Monday, June 6

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

Part III: The Reliquary as Building

While Guarini was undoubtedly a practical man, “committed to nuts-and-bolts solutions,” he was also a philosopher, mathematician and theologian, and, as a designer of churches, he would have certainly not done something so wonderfully bizarre as the spire without a good reason. Indeed, Varriano goes as far as to call Guarini’s forms “mystical.” [23] But what mystical reality is the spike of Guarini’s dome—which, as a gigantic reliquary, has clearly some sort of symbolic value, attempting to pierce? What Borrominian tower of Babel is this?

One can, unfortunately, offer only an educated guess. No prototypes have ever been found for Guarini’s extravagant spire. [24] With Borromini’s Sant’ Ivo, almost equally defiant of iconographic analysis, there is at least the smoking gun of the Heemskerk engraving of the tower of Babel and the contents of the sermons preached under that dome. With Guarini, it is harder to say. It is apparent something strange—and figural—is going on here; no practical man, “committed to nuts-and-bolts solutions,” would have embarked on such a design, unique even in his own personal oeuvre, merely as an architectural or scenographic caprice.

Let us return to the reliquary. Scott’s explanation of the “scrigno” is rather unsatisfactory upon re-examination. For one thing, the actual inlays (now lost) on the reliquary casket only remotely resemble the coffers of the pendatives, and Scott proposes another, easier, heraldic explanation for their origins elsewhere. [25]. Reliquaries, architectural or not, are more often than not, figural in their design. The author has seen the reliquary of the True Cross kept at St. Peter’s solemnly shown to the faithful on the fourth Sunday of Lent amid the ringing of bells and great billows of incense, and it was shaped like a cross. [26] Likewise, the relics associated with the Crown of Thorns in the treasury of Notre Dame de Paris (brought there by King St. Louis) have typically been crown-shaped, or, in the case of a small reliquary in the possession of the British Museum, uses the three thorns as freestanding figural elements. [27] Scott himself notes a link between St. Louis’s relic-collecting and the scramble that the Savoyard dynasts that sought to use the Shroud as a lever to gain recognition for their royal Cypriot title. [28].

But how can a Shroud be turned into a heraldic insignia on par with the tower of Babel or a spine or crown? Guarini, no matter how inventive, could hardly build a dome shaped like the face of Christ. Perhaps to make up for this deficit, he borrows heavily from other Passion symbols in the explicit iconography of the chapel, hardly a major leap of the imagination. [29] The spire is to some degree a mingling of the woven-together crown of thorns—for, the dome is surely the head of the building just as the capital is the head of the column, and Guarini’s capitals are ringed with cruel-looking thorns—and perhaps the single upright spike of a passion-nail, another motif used throughout the structure. [30] After all, the regal pretensions of the Savoyards would have put Guarini in mind of crowns, and devotion to the five Wounds made by those three nails (and the Holy Lance, another fabled relic associated with St. Louis) was closely tied to the cult of the Shroud. [31]

However, there is another symbolism, more ingenious, which might be put forward.

Tomorrow: Part IV: The Temple of the Sun-Christ


[23]. Varriano, p. 214.
[24]. Ibid., p. 217.
[25]. Scott, p. 186.
[26]. Scott reproduces a woodcut of a similar ceremony held in 1511 (p. 71).
[27]. James Robinson, “Relic Veneration and the Holy Land.” [Available online] [March 24, 2005].
[28]. Scott, p. 11-13.
[29]. Especially considering the links which were established between the Passion regalia of the Arma Christi, the Savoyard dynastic arms and the Shroud. Ibid, p. 20.
[30]. Three, in fact, with the crown of thorns, top the entire structure. Ibid., p. 170, fig. 119, and p. 173, fig. 122.
[31]. Ibid., p. 172.

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