Cappella Privata del Papa is a later 20th century private papal chapel, inserted into late 16th century fabric of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.
Beware of confusion with the Cappella Privata del Papa at Castel Gandolfo. The latter is now open to the public.
This chapel is part of the actual residence of the Pope within the palace, the so-called Papal Apartments.
Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) ordered the construction of what became the functioning core of the Palace, east of the Cortile San Damaso and peeping over the colonnade on the north-west side of the Piazza di San Pietro. It is a huge four-storey block around its own little courtyard (Cortile di Sisto V), with a wing along the north side of the Cortile San Damaso. The recent popes have had a practice of saying the Angelus on Sundays from a window overlooking the Piazza.
The popes after Sixtus, up to Pope Francis, had this part of the palace as their private residence. Up to Pope St Pius X, the Papal Apartments occupied the third storey. The top storey housed servants, traditional in Italy (as in other European countries) because it suffers more extremes of temperature than lower down. However, Pope St Pius apparently preferred to have no-one living above him and moved his living quarters to the top storey.
This involved the fitting out of a new chapel in which the pope could celebrate Mass alone, the Cappella Privata del Papa, and the conversion of the Sala Matilde in the former apartments to the Cappella Matilde (now the Cappella Redemptoris Mater) as the chapel in which the pope could conveniently say a "private" Mass when he wished to celebrate with invited guests.
This was only the latest change in a historical series of private papal chapels in the Palace, as popes changed their residential suites and their preferences for where they could say a purely private Mass. The other surviving former private papal chapels in the Palace are:
A series of photos was taken of the interior in the reign of Pope Pius XII, with and without the pope (some of these are available online). The décor then was rather Louis-quatorze, with red flock wallpaper on the walls and red marble flooring. The furniture was gilded, as was the chased metal curlicued altar frontal. The altar had a cloth canopy, and an ordinary crucifix with an ivory corpus as an altarpiece. The ceiling displayed the heraldry of the reigning pontiff.
Apart from the last, apparently Pope Pius had the chapel left unchanged at his accession because he liked it so much. His piety and devotion was not in question, but the aesthetics of the chapel attracted Curial comments which could be witty and spiteful, or merely spiteful. (Vult prandium meum revertere ad lumen -"My lunch wishes to return to the light" i.e. "I want to puke".)
However Pope St Paul VI ordered a complete gutting and re-fitting after the Second Vatican Council, and the chapel now bears no resemblance to its previous recension. The supervising architect was Dandolo Bellini, who employed a group of important Italian modern religious artists.
There was a thorough, overdue and expensive renovation of the Papal Apartments for Pope Benedict in 2005. However, Pope Francis when elected in 2013 refused to take up residence in the Apartments and instead occupied a suite in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Hence, the chapel is at present mothballed.
In effect, the private chapel of Pope Francis is now Santo Spirito della Domus Sanctae Marthae.
The chapel occupies a room in the top storey of the Palazzo di Sisto V, on the east side of the Cortile di Sisto V. It is behind the exterior wall on that side, with its major axis parallel to the wall and the sanctuary at the north end.
The cortile wall of the storey shows a row of four vertical rectangular windows. Two of these were blocked up when the chapel was created in the first decade of the 20th century. The third lights the bottom of the chapel nave, and the fourth the chapel antechamber.
The chapel is not a large room, but it does have a distinction between nave and sanctuary. The former is further distinguished by having a large rectangular recess in each side wall, the left hand one containing a window.
The red flock wallpaper has been stripped off, and the walls revetted with smooth cream-coloured limestone slabs. Horizontal courses of large squares alternate with long rectangular ones, giving a striped effect. The floor is in black-veined marble tiles, again in long rectangles arranged in a herringbone pattern (like wooden parquet flooring). The sanctuary floor is raised on a single step, and the sanctuary itself given a false apse.
The interior is dominated by the backlit false ceiling, which is in stained glass and is fitted into the curve of the apse. The theme is The Resurrection, and the artist was Luigi Filocamo who here employed a realistic style.
The left hand nave window has stained glass having the theme of The Second Vatican Council, and is by Trento Longaretti. In the niche opposite is a set of bronze tablets of the Stations of the Cross by Lello Scorzelli -a proper celebration of this devotion prescribes walking from one Station to the next, which is not possible here. Hence, Pope Francis might be tempted to move this set elsewhere.
Block corbels in the nave side walls hold bronze statues of the Four Evangelists by Enrico Manfrini. He also sculpted the bronze entrance door, depicting The Corporal Works of Mercy. A bronze bas-relief representation by him of Our Lady occupies a rectangular niche in the wall to the right of this entrance door.
In front of the sanctuary is a prie-dieu and a seat in the form of a semi-cylindrical tub. These are in bronze, by Mario Rudelli. The prie-dieu has a bas-relief of St Michael the Archangel, and the chair has the text of the Lord's Prayer on its back.
The semi-circular apse of the sanctuary, which is not structural, is in highly polished red marble. It has four cut-outs running nearly to the top, which give the impression that the apse has a central curved section behind the altar, connected to two blind pilasters via a simple cornice. Two narrow cut-outs near the front edges contain recessed artificially back-lit stained glass window strips, formed of vertically arranged Biblical scenes. The left hand ones are from the Old Testament, and the right hand ones from the New. The designs are by Silvio Consadori.
The two wider cut-outs flanking the altar contain recessed curved panels in a pale grey stone (granite?), mostly polished but having two miracle scenes in bas-relief.
The central red marble curvature backs a large wooden crucifix with a gilded bronze corpus by Manfrini.
The altar has a large pedestal with trapezoidal plan, and is in white marble. The pedestal has a large square bronze bas-relief in front, flanked by two vertical rectangular ones on the narrow diagonal sides. These are also by Manfrini.