The Sansevero Chapel: art, legends and esoteric symbols
by Barbara Palladino
The Sansevero Chapel, also known as Church of Santa Maria della Pietà or Pietatella, rises between the alleys at the heart of Naples, not far from Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. One of the city’s most fascinating places, it is famous for its wonderful works of art as well as for its many esoteric symbols and Masonic references, which have sparked the curiosity of experts and visitors for centuries.
Different legends have circulated about the origin of the chapel. Some say that in 1590, an innocent man who was about to be arrested saw a wall come down as he passed Palazzo Di Sangro, revealing the image of Mary; the man asked for grace, and promised a silver lamp and an inscription if he could go free. He was soon cleared of all charges, and the location became a religious landmark and a destination for pilgrims and the local faithful. Others say it was Giovan Francesco di Sangro, during an illness, who asked and was granted grace, and therefore had the votive chapel built. His son Alessandro di Sangro – patriarch of Alexandria – later built a temple as a funerary monument for his family; finally, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, transformed the skeleton of that original structure into the artistic gem that we see today.
Raimondo was an illustrious alchemist and first Grand Master of the Neapolitan Masonic lodge, and introduced a number of esoteric symbols in the chapel to reflect his own multi-faceted and artistic personality.
The chapel is now home to one of the world’s most outstanding masterpieces of sculpture, “The Veiled Christ” by Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Sanmartino. The piece represents Jesus upon dying, in full scale, covered by a thin shroud draped like a veil. The latter is carved in marble, yet is so well made a rumor started that Raimondo di Sangro himself had invented a special liquid that could turn fabric into stone. None other than Canova admired the sculpture, declaring he would have happily given up ten years of his life to own it.
The Chapel’s vault ceiling is decorated with an impressive fresco, known as “Glory of Heaven” or “Heaven of the Di Sangro”; it was painted by Francesco Maria Russo in 1749, and is full of esoteric symbols. Its particular colors have endured the test of time for centuries, leading some to believe they were formulated with special ingredients, created by Raimondo in order to make them last for eternity.
The other sculptures that decorate the space are also mysterious and full of allegories, from “Release from Deception” by Francesco Queirolo – which represents Raimondo’s father, Antonio di Sangro – to “Veiled Truth”, dedicated to his mother, Cecilia Gaetani d’Aragona, who died at the young age of 23.
Some of the other incredible features of the chapel are the “Anatomical Machines”: skeletons of a man and of a woman, dating back to 1763-64. Legend has it that Raimondo di Sangro injected two bodies with a substance that transformed their circulatory system into metal, in order to showcase it in such perfect detail that it is incredible, considering the time’s knowledge of anatomy. Another undeniable wonder is the “Floor Labyrinth”, an inlay of different tones of marble, with a continuous white line running across it: a real maze that the prince never got to see complete, because it required such long, hard work that it was finished only after his death.