Cappella Paolina al Vaticano is a 16th century papal chapel at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Photos on Wikimedia Commons are here (some of the frescoes are given wrong titles). There is an English Wikipedia article here.

Do not confuse it with the Cappella Paolina al Quirinale, or with the eponymous chapel at Santa Maria Maggiore (as Google managed to do in 2019).

The dedication of the altar is to the Conversion of St Paul.

History Edit

The chapel was commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1537, and finished structurally in 1540. However, it is on record that a Mass was celebrated here on All Saints' Day in 1538. The architect was Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.

The pope then commissioned Michelangelo to paint two large frescoes, which were begun in late 1542 and completed by 1550. They are The Conversion of St Paul, and The Crucifixion of St Peter. These works followed the completion of The Last Judgment in the Cappella Sistina, and were executed in sequence. The Conversion was in progress from 1542 to 1545, and the Crucifixion subsequently to 1550. The artist's declining health affected progress.

Perin del Vaga was commissioned to decorate the vault in 1537, but his work has not survived. In fact, the appearance of the chapel when the Michelangelo frescoes were new is not very certain.

Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the four smaller side wall frescoes which flank the ones by Michelangelo. Lorenzo Sabatini started work in 1573, but died in 1576 after completing three of the proposed four. Federico Zuccari and his school did the fourth, and also executed the vault frescoes (replacing del Vaga's work). His work was between 1580 and 1585. The pope had his name put over the inside lintel of the entrance door to commemorate this twelve-year programme of decoration. The present aspect of the chapel is basically a result of this.

This chapel and the Cappella Sistina were viewed as complementary facilities at the time. The latter was called the Cappella Maior or "Greater Chapel", and Paolina was the Cappella Minor or "Lesser Chapel". Which chapel was to be used for which liturgical event would obviously depend on importance, and expected attendance. Given that, Paolina became the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Palace, and came to be regarded as the Palace's parish church. The Palace was extra-parochial, but Paolina became the focus of the routine prayer lives of the Palace staff and of the pastoral care being shown to them.

The sanctuary was remodelled on the orders of Pope Paul V (1605-21), who had his heraldry inlaid in the floor. Subsequent interventions in that and the next century were apparently mostly restorative. However, one ordered by Pope Alexander VIII (1689-91) was in response to a fire. Pope Clement XI (1700-21) ordered the provision of a huge wooden macchina or framework in the sanctuary, to facilitate the Forty Hours' Devotion or Quarantore which had the Blessed Sacrament exposed for that length of time.

Pope Gregory XVI ordered a remodelling of the sanctuary in 1837, which resulted in the present huge altar aedicule and the removal of the macchina. The latter was replaced in 1855, but definitively thrown out in 1891 when Virginio Vespignani relaid the sanctuary floor to incorporate the heraldry of Pope Leo XIII.

There was a major restoration of the artworks between 1933 and 1936, when the first systematic photographic survey of the frescoes was made.

A very odd rumour, which is still persisting, has it that a Black Mass was celebrated in the chapel on 29 June, 1963. The alleged originator of this was the former Jesuit Malachi Martin, and the context the Third Secret of Fatima. Those interested in this piece of lunacy can find details here.

In 1975, Pope St Paul VI ordered the high altar to be removed and replaced with a free-standing one to allow for the celebration of Mass facing the congregation. The unusual altar was in the shape of a shallow oval bowl, and was designed by Giovanni Carbonara. Very interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI rejected this and ordered the sanctuary to be restored to what it had been beforehand.

This revision was part of the last major restoration, which had the chapel closed between 2004 and 2009. It involved work on the frescoes of the same depth and thoroughness as was employed on those in the Cappella Sistina. The results have been equally spectacular.

Status Edit

The chapel remains a focus of the prayer lives of the staff of the Palace and Museums.

As this is the Blessed Sacrament chapel of the Palace, Exposition and Benediction take place here, and these can be by the Holy Father himself.

Location Edit

The chapel is surprisingly shy of appearing on many plans of the Palace and Museums.

It is actually tucked into the space between the Sala Regia and the nave of St Peter's, behind the right hand end of the façade of the basilica. The Cappella Sistina abuts the Sala on its west side, and the Cappella Paolina has its entrance to its south with its alignment north to south -the sanctuary back wall is against the basilica.

It features on the plan here.

If you go from the Piazza round to the north side of St Peter's, for example to ascend the dome, the archway you pass through in the façade actually has the chapel over it on the far side.

Layout and fabric Edit

Overview Edit

The chapel consists of a nave and sanctuary, which are architecturally distinct. The nave has three bays, the middle one being substantially deeper and slightly wider than the near and far ones. The sanctuary is a short rectangle, narrower than the nave.

The structural fabric is in brick, although there is none on show.

Entrance Edit

The chapel has a single monumental entrance from the Sala Regia. This is provided with a door-case in giallo antico marble, flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns in pavonazetto marble which support a slightly oversized triangular pediment. The frieze of the pediment entablature has Paulus III Pont[ifex] Max[imus}, commemorating the founder of the chapel.

Nave architectural elements Edit

The interior has a very high wall dado in grey-streaked marble, running round the entire interior. This supports gigantic ribbed Composite pilasters. in a striking orange marble. Four of these occupy the side walls, near the corners of the nave. Four more occupy the corners of the central nave bay, and these are doubletted along their edges facing the bay -this device facilitates the vertical steps created by the central bay being slightly wider than the other two nave bays. A pair of similarly doubletted pilasters occupy the counterfaçade near the corners -the counterfaçade is slightly recessed between this pair. Two further pairs of pilasters occupy the corners between nave and sanctuary, one pair facing down the nave and the other each other. Finally, four pilasters are folded into the corners of the sanctuary.

These pilasters support an entablature in creamy white with gilded details, which runs round the entire interior also. This has grotesque decoration on its frieze, and egg-and-dart molding on its cornice. Over the pilasters are panels containing winged masks.

The dado has inset panels in coloured marbles. Below the pilasters these are in a clouded orange stone, which looks as if it is from a different source than that used in the pilasters. These panels have quarter-circles in green at the corners. In between them, wider panels are in a clouded red stone with a green semi-circle in each side.

The nave vault springs from the entablature. It accommodates four triangular lunettes, two deep ones at the ends and two shallower ones at the sides. The latter are over a pair of large semi-circular windows -actually, only the right hand one is glazed because the left hand one is fake. The former provides most of the natural light in the chapel, which can be gloomy.

The near vault lunette accommodates a semi-circular framed fresco panel over the entrance, and the far vault lunette a triumphal arch which is the end of the barrel vault of the sanctuary.

The nave floor is not very interesting, being in black and white tiles with the pew areas in diaper squares.

Counterfaçade Edit

The counterfaçade is rather odd, and doesn't match the nave decorative scheme very well.

The entrance has an internal door-case, with the jambs in a pink marble and the lintel in a flesh-coloured one. The interior dado abuts this on both sides, meeting two strip pilasters in grey marble attached to the jambs and bearing curlicues in white marble at their tops. These, with a pair of posts in pink marble on the lintel, support a projecting cornice in the same stone on which stands a Baroque aedicule framing a white marble dedicatory tablet. The aedicule has a segmental pediment touching the chapel's interior entablature, and pilasters inlaid with strips of green marble. The tablet itself is new, commemorating the restoration ordered by Pope Benedict XVI and completed in 2009.

The counterfaçade wall either side of the entrance and tablet aedicule is frescoed in a rather dingy greyish trompe-l'oeil design, involving two gigantic volutes framing the door-case and two flaming urns above these.

To the left is a fine wooden confessional in what looks like walnut, in the form of a pedimented triumphal arch.

To the right is a very good holy water stoup (acquasantiera) in the form of a pair of putti playing with a tiara and holding up the basin. It is in bronze with gilded details, on an octagonal base of black marble. The very finely carved shallow basin is in red jasper. This piece was a donation from the Noble Guard to Pope Pius IX on the occasion of his jubilee of episcopacy, 1877.

Corner inhabitants Edit

The pilasters create nooks in the corners of the nave, which are inhabited by pairs of rather etiolated angel lamp-bearers in white stucco. These are by Prospero Antichi, are part of the Pope Gregory XIII decorative project and look very Mannerist. Each of the eight has a large dangling bouquet of stucco flowers and fruit above him.

Nave wall frescoes Edit

The nave wall frescoes are described from the lower right hand side.

The near right hand wall fresco is The Fall of Simon Magus by Lorenzo Sabatini. This depicts a a strange legend, attested to by several patristic authors, featuring St Peter and Simon Magus. It derives from the 2nd century Acts of Peter. According to it, the latter was Jewish magician who had won over the emperor Nero by his magical tricks, and entered into a miracle contest with St Peter during which he boasted that he could fly -and did. The saint knelt in prayer, with the result that Simon crashed and died. Here, Magus is shown being carried by demons who are losing control of the flight-plan. The incident allegedly took place in the Roman Forum by the present church of Santa Francesca Romana, hence the Colosseum is depicted in the background.

The main right hand wall fresco by Michelangelo depicts The Crucifixion of St Peter. This event is meant to have taken place in Nero's Circus on the Vatican, but here the artist chose to put it in a very neutral landscape. It is impossible to say whether this was deliberate, or whether Michelangelo simply ran out of time and energy.

The far right hand wall fresco is The Baptism of Cornelius by St Peter, by Federico Zuccari. A sub-scene in the background shows St Peter having the vision which led to the baptism of the first non-Jewish Christians (Book of Acts, Chapter 10). This fresco had to be painted by Zuccari, because Sabatini had died.

The far left hand wall fresco is The Baptism of St Paul in the House of Ananias by Sabatini. (Book of Acts, 9:18). This fresco continues the narrative of the main fresco on this wall.

The main left hand wall fresco by Michelangelo depicts The Conversion of Saul. Saul is converted into St Paul by the direct action of Christ from heaven. The city of Damascus is to the top right. This is a noticeably better work than the one opposite, and is the earlier. A very old critical comment refers to the centrality of the horse's arse, with speculation as to the symbolic relevance of it to the artist's career.

The near left hand wall fresco depicts The Stoning of St Stephen, by Sabatini. The figure in the foreground in the yellow robe is Saul, the future St Paul.

Nave vault form Edit

The spectacularly decorated nave vault is by Zucchari and his school. It involves four triangular lunettes, with the corners approaching a central rectangular panel. The shorter side lunettes touch the panel's border, but the longer front and back ones do not. Instead, their tips are occupied by a pair of small circular skylights surrounded by gilded wreaths.

The central panel is occupied by a fresco, and the lunette triangles have another four. In between the lunettes are four large circular tondi, also frescoed. A tenth fresco is under the archivolt bounding the near lunette, above the counterfaçade.

The lush grotesque stucco decoration is in cream, green and gold with a couple of touches of blue. Little nude figures disport themselves among it, and eight of these support four curlicued golden devices at the corners of the central panel, displaying a wyvern on a crimson background. This mythological beast appears on the heraldry of Pope Gregory XIII.

The stucco work below the four tondi is not coloured, and looks as if it is the result of later restoration. It involves papal heraldry -the wyvern rampant once (Gregory XIII), a single-headed eagle once (Paul V), and a double-headed eagle twice (Alexander VIII).

Nave vault frescoes Edit

The counterfaçade fresco shows St Peter Being Released From Prison. Two subsidiary scenes show him, to the right being led into the street by the angel rescuing him, and to the left knocking at the door of the house of Mark. (Acts Ch 12).

The near lunette fresco shows St Peter Resurrects Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41).

The right hand lunette fresco shows The Deaths of Ananias as Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

The far lunette fresco shows St Paul Bitten by a Viper on Malta (Acts 28:1-4).

The left hand lunette fresco shows St Paul in Prison (Acts 16:22-34).

The lower right hand tondo shows SS Peter and John Cure the Cripple at the Temple (Acts 3:1-10).

The upper right hand tondo shows St Peter Heals Aeneas at Lydda (Acts 9:32-35).

The upper left hand tondo shows St Paul Cures a Cripple at Lystra (Acts 14:8-13). The temple of Jupiter, with its priests proposing sacrifice, is in the background.

The tips of the lunettes have eight frescoed nudes sitting on them, both male and female. These Ignudi seem to be allegorical Virtues.

The central rectangular panel has St Paul's Vision of the Third Heaven.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary has a barrel vault, simple in form but with stucco decorations as elaborate as those of the nave. However, the work is all in white. It incorporates the heraldry of Pope Alexander VIII, so presumably was installed after a fire in that pope's reign. The vault is coffered in circles and hexagons, around a large central circular skylight. The coffers have either winged masks or medleys of liturgical items, except for two at the sides with the heraldry of Pope Alexander. The coffering panels are surrounded with garlands of flowers and fruit. The vault is bordered at front and back by double archivolts, with grotesque patterns on their intradoses.

The end of the vault encloses a semi-circular area containing a tablet with the text Mihi vivere Christus est, et morti lucrum. This is from St Paul's Letter to the Philippians, 1:21. The tablet has an ornate frame, with a pair of angel attendants, curlicues and swags. At the top is a pair of putti holding a little tablet bearing a coloured fresco of The Lamb of God, the only colour in the vault.

The floor displays the heraldry of Pope Leo XIII, in polychrome stone pietra dura work.

The side walls are entirely taken up by two enormous figurative tapestries. To the left is The Presentation of the Child Jesus at the Temple, and to the right is Pentecost.

The altar aedicule is early 19th century. It has four huge Corinthian columns in polished granite, the inner pair grey and the outer pair black. They support two huge projecting posts in front of an undersized triangular pediment, the entablature of which runs around them. The ornate, strongly projecting cornice of this entablature has rosettes in between strap modillions. The frieze is in black marble. The wall either side of the aedicule is in polychrome stone revetting with geometrical shapes, including two panels with the wyvern of Pope Paul III.

The altarpiece is a large painting with a curved top, depicting The Transfiguration. It is by Simone Cantarini.

The altar has a frontal in polished orange jasper, with a gilt cross device and stands on a single-stepped white marble platform. The tabernacle on it is a large gilded bronze work in the form of a temple. Unusually, it has a split segmental pediment containing the base of a gold and ebony crucifix being adored by a pair of little gilt angels.

Discerning visitors might notice the unusual absence of Our Lady so far. There is an icon of her with the Christ-child to the right of the altar, but no statue elsewhere. The work is an attractive modern interpretation of the ancient Byzantine style.

Access Edit

There is no public access.

Comments are made fairly often that the public should have better access to such important artworks as the Michelangelo frescoes. However, the administrators of the Palace will have no intention of disturbing the status of the chapel as a place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

If you have the influence or scholarly importance necessary to arrange a private visit, you won't need to be reading this for details of how to facilitate it.

External links Edit

Italian Wikipedia page

Vatican's virtual tour (needs Adobe Acrobat)

Vatican news service article

Michelangelo Lupo web-page

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