Cappella Niccolina is a 14th century papal chapel in the Apostolic Palace of Vatican City.
The chapel is one of a series of private chapels in the Vatican Palace, used in turn as this pope or that moved the Papal Apartments (the suite where the pope actually sleeps) from one part of the palace to another.
So, it is a predecessor of the present Cappella Privata del Papa and the earliest surviving example of a papal private chapel in the Vatican.
The ranges around the so-called Cortile del Papagallo to the east of the Cappella Sistina constitute the original 15th century core of the Palace, which became the papal residence after the Avignon Captivity came to an end in 1377. Before the Captivity, the popes lived at the Lateran Palace but that had fallen into ruin during their absence in France.
So, in 1447, Pope Nicholas V had the semi-derelict mediaeval fortified residence here demolished and replaced. The chapel named after him was intended as a place where he could say Mass privately, and is the oldest chapel in the palace. The project included a so-called Cappella Maior which was the palace's public chapel and assembly hall, but this in turn was demolished and replaced later in the same century by the Cappella Sistina.
The chapel is in part of the palace which was once occupied by the so-called Tower of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), and apparently it is thought that fabric from this edifice survives in the present structure.
Famously, the chapel interior was frescoed by Fra Angelico -the work was finished in 1550. This was probably why the chapel was never re-fitted in more fashionable artistic styles in later centuries, and so survives as a rare mediaeval survival in the palace. He was assisted by members of his school, but the contributions of these are now thought to be less significant than formerly argued.
Pope Julius II kept it as his private chapel when he commissioned the so-called Raphael Rooms as his papal apartments. However, Pope Pius V chose to move the apartments and so this chapel was replaced by the Cappella di San Pio V as the pope's private chapel.
Giorgio Vasari writing in 1550 mentions that the altarpiece by Fra Angelico was a Deposition From the Cross. This work is lost, and when or how seems unclear.
The chapel is in the third storey of the east range of the Cortile del Papagallo. Inside, it is off the Sala dei Chiaroscuri which is itself off the fourth room (the Sala di Costantino) of the Raphael Rooms.
The chapel is a small room, amounting to a short rectangle measuring 6.25 by 4.20 metres. The layout is governed by the roofing, which has a square cross-vault with the ribs diagonal. The near and far ends are taken up by two arches fitting into the vault, both slightly narrower than the main space.
The right hand wall has two large round-headed windows with deep splayed embrasures, abutting the arches. The near wall has a pair of entrance doors, the right hand one abutting the corner but the left hand one (oddly) slightly away from it. The left hand wall has a wide rectangular niche, taller than the entrance doors, and this has the top two-thirds of its back taken up by a diapered iron grille. This was for the bodyguards to keep an eye on things while the pope was in the chapel, without getting in the way by being inside.
The sanctuary wall has a large clear glass lunette window fitted into the curve of the arch.
Almost the entire interior is frescoed. The colours remain impressively bright.
The floor is in grey-streaked white marble, and looks original. It has monochrome inlay in two longitudinal stripes, featuring grotesque devices. These stripes flank a central device consisting of a diaper rhombus enclosing a double nested tondo, itself enclosing a lightly incised sun with broad wavy rays. The front and back corners of the rhombus feature a similarly lightly incised metal vase. The diaper is itself double nested, the two rhombi enclosing a ribbon of small inlaid triangles enclosing little squares. This ribbon wraps within four smaller double nested tondi at the corner of the diaper, each of these bearing the text Nicolaus provintus. This is odd -it looks like Latin, but the second word does not exist in that language. It seems to mean something like "Nicholas the provider".
There is a high fresco dado, painted to imitate tooled leather wall coverings. This was repainted at least once. The right hand wall displays an earlier scheme, in light green originally. The zones of this on the right are separated by a later overpainting, left un-removed, which is in bright red on gold with a different pattern and featuring a single superimposed device showing the Keys of Peter on a red shield within a green wreath. This device is repeated on the left hand wall and on the near arch, where the patterns and colours are different.
The dado is provided with an entablature, the frieze of which features swags of grapes, stars, putto's heads and crossed keys on a gilded background.
Right hand side wall Edit
The main fresco work is in two cycles, the top one featuring St Stephen and the bottom one, St Lawrence. The chapel altar is dedicated to these two martyred deacons. The St Stephen scenes are on the lunette wall surfaces created by the vault, so the emphasis is on St Lawrence.
Both cycles start on the right hand main wall. Here, the top has two scenes: The Ordination of St Stephen as Deacon, and St Stephen Distributes Alms. The main scene is The Ordination of St Lawrence as Deacon.
Entrance wall Edit
The top scenes over the entrances feature St Stephen Preaching and St Stephen Before the Sanhedrin. The bottom scenes feature Pope Xystus Entrusts the Church's Wealth to St Lawrence, and St Lawrence Distributes the Church's Wealth to the Poor. The pope is allegedly a portrait of Pope Nicholas.
Left hand side wall Edit
The top scenes to the left feature St Stephen Being Dragged Out of the City to the left, and The Stoning of St Stephen to the right. Below, to the left is St Lawrence Before the Emperor Valerian to the left, and St Lawrence Roasted on a Gridiron to the right.
Side niche Edit
The side niche to the left has coloured grotesquery in its upper register, around the viewing grille. This involves cupids, and what seems to be God the Father in monochrome in the central tondo on the underside of the lintel. However, below the grille the three surfaces are done out as polychrome marble revetting, with a central tondo in green proclaiming the restoration ordered by Pope Gregory XIII.
The arches feature eight Doctors of the Church, four on the sides and four on the intradoses. The near arch has SS Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome (with a cardinal's hat). The sanctuary arch has SS Athanasius, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom. They are provided with ornate architectural canopies.
Window embrasures Edit
The frescoes covering the splayed window embrasures are not by Fra Angelico. They feature polychrome rosettes alternating with little portraits of saints in octofoil frames.
The vault features the four Evangelists with their symbols, on a blue background with golden stars.
The altar is a rather simple block of grey-veined white marble, having a single gradino. The frontal bears a bas-relief tondo with a grotesque device, and along the edge of the mensa is an inscription recording its consecration in 1725.
The back wall is blank. This used to have a Deposition by Fra Angelico, but what happened to it is unknown. Presumably it was scraped off to be replaced by a later work. It seems that whatever was on this wall at the start of the 20th century (an early 18th century fresco?) was in turn scraped off in the hope of finding traces of the lost Fra Angelico underneath. When nothing was found, a frameless painting of The Stoning of St Stephen was provided.
Because of worries about the vulnerability of the frescoes and the confined floor-space, the chapel is no longer part of the visitor circuit of the Museums. However, private tours are conducted and are available online.