Sunday, June 5

Piercing Rays of the Living Sun-Christ
Guarini’s Capella del Sindone as Building and Reliquary

Part II: The Reliquary as Building

The question of scale arises here. When a building is miniaturized as a reliquary, the result is surpassingly odd. [10] This issue can also be found in the Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio, an actual chapel sometimes viewed as a miniaturization of larger architectural forms. Speaking from personal experience, it is often a disorienting experience to first view it, expecting a far larger structure judging only from photographs. This miniature quality gives it a memorial quality: it exists solely as a monument, a marker for meaning, as Lotz has noted, citing Serlio’s curious quote that the building was “not big, but was erected solely in memory of St. Peter the Apostle.” [11] Most reliquaries and tabernacles, thus, are not exact models of larger structures but evocations of them.

What distinguishes most architectonic reliquaries is not their to-scale replication of existing buildings but that their whole “structure” becomes an icon deep with specific meaning rather than relying on applied fresco and iconographic schemes to make that significance manifest. [12] Most non-architectonic reliquaries of the Middle Ages were designed to resemble heads or arms, [13] a specific figural statement about the relic inside; the architecture of architectonic reliquaries and other church furnishings has an equal potential to become figural. A few examples will suffice: the font-cover of the Lateran Basilica engages in this game of figural fantasy architecture by combining an architecturally perfect broken pediment topped with a finial in the shape of a literal rendition of the papal tiara and keys impossible in a larger architectural composition, as is the extraordinary cherub-festooned tabernacle at Santa Maria in Vallicella with its remarkable “onion dome” constructed out of volutes. [14]

In such compositions, the whole architecture becomes figural, iconographic, as with the cherubs and the papal tiara. Such literal and specific iconography in architectural forms seems to be unprecedented in larger pre-Baroque compositions. While authors such as the medieval William Durandus sought to impute a wealth of meanings to architectural elements—columns, arches, vaults, pavement, walls, even the mixing of cement—it never becomes literal. When Durandus suggests that the columns represent the bishops, no Gothic church has its triforium supported by pontifical atlantes. [15] Such literalism was possible with the head and hand reliquaries of his age, but was not seen in larger structures. Indeed, whatever symbolic content seems largely restricted to sculptural and artistic additions; in the few instances where it is worked into the fabric of the building—as in the Christologically cruciform shape of the church or the perfection of a round Renaissance dome, the iconography is general rather than site-specific as with the papal tiara atop the Lateran’s baptismal font.

However, by Guarini’s time, Borromini had already done the impossible at Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza. The whole building is a symphony of fantastically figural architecture both in plan and in elevation, a Solomonic house of wisdom (ædes sapientiæ) perfectly allied to its purpose as a university chapel. [16] The plan is a star of David, while the spiraling spire is an academic lighthouse and a tower of Babel—here linked to Pentecost’s miraculous inversion of Babel through the gift of tongues. Never was a marble tabernacle as extravagantly figural in its structure. At the ædes Sapientiæ, architecture has become a-techntonic, exuberantly plastic, fantastic, symbolic, just as it would become at the ædes regiæ, as the royal Shroud chapel was known. While it would be difficult to characterize Guarini as a follower of Borromini though he was of the generation following him, the two of them certainly would have been kindred spirits. [18]

Scott’s analysis of Guarini’s peculiar design is refreshingly practical, seeing the logic behind the monolithic death-mask of eccentricity that art history has forced down on the theologian-mathematician-architect priest’s heterogeneous work. That being said, Scott seems to take his thesis to almost absurd proportions, refusing to see the whole of Guarini’s design as conditioned by iconographic logic. Certainly, the unprecedented triangular arrangement of the rotunda was conditioned by existing conditions in the site, [19] but save for a few passing references here and there, Scott remains entirely uninterested in the obvious Trinitarian symbolism of the complex; furthermore, he seems reluctant to impute much iconographic significance to the extraordinary figural space of the dome save to “ ‘please the senses’ of the viewer” in a miraculous way, and continue the triangular (and thus, presumably, Trinitarian) scheme of the floor plan. [20] Considering he goes into exhaustive detail about the mixture of unconventional and conventional iconographic treatments of the column capitals, exotic passion-flowers, Arabic boxes, reliquary chests and excursions into Jesuit geometrical experiments proving the efficacy of Christ’s passion, [21] he seems to contradict himself when he says that the imagery is “rather commonplace” and need not bother us excessively. As we sit and stare up into the infinity of Guarini’s black-marble heavens, it cannot strike us this is by far one of the silliest statements in the entire history of art. [22]

Tomorrow, Part III: The Building as Reliquary


[10]. Schloeder’s new tabernacle at St. Thérèse in Collinsville, Oklahoma, is an example of this design issue.
[11]. Wolfgang Lotz, Architecture in Italy, 1500-1600 Yale UP, 1974, p. 12. An earlier parallel is afforded by the miniaturized Holy Sepulchre (complete with half-size door) at the Ruccelai chapel in Florence.
[12]. Private conversation with Michael Djordjevitch, February 2005.
[13]. Thurston, n.p.
[14]. Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, p. 85-89, figs. 103, 109.
[15]. See Durandus, Rationale Divinorum Officiorum.
[16]. John Varriano. Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
[17]. Anthony Blunt, Borromini, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1979, pp. 111-128.
[18]. Varriano, p. 214.
[19]. Scott, p. 124.
[20]. Ibid., p. 137; 153.
[21]. Scott claims that these geometric proofs would have been well-known to most contemporary preachers and thus an attempt to seek anything more than obvious symbolism in the design is wrong-headed. Considering Bettini’s diagrams (p. 157-9) were intended for use by the Jesuits in China, not Turin, this seems a rather puzzling line of argument.
[22]. Guarini is bedeviled by such statements. Argan, whose excesses are criticized by Scott, argued that Guarini’s iconography was not just superficial but utterly irrelevant! Argan was influenced here by his allegiance to modernist internationalism, infamous for its particular hatred of anything symbolic and obsession with the mechanical (Scott, p. 195).

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