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Cappella Redemptoris Mater is a very late 20th century private papal chapel, inserted into late 16th century fabric of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.

The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her aspect of "Mother of the Redeemer". This comes from the ancient hymn in her honour, Alma Redemptoris Mater.

An English Wikipedia article is here.

History Edit

The chapel used to be unremarkable, basically a room with an altar -one of several in the Palace. This one was on the second floor or third storey of the so-called Palazzo di Sisto V, and was called the Cappella Matilde after Matilda of Canossa.

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 and included a room called the Sala Matilde. 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 purely private chapel, the Cappella Privata del Papa, and the conversion of the Sala Matilde to a sort of reception-room chapel. The pope's intention was, that if he celebrated Mass completely alone (apart from the servers) he would use the Cappella Privata, but if he had guests he would use the Cappella Matilde.

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.

Both chapels used to have their walls covered in red flock wallpaper.

The obscurity of the Cappella Matilde vanished when Pope St John Paul II published his encyclical Redemptoris Mater in 1987. The idea was floated to gut, refurbish and rededicate the chapel in honour of Our Lady under this title, and this as a gift to Pope St John Paul for the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination in 1996. The cost was borne by the College of Cardinals, and the finished work was dedicated in 1999.

The interior was completely covered in a cycle of mosaics based on traditional Byzantine iconography, with the scheme drawn up by the Russian religious art scholar Oleg Germanovich Ulyanov. The execution was by the Centro Aletti, supervised by P. Marko Ivan Rupnik SJ. The first of the four walls, behind the altar, was executed by the Russian mosaicist Alexander Kornoukhov, with Rupnik being directly responsible for the other three. The ceiling was executed by Rino Pastorutti.

The furnishings in gilded bronze are by the Czech sculptor Otmar Oliva.

Pope St John Paul valued the chapel as an expression of ecumenical relations between the Papacy and the Eastern Orthodox churches. He celebrated Mass there regularly until final infirmity overtook him.

Pope Benedict XVI ordered modifications, although these were kept rather quiet. He ordered a slightly larger mensa for the altar with a small tabernacle on it, and for the papal throne to be removed from its plinth. His practice when someone else was presiding at an event, was to sit in the adjacent room to the right with the connecting side door facing the sanctuary left open. This has led to the false statement online that the chapel has a "niche in which the pope sits hidden".

Pope Francis quietly had the changes reversed, and the chapel is back to the way it was when Pope St John Paul used it. He famously now uses Santo Spirito della Domus Sanctae Marthae as his private chapel, but celebrates official liturgical events here which involve the Curia and the College of Cardinals.

Exterior Edit

The chapel is in the wing of the Palazzo di Sixto V which runs along the north side of the Cortile di San Damaso, behind the façade with the clock on it. It is in the third storey, with the windows in the sanctuary wall looking out into the so-called Cortile Triangolo.

Interior Edit

Fabric Edit

The chapel is a large room. The wide front entrance is a mere portal in the wall without a door-case, and is located to the left of the major axis. There are four other doors, two in each side wall and these have molded door-cases in grey-streaked marble. These are the only fittings surviving from the Cappella Matilde.

The front wall has a narrow round-headed window to the right, and the back wall behind the altar has two arranged symmetrically. These have no frames, but the sanctuary pair are connected to the floor by three-sided niches.

The floor was re-iaid geometrically in polychrome marble tiles using six colours -yellow, red, two kinds of grey-veined white, green and a little black. The geometry focuses on a central roundel within a hexagon, which has Pope St John Paul's heraldry in fine pietra dura work with the year 1998.

The sanctuary was given a rectangular platform of one step, and the papal throne to the right of this platform was given its own little low square plinth. Both of these platforms are also in polychrome stonework.

A false saucer dome was inserted to replace the previous ceiling.

The four walls are treated as four huge mosaic icons, each with an overall theme. The altar wall is in a noticeably different style from the other three, because this is by Koursakhov whereas the others are by Rupnik. The total area of mosaic is about 600 square metres.

It is stated that the mosaic tesserae include stones from various places of cultural, religious or sacred significance.

Wall of the Heavenly Jerusalem Edit

The altar wall depicts the Heavenly Jerusalem as a walled city. Those familiar with the iconographic tradition will immediately notice an oddity -instead of Christ in Majesty as the centrepiece, we have the Madonna and Child. Apparently Pope St John Paul insisted on this, and one wonders what Koursakhov the artist thought of it. There are theological issues with the depiction as it stands.

Our Lady is shown in traditional iconographic form, as a Roman empress enthroned and with the Christ-child as a miniature adult standing on her lap. He is robed in cloth-of-gold, and she in purple over a blue tunic and with purple slippers (the ancient tradition is never to show her with bare feet). They are within an ovoid nimbus, from which two streams of water pour down over steps. If the depiction had been Christ in Majesty, this water would have been an allusion to the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Here, it could be taken as the graces flowing from Our Lady as Mother and Virgin. A six-winged seraph is at the bottom guarding the gate into the walled city, alluding to the Garden of Eden and Our Lady as the New Eve.

At the top, the city wall is broken by a version of the famous representation of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The corner towers of the wall bear the symbols of the four Evangelists.

The city contains thirty-six from both East and West, feasting together at twelve tables -three to each table. Some of the saints have recognisable features, others are rather generically depicted. The artist is not too good with attributes (identifying symbols).

The following list is top to bottom, and left to right at each table.

Far right:

St John of the Cross, St Dionysius the Areopagite (the anonymous spiritual author is meant), St Teresa of Lisieux;

St Melania the Younger, St Joseph Moscati, St Catherine of Siena;

St Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, St Teresa of Avila, St Ignatius of Loyola.

Near right:

St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Seraphim of Sarov;

St Basil the Great, St Benedict, St Sergius of Radonezh;

St Anthony the Great; St John Climacus (with his ladder); St Jerome.

Near left:

St Gregory the Great, St Nicholas, St John Chrysostom;

St Cyril, Apostle to the Slavs, St Augustine of Hippo, St Ambrose;

St John Damascene, St Thomas Aquinas, St Gregory Palamas.

Far left:

St Dominic, St Pachomius, St John of Rila (Bulgarian monastic founder);

St Vladimir, St Jadwiga of Poland, St Wenceslaus;

St Elizabeth of Russia, St Thomas More, St Catherine of Alexandria.

Wall of the Incarnation Edit

The "Wall of the Incarnation" is to the left. As with the other two wall mosaics overseen by Rupnik, it includes several scenes. Overall, compared to Koursakhov's work the colours are brighter and there is a greater sense of activity.

The central scene is The Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist, with the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. Below it is The Descent of Christ to Hell, where he is shown rescuing Adam and Eve.

The subsidiary scenes are, top to bottom and right to left:

  • The Nativity (a very traditional iconic depiction in monochrome with colour highlights, intruding into the vault).
  • The Annunciation.
  • The Presentation of Christ at the Temple.
  • The Plea of the Canaanite Woman (Mt 15:21-28).
  • The Crucifixion.
  • Christ Washes the Feet of St Peter (Jn 13:9).
  • The Sinful Woman Anoints the Feet of Christ (Mt 26:6-13)

Wall of the Ascension and of Pentecost Edit

The right hand wall is the "Wall of the Ascension and Pentecost". These two events are combined in one central scene -the Byzantine tradition separates them, and the depiction of Our Lady standing in front in the orans position belongs to an Ascension icon.

The subsidiary scenes are, top to bottom and right to left:

  • The Dormition of Our Lady (in the vault, matching the depiction opposite).
  • The Women at the Empty Tomb (Mk 16)
  • St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (better known as Edith Stein), shown with The Burning Bush.
  • The Martyrdom of St Paul.
  • The Risen Lord by the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21).
  • SS Joachim and Anne, Parents of Our Lady.
  • The Good Samaritan.

Wall of the Parousia Edit

The front wall is the "Wall of the Parousia". The main depiction is again a combination, of the Transfiguration and Christ's Second Coming (Parousia). He is shown in glory with Moses (right) and Elijah, hence the Transfiguration, but also with Adam and Eve as old people and displaying the wounds of his Crucifixion -Parousia.

Note that the overall composition on this wall bleeds around the corners onto the side walls.

The subsidiary scenes are, top to bottom and right to left:

  • At the top, in the vault is The Transfiguration again.
  • St John the Baptist, with three martyrs: St Praxedis (see her Roman church Santa Prassede), Bl Christian de Chergé and Elizabeth von Thadden (a Lutheran). The second was beatified as one of the Martyrs of Algeria after the mosaic was created.
  • Moses Dividing the Red Sea.
  • Noah Releasing the Dove from the Ark.
  • Our Lady, with three other martyrs: St Stephen the Protomartyr, Maria Shveda (a Ukrainian Greek Catholic killed by the Soviets at Lviv in 1982), Pavel Florenskij (a Russian Orthodox priest, theologian and polymath shot by the Soviets in 1937).
  • Joseph the Patriarch, with the grain that he distributed in Egypt.
  • The Just Awaiting Resurrection 1). Depicted are a little girl with a ball, a scholar with books, a scientist with a laptop and an artist with a palette.
  • The Just Awaiting Resurrection 2). A family.
  • The prophet Jonah, with his whale.
  • The Just Awaiting Resurrection 3). Depicted are a manual worker, Pope St John Paul and the prophet Daniel.
  • St Michael the Archangel.
  • St Peter.

The Centro Aletti left an epigraph signing and dating the work, over the entrance door.

Vault Edit

The vault is in mosaic, but most of the surface is blank. A creamy white background (which doesn't work very well -it looks dirty) surrounds a wide cross and roundel in bright white streaked with green. The roundel contains a depiction of Christ Pantocrator, in an etiolated style reminiscent of El Greco.

Furnishings Edit

The liturgical furniture are important sculptural works in gilded bronze by the Czech sculptor Otmar Oliva. They are semi-abstract, recalling bundles of firewood more than anything -although incorporating barley-sugar twists, spheroids and vaguely floral forms as well.

The free-standing holy water stoup supports a finely cut bowl in white marble. The white marble altar mensa is on a matching pedestal, with forms evoking fern fronds or angels' wings. The papal throne is spectacular, all of a piece with a block of white marble to sit upon (the throne back is obviously not something to recline upon). The lectern, also in white marble, has a bronze book-rest and a frontal matching the other items. Finally there is a thin free-standing crucifix to the left of the altar.

Apart from Oliva's oeuvre, the only other item of note is the Easter candlestick, which is in the form of a single-piece column in purple and white marble slightly shorter than the altar.

External links Edit

Info.roma web-page

Vatican's virtual tour

Centro Aletti website

Otmar Oliva's web-page with gallery

Gallery on Salesian website

"Unam Sanctam" blog-page

Comprehensive Youtube video from Centro Aletti

Short Youtube video in English

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