Christmas, San Gaetano and the Nativity in Theatine Churches
A key episode in the life of San Gaetano Tiene, founder of the Theatine order, relates a mystic vision the saint experienced at Christmas 1517. While praying in the chapel of the Presepe – a relic believed to be the manger from Bethlehem – in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, the Virgin and Child appeared to Gaetano, accompanied by a choir of angels. Encouraged by Saints Jerome and Joseph, Gaetano approached the Madonna. In an intimate gesture of trust, Mary then offered the Child to Gaetano to hold. This image of the Theatine saint cradling the infant Jesus in his arms, often with the Virgin and other saints looking on, or receiving the baby from Mary, is a major motif in the iconography of San Gaetano.
This mystic vision of their founder seems to have given the Theatines a particular affinity for Christmas devotions. In Paris the order presented a popular annual Christmas novena, the Couches de la Vièrge, a nine-day devotion beginning on 16 December and concluding on Christmas Eve. Members of the French court regularly attended, and a description in the Journal des Guerres Civiles of Dubuisson-Aubenay details one of the final days of this novena in 1648:
“At three o’clock the queen was at the church of Sainte-Anne-la-Royale of the Theatine fathers, which all of Paris comes to see because of the representations there in the form of a theater with perspective, at the back of which the Holy Sacrament from the altar is displayed. On one side is the emperor Augustus with his court, and on the other are mathematicians who describe the world according to the gospel: edixit edictum a Caesare Augusto ut describeretur universus orbis (Luke, chapter II).”
Such a novena was also practiced at the Theatine church in Messina, Santissima Annunziata, as a 1644 source reports:
“…during the nine days before the Holy Birth of the Lord, the anticipation of the delivery of the most Holy Virgin… they celebrate here with much solemnity, with expensive stage sets, full of infinite lights, not without interest and attendance of the public, who come to rejoice and contemplate the sacred mystery of the incarnation of the Word, represented here with the sweetest music.”
Both descriptions mention elaborate ephemeral apparatuses employed for the novena, and both emphasize the popular appeal of the sacred spectacle. While it is not clear whether San Gaetano’s vision played a role in the Paris devotions or the early ones reported in Messina, a musical Dialogo relating Gaetano’s episode at the manger surives in a published version, performed at the church in Messina to mark his canonization in 1671. The fourteen-page libretto, entitled I celesti fauori concessi a S. Gaetano Tiene…, calls for five characters – the Madonna, Gaetano, Charity, Humility, and Providence – accompanied by a choir. At the latest after Gaetano’s canonization, then, his mystic Christmas experience seems to have played a more prominent role within Theatine spirituality.
Elsewhere in Italy, an explicit link between the general cult of the Nativity and specific reference to San Gaetano’s Christmas vision can be traced in Florence. There, a chapel dedicated to the Nativity was installed in the right transept at the Theatine church of San Michele in 1610. The dedication originated in a vision of the Virgin experienced by the chapel patron, Elisabetta Bonsi, the night of Christmas Eve 1602. The altarpiece of the Nativity was painted by Matteo Rosselli. In 1671, upon Gaetano’s canonization, an image of his mystic encounter at the manger in Santa Maria Maggiore was added to the wall opposite the chapel entrance. For the Theatines, the saint’s vision thus becomes another station in the iconographic cycle of the Nativity itself. Gaetano also became a co-patron of the entire church to mark his canonization: today it is officially Santi Michele e Gaetano, often known simply as San Gaetano.
These two elements of Theatine Christmas devotion – general celebration of the Nativity, and specific commemoration of San Gaetano’s mystic vision – are joined by a third component at San Lorenzo in Turin. Guarino Guarini’s Theatine church (constructed 1670-1680) prominently features a chapel dedicated to the Nativity flanking its high altar to the left, donated by the Marchesa Camilla Bevilacqua Villa. The Marchesa was first lady in waiting to the duchess regent, Maria Giovanna Battista, who as patron oversaw completion of the church and its furnishing by the most important members of her court. The chapel’s altarpiece of the Nativity is by the Savoyard painter Pierre Dufour, active as a portraitist and miniaturist at the court. The chapel patron, the Marchesa Villa, was purportedly related to San Gaetano on her mother’s side. No evidence has yet emerged indicating the Theatine Christmas novena was practiced in Turin, though the family ties between patron and saint make this likely. But the Madonna of the Manger also had another very important meaning here.
When it first was established in Turin in 1563, the church of San Lorenzo had originally been installed in a small Romanesque church dedicated to Santa Maria del Presepio – St. Mary of the Manger – on the northern city wall, behind the cathedral and the site of the later ducal palace. [Claims that the current chapel in the church narthex are located on the site of the original church of Santa Maria del Presepio should be disregarded (Klaiber, 1999).] That San Lorenzo subsumed the dedication to Santa Maria del Presepio seems confirmed by the opening lines of the inscription on the cornerstone laid when the church moved to its present site in 1634. The inscription specifically invokes the Virgin of the manger:
DEO OPT. MAX. Ac Sanctissimae Deiparae ad Praesepe Templum Beato Martyri Laurentio ex Serenissimi Emmanuelis Philiberti voto...
The heightened devotion to San Gaetano after his canonization in 1671 carried through the entire decade of the 1670s and into the 1680s, as witnessed by numerous projects to build new Theatine churches dedicated to him (Nice, Vicenza, Salzburg). This popularity also influenced the cults celebrated at San Lorenzo in Turin – under construction during the same period – most obviously in the inclusion of a chapel to San Gaetano (second on the right). The connection of the Nativity chapel to Gaetano is less immediately apparent, but perhaps more deeply resonant. The Marchesa Villa’s chapel, dedicated in August 1680, could perpetuate the titular cult of the lost Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria del Presepe and link this to the iconography of San Gaetano, fortuitously mingling the origins of San Lorenzo as a ducal church in Turin with Theatine spirituality and the patron’s familial piety.
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Images (top to bottom):
● Placido Cara, I celesti fauori concessi a S. Gaetano Tiene… (Messina: Paolo Bisagni, 1671), p. 2.
Source: Google Books / Biblioteca nazionale centrale, Rome
● Matteo Rosselli, Nativity, Santi Michele e Gaetano, Florence, 1610.
Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain
● Chapel of the Nativity, San Lorenzo, Turin, 1679-1680.
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)
● San Lorenzo cornerstone inscription from Giuseppe Silos, Historiarum clericorum regularium, vol. 2 (Rome: Heredum Corbelletti, 1655): 444.
Source: Google Books / Bavarian State Library
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Sources and Further Reading
Giuseppe Dardanello, “Cantieri di corte e imprese decorative a Torino,” in Giovanni Romano, ed., Figure del barocco in Piemonte (Turin: CRT, 1988): 163-204; 237-252.
Susan Klaiber, Guarino Guarini’s Theatine Architecture, Ph.D. dissertation (Columbia University, 1993): 97-8, 245, 256-7.
Susan Klaiber, “The First Ducal Chapel of San Lorenzo: Turin and the Escorial,” in M. Masoero, S. Mamino, C. Rosso, eds., Politica e cultura nell’età di Carlo Emanuele I. Torino, Parigi, Madrid (Florence: Olschki, 1999): 329-343.
San Gaetano in Art: private webpage with extensive collection of images documenting the iconography of San Gaetano.