The Baroque Holy Ark of Trino Vercellese

Holy Ark of the Synagogue of Trino Vercellese, Piedmont, 1770s. Today in the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.
Source: Wikipedia [] / User: Michaeli / © This image is copyrighted. The copyright holder allows everyone to use the image for any purpose provided that the copyright holder is properly credited.

This stunning ark, a fine example of Piedmontese baroque woodworking, was created for the synagogue in Trino Vercellese in the late eighteenth century. Portions of the synagogue were designed by the Turin court architect Benedetto Alfieri, although the name of the cabinetmaker responsible for the ark remains unknown. The ark features rich carving, faux marble, and gilded details, and the architectural scene on its doors alludes to the Temple of Jerusalem.

The synagogue in Trino was one of several built in Piedmont in the baroque era, including those in Casale Monferrato and Biella. Today, according to most sources, the synagogue in Trino has been secularized, and its contents dismantled in 1965.

In 1973, the holy ark was acquired by the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. There it was installed in a pavilion designed by the architect Werner Joseph Wittkower, the younger brother of the famous architectural historian Rudolf Wittkower, who was the leading international scholar of Piedmontese baroque art and architecture between 1945 and his death in 1971.

Around fifteen years ago, the museum undertook an extensive restoration of the ark. It was then reinstalled in the Ethnography and Folklore galleries of the museum in 2006-7, along with additional elements from the synagogue in Trino. As the Eretz Israel Museum website explains:

A Holy Ark, or Torah Shrine, as it was called by Italian Jews, complete with its original Torah lectern, worshipers’ benches, and the latticed railing from the women’s balcony, is situated in a separate hall built according to the original synagogue plans. The Baroque and Rococo style of the Ark is typical of the Piedmont district of northwestern Italy and represents an excellent example of the influence of local style on historical Jewish themes. The set of doors carved with architectural images symbolizing the Temple still to be built in Jerusalem is the highlight of the Ark, expressing the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish tradition.

The Holy Ark of Trino Vercellese stands as an impressive witness to the malleability of the baroque style, demonstrating how it could transcend the Catholic propaganda so often ascribed to it.

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In solidarity with the Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh. Stop the hate.

Cappella della Sindone Reopened

Guarino Guarini’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Turin, Restored

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud reopened this weekend after a decades-long restoration campaign. The chapel had first closed in May 1990 when a small piece of marble detached from a cornice and crashed to the floor. Repairs proceeded sporadically over the next several years. In April 1997, the restoration was nearly complete when a devastating fire hit the chapel. The wooden boards on some of the scaffolding caught fire, for reasons never fully determined. The great height of the chapel acted as a chimney to pull the flames upward and fan the fire. Although the marble could not burn, it cracked and changed color because of the intense heat. Splintered fragments of the originally black Frabosa marble fell to the pavement. As later emerged, the structure of the chapel and its dome were largely intact, but the subsequent restoration was fraught with conflicts, setbacks, and a lack of transparency. After multiple missed deadlines, the restoration is complete and the chapel accessible to visitors.

Position of the Cappella della Sindone between the Cathedral of San Giovanni and the Palazzo Reale, Turin

Located between the Cathedral of San Giovanni and the Royal Palace in Turin, access to the chapel was originally provided from both buildings. That meant that members of the Savoy dynasty could enter the chapel directly from the palace, but also that the faithful could enter from the cathedral, as well as view the chapel directly above and behind the high altar of the cathedral. During much of the twentieth century, though, visitors entered from the church side, via the stairways from the two doors flanking the high altar of the cathedral, while the palace doorway was rarely used. With the reopening, the chapel now forms part of the Musei Reali in the Royal Palace, and will be accessed from the palace side, with the cathedral doors closed. The shroud itself is now stored elsewhere.

The portals in the cathedral giving access to the stairways leading to the Shroud Chapel will now remain locked. Source: TripAdvisor

While the successfully completed restoration must be seen as a triumph – reinstating one of the most stupendous spaces in early modern European architecture – the incorporation of the chapel in a museum circuit is symptomatic for our age. Divorced from its relation to the church, devoid of the relic that originally prompted its construction, Guarini’s chapel has become yet another event for cultural tourism.

Beginning Tuesday, 2 October, the chapel may be visited as part of the a general admission ticket to the Musei Reali Torino.


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Further reading:

● The Art Newspaper provides a convenient English summary of the restoration campaign.

● John Beldon Scott’s 2003 book Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) remains essential reading for the historic background of the Shroud Chapel and the earlier repositories of the relic. See also my review of Scott in Annali di architettura 16 (2004).

● My other posts on the Shroud of Turin.

A Souvenir Shroud of Turin

Replica of the Shroud of Turin, possibly 19th century, Italian, painted cloth, H. 7 3/4″ x W. 21″ (19.7 x 53.3 cm)
Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 88.3.45

With Easter approaching, the annual sindonology season is upon us. This year’s curiosity comes from the vast, encyclopedic collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a miniature replica of the Shroud of Turin. While the original relic is around 4.5 meters long, this small version measures just over a half-meter in length.

According to the museum’s catalogue record, the replica is painted on the cloth and was acquired in 1888. The image of the Shroud – complete with the burn marks from the fire in Chambéry in 1532 – is surrounded with a floral border, an inscription, images of symbols and instruments of the passion at the corners, and two baskets of flowers at either side. The textile probably dates to the nineteenth century, and must have been intended as a devotional souvenir for pious pilgrims to the venerated relic.

The Metropolitan Museum also holds a photographic souvenir of the Shroud of Turin in its collection. The negative image of the face on the textile was taken by Giuseppe Enrie and dates to the 1931 ostension of the Shroud. The museum’s website offers an extremely informative catalogue entry on the photo and its context in Enrie’s career.

The video below gives a glimpse of the souvenirs available for contemporary pilgrims to the relic.

A souvenir stand at a recent ostension of the Shroud

The Locus of Christmas

Jacques Callot’s Engravings of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 - 1635 ), Plan and Elevation of the Church of the Holy Nativity, 1619, etching and engraving on laid paper [restrike], National Gallery of Art, Washington DC / Transferred from The Library of Congress

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 – 1635 ), Plan and Elevation of the Church of the Holy Nativity, 1619, etching and engraving on laid paper [restrike], National Gallery of Art, Washington DC / Transferred from The Library of Congress

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 - 1635 ), Plan of the Church of the Holy Nativity, 1619, etching and engraving on laid paper [restrike], National Gallery of Art, Washington DC / Transferred from The Library of Congress

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 – 1635 ), Plan of the Church of the Holy Nativity, 1619, etching and engraving on laid paper [restrike], National Gallery of Art, Washington DC / Transferred from The Library of Congress

In 1619 the French artist Jacques Callot prepared numerous prints of sites in the Holy Land to accompany the second edition of the Franciscan Bernardino Amico’s Trattato delle piante & immagini de sacri edifizi di Terra Santa (Florence: Pietro Cecconcelli, 1620). The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and its adjacent monastic complex are documented in seven plates at the beginning of the volume. Callot’s engravings were based on Amico’s own architectural surveys performed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem during his five-year stay in the Holy Land from 1593-98.

A star in the pavement of the crypt-like lower level grotto in Callot’s image marks the traditional location where Jesus is said to have been born, just as is the case today – though the present star has fourteen points rather than the six depicted by Callot.

Amico intended the publication to serve as both an accurate antiquarian treatise on the holy sites as well as a devotional aid for pilgrims. Its function today can be similar, reminding us that the epicenter of Christmas is not the North Pole but rather at the heart of this rich architectural palimpsest in Bethlehem.

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Sources and Further Reading:

● UNESCO World Heritage listing description of the Church of the Nativity and Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem

● Zur Shalev, “Christian Pilgrimage and Ritual Measurement in Jerusalem,” Preprint 384, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin: 11-15.

The traditional site of Jesus's birth in the grotto underneath the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

The traditional site of Jesus’s birth in the grotto underneath the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Pumpkins for Missionaries

Bartolomeo_Bimbi_-_The_Pumpkin_-_WGA02200Bartolomeo Bimbi, Pumpkins, 1711
Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Travel Provisions for the Journey to India

The Theatine Bartolomeo Ferro (c. 1633- 1706) published his Istoria delle Missioni de’ Chierici Regolari, Teatini in two thick volumes in 1704 and 1705.  After many chapters recounting the adventures and hardships of the order during their mission work in Asia, he concluded the final volume with a suggested list of supplies to pack for the voyage to India. When the priests departed from Lisbon they should make sure to take things like utensils for celebrating mass, and also ample non-perishable foodstuffs such as wine and cheese.  In a special mention he recommends pumpkins because they “last for the whole voyage…and make the best soup there can be.”

“Portino molte Zucche di Lisbona, perche durano per tutto il viaggio, e per il viaggio dell’Indie è la miglior minestra, che possa darsi”

– Bartolomeo Ferro, Istoria delle Missioni de’ Chierici Regolari, Teatini, vol. 2 (Rome: Gio. Francesco Buagni, 1705): 672.

Happy Halloween, and remember to pack a few pumpkins wherever you’re going.

“A relick of high esteem”: An English Visitor in Turin and the Cult of the Shroud

The recent two-month ostension of the Shroud of Turin concluded this past week with the visit of Pope Francis. Now that the relic has been safely returned to its climate-controlled case in the cathedral, the Shroud reverts again to its usual state as an invisible presence in the city.

This inter-ostension condition of the Shroud is that experienced by the vast majority of travelers to Turin since the relic’s arrival there in 1578. Prevented from seeing the Shroud itself, written accounts of it by these visitors instead focus on the outer trappings associated with the cloth – the chapel containing it, images of it, and rituals involving it. This was also the case for those celebrating the New Year 1682 in the Savoy capital.

Stopping in Turin for the New Year 1681-2

Fitzroy Northumberland British Museum

Image: Portrait of George Fitzroy, Earl of Northumberland, as a boy in Roman costume, after Henri Gascar, last quarter of the seventeenth century Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Beinecke Library at Yale University preserves a manuscript journal written by an English traveler in Italy during 1681-2.  The anonymous author was a member of the retinue of George Fitzroy, Earl (later Duke) of Northumberland (1665-1716), an illegitimate son of King Charles II of England.  Traveling in Italy from November 1681 to June 1682, the group stopped at Turin, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Naples, and Rome.  In Padua the diarist then separated from the main company, which proceeded to Venice, while the author continued on to Avignon.

Only one page of the manuscript has been digitized so far, but luckily for enthusiasts of Piedmontese Baroque, it is the page describing the party’s arrival in Turin on New Year’s Eve 1681. After a general description of the city, the journal entry immediately focuses on the ducal palace and Guarino Guarini’s chapel of the Holy Shroud, then nearing completion.

Northumberland Turin 1681 BeineckeImage: Relation of my voiage into Italy with my Lord Northumberland, fol. 6r (Osborn b352)
Source: The James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Wee arrived at Turin on y.e last day of Decembre 1681. This city is well situated where the Doïre [i.e. Dora] a small river joins with the Po, there begins to bee navigable, for you find boats to carry you down to Venice. The buildings of the new city especialy look very stately. The town is furnisht with water by the Doïre they lett into y.e streets every night. Itt is surrounded with strong ramparts sett with young oak trees, that make a pleasant walk. The new pallace in y.e city is well built. You may see in itt a chappel all of black marble, built a purpose for y.e holy Sindon or winding sheet wherein they say our Saviour was wrapt up: a relick of high esteem the Effigie whereof is painted upon most of ye walls in Piemont. Itt is shewn in a publick place upon very extraordnary occasions, and then do resort to Turin a multitude of People, who are all bound to cast themselves upon their knees at y.e sight of itt. In this same pallace is y.e Royal Gallery full of pictures of severall good hands. There are many pieces of Titian as Christ’s whipping out of y.e temple the buyers and sellars. St Peters Denyal of his master &c …”

Here the single digitized page concludes.  Among other things, the journal entry reveals how popular images of the Shroud throughout the Savoy territories helped to prepare visitors for their experience at the reliquary chapel in the capital, heightening their anticipation, and how accounts of previous ostensions played a role in travelers’ experience of the city even when the Shroud was not on display during their stay.

A video (below) prepared by the city of Turin’s cultural portal documents many of these images of the Shroud, “painted upon most of y.e walls in Piemont.” For other examples, see this PDF, “Affreschi Sindone in Piemonte” (source).

The Madonna of the Manger

Christmas, San Gaetano and the Nativity in Theatine Churches

Gaetano_MMAA 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.

479px-Matteo_rosselli,_natività_di_CristoElsewhere 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.

Nativity chapel San Lorenzo Wikimedia CROPPED 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
  Beato Martyri Laurentio ex Serenissimi Emmanuelis Philiberti voto...

Silos San Lorenzo cornerstone

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):

● Gaetano Gherardo Zompini, Saint Cajetan of Thiene Holding the Infant Jesus, pen and ink, eighteenth century.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Rogers Fund, 1966, 66.53.6)

● 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.

Celebrating Churches to San Gaetano

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On the feast day of the Theatine founder San Gaetano Thiene (1480-1547), this image gallery celebrates a few of the order’s churches associated with the saint. Known in English as Saint Cajetan, the younger son of a noble Vicentine family was canonized in 1671. Many of these churches were originally dedicated to other saints, with the dedication to Gaetano added – formally or informally – after his canonization. Others, such as the two unexecuted designs by Guarini, followed immediately in the wake of canonization.

Most of these churches are no longer served by the Theatines, and some (notably Nice) are today known under different dedications. For more (if not all) churches dedicated to the saint, see this Wikimedia Commons category page. All images are in the public domain.

The Newly Laid Easter Egg

Easter egg

Johann Baptist Klauber, “Diss neu=gelegte Oster=Ey…”, print, Augsburg, c. 1750s
Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

This seasonal artwork from mid-eighteenth century Germany shows an Easter egg decorated with an image of the resurrected Christ quashing death and the devil. The oval tomb underscores the implicit parallel between the Resurrection and new life hatching from the egg. In translation, the pious poem surrounding the egg reads:

“This newly laid Easter egg / Just discovered in the nest / Shows you that death and devil have been / Overcome by Christ.

“Let your heart, oh child of man / Take pleasure in this egg / Follow Jesus, avoiding sin / He will not let you fall.”

According to John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, I (London: Charles Knight, 1841): 98, such prints were occasionally given as gifts at Easter in Germany, instead of eggs. At only 74 x 111 mm (around 3 x 4.5 inches) it is probably best understood as a forerunner of today’s greeting cards. In contrast to the fleeting delights of edible treats, the print continues to offer spiritual nourishment two and a half centuries after its creation.

When Priests Built Their Own Churches

Early Modern Priest-Architects in Sacred Architecture

Sacred Architecture journal has released its volume 24 (2013) for open-access consultation on its website. The issue includes my essay “Architecture as a Form of Erudition: Early Modern Priest-Architects.” The article furnishes an overview of some of the priests and other religious active in architecture, c. 1550 – 1750, and situates their work within the institutional culture of the religious orders.

Grimaldi SantIgnazio British MuseumGiovanni Francesco Grimaldi, View of Orazio Grassi’s Sant’Ignazio, Rome, under construction, black chalk, mid-seventeenth century.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

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From the journal’s masthead:

Sacred Architecture journal, a publication of the Institute for Sacred Architecture, is dedicated to a renewal of beauty in contemporary church design. Through scholarly articles on architectural history, principles of design, and contemporary buildings, the journal seeks to inspire and inform.