We started off our journey looking for esoteric and mysterious places in Naples with the Fontanelle cemetery in the Sanità district and we cannot but continue with the very epitome of Neapolitan esoterism: the Sansevero Chapel in the heart of the historical centre.
Before writing a little about this magnificent place, I feel the need to share something with you. Right after publishing Esoteric and Mysterious Naples I went to the local bookshop pick up some books I had ordered. While I was going to the cash desk to pay, something caught my eye: it was a book, in Italian, titled “Napoli esoterica e misteriosa” (Esoteric and Mysterious Naples), the same exact words I have used for my series. I know, of course, that books about this topic abound and that the title itself is not particularly original, to be honest. However, it was too much of a coincidence and I decided to buy the work by Neapolitan author Martin Rua. Much of the content of this article about the Sansevero Chapel is based on Rua’s knowledge of the subject. I wish I had read this incredible volume when I visited the chapel a couple of months ago in order to have a better understanding of what I was actually seeing.... At any rate, all's well that ends well becaue you're going to read a meaty, albeit succinct, article about this truly unique place thanks to this weird coincidence!
The Sansevero Chapel is mainly known because it houses the Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ), the marble sculpture made by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. Considered one of the most remarkable sculptures in the whole world, the splendor of the Veiled Christ is difficult to put into words. Sanmartino managed to convey the suffering of Christ through a veil so realistic that it is hard to realize it’s actually made of marble. As a matter of fact, for many and many centuries people believed that the Prince of Sansevero, Raimondo di Sangro, the commissioner both of the sculpture and of the chapel’s decoration, helped Sanmartino in making the Veiled Christ so real-like. Raimondo di Sangro is worldwide known not only for his great scientific mind, but also because he was an alchemist and a freemason. According to the legend, di Sangro taught the sculptor how to transform a piece of cloth into marble making the veil the result of alchemy more than of Sanmartino. Although the legend is more likely to be just a legend than a real fact, the mysteries of Sansevero chapel certainly do not end here…
In addition to the Veiled Christ, Sansevero Chapel deserves a visit also for the other incredible sculptures located on its sides. On the surface, these works represent virtues like liberality, self-control and propriety represented by following the classic iconography of the time. However, to a trained eye, these sculptures offered a completely different meaning related to the so-called “Magnus Opus” or Great Work of the alchemists. Let’s take the sculpture named “Disenchantment” (Disinganno) as an example.
I must say that when I first visited the Sansevero Chapel I was fascinated by this particular sculpture more than by the Veiled Christ itself. In hindsight, I think it was because somehow I understood its deeper meaning, but maybe I’m just being delusional here. Anyway, the sculpture, also named by the Neapolitans “The Fisherman” (Il Pescatore) because of the net, stands for the work of the alchemical fisherman that has to catch the hermetic fish in the Philosophers’ Sea with his net. The net symbolizes the Secret Fire that help the philosophical mercury emerge out of the world represented by the globe. Quite hard to catch, right? Well, of course, we are referring to secret alchemical mysteries that only the initiates can decipher. According to Rua, the Disenchantment points at one of the most important procedures to carry out at the beginning of the Great Work. Even though we lack the means to enter this fascinating world, we can still appreciate the beauty of this sculpture. After all, just like the veil in the Veiled Christ, one cannot but stop to wonder whether the net is really made of marble or not. During the nazi occupation, a German soldier detached a piece of the net from the sculpture just to see if it was indeed marble because he couldn’t believe his eyes.
The mysteries of the Sansevero Chapel continue on the second floor where Raimondo di Sangro wanted the Veiled Christ to be arranged. Take a deep breath and be ready do see the macchine anatomiche (the anatomical machines), a couple of anatomical models reproducing the circulatory system of a woman and a man. Originally, a fetus was placed at the feet of the woman until it got stolen in the 1990s. Realized by anatomist Giuseppe Salerno around 1763, the two machines have made more than one wonder and be puzzled by them. According to one enduring legend, Raimondo di Sagro, together with Salerno, used two servants for their alchemical experiments. They injected the two with a certain liquid that eventually turned their blood into metal, thus preserving only the circulatory system from decay. However, the poor woman was pregnant at the time, hence the fetus at her feet. Is this legend true or not? This time I won’t spoil you the fun. After all, we are talking about esoteric and mysterious Naples, so allow me to be a bit mysterious!
Sansevero Chapel is one of the most incredible places you’ll ever see, not only in Naples but all over the world. Not so long ago, it was considered a little secret gem in the heart of Naples, but now its popularity has reached such a level that people are queuing from the adjacent Piazza San Domenico Maggiore to visit the Chapel. Remember that, unfortunately, you cannot take pictures inside of Sansevero. So take your time to “absorb” all of its beauties and multiple mysterious meanings!
Stay tuned for our Esoteric and Mysterious Naples part 3! Or catch up with part 1 in case you missed it!