In the middle ages, this site was home to a church that was called the Santa Maria in Vallicella. Philip Neri had the present-day church, the new church, built. We are not going to look at the architecture of this church, just some of its paintings. The artist Pietro da Cortona, whose Santa Maria della Pace we already looked at earlier, with some interruptions worked on painting the nave, the dome and the apse for 20 years.
We will visit the chapel and final resting place of the saint to which this church is dedicated.
Philip Neri was one of the most prominent figures of the counterreformation. He was a sincere Christian who took his faith very seriously. He founded the Congregation of the Oratory in 1551. They met in the neighbouring Oratory (oratorio= prayer room and chapel). They would preach, sing in the vernacular and engage in pastoral care. Young Roman princes who wanted to join, first had to complete a list of assignments, for instance making mortar or carrying bricks for the construction of the new church. Philip Neri died in 1595 and was buried in the Chiesa Nuova.
The church is home to three paintings of the young Rubens. One of them is located above the main altar and the other two beside it. If we are lucky, and the sexton is kind enough to fetch his remote, we will see that behind the oval painting of the Virgin Mary by Rubens there is an oval box that can be opened to reveal a 14th century fresco of the Blessed Virgin which reportedly performed miracles.
At the bottom of the image plane you see angels looking up in adoration at a frame in which the Virgin Mary and her child can be seen (behind her is the miraculous fresco). The altar piece wasn’t to be Rubens’ only painting for this church. He painted to more big paintings, both of them on slate. These two paintings hang a little lower, so that the three of them together resemble a traditional triptych. St Gregory, Maurus and Papianus (in situ) are to the left of the main altar and to the right St Nereus, Domitilla and Achilleus (in situ). Both works feature three saints come to pay their respects to The Virgin Mary and her child in the central panel. The relics of the six martyrs depicted on both the flanking painting, including Gregory and Domitilla are enshrined in this church
The Chiesa Nuova originally also featured a famous painting by Caravaggio in the second chapel on the right; the Vittrici Chapel. You will see this painting later in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca. For now, we will have to make do with a replica of the Entombment of Christ. We will nevertheless discuss this painting here because it has to be seen in context to be understood.
I will provide some information here that is partly a repetition of what I have already written under Day 5: Caravaggio. Pope Gregory XIII, who was a close friend of Vittrici’s, introduced an indulgence for praying in his chapel in the Chiesa Nuova. Vittrici died before his chapel was completed. The chapel and altar were completed after his death. The pope reiterated that the privilege that was granted must be upheld. This meant that a chapel like the one we are standing before now, was very popular with the faithful, because it would get you an indulgence. The Santa Maria in Vallicella, as this church is officially called, houses a total of 10 altar pieces (Wikipedia) in the chapels near the aisles. These altar pieces form a single continuing story about the Road to Calvary. Each of the altar pieces includes a representation of the Virgin Mary among the other figures.
The two chapels adjoining the Vittrici Chapel feature altar pieces depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. The Entombment that Caravaggio painted for the Vittrici Chapel fits in perfectly. Many of the altar pieces had already been completed when Caravaggio started on his altarpiece in 1603. We will compare the adjoining Crucifixion by Pulzone with Caravaggio’s work. You will see that Caravaggio not only makes the story properly connect with Pulzone’s painting, but also some of the figures and their clothing, for instance the red robe and green cloak. St John (the man close to Christ in the green cloak and red robe) has the same face as the apostle painted by Pulzone. The light that comes from the right and the diagonal composition perfectly match this chapel’s natural lighting.
If you stand in front of this replica, it seems like you form part of the entombment; you are standing in the grave looking up. Rubens, who six years later worked on his altar piece above the main altar here, agreed. However, he felt that Caravaggio’s composition did not make clear where exactly Christ would be laid to rest. Several years later Rubens was to paint an entombment that did make this clear.
Rubens did not understand why Caravaggio painted this specific composition, which was never intended as a good description of the actual site. Central to this painting is its deeper meaning and the atmosphere of the entombment. It is more of an icon than a story, which also applies to Michelangelo’s Pietá. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 6: 4-6) Paul explains the link between entombment and resurrection. Man must follow Christ in death to be able to lead a new life. This idea is only properly illustrated when during consecration the priest raises his host while standing before the altar, and then right before the painting of the grave and the dead Christ speaks the words: ‘for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this, as often as you do this, in memory of Me. The worshippers attending mass could actually see the body of Christ while listening to these words. Seen in this light, it is an icon of the Corpus Domini.
If you compare Raphael’s Deposition, which you will see in the Villa Borghese, with this one you will notice big differences. Raphael strongly idealized his figures. In a famous letter to Baldassare Castiglione, he wrote that he did not use models, but ideas. Caravaggio’s figures in this altar piece are very realistic, for instance Nicodemus, the man in the foreground on the right, S.t John, Mary or Mary of Clopas. Caravaggio used a Roman street girl as a model for Mary of Clopas, the woman who throws up both hands. The gesture she makes is very classical, it can be found on many a sarcophagus from antiquity.
Typical of Caravaggio is the inattentive St John’s hand that comes out from under Christ’s armpit with his fingers opening up Christ’s wound. This sort of detail is characteristic of Caravaggio. If you still have the image of Michelangelo’s Pietà in your head, you will realise that Caravaggio used that work for inspiration, as he was wont to do. We now leave the church and go to the adjacent building, more specifically to the meeting hall of the Oratorians.