hat, the lion and the stone - he is dressed as a bishop, as he happened to be a Cardinal. On top is Saint Ambrose holding a whip as a symbol of his work against the Arian heresy in the City of Milan, described in Saint Augustine's Confessions. Finally on the right is Saint Augustine himself, depicted as an elderly man, on the left hand he is holding an open book and on the other a pen, as a symbol of his vast literary career. At his feet are the mitre as a symbol of humility, he is wearing episcopal garments and we can notice that underneath it is an Augustinian habit, whom they have always regarded as their founder.

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