Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva nave        Aisle

Santa Maria sopra Minerva nave
photo: Holly Hayes

The word sopra means above. In reality, this church from 1280 was built on top of the ruins of a classical temple dedicated to Minerva. The church features a number of important works of art. First, however, we will take a look at a famous lady: Catherine of Siena. She played a major role in the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. The room in which she died was brought in its entirety to the sacristy of this church. Her headless body lies in the main altar. You would have to travel to Sienna to see her skull or finger (to  Venice to see her foot Santi Giovanni e Paolo).

Vaults       Four evangelists      Vaults and walls

photos: Diego Delso; evangelists: Lawrence OP; walls: MatthisKabel
Michelangelo 'Risen Christ'
photo Christ: Lawrence OP

Michelangelo ‘Risen Christ’ 1519 -1521        Christ

The main work of art in this church is located in front of a pillar to the left of the main altar; it’s Michelangelo’s Risen Christ.

In 1514 Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned to carve a statue for the Maria sopra Minerva.

By 1516, Michelangelo’s Risen Christ is largely finished, but unfortunately, while carving, he hits a strong black vein in the white marble (click here  Franco Mormando scroll down number 13). All the work had been for nothing.

Buonarroti leaves the statue at his house in Rome and leaves for Florence to work on other assignments. However, his Roman patrons won’t leave him alone. Metello Vari threatens to involve the authorities if Buonarroti does not fulfill his contractual obligations. In a letter from 1518, Michelangelo talks about the troublesome situation he finds himself in:

“I’m dying of agony because I cannot do anything, again as the result of bad luck (…) a boat laden (with blocks of marble) has failed to arrive, because it has not rained and the Arno is completely dry. The other four boats that were ordered that sail from Pisa will return laden only with water. At this moment I feel I am the most disgruntled man on earth. Messer Metello Vari is still pressuring me about his statue [Risen Christ], that [block of marble] is also in Pisa and on one of the first boats to arrive […] I’m dying of agony and it looks like I’m becoming a cheat against my own will. I am working on a beautiful studio here, where I am to carve twenty figures. I cannot put a roof on it because there is no wood in Florence, and due to the drought, this situation will probably continue for quite some time.” Quoted from Howard Hibbard ‘Michelangelo’, Penguin Book Art/Architecture second edition, 1985 p. 167


Daniele da Volterra ‘Michelangelo’

Buonarroti, impressed by the threats of his patrons, carves a second version of the statue in his studio in Florence. When it’s finished he sends one of his assistants, Pietro Urbano, to take the statue to Rome. The poor lad immediately runs into trouble when he tries to enter the city gates. He is to pay import duties. After many problems and an intervention by the patrons, Urbanus is eventually allowed to take the statue to the Santa Maria sopra Minerva without paying duties. Many regard this statue as one of Michelangelo lesser works. This probably has to do with the fact that Buonarroti hated going down a well-trodden path. He often did not finish statues because he had already thought of a new and better idea. This statue in this Gothic church was finished on the spot by Pietro Urbano. He had to do quite a lot of scraping and sanding to erase the marks left by Buonarotti’s chisel. Pietro took this much further than Michelangelo did in this phase of his life.

In a letter to Michelangelo, Sebastian del Piombo wrote had the following to say about Urbano’s intervention:

“‘But I want to inform you that he ruined everything he worked on, specifically the right foot, which he has shortened so much that it clearly shows in the toes, he also shortened the fingers, primarily those of the right hand that is holding the cross. Frizzi says they look like pretzels. They look so horrible, they appear not to be made of marble, but kneaded out of dough […] and I am sure he will come to a bad ending, as I have heard that he loves to gamble and consorts with whores and makes much money going about Rome dressed like a nymph wearing velvet shoes.’ Sculptor Federico Frizzi later ‘fixed’ the statue.” Quoted and translated from: Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo, Een rusteloos leven’, Nieuw Amsterdam – Manteau 2005 p. 156

Michelangelo ‘Study for Christ’ recto       Verso

When we are standing before the statue, I will show you an A3-sized draft by Michelangelo. This (whole) drawing shows quite beautifully that he mainly studied the muscles of the torso. While the rest of the study is done in crude lines, the torso has been worked out elegantly and in great detail. To a sculptor, a male body is much more difficult to carve than a female one. It takes detailed knowledge of the human anatomy to correctly carve the underlying muscles, arteries and bones. Carving a female body is much easier because their muscles are often not as pronounced. There is a reason why Michelangelo secretly dissected (Haarlem, Teylers Museum, A39v) many bodies in the morgue of the monastery Santo Spirito in Florence when he was about 17 years old. The main criticism of this statue is that the face lacks expression and, in the words of some critical contemporaries, appears ‘vacant’.

Also, some attributes and the statue itself have been polished quite smooth. Pietro was overly dutiful in his adherence to Vasari’s motto: ‘after the chisel, rasp and pumice, the Tripoli earth and finally straw, so the finished and shining [statue] appears before us’. You will have to decide for yourself whether you agree with this criticism or not. One thing is for sure: Buonarroti himself would never have finished his statue like this. When he was younger, he did finish his Pietà in St Peter’s just like that, as you will see in the second program.

Michelangelo ‘Risen Christ’ 1519 -1521      Christ

The loin cloth you can see now, wasn’t there at first. Christ was represented as a heathen, thereby creating a conflict between the traditional Christian way of representation and the way that Michelangelo carved Christ. This probably explains the later addition of a loincloth, which also happened to Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel that we will visit later this afternoon. The pose that Michelangelo used to carve this statue is classical. The arm crosses in front of the body while the head is looking the other way. Christ’s body is typical of Buonarotti’s style after 1520. In his further development, Michelangelo lays the foundation for a new period in art: Mannerism. This new style was defined by figures (Michelangelo) showing a spiral-like rotation (a kind of corkscrew, or, as it is called in the art world: a figura serpentinata Wikipedia) In the period that Michelangelo carved this statue, he was already so famous that he could choose his assignments. Quite remarkable was that he no longer accepted much in the way of instructions from his patrons. This did not apply, however, to assignments he received from the pope.

Fra Angelico’s grave      Zoom in

Fra Angelico's grave Santa Maria sopra Minerva
photos: Rodney and zoom in Caro Raso
Paul Hippolyte Flandrin ‘Angels visiting Fra Angelico’ 1856

Paul Hippolyte Flandrin ‘Angels visiting Fra Angelico’ 1856

We are going to look at the grave of a famous painter: Fra Angelico. Vasari told of this painter’s humility as follows:
“In short, this priest beyond praise was unassuming in all his words and actions and very humble, and in his works gentle and pious; and the saints that he painted are in their posture or appearance saintlier than anybody else. He never retouched or corrected any of his paintings, but always left them exactly the way they turned out, because – so he said – that was God’s will. Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brushes without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifixion without tears rolling down his cheeks: This why one senses the goodness of his soul in the expressions and postures of his figures, great and sincere in the Christian religion” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I p. 220 (original edition 1568)

In 1455, Fra Angelico was buried at the age of sixty in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the main church of the Dominican order in Rome. 

And finally we will take a look at two of Bernini’s works that also can be found in this church, a memorial dedicated to Maria Raggi.

Bernini ‘Maria Raggi       Mary       Zoom in       In situ

“Maria [Raggi 1552 1600] was born in Chios to a Catholic family, when the island was still part of the Republic of Genoa. She was forced to marry at an early age and after the capture of Chios by the Turks in 1566, her husband was killed by Turkish forces in 1570. After she was widowed she decided to become a nun in 1571, and later on departed for Rome in 1584, where she was offered hospitality at the Palazzo by the de Marini family, near Santa Maria sopra Minerva. An extremely pious woman, she spent much of her day in prayer, and reportedly continually performed miracles. After dying in 1600, there was some possibility of her being canonised, but the general antipathy of Pope Urban VIII to such events meant the opportunity passed.” Source: Wikipedia

“Three descendants of Maria were responsible for commissioning Bernini to create the work, Ottaviano, Tommaso, and Lorenzo Raggi, whose names are noted in the Latin inscriptions in the bottom half of the memorial.” Source Wikipedia

Bernini 'Maria Raggi'
photos: Wikipedia; zoom David Macchi and in situ: Sjaak Kempe

Bernini ‘Giovanni Vigevano’ 1617 – 1618

photos: Rodney and tomb Sailko

“The bust was produced between 1617 and 1618, and was then inserted into the tomb for Vigevano after he died in 1630.” Wikipedia

Continuation Rome day 5: Lippi in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva