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Santo Spirito della Domus Sanctae Marthae is a very late 20th century chapel at the back of the Domus Sanctae Marthae which is on the south side of the Piazza di Santa Marta in Vatican City.

In practice, it functions as the private chapel of Pope Francis.

History Edit

Ospizio Edit

The Ospizio di Santa Marta used to be on the site. This hospital for the Vatican was begun by Pope Pius IX, and was inaugurated by Leo XIII in 1891. The same year Pope Leo issued his ground-breaking encyclical Rerum novarum, which began the systemisation of Catholic social teaching especially as regards the right relationships between capital and labour.

When Rome was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870 and the papal government overthrown, the initial intention of the Italian government was not to annexe the Borgo and Vatican but to leave these under Papal rule. However, the inhabitants of the former protested vociferously and so the entire city was annexed. Pope Pius and his successors refused to accept this until 1929, declaring themselves "Prisoners of the Vatican". However they were privately warned by, among others, St John Bosco that the rejection of Papal government by the ordinary people of Rome was a symptom of a deeper alienation from traditional social attitudes which was proving receptive to nascent socialism. Hence the emergence of the social teaching of the Church at this time.

Back in 1891, the distinction between the Vatican and the Borgo was much less explicit and the hospital was intended for inhabitants of both neighbourhoods. Thus, part of its rationale was as an expression of concern for the poorer inhabitants of the latter. A chapel was fitted out in 1902.

However, after the foundation of Vatican City by the Lateran Treaty in 1929 the hospital served its small population only. It was arguably inadequate for modern health care purposes even then. During the Second World War it served as a refugee hostel for people in danger at Rome, including Jews. After the war it was downgraded to a clinic, with spare rooms used to house retired clergy and overflow bureaucrats. Increasing obsolescence led to a lessening of maintenance, and the complex became unfit for purpose towards the end of the 20th century.

Domus Edit

Pope St John Paul II inaugurated a project to provide proper accommodation in the first instance for cardinals assembling in conclave for a papal election. The old Ospizio was demolished to make way for it.

Before 1870 the pope's official residence in Rome was not the Vatican but the Quirinal Palace, and the cardinals had a dedicated wing of accommodation there (the actual conclaves were in the Cappella Paolina). After the Quirinal Palace was sequestered by Italy in 1870 for the king's residence, the conclaves had to be held in the Cappella Sistina. The accommodation available in the Vatican Palace was downright inadequate (shared rooms, no toilets but only piss-pots), and the problem was worsened as the number of eligible cardinals increased. However, nothing was done for over a century.

The initial financing of the project proved unsound. The American entrepreneur John E. Connelly from Pittsburgh initially promised 65% of it, after receiving exceptional earnings from exploiting legal loopholes allowing gambling on riverboats. His first floating casino was the historic steamer The President, but his company President Casinos tried to expand too quickly and went bankrupt. Connelly had to halve his initial offer, and even that pledge was not fully honoured.

The relevance of this was that Connelly was initially expecting to nominate the architect, who was to have been Louis D. Astorino also from Pittsburgh. Perhaps predictably, Astorino withdrew his plans in the face of serious objections which were made sharper by the financial mess.

The new accommodation block was completed in 1996, and named the Domus Sanctae Marthae ("House of St Martha" in Latin). Outside the occasions of conclaves, it functions as a short-stay invitation-only guest house for the Vatican, primarily for visiting ecclesiastics but also for a few laity invited to special conferences. The Daughters of Charity are in charge.

Chapel Edit

The alignment of the new Domus was with the Piazza di Santa Marta. This left an awkward triangular-shaped plot behind it, between the back elevation and the city wall.

Instead of a chapel within the building, it was decided to erect a separate chapel edifice on this site. Fortunately for Astorino, he had been kept on in an "advisory" capacity for the Domus project and had come to the notice of Cardinal Rosalio José Castillo Lara who was head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See. This connection led to his being appointed as architect of the new chapel in 1993, and it was completed with the Domus in 1996.

Apparently the architect was expecting the dedication to be to the Holy Trinity, and this is reflected in his design which involves lots of triangles. However the dedication to the Holy Spirit was actually chosen, presumably because of the importance of the third person of the Trinity at conclaves. The erroneous Trinitarian dedication is persisting online.

Pope Francis Edit

When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, he chose not to reside in the Papal Apartments and use the Cappella Privata del Papa. Instead, he settled in a two-room suite at the Domus. This means that the chapel functions as the place where the pope celebrates Mass on a routine basis if not committed elsewhere.

Exterior Edit

Layout and fabric Edit

The chapel has a very low profile, being squeezed between the back elevation of the Domus and the curtain wall of Vatican City.

The plan is actually basilical, consisting of a central nave with narrow side aisles. Overall the footprint of nave and aisles is a thin isosceles triangle with its central angle truncated, the sanctuary being located at the wide end and the entrances at the truncated angle. The major axis is allegedly parallel to that of St Perter's to the north.

The structure is in concrete. The side walls are fairly low -interestingly, the right hand one (next to the city curtain wall) is in glass.

The design is dominated by the three roofs. These have very steep gable pitches, about sixty degrees, and are allegedly in copper despite being grey (as the saying goes, "Yeah?"). The two side aisle roofs are basically triangular prisms following the sides of the isosceles triangle in the plan. The central nave roof, however, divides into five bays. Towards the sanctuary, the bays increase in size by small increments while keeping the same angle of pitch, giving a telescopic effect. The ridge-lines of the five bay roof units are level.

The central nave roof panels are ribbed, each in a pattern of nested triangles.

The sanctuary is a sixth bay, this time separated from the last nave bay by a substantial step which amounts to a triangular concrete arch. The side walls of this bay are inclined inwards at a more substantial angle than those of the nave.

Frontage Edit

The frontage has a sixth smaller bay, separated from the nave by a higher step which amounts to a triangular gable. It is a porch for the main entrance, having a triangular-topped portal. The door is triangular-topped, too, and is in vertical wooden bars separated by strips of clear glass.

The side aisle entrances are smaller and have no porches, but the doors are in the same style.

There is an entrance courtyard paved in a diaper pattern in red and white tiles.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary has two further bays, the front one next to the nave narrower and lower than the main body of the chapel here and the back one narrower and lower still. The side walls are sharply angled in the plan, in the reverse direction to the main chapel side walls. Unlike the main roofs, the ridge-lines of their two little roofs slope down towards the back.

The back sanctuary bay amounts to a three-sided apse. It abuts a small triangular tower scaffold campanile in green metal bars, which is flat-topped. This structure does look as if it is in copper.

The side aisles end in little aedicules on a triangular plan, each having its own roof which is in the shape of a half pyramid.

Interior Edit

Central nave Edit

The interior is dominated by the main nave roof in white concrete, since there is no ceiling. Each bay has a pair of framed panels providing the pitches, each of which contains a network of struts flush with the frames. These form triangles. Interestingly, the first two bays have the triangles tessellated in squares but the latter three have them in hexagons. The struts are ridged, and embellished with groove moldings parallel to the ridges.

The side aisle roofs are also open. The aisles are separated from the main nave by hexagonal columns supporting a wide horizontal beam on each side from which the roofs spring. The inner edge of each of these two beams is zig-zag to accommodate the stepping inwards of the main roof bay sections.

The hexagonal columns have slightly wider longitudinal sides, and stand on matching bases. Each is clad in cream-coloured limestone to about two-thirds of its height, and this cladding has four triangular points at its top. Above, the pier is in dark red as far as an uplighter lamp which wraps around it. The effect is rather like a lotus blossom.

The floor is ornate, in yellow, white and black marbles. It is set in triangular and rhombus (diamond) tiles, of differing sizes.

Side aisles Edit

The left hand side aisle has a single colonnade and a blank wall. The latter is in the cream-coloured limestone as well, except for a row of large triangular-topped recesses in white.

The right hand side aisle has two sets of columns, the outer set replacing the wall. Instead of a wall here, there is a screen of clear glass. Through this you can see the rough stonework of the old City curtain wall, on which is hung a set of terracotta (?) Stations of the Cross. This arrangement is highly unusual.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary amounts to a double nested apse, the walls of which are panelled in finely polished banded cream-coloured limestone. The panels are cut from the same block, repeating the pattern in the stone.

The walls are separated from the roof by a projecting cornice with an overhanging batter, and about two-fifths of the way up each wall is a frieze in a greyish-white stone embellished with a row of little vertical rectangular depressed panels.

The roof is in bright white, and this is strongly lit to draw attention. The outer and inner apses are separated by a surface in the form of an inverted V, and on this is the text Veni sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium ("Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful") with the Dove of the Holy Spirit in the top angle.

The little back wall of the sanctuary apse is in brilliant white -the stone revetting and cornice break off here. The space is brightly lit, to create a numinous background for a large wooden crucifix with a bronze corpus. In conformity with the chapel's design basis, the ends of the cross have triangular points.

The polished wall revetting extends to either side of the actual sanctuary apse. To the left it backs a bronze bas-relief of the Madonna and Child. To the right is the tabernacle, in the form of an ovoid conical bronze bowl without a base. The aperture resulting from the lack of the latter contains the actual tabernacle box, and the bowl is surrounded by a corona of metal spikes parallel with the sides of the bowl and so evoking the Crown of Thorns.

The altar stands in front of the apse mouth, and is in a light grey stone. It stands on a row of three piers, rhomboidal in cross-section.

External links Edit

Info.roma web-page

"Catholic Philly" magazine article

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