Saturday, June 4


Piercing Rays of the Living Sun-Christ:
Capella del Sindone as Building and Reliquary

Part I: King of Relics

For your reading pleasure, we will be presenting extracts from a paper I wrote this semester on the subject of the chapel in which the Turin Shroud is kept, designed by one of the most brilliant and eccentric of the great architects of the Baroque, the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini.

It is the King of Relics. Even today, when skeptics prefer to remember comforting tales of medieval incredulities such as archangelic feathers, the multiple heads of John the Baptist, and the vial of air snatched from the Egyptian plague of darkness which still resides at the sacristy of San Marco in the Piazza Venezia, the Shroud of Turin retains its ability to fascinate, beguile, even inspire belief in some. [1] It even has a branch of science, sindonology (from sindone, the Italian for burial cloth), dedicated to its study. Scientists study its mosaic of mysterious patterns, scorchmarks and caches of dessicated pollen. Believers seek to look upon the face of God. And the occasional crackpot scholar tries to link it to the Templars, the Freemasons, Leonardo da Vinci or some seductively conspiratorial combination thereof. [2]

Amid all this devotional fervor, scientific scrutiny and semi-scholarly white noise, one important aspect of what might be termed the problem of the Shroud recedes surprisingly into the background: the place where it rests. It is a miraculous baroque waterspout of gilding and black marble murk conjured into existence by an eccentric polymath and priest working on the orders of a ducal house hoping to prop up its royal pretensions through the relic. [3] Guarino Guarini’s Capella del Sindone, located behind the high altar of Turin’s stark early-Renaissance cathedral of San Giovanni, is undoubtedly extraordinary, the intersection of liturgy, dynastic theater, and a uniquely architectural symbolic language. It is, perhaps, also, the world’s largest reliquary.

A recent study of the Capella del Sindone remarks on this heretofore unappreciated aspect of the chapel’s curious design, linking its purpose as a gigantic reliquary case to the elaborate geometrical coffering of the lower portion of the dome. John Beldon Scott notes the Shroud had been carried from its earlier resting-place at Chambéray across the Alps in a massive chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl in similar patterns.

While this might be perhaps coincidental, it is confirmed by the account of Amedeo di Castellamonte, a prominent courtier and architect closely connected with the chapel project, who calls it a “scrigno” or reliquary case for the “protection of that most holy Shroud...given miraculously…to the princes of this royal house.” [4] Scott notes this “comment has not received the attention it deserves;” indeed, save for a footnote citing the Sainte Chapelle in Paris as the prototype, he does not return to the subject himself. [5]

When one considers both the larger typological scope of reliquaries and the whole of the structure, rather than one isolated zone in the building and the casket, a boxy and distinctly un-architectural form of reliquary, the analogy operates in a far more comprehensive level. The whole design, with its spirit of fantasy, “the terror of architecture,” [6] becomes a commentary on the architectonic reliquary and the tradition of tabernacles and other miniature buildings in church furniture. Reliquaries and tabernacles have long imitated larger structures, functioning as miniature buildings.

Guarini would have been familiar with Bernini’s lapis lazuli tabernacle in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Peter’s inspired by Bramante’s Tempietto; of more later. [7] Medieval Christians reserved the Host in structures called, quite literally, “Sacrament Houses” or “Sacrament Towers,” while reliquaries in architectural form are even older. Thursdon notes a gabled shrine preserved in the sacristy of St. Maurice in Valais resembling—perhaps unintentionally—Noah’s Ark, as well as the reliquary of the Magi at Cologne, “a superb piece of silversmith's work resembles in outward form a church with a nave and two aisles.”[9] The author himself has seen a small reliquary of St. Thérèse in the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, Indiana, designed in the form of the dome of that college’s Main Building.

[To be continued tomorrow, with Part II: The Reliquary as Building].


[1]. For the designation “King of Relics” and sindonology, see John Beldon Scott, Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 (p. 9-10). For the tenebrae aegyptorum see Bryce Sibley, “POD-ing Out,” A Saintly Salmagundi [available online]. [March 23, 2005]. Also see “Gabriel Feather” in George Eberhart, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, Vol. I. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2002.
[2]. Lynn Pickett and Clive Prince’s magnificently preposterous book Turin Shroud: In Whose Image? The Truth Behind the Centuries-Long Conspiracy of Silence is enough example for us here.
[3]. Scott, p. 5; 20-37; 10.
[4]. Ibid., p. 136.
[5]. Ibid., p. 136, fn. 35.
[6]. Ibid., p. 87.
[7]. Niccolò Suffi, St. Peter’s – Guide to the Basilica and Square, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, n.d., n.p., [online]. Available at [March 24, 2005]. Another example is the tabernacle borne aloft by bronze angels in the Sistine Chapel of St. Mary Major in Rome. See Steven Schloeder, Architecture in Communion, p. 98, fig. 4.42.
[8]. See also the new tabernacle at the Cathedral in Salt Lake illustrated in Schloeder, p. 97, figs. 4.40-41.
[9]. Thursdon, Herbert. “Reliquaries.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 ed. [Available online]. [March 24, 2005].

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