During a recent visit to Napoli, I visited the Chapel of Sansevero that is home to one of the most impressive sculptures in the world. The chapel is just off a narrow little side street around the corner from Via San Gregorio Armeno otherwise known as Christmas Alley. There, you can find Presepe and cheerful nativity scenes all year round.
Inside the Chapel of Sansevero, however, is a sad reminder of Christ. Laid out in the center of the nave is a representation of Christ who has recently been pulled down from the cross. He lies inert on a soft bed of cushions draped with a filmy shroud. The piece is astounding in its realistic representation of Christ’s body that now appears heavy and lifeless. At the far end of the bed rest, the crown thorns, nails, and the pliers used to remove them from his hands and feet.
This notable work of art was commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro in 1753 to decorate his family’s chapel. Prince Raimondo was a well-educated man, a mason, and an alchemist. He was also a bit of a mystery man as he liked to perform scientific experiments on the human body and was fascinated by the human circulatory system. Some legends say that he could create blood from thin air and that he had murdered people to use their bones and skin in his experiments.
It is no wonder then, his fascination for the accurate physical depiction of the dead body of Christ. To realize his vision, he hired Giuseppe Sanmartino to create this extraordinary opera d’arte. The piece is so realistic and has inspired a few legends. One story claims, with Raimondo’s assistance, the artist used alchemy to marbleize cloth and perhaps even a person’s body to create the statue. But, really that is just nonsense. If you observe the block carefully, you will see that the piece is sculpted out of one piece of marble. Additionally, there is documentation by observers of the time, as to the production of the piece.
Over the years the piece has inspired not only a few legends but also great esteem and even a bit of envy amongst the artist’s contemporaries. When Antonio Canova visited Naples, for instance, when he saw Sanmartino’s work he declared, “I would give ten years of my life to have been the sculptor or this incomparable piece of art.”
Sanmartino was a talented Baroque master. With his deft sculpting skills, in the Baroque manner, he is able to surprise us by transporting us to another world through drama and imagination. Of course, Sanmartino was most likely inspired by his passionate patron Raimondo. The Prince undoubtedly encouraged the artist to push past the ordinary, to reach new artistic heights.
So next time you find yourself in Napoli, take the time to a peek inside this incredible Chapel of Sansevero and see for yourself the veiled Christ brilliantly executed by Giuseppe Sanmartino. In the heart of the city, the birth of the Christ child is celebrated in Via San Gregorio Armeno, and in the Chapel of Sansevero it celebrates the resurrection and return to life of Christ as the redeemer.