Top Three Must-Visit Churches in Rome (Aside From St. Peter’s)

One thing Rome is not short on is churches. But, with (literally) centuries of history to explore, it would be near impossible to visit each one. So I have compiled a list of my top three favorites (excluding St. Peter’s because let’s be real, St. Peter’s would be number one and is probably already number one on your list too) in an effort to help winnow down your list.

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, established a college in Rome in 1551. Several decades later, a larger church for this college was necessary due to an increasing number of students, and thus, Pope Gregory XV commissioned Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola) in 1626.

Much of the art in this church was commissioned during what is sometimes known as the Counter-Reformation period. I believe I have talked about how the Counter-Reformation influenced art in a previous post, but to briefly recap: during the Counter-Reformation, the church commissioned grandiose works of art that were intended to inspire, and even intimidate, viewers. The thinking was that parishioners were less likely to convert to Protestantism if their churches were awe-inspiring (at the time, Protestants believed that religious artwork violated the First Commandment – thou shall not have any God but me – because artwork encouraged viewers to worship the images rather than God himself). Because much of the art was commissioned during this period, the Church of St. Ignatius houses magnificent artwork that can only be described as overwhelming.

The church is particularly well known for its vaulted ceiling, which was painted by Andrea Pozzo, a lay Jesuit brother. Pozzo used a painting technique known as quadratura. Quadratura uses painted decoration to create an illusion of infinite space. To achieve such an effect, the artist mimics the building’s architectural details in the painting to make it appear that the room extends beyond the confines of its actual space. Indeed, when you look up, you feel as though the ceiling opens up into the heavens (for those HP fans out there, the feeling is what I imagine looking up at the Great Hall would be like – just without St. Ignatius ascending, all the angels, etc.).

The Worldwide Mission of the Society of Jesus

The most famous scene from the vault is of St. Ignatius accompanied by the angels. According to art historians, St. Ignatius is meant to represent the Jesuit Society as a whole. If you look closely, you can see light pouring from the saint’s body. This light is supposed to represent the knowledge of God, which the Jesuits believed that they themselves gave to the world.

Indeed, if you take another look at the vault, you can see that four of the world’s continents are represented along the sides of the painting (North and South America have been merged into a single continent). Each group of figures holds a plaque with the names of the following continents (from left to right; top to bottom): Asia, Evropa (Europe), Africa, America.

Pozzo also painted the works in the presbytery. Each painting illustrates important events in the vocation of the Society, including the Siege of Pamplona, service given to plague victims, Francis Borgia’s entry into the Society, and the departure of Francis Xavier to the Indies.

To the right of the transept is an altar dedicated to Gonzaga (also produced by Andrea Pozzo), which holds the saint’s remains while to the left is the Ludovisi Chapel (created by Filippo della Valle), which holds the remains of St. John Berchmans. Interestingly (or creepily – you choose), St. John’s body does not have its heart, which is now a relic kept in the Church of Saint-Michel in Leuven.

undefined The Pantheon

Probably one of the most famous churches, although many do not know that it is technically a church, is the Pantheon. The Pantheon was never intended to be a Catholic Church. Indeed, the façade of the Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa, Roman Emperor Augustus’ long-time pal and general, and eventually son-in-law. The main body of the Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian (who you may have heard of due to his eponymous wall located in Northern England). Originally, the Pantheon was dedicated to the worship of every god, but now as a consecrated Catholic church, it is dedicated to the worship of only one god.

The church also houses the remains of the first king of (unified) Italy, Victor Emmanuel II (prior to Victor Emmanuel, multiple figures have anointed themselves with the some version of the kingly title, most famously Napoleon Bonaparte) and the remains of the artist Raphael, whose paintings I’ve discussed in prior posts.

One aspect of the Pantheon that is rather well known is its domed ceiling, which is famous for giving Filippo Brunelleschi the key to completing the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as il Duomo, Florence’s Cathedral. Indeed, the secrets of engineering that held the Pantheon’s dome aloft had been long forgotten by Brunelleschi’s time, leaving the Florentines at a loss as to how to complete their dome without it collapsing. Brunelleschi, however, re-discovered linear perspective, an ancient mathematical technique used to construct the Pantheon.

Santa Maria in Campitelli

The final church that I am going to talk about is known both as Santa Maria in Campitelli or Santa Maria in Portico. It was built in response to the plague of 1656. The pope during this plague, Pope Alexander VII, took a vow to the icon St. Maria in Portico to commission a church should the plague abait. These types of vows occurred so often that churches built as a result as commonly known now as “Plague Churches.” Well, the plague eventually did abait, and so Alexander fulfilled his promise and laid the foundation stone on September 29, 1660.

Above the doorway, you can see the inscription “S.P.Q.R. VOTVM S. ALEXAN. VII. P. M. S. MARIAE IN PORTICV A. FVNDAM. POS. A. M. DC. LXV.” Now, it has been a while since my last college Latin class, but S.P.Q.R. (an acronym that you will see all over Rome) means Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, or in English, “The Senate and People of Rome.” “VOTVM S.” also appears quite regularly in ancient inscriptions, albeit in another form (“V.S.L.M.”). Votum translates as a vow, thus referring to Pope Alexander’s vow to build the Church, and the “S” is an abbreviation of the Latin verb solvit, meaning “to fulfill.” The next three are easier: “Alexan. VII. P. M.” translates as Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus; “S. Mariae in Porticv” means Santa Maria in Portico; and “A Fundam.” is an abbreviation for the latin phrase “a fundamenta,” translated into english as “from foundations.” “Pos.” is the abbreviation for “posuit,” translated roughly as “put” or “laid.” Finally, “A. M. DC. LXV.” refers to the date, Anno 1000 (M) 600 (DC) 65 (LXV), or 1665, the date the façade was completed.

S.P.Q.R.The Senate and People of Rome
VOTVM S.Fulfilled Vow
Alexand. VII. P. M.Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus
S. Mariae in PorticvSanta Maria in Portico
A. FVNDAM. POS. Laid from Foundations
A. M. DC. LXV.In the Year 1665

After putting it all together, the inscription means In the Year 1665, The Senate and People of Rome fulfilled Pope Alexander VII’s vow to rebuild Santa Maria in Portico from its foundations (the church was built atop the site of a prior church dedicated to Mary).

The altar tabernacle was designed by Giovanni Antonio de Rossi to contain the aforementioned icon.

The icon is a typical Byzantine work, with Mary holding Jesus against a blue background between two oak leaves. Allegedly, the icon is linked to a 6th century event, when St. Galla had a vision of a couplet stating, “Hic est illa piae Genitricis Imago Mariae quae discubenti Gallae patuit metuenti,” meaning, “This is the image of Mary Mother of God revealed to Galla, humble and fearful, while serving the poor.” The image in possession of the church is probably a reproduction of a more ancient painting.

Marian devotion looms large in Roman culture, especially as she has been linked to the Port (Porto/Portico), which is typically a place of welcome and shelter, alluding to the security of the womb.

Another fun fact about this church: Henry Stuart, Duke of York, became the cardinal deacon of the church in 1747, and he and his father James Stuart (“the Old Pretender“), instituted the Perpetual Prayer, mandating that every Saturday, a mass would be celebrated with the singing of the Litanies to the Virgin to beg her to return the Church of England to the Catholic faith. Obviously, this prayer was less than successful as the Church of England has remained Anglican to this day.

A Brief Look at the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“). Sixtus restored the Sistine Chapel, but it was his nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.

Michelangelo decided to decorate the ceiling with images from the Old Testament to link with the images of the New Testament that decorated the walls of the chapel. The design includes nine stories from the Old Testament that run down the middle of the ceiling.

The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.

The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.

Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe.

The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.

The Flood

Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.

The Creation of Adam

Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.

As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.

So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.

The Vatican Statues

In addition to the sculptures located in the Octagonal Court, the Vatican Museums are home to hundreds of other fascinating statues. I’m just going to highlight my favorite ones here, organized by museum and room.

The Pio Clementino Museum

The original papal sculptures were housed in the then Cortile delle Statue (now known as the Octagonal Court), but by the 18th century, keeping the ever-growing collection in that courtyard was no longer tenable, as the collection had dramatically increased in size over the years due to both donations and archeological excavations. Thus, Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli, followed by Pope Pius VI Braschi, converted rooms of the Belvedere Palace into a museum to house the papal collection of ancient Roman sculpture. This museum is now known as the Pio Clementino Museum, in honor of the aforementioned popes.

Hall of the Muses

The Hall of the Muses was redesigned with the intention of housing statues found at the Villa of Cassius near Tivoli (it is now commonly believed that the so-called Villa of Cassius was not actually owned by Cassius). These sculptures date from the 2nd century AD and included several (but not all nine) muses. Unfortunately, some of the sculptures found at the villa were irreparably modified by 18th century restorers in an attempt to complete the set of the nine Muses, including a sculpture that was repurposed as the muse Euterpe.

Muses were minor deities that imparted their gifts of music, poetry, and dance to men and gods, allowing both to forget their troubles by losing themselves to art. Fittingly, the Muses were the daughters of the titaness Mnemosyne (i.e. memory) and the king of the gods, Zeus.

Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, [55] a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, [60] she bore nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song, and whose spirit is free from care, a little way from the top-most peak of snowy Olympus. …

For although a man has sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer, [100] the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.

Hesiod. “The Complete Hesiod Collection.” Acheron Press.

The vaulted ceiling of the hall accurately reflects the hall’s namesake. (I know this section is supposed to be about sculptures, but I couldn’t resist this ceiling, so bear with me.) Painted by Tommaso Conca, the ceiling depicts both Apollo and the Muses inspiring artistic endeavours. Apollo is included along with the Muses because he was commonly associated with music, especially with an instrument known as the lyre. According to myth, the god Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, offered it to Apollo after he had been caught stealing Apollo’s cattle.

The final, and some would argue most important, piece of the Hall of Muses is known as the Belvedere Torso. The Belvedere Torso (so called due to its original placement in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard) dates from the 1st century BC and owes much of its fame to Michelangelo’s admiration of it. In fact, during and after the sixteenth century, the Belvedere Torso became the model for nudes in multiple works, including Raphael’s figure of Christ in his Vision of Ezekiel and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.

The Round Hall

The Round Hall was based off the hemispherical vault of the Pantheon. Indeed, vaulted ceiling is seemingly structurally identical (albeit a touch more ornate) to that of the famous temple to the Gods.

The floor mosaics of the Round Hall are from the early 3rd century AD while the porphyry basin in the center of the room is likely to have stood in an imperial Roman piazza. The gold Heracles housed in one of the niches in this room was found lying horizontally and covered by a stone with the letters F.C.S., standing for Fulgur Conditum Summanium, translated as “hidden from lightning flow.” Thus, historians have deduced that it had been given a ritual burial, which was customary for Romans to do for statues that had been hit by lightning.

Hercules

Hercules is shown in his traditional iconography: holding his club and the Nemean lion skin. (Indeed, Hercules is generally shown in this posture.)

Gallery of the Candelabra

The Gallery of the Candelabra houses The Persian Warrior, who is depicted wearing a Phrygian beret with his upper hand grasping his sword. This work is probably a Roman copy of a Greek Bronze that was made to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Allegedly, an Athenian ran from Marathon to the city of Athens (about 25 miles) to deliver the news of the Persian defeat. It is this run that became the basis for the masochistic early morning, freezing races in which yours truly loves to participate. (Although, I do wish whoever came up with the idea had done his/her math better and kept the race at 25 miles rather than 26.2. For some reason, that seems much more manageable.)

The Persian Warrior

The New Wing

The New Wing was built to house the works that Napoleon had taken from the Vatican, but which France has since returned. It links the Chiaramonti Museum to the Apostolic Library and was designed to recreate the space for which the works were originally created. One of the New Wing’s most famous pieces, Augustus from Prima Porta (1st century AD), is a statue of Augustus that was found in the Villa of Livia (Livia was Augustus’ wife; for the Julio-Claudian family tree, click here).

On Augustus’ cuirass (breastplate), there is a scene showing a Parthian king returning the Roman standards lost by Crassus during the Battle of Carrhae. Although the loss of a standard seems trivial to modern readers, to the superstitious ancient Romans, the loss of a standard was a monumental disaster. Therefore, Augustus’ recovery of such was a huge political victory for him, so much so that the event is commemorated on this larger than life statue. At the top of the breastplate is the personification of the Heavens and the chariots of Apollo and Aurora while at the bottom is the goddess Diana and the goddess Earth, symbolizing divine sanction of Augustus’ rule.

The Birth of Venus (Botticelli)

Notice the weird baby attached to Augustus’ leg? Well that weird baby was likely designed to promote Augustus’ supposed divine descent from the goddess Venus. Historians have identified the baby as Cupid, Venus’ son, in part, because he is riding a dolphin, an animal closely linked to Venus, who in one myth is born of the sea (see Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to the left of this text, which will hopefully be featured in an upcoming post about the Uffizi).

The Julii clan (i.e. the family of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew/adopted son, Augustus) claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas, who himself was alleged to have descended from the goddess Venus. And therefore, Venus’ son Cupid was likely included in this piece to emphasize Augustus’ links to divinity.

The Nile

The Nile is a 1st century AD Roman copy of a Greek original. The work personifies the River Nile as an old man while Egypt is represented by a sphinx, supporting the Nile. Sixteen children run along the top of the Nile; according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the children represent the sixteen cubits of water by which the Nile rises for its annual flood. Interestingly, this piece was at the center of an international debacle between Italy and France during the early nineteenth century. As it turns out, Emperor Napoleon was quite fond of Italian art, and during his invasion of Italy, he commandeered several pieces (including the Nile) and sent them to the Louvre. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Pope demanded that the French return the artwork to the Vatican. The French, reluctant to give back this treasure, offered the Pope a nude statute of Napoleon as compensation. The Pope, obviously not keen to own a colossal nude statute of an overthrown foreign invader, declined the offer and demanded the Nile back. As evidenced, the French acquiesced.

Also here is a statue of Silenus and the baby Dionysus (yes, that Dionysus; even gods of wine and the bacchanal were babies at one point). In a tribute to the baby’s eventual celestial purview, the branch supporting the two is decorated with grape vines. Silenus is variously described as Dionysus’ foster father, companion, and/or tutor, depending on the source. This statue, as usual, is a Roman copy of a Greek original (the ancient Romans had some serious appropriation issues – stealing myths, artwork, etc), and it dates from around the 2nd century AD.

I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite pieces from the Vatican. Thanks as always for reading!

Raphael’s Rooms

The papal apartments that are now known as “Raphael’s Rooms” were commissioned by Pope Julius II upon his election to the papal throne. Rather than live in the rooms of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, whom Julius detested, Pope Julius collected a team of artists, including Raphael, to redecorate previously unused chambers. Raphael was soon put in charge of the whole project.

The Room of Heliodorus was the second of the papal apartments to be decorated. Its walls are frescoed with events chosen to convey a dual message: of God’s protection of the Church and of Julius II’s desire to “free Italy” from its current French occupation. The fresco from which this room takes its name, Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, depicts a Biblical episode wherein a Syrian named Heliodorus is sent to the Temple in Jerusalem to take its treasure. The high priest of the temple calls on God for protection, and God sends a horsemen and two youths to banish Heliodorus.

Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple

Pope Julius II is seen on the left, witnessing the event, while Heliodorus is knocked to the floor with the spilled gold in the right corner of the work. The implicit characterization of the French as the thieving Heliodorus would not have been lost on the fresco’s contemporary viewers.

Also in this room is the Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, which was completed after Pope Julius II’s death. The portrait of his successor, Pope Leo X, appears twice in this fresco: once as Leo the Great and once as a cardinal. According to legend, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared during this momentous meeting, and it was this appearance that dissuaded Attila from invading Italy. (As typical of portraits of St. Peter, he is depicted holding keys; while St. Paul is identifiable via his pointed beard.) Once again, the underlying message to the French, that God protects Rome from foreign invaders, would have been very potent to contemporaries.

Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila

It is the Room of the Segnatura, however, that houses Raphael’s most famous frescoes, including his School of Athens. Julius II used this room as his study/library, and it is this use that the frescoes are meant to reflect.

The School of Athens

The School of Athens celebrates philosophers, focusing on Plato and Aristotle, who represent the two schools of thought: idealism and realism. Plato, holding his Timaeus, is pointing to the heaven as the source of knowledge while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the earth.

Detail of The School of Athens

Allegedly, Plato is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. His gesture to the sky was closely associated with Da Vinci, appearing throughout his work, including in his famous depiction of The Last Supper, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was decorated after Pope Julius II’s death in 1513. The new pontiff, Pope Leo X, took over the commission given to Raphael and made significant changes. One of those changes was to dedicate this room to the pope’s namesakes, Leo III and Leo IV. Thus, the paintings include the Crowning of Charlemagne, which depicts the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope in the year AD 800, the Justification of Leo III, the oath taken by Leo III that reaffirmed the principle that the pope is answerable to God alone, and the Battle of Ostia when, in AD 849, the papal armies were pitted against Muslim forces.

The Fire in the Borgo depicts the fire that broke out in AD 847 in front of St. Peter’s, in an area known as the Borgo. Allegedly, the efforts of a mass of people to put the fire out had no effect until Pope Leo IV appeared at a window in the Vatican Palace and imparted a blessing. At that moment, the fire was miraculously extinguished.

Fire in the Borgo

Leo IV can be seen in the background, giving his blessing while in the left foreground is a group of figures inspired by Virgil’s homeric epic Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas flees his home city of Troy as the Greeks burn it to the ground. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back while his young son, Ascanius, runs alongside him. After escaping Troy, Aeneas leads the surviving Trojans on a treacherous search for a new homeland, eventually settling in what would one day become Rome. Allegedly, the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are Aeneas’ descendants. It is in this way that Virgil ties Rome and its founding to a prestigious and ancient culture. (During Rome’s early history, many, including Greeks, thought of Rome as an uncultured back-water. Apparently, even the Romans felt like they had something to prove.)

That’s all I have for today. Thanks!!

Christian Iconography Explained

Below are brief explanations of common attributes given to saints to identify them in art.

St. Benedict

St. Benedict is the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

Saints Cosmas and Damian

Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were the patron saints of physicians and therefore closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). They are usually depicted in red togas and red caps. Sometimes, they are shown with surgical tools or ointment jars laying near them, denoting their status as doctors.

St. Catherine of Alexandria

According to Christian belief, St. Catherine of Alexandria was an Egyptian woman of noble birth who was persecuted by Emperor Maxentius. She was to be killed on a spiked wheel, but upon her touch, it broke. Thus, her main attribute in paintings is a spiked wheel. She was subsequently beheaded.

St. Francis

St. Francis (1181/2-1226) founded the Franciscan monastic order. He is generally depicted in his monk’s habit or receiving the stigmata (i.e. the wounds of Christ).

St. Jerome

Saint Jerome’s major identifier is his tamed lion, whom he allegedly met while living in the wilderness.

St. John the Baptist

A popular subject among Renaissance artists is St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist was believed to be Jesus’ cousin; his epithet derived from his role in Jesus’ baptism. Generally, St. John is recognizable via his animal hair tunic, his processional cross, and his untamed hair.

St. Matthew the Evangelist

Saint Matthew the Evangelist is generally pictured holding a Bible, an allusion to his contribution to the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew.

St. Miniatus

St. Miniatus is a Florentine saint, who is regularly depicted in Florentine altarpieces.

St. Paul

St. Paul is identifiable via his long, pointed beard and (usually) bald head. He is also generally holding a sword, an allusion to his martyrdom (he was beheaded by Romans), and a book, a reference to his epistles.

St. Peter

One of the most well known of the saints is St. Peter (for whom the Vatican’s Cathedral is named). According to the Bible, St. Peter led his fellow 12 Apostles after Jesus was crucified, and as the leader of the early Church, he is considered by the Church to be its first pope. He is typically depicted with a set of keys (which has been incorporated into Papal coat of arms, as a nod to its first pope) because Jesus is supposed to have told him that he would give St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew XVI:19). He also is usually depicted with a short square-shaped beard and holding a book.

St. Vincent of Saragossa

St. Vincent of Saragossa is generally shown carrying a ship and/or a millstone, an allusion to the fact that his body was thrown into the sea after he died. He is also sometimes depicted holding a palm, the universal symbol of martyrdom.

St. Zenobius

St. Zenobius is a patron saint of Florence, Italy. Allegedly, St. Zenobius saved Florence from the Ostrogoths in AD 405 when he was bishop of Florence. St. Zenobius is most famous for his uncanny ability to bring people back from the dead.

Posted in art

The Vatican’s Picture Gallery

One of the most fascinating museums housed in the Vatican is the New Pinacoteca. The “new” Vatican Pinacoteca actually dates to 1932 (although in comparison with the works held, this could be accurately dubbed “new”). Most of the paintings held in this collection picture Christian themes, stories, images, and sometimes all of the above. Therefore, before we dive in, I linked this page to go over some of the saints’ typical iconography. (I will be regularly updating it as more saints appear in the art in later posts.)

The first major art work I want to talk about it known as the Stefaneschi triptych (Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330). It was commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Caetani degli Stefaneschi for the high altar of St. Peter’s (St. Peter’s being the Vatican’s church). For such an important piece, Stefaneschi commissioned the famous Giotto. At this time, Giotto had already been praised as the greatest artist of the time by such names as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio due to his innovative technique of depicting figures with life and emotion. The figures in Giotto’s work are not static, but real and relatable; indeed, human.

Next on our swift tour of the gallery is The Redeemer conferring a blessing (Simone Martini, 1315-20), which is believed to be a panel of a polyptych (an altarpiece that was very popular during the 14th and 15th centuries). Martini manages to infuse the old tradition of Byzantine with the more modern elegance and refinement of color found in his home town of Siena. The Byzantine School was characterized by emotionless figures set in a gold background. Although those features are indeed present in this work, Martini’s positioning of the hands betrays the modern innovation that was swirling around the art world at this time: depth creation and perspective. The mere placement of one hand on a book while the other raised in a blessing catapults this work into straight into the nascent stirrings of the Renaissance.

Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library (Melozzo da Forlì) illustrates the appointment of Bartolomeo Sacchi as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library. Sacchi (known as Platina) had been put in charge of building the new Vatican Library, but during his momentous building project, he stripped marble, ancient sculptures, and other building material from ancient Roman buildings to incorporate within the new library. So although he helped beautify “new” Rome, it was at the expense of the old. Astonishingly, the painting was painted in only thirty days.

The painting shows Pope Sixtus IV surrounded by his cardinal and lay nephews, including Raffaele Riario (standing behind the Pope’s throne) and Giuliano della Rovere (the Cardinal in red), the future Pope Julius II, ominously known as il papá terrible. Girolamo Riario (in the blue) wears a gold chain, likely alluding to his recent appointment to burgher of the city of Rome and a member of the Roman nobility. The inclusion of his nephews in this group portrait is telling of Sixtus’ is a telling reminder of his unabashed use of the papal office to promote his family. Nepotism was absolutely not a new phenomenon, but contemporaries took more issue with Sixtus’ nepotism due to his relatively obscure birth (his father was a fisherman), as well as his indiscriminate use of the promotions. In fact, a major rift occurred between Sixtus and Lorenzo de’Medici (known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) because of Sixtus allowed his desire to promote his family to obscure any other important considerations.

Platina is depicted kneeling at the Pope’s feet in gratitude for his new position. And, indeed, Platina would have been very thankful for his change in fortune; just a few years earlier, he had been imprisoned and tortured by Paul II, who had suspected Platina and other humanists of plotting against him. Interestingly, Platina was a great admirer of Lorenzo de’Medici, one of Sixtus’ bitter enemies.

The Vatican owns several of Raphael’s works, including one known as the Crowning of the Virgin (also known as the Oddi Altarpiece) (Raffaello Sanzio, 1502-04), which was originally intended for the altar of the Oddi Chapel in the church of St. Francesco al Prato in Perugia. It is an early work, and as such, it is the closest of his paintings to the style of his maestro Perugino. Like his final piece, Transfiguration, this work depicts two scenes, one on top of the other, but unlike his Transfiguration, this work fails to unify the two scenes into a single composition, leaving it feeling disjointed.

Another Raphael is known as the Madonna of Foligno (1511), which was commissioned by Sigismondo dei Conti for the high altar of St. Maria in Aracoeli (Rome). Unfortunately, Sigismondo died before he could provide the intended inscription on the plaque held by the angel, and none of his heirs wanted to presume what the inscription was supposed to be; thus, the angel was left holding a blank plaque. Sigismondo is shown on the right, kneeling by St. Jerome, while on the left, St. John the Baptist is standing next to St. Francis. The background of the scene may provide the motive for this ex voto altarpiece. In the distance is a town that is narrowingly missed by an oncoming meteorite.

Raphael’s last major piece in this museum is The Transfiguration, which was commissioned by then-Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later, Pope Clement VII) for the cathedral of St. Giusto of Narbonne. Raphael, however, was notoriously slow to finish his works at the time of this commission due to his immense popularity and ever-growing number of commissions. To speed Raphael’s work along, Cardinal Medici commissioned a second altarpiece from Raphael’s great rival, Sebastiano del Piombo. In response, Raphael determined to create a complex composition, which proved to be his final work.

Like Raphael’s two other works mentioned above, the Transfiguration separates the action into two distinct scenes. But here, the distinct scenes flow together into a single cohesive composition. The first is the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, when the divinity of Christ is revealed in the presence of the prophets Moses and Elias. The second depicts a possessed boy, surrounded by the disciples, who await Jesus’ return from Mount Tabor. The piece illustrates the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerism, which is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes.

Next on our list is the Vision of St. Helen (Veronese, 1580). St. Helen was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity). According to the Church, St. Helen recovered a piece of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) from Palestine and took it back to the West as a relic.

Veronese was well-known for depicting female saints in luxurious silks and velvets, paying special attention to the folds and weight of the cloths. Additionally, St. Helen is placed in a setting that is reminiscent of a late sixteenth century Venetian room despite the fact that she died during the fourth century. Veronese does, however, add the marble columns in the background, maybe as a nod to her ancient roots.

The Entombment is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s greatest works; it was commissioned by Girolamo Vittrice for his family chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Caravaggio deviated from the traditional iconography (as he typically would when painting religious themes), showing Christ being laid by Nicodemus and John on the Anointing Stone (the stone that is used to close the sepulchre). In fact, Caravaggio was known for his revolutionary treatment not only of religious figures but of art and painting in general. By all accounts, Caravaggio was irascible, violent, and unpredictable. (For an entertaining and informative podcast on Caravaggio’s life, check out Daniele Bolelli’s History on Fire, episode 11). And his character is reflected in his work.

Detail of The Entombment

Although apprenticed in a studio during his youth, Caravaggio was largely self-taught, allowing him to develop a distinctive style that (1) focused on light and its effects; and (2) depicted his figures as realistically as possible. You can see in his Entombment that the saints are shown without their usual halos and are not adorned in gold and light. Instead, Caravaggio’s saints are human, with human cares and human worries shown in their furrowed brows and crestfallen faces.

Finally, we get to the Communion of St Jerome (Domenichino, 1611-14), which was commissioned by the Congregation of St. Jerome of Charity for the high altar of St. Jerome della Carità in Rome. The work depicts St. Jerome taking his last communion before his death.

The positioning of the Eucharist speaks to the turbulent times, especially in terms of religion. This work was produced during the Counter-Reformation, which was characterized by the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation of its central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the worship of the martyrs. The Counter-Reformation was the Church’s response to the Protestant movements arising across the Western world. One of the tenants championed by the Protestants was that the Eucharist did not actually transform into the body of Christ during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a process known as transubstantiation. Placing the host smackdab in the center of the painting was likely meant to promote the doctrine.

Indeed, despite artists’ personal religious leanings, they tended to try and stay on the right side of the Catholic Church publically. Mainly because it was the Church from which most of their commissions came. Indeed, a major attempt to stem the Protestant movement was the increase of commissions of art. At the time, Protestants believed that art in church equated to worship of a saint, and thereby worship of an idol, which was prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Catholic Church poured money into art to make its churches more beautiful to entice people to attend mass.

I think that’s it for the day! Until later.

Mythical Ceramics: The Gregorian Etruscan Museum

The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was the first museum dedicated solely to artifacts found in ancient Etruria (modern-day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria).

Vatican Map of Etruria

Etruscan cities were prosperous, independent city-states that were linked by culture, religion, and language. Because of their prosperity, trade flourished in this area, leaving many artifacts for archeologists to find and study. Etruria remained a dominant force in central Italy until the Etruscans supported the Roman Marius in Rome’s civil war and the region was fully incorporated into the burgeoning Roman Empire.

By far the most interesting room of this museum is Room IX, which houses imported Greek ceramics found in the ancient city of Vulci. Before we dive into the artwork, it is probably helpful to explain the different types and uses of each vessel.

  • The first ceramic depicted above, the Amphora, was used to hold both wine and oil. Its name was derived from the Greek word amphí, which means “on both sides” (a reference to the double handle), and the Greek word phérō, which means “carry.” Victors of the Panathenaic Games would receive so-called Panathenaic amphora filled with oil made from sacred olives.
  • The next ceramic, the Kantharos, was a deep vessel with a tall foot and two handles that rose above the lip of the cup. It was closely linked to the God Dionysus, who would typically be depicted with a Kantharos.
  • The Kyathos was a deep vessel with a low foot and a single handle that rose above the lip of the cup. It was used as a ladle, and in fact, the word “Kyathos” was a term of measurement, meaning 0.136 litres.
  • A Kylix was a wide vessel with two handles and was used during symposia (drinking parties). It was also used in a game known as kottabos, where a player would attempt to fling wine from a whirling kylix into a small container.
  • The Oinochoe was used in conjunction with the Kylix during symposia. It was the vessel which transported wine from a krater to the kylix. Its name was derived from the Greek word oînos, which means “wine,” and the Greek word chéō, which means “I pour” – pretty literal those Greeks, even if they did have awesome drinking parties.
  • Finally, the Hydria was used to hold and transport water. Its name was derived from the Greek word hydōr, which means “water.” This particular vessel had three handles, two on either side and a third protruding from the lip, which was used while carrying the vessel on one’s head.

Now that we have the types of ceramics straight, let’s dig into the actual works located in this room. The first major work is known as the Attic black figure Amphora by the Ptoion Painter, which juxtaposes a banquet scene, representing the world of man, with a scene depicting the Judgment of Paris, representing the world of the gods. The Ptoion Painter was well known for his depictions of this juxtaposition of the two universes. In fact, similar juxtapositions are also found painted in Etruscan tombs; these paintings are believed to have been done by Greek immigrant artists.

The Attic black figure Amphora of the E Group has been identified as being part of the “E Group,” a classification of amphorae that are thought to have been created by the Attic potter Exekias, who was active during the 6th century BC. This particular amphora depicts a victorious athlete lifting a large tripod on one side while on the other depicts a charioteer. Exekias was known to be fond of depicting horses, four of which appear on this amphora.

The Etruscan black figure Amphora by the Micali Painter is decorated with a battle between Iolaus, Athena, Heracles, Cycnus, Ares, and Phobos, among others. It has been attributed to the Painter of Micali, who was known for his disproportionate figures, reduced spaces, marked gestures, approximate anatomies, and ornamental details.

Rooms XVII and XVIII of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum house what were thought to be Etruscan, but were re-identified as Roman or Greek vases.

For instance, the Laconic Kylix with Prometheus and Atlas was made in Sparta during the early 6th century BC. It depicts Atlas, whose punishment for helping his brother Prometheus is to keep heaven and earth separated. Prometheus, on the other hand, was tied to a pole and presented as food for an eagle, who ate his liver every day, only for it to regrow every night. Comparatively, Atlas sounds like he got off lightly.

Room XIX of the Museum is dedicated to Attic ceramics ranging from 560 to 460 BC, which reached Etrusia via trade routes from Athens. In this room is the Panathenaic Attic Amphora of the Michigan Painter, which is typical of panathenaic amphorae. As mentioned above, panathenaic amphorae were given to the winners of the Panathenaic games. All such Amphorae were decorated with the goddess Athena, flanked by two small columns topped with a cockerel, a symbol of combative temperament, and the inscription “ton Athenethen athlon,” meaning “of the Athens contests.”

During the 6th century BC, ceramicists moved away from the traditional black-figure style in favor of the red-figure method, which allowed ceramicists to better define the figure’s details, since the details were now painted on instead of scratched into the ceramic. The “Bilingual” Attic Kylix shows the transition towards fully adopting the red-figure style, combining both methods into the single work. Indeed, the figure on the inside of the kylix was done in the black-figure style, while the figures on the outside surface are done in the red-figure style on a painted black background.

Attic black figure Amphora signed by Exekia is one of the most famous amphorae. The ceramicist Exekia, as mentioned above, was rather prolific, and this amphora is considered his masterpiece. It depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice on one side and Castor and his horse Kyllaros and Pollux playing with his dog on the other.

For those unfamiliar with the Trojan War myth, Achilles is the Greek’s greatest fighter and is nearly invincible, save for his ankle (thus, our expression “Achilles’ heel”). Ajax is a fellow Greek warrior in the fight against Troy; in fact, it was said that he was second in bravery and strength only to Achilles. He is known for recovering Achilles’ body from the Trojans and for committing suicide after Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus rather than to him. This scene obviously takes place before the tragic ending of these two mythical heroes. Castor and Pollux, depicted on the reverse, are mythical twins of Leda and Zeus, the father of the Gods, who had seduced Leda while he was in the guise of a swan. (Although according to some versions of the story, Pollux is the son of Zeus and Castor is the son of Leda’s husband, the King of Sparta.) The Greek gods had very messy love lifes.

Another famous ceramic is the Attic Kylix in the style of Douris, which depicts Heracles floating along inside a golden goblet (yes, a golden goblet) on his way to the island of Erytheia, where he will face the Geryon, the herdsman Eurytion, and the dog Orthros on his quest to capture a herd of cattle (his 10th labor). Heracles is shown in his usual iconography: the Nemean lion skin, the cub, and the bow.

The Attic Kantharos of the Vatican Class also uses Heracles’ life as its inspiration. This kantharos is a janiform with the face of Heracles on one side and the face of an African King on the other.

Historians believe that the King is a depiction of Busiris, the mythical Egyptian king who sacrificed any foreigner that came to Egypt in exchange for the total avoidance of famine. Heracles was such a foreigner who was captured and brought to the sacrificial altar, which turned out to be a disatorious mistake on the part of the Egyptians. Heracles escaped his bindings and massacred the entire Egyptian court.

The final vessel that I want to talk about is the Attic Kylix of the Painter of Oedipus. On the inside of the ceramic, Oedipus is depicted seated listening to a riddle put to him by the Sphinx of Thebes. To enter the city, Oedipus must answer the riddle correctly, which he is indeed able to do. Upon entering the city, however, Oedipus unwittingly married his mother, recently widowed Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. Giving Sigmund Freud the name for his famous “Oedipus Complex.”

Honeymooning In Rome: The Vatican’s Most Romantic Courtyard.

The Octagonal Court was once known as the Cortile delle Statue because it was here that Pope Julius II displayed his collection of antique sculpture. Major works here include The River God (Arno), which dates from the age of Hadrian.

The River God

It is thought to be a personalization of the River Arno because the sculpture has a carving of a lion’s head, which possibly alludes to the Medici. (The lion’s head is hiding within the vase; see the picture below for a better view.) The Arno River is the river running through Florence, the city that the Medici unofficially ruled until they were formally invested as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Detail of the River God

Another famous statue is the Lacoön, depicted below.

Laocoön depicts the moment when the priest Lacoön and his sons are killed by serpents after they tried to warn the Trojans about the wooden horse. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, this statute once graced the halls of Emperor Titus. The sculpture was rediscovered in 1506 and immediately acquired by Pope Julius II. It was during this time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, and its influence can been identified in his depiction of the human body.

The Renaissance artists were also captivated by the Belvedere Apollo.

Apollo Belvedere (mid 2nd century A.D.) was considered to be bodily “perfection” by the Renaissance thinkers. It is believed to be a Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze from 330 BC, but the decision to make the copy in marble presented structural problems, most significant of which was that statues made of bronze were hollow and therefore much lighter than statutes made of marble. To compensate for the weight, the sculptor placed a wedge of marble underneath Apollo’s left foot and added the support of a tree trunk behind the statue. Apollo came to the Vatican without hands, but – on the advice of Michelangelo – Pope Clement VII commissioned sculpture Giovanni Agnolo Montorsoli to restore the statue. Unfortunately, rather than simply sculpt hands for Apollo, Montorsoli cut off Apollo’s forearm and replaced it with his own design. This “restoration,” being made of marble, also needed support for its added weight, and Montorsoli inserted the block of marble that sits atop the tree trunk.

Another statue named for its location in the Papal Palace is the Belvedere Hermes. Hermes is depicted in his role of Psychopompos (if anyone watches Netflix’s Sabrina, the term should be familiar), the leader of souls to the underworld. He is identifiable via his travelling cloak, which has been thrown over his shoulder, then wrapped around his forearm, typical iconography for Psychopompos.

The last major masterpiece in the courtyard is Perseus Triumphant.

Perseus Triumphant is a relatively recent work, comparatively speaking. It was carved by renowned sculptor Antonio Canova in late 1800/early 1801. Perseus is shown holding Medusa’s severed head, dressed in Hermes’ winged cap, which he had borrowed for his adventure. Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti bought the statue, which he displayed on the pedestal that once held the Apollo Belvedere, but was currently unoccupied due to Napoleon’s forced art acquisition. Luckily, Perseus was of the same dimensions, weight, and proportions of the Apollo, as it was that piece of art that inspired Canova.