“See Naples and then die” is an old Italian adage that emphasises the enchantment and majesty of the city. Naples, strikingly located in southern Italy, overlooking the sea and the majestic volcano Vesuvius behind it, is an indefinable and contradictory city. In the old town, shabby alleys alternate with shopping streets. Crowded pizzerias, shouting merchants, and kids playing among the clotheslines crowd the lava stone streets. Incredible documents of the most opulent, almost exaggerated, Italian Baroque frame the scene. One of the most interesting examples of Baroque art is the Sansevero Chapel Museum, a sublime synthesis of the enigmatic nature of Naples.
History of the Chapel
According to legend, at the end of the 500s, an innocent man on his way to prison passed by the villa of Di Sangro, a noble Neapolitan family. The man saw Our Lady appear in the garden of the mansion and promised her gifts if his innocence was recognized. When he was released from prison, he gave the Virgin a silver lamp and an inscription. The site of the apparition became a pilgrimage destination. The Di Sangro family later had a small chapel built there, intended to become a family tomb. The current temple was created by Raimondo di Sangro, prince of Sansevero, in the 1700s. He made significant changes to the family tomb and added the extraordinary works that are still visible today. Raimondo was an esotericist, alchemist, inventor, anatomist, military man, Freemason, writer, and man of letters. The Chapel reflects the multifaceted culture and eccentric personality of its creator.
The brightly coloured frescoed vault, depicting the six family saints, is the first thing of beauty you notice upon entering the chapel. The work was created by Francesco Maria Russo and is known by the name “Glory of Paradise.” The most striking aspect is the unusual colours of the representation, particularly the vivid and bright ones, especially the golds, blues, and greens. The colors, which have retained their splendour over time, were made by Raimondo di Sangro himself.
Along the perimeter of the chapel, you can admire a series of sculptures representing some members of the Di Sangro family. One of the most striking is the work by Antonio Corradini called “Modesty,” a portrait of Raimondo Di Sangro’s mother. The woman’s body appears covered by a veil that enhances her grace. The temple is rich in esoteric symbols, each work hides different meanings and is therefore subject to numerous interpretations. According to some art historians, the statue could allude to the Egyptian goddess Isis, a deity worshipped by initiatory science, or be an allegory of wisdom.
In the centre of the room, you remain enchanted by the “Veiled Christ,” one of the most famous sculptures in the world, executed by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. The Prince of Sansevero commissioned Sanmartino for “a life-size sculpted marble statue representing Our Lord Jesus Christ dead, covered by a transparent shroud made from the same block as the statue.”
The work is carved with such skill that it looks real. As in “Modesty”, instead of covering it, the veil makes Christ’s body even more naked.
The most mysterious pieces in the museum are stored in an underground area that is accessible from the chapel’s nave. These are the “Anatomical Machines”: the skeletons of a man and a woman with cardiovascular systems almost perfectly preserved. What materials permitted such preservation for more than 250 years is still up for debate today. One tradition claims that the skeletons belonged to two of the prince of Sansevero’s attendants, whose arteries and veins could be seen after they had been embalmed. These are just a few examples of the artwork in the museum, which combines alchemy, freemasonry, art, and esotericism.