When Art is Mystery: The Sculpture of the Veiled Christ

Carla Pietrobattista

Carla Pietrobattista

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Veiled Christ Museo Cappella Sansevero. © get directly down/Flickr

Read this article in Italian (Leggi questo articolo in italiano) →

Works of boundless wonder

We tend to label everything that escapes our understanding as mystery and that deepens our sense of intrigue and fascination. Despite the theorising of scholars, I have always found the creative process that precedes a work of art the most mysterious aspect of the process. In fact, a critical examination of an artistic work can explain its context, style, dating, signature, but it cannot reveal anything about that spark born in the most intimate and profound part of the artist, who is none other than the material executor of an inspiration.

These men and women manage to transform and give tangibility to the inner creative process. There are works of art, or rather masterpieces, whose realisation cannot be explained because they are not perceived by the observer as simple objects created to celebrate and capture beauty, but as beings called to life who appear ready to wake up from a long and deep sleep. I have my own personal list of works that in my opinion arouse a sense of boundless wonder, not as an art expert, but as one who allows emotions and sensations to be awakened by these exceptional masterpieces. 

Among the works that I believe to be wrapped in mysterious perfection, as though made by divine hands, there is certainly the sculpture of the Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino in the Sansevero chapel in Naples. As was the case with my article on Michelangelo, it will be difficult to excel in interpretative originality here because this sculpture has reached such levels of stylistic perfection that it has struck and interested many art historians.

Prince Raimondo di Sangro and the Sansevero Chapel

Francesco de Mura Raimondo di Sangro
Raimondo di Sangro © Francesco de Mura 

The Sansevero Chapel houses more than a collection of art; it tell a story, that of its multifaceted creator Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710-1771), a man of a deep and extensive culture, who spoke at least eight languages and whose knowledge ranged from natural sciences to philosophy and from architecture to alchemy. He had an uncharacteristic childhood as he grew up without a parental figure: his mother had died the same year of his birth, while his father was often far from Italy.

The prince’s paternal grandfather, who lived in Naples, was his main point of reference. Raimondo, who immediately proved to have extraordinary intelligence, was sent by his grandfather to study at the Jesuit College in Rome. Here he was able to receive an excellent education, while also having access to an array of ancient artworks that he could closely observe and admire. 

At the age of sixteen, Raimondo found himself managing the title and assets he had inherited. Despite his young age, the profound knowledge he had acquired during the years of his training led him to invest a large part of his fortune in research. He was a skilled inventor and he conceived creations of different types, some in the military field, others in the medical field by experimenting and developing drugs.

He also designed and built extremely original machines, with the intention of leaving the Neapolitan public speechless, such as a marine carriage equipped with cork horses designed, and actually used, for maritime trips. Raimondo’s wide culture and lively curiosity, combined with his great ability to express himself in multiple fields, were interpreted as excessive and suspicious by the church, which decided to put the prince’s writings on the index of banned books. Precisely for this reason, many of Raimondo’s studies still remain enveloped today by an aura of mystery, an aura that also involves and envelops the veiled Christ, a work that allows us to know Raimondo as a patron. 

The fascinating and evocative Chapel that houses the Veiled Christ was a place where extraordinary talents could flourish. The chapel houses works created with extremely different purposes: alongside the marble sculptures of impeccable beauty, we also find the so-called anatomical machines that reproduce the anatomical structure of the body of a man and a woman complete with an arterio-venous system. The realisation of these anatomical  wonders has not yet been explained by scholars who for this very reason often use, even in this case, the term mystery. 

Three outstanding and related works

Pudicizia%2C Cappella Sansevero
Pudicizia, also called Modesty or Chastity. © David Sivyer

Personally, I find that despite the amazement aroused by every single piece exhibited in the gallery, three elements in particular highlight the genius of its creator. In addition to the Veiled Christ, I refer to the statue called “Modesty”, created in 1572 by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Corradini (1688-1752), and the “Disinganno” created by the Genoese sculptor Francesco Queirolo (1704-1762) who was a pupil of Corradini in Rome. The two statues are symbols of virtue and of sin respectively: two opposing elements chosen to represent Raimondo’s parents. 

The prince’s mother is depicted in the statue of Modesty. Cecilia Gaetani of Aragon is portrayed, goddess-like, as a young and beautiful woman with her body covered by a veil. This touch is in line with Corradini’s style and adds artistic virtuosity, but it is also an extreme attempt to protect the young woman. However, instead of concealing, the veil emphasizes the beauty of the figure wrapped in the fabric.

In addition to talking about the moral virtues of Raimondo’s mother, the work, through a subtle symbolism, also tells us about the untimely death of Cecilia. This is depicted through a very strong symbol: a broken tombstone at the top, which appears as though it had been damaged by a powerful earthquake.

Disinganno%2C Cappella Sansevero
The statue Disinganno or disillusionment. © David Sivyer

On the other hand, his father Antonio, who led a life dedicated to vice, was represented in the statue of disillusionment that represents him wrapped in a net, a symbol of the vices that made him a prisoner for most of his existence. As evidence of Anthony’s redemption, which took place in the last years of his life, we find an angel intent on freeing the man from the net, therefore from the sin that had harnessed him. 

These two sculptures are undisputed masterpieces and leave me speechless for the refinement of their conception and execution. Yet within the same environment another marvel is preserved, a symbol not only of beauty and fine artistic conception, but a testimony to how man can overcome himself to become an instrument of divine creation. I am obviously referring to the Veiled Christ, a sculpture created by Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720-1793) an outstanding Neapolitan artist, who worked with large sculptures as well as with smaller subjects for nativity scenes or silver works.

640px Giuseppe Sanmartino %28circle of%29 Veiled Christ
The Veiled Christ © Museum Associates/LACMA

Sanmartino took over the project for the statue of the Veiled Christ from the now deceased Corradini and then went beyond it and customised it in the process. The work was carried out in 1753 with such perfection as to be able to surprise the prince himself. Among the enthusiastic admirers was the sculptor Antonio Canova who, faced with the beauty of the sculpture, declared that he would give ten years of his life if it would allow him to be the author of such a work.

The mattress on which Christ rests is in colored marble, the body which is almost fused with the veil was made of Carrara marble. The body of Jesus visible through the veil is represented for what it is: the body of a man whose life was taken violently: the hair appears tousled, while the folds of the fabric cannot hide the nail holes that are clearly evident under the fabric, which instead of hiding the suffering from the spectators’ eyes make it even more visible and present. At the feet of Christ, lying on the veil, are represented a pair of pincers, the crown of thorns and the nails.

The perfection reached in the single details of the crown almost certainly required from the sculptor the same diligence involved in the veil. The words perfection and mystery are the most suitable to describe this work. Many have even hypothesised that the veil was made through an alchemical process revealed to the sculptor by Prince Raimondo. The truth is that a man, an artist out of the ordinary, following not only simple indications, but above all following the dream of his brilliant client, has been able to carve the unimaginable out of marble, that is, lightness and intangibility. The work is a dialogue between kindred spirits and minds: a masterpiece that evokes eternity.

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