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St. Dominic Chapel    versione testuale

The Shrine and glory of Dominic

In August 1221 Dominic was in Bologna visiting his brethren. He fell ill and was brought to the little Benedictine sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte, just outside Porta San Mamolo (where now stands the Neoclassical Villa Aldini), in the hope that the fresh air from the hills of Bologna could restore his health. His condition got dramatically worse and he asked to be taken away, fearing that he might be buried far from his brethren. The Saint’s body was buried in 1221 behind the altar of St. Niccolò (the spot is marked by a cross on the floor, under one of the pews near the Rosary Chapel), to satisfy his desire to be buried “under the feet of his brethren”. Later on, in 1233, his remains were moved into a plain marble sarcophagus, situated this time on the floor in the right aisle of the new church for the faithful, at the foot of the staircase which now leads to the chapel, as a memorial tablet records.
 
The Shrine of St. Dominic
In 1267 his body was transferred again into a new tomb more worthy of him, commissioned by the friars to Nicola Pisano. In the mid-13th century, the great Tuscan sculptor created many extremely innovative works of art, harmoniously blending classical tradition with Gothic naturalism (among his previous works it is worth remembering the pulpit in the Baptistery of Pisa). Created in Nicola Pisano’s workshop, the shrine of St. Dominic had a different appearance than it has today.
 
The artists who participated in the project, which was certainly conceived by Nicola Pisano, were Arnolfo di Cambio, Lapo and fr Guglielmo from Pisa. They sculpted the panels with scenes from the life of the Saint and related to the foundation of the Order, made the statues of saints located between the panels and some telamones supporting the sarcophagus instead of traditional columns. According to scholars, these anthropomorphic figures, used as supporting columns, represented acolytes carrying objects used in funeral ceremonies. Grouped three by three, they formed four corner supports. In the middle stood two small and thin columns, in a configuration similar to that subsequently adopted by Giovanni Pisano in the pulpit of the Cathedral of Pisa. The cover of the sarcophagus consisted of a plain wooden plank, probably surmounted by some small statues, as can be seen in the Shrine of St. Peter Martyr in the Church of St. Eustorgius in Milan, made by Giovanni di Balduccio (a student of Giovanni Pisano and son of Nicola), following the model of the Shrine of St. Dominic.
 
The reliefs on the front of the sarcophagus represent:
 
Trial by fire
The relief illustrates an event occurred in Languedoc before 1216, when Dominic was struggling to convert the Cathars as requested by Pope Innocent III. Since the local authorities did not know whether to  believe in the words of Dominic or of the Albigensians, they asked them to cast their own books into the fire. Only the book containing the truth would survive the flames. In the high relief the fire stands out in the centre of the scene, surmounted by the figure of the judge. On the right, the heretics look at their books burning, while the book of Dominic – standing on the left and surrounded by his brethren - floats in the air.
 
Miracle of the resurrection of Napoleone Orsini after he fell from his horse
Dominic happened to be in Rome - during one of his numerous trips there – when the young Napoleone Orsini, nephew of Cardinal Stefano di Fossanova, died after falling off his horse. Dominic resuscitated him. In the lower part, the scene is dominated by figures of the horse and the young man fallen to the ground.  In the same scene Napoleone is standing, followed by Dominic and some of his brethren, and delivered back to his family.
 
On the back :
Approval of the Order by Pope Innocent III
In 1216 Dominic asked Pope Innocent III to approve his Rule. Initially, the pope refused, but  after he dreamt that Dominic upheld St. John Lateran Basilica, he received Dominic again, and advised him to adopt the Rule of St. Augustine (the Rule would be formally approved only later by Pope Honorius III).  On the left, Dominic is kneeling in front of a cold and distant pope. In the centre, the sleeping pope has a vision of Dominic supporting the church; on the right, Dominic is kneeling in front of a more well-disposed pope.
 
Reginald of Orléans enters the Order
In 1218, in Rome, Dominic met Reginald of Orléans, professor of canon law at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his stay in the city, the professor fell gravely ill. Dominic went to visit him, and Reginald promised that he would join the Order if he recovered. Later on, Reginald dreamt of the Virgin Mary who, after showing him the Dominican habit, healed him. On the left Reginald and Dominic talk. In the centre, the professor falls ill and on the right he is lying in bed while the Virgin Mary appears to Reginald in a dream, touching his head and showing him the Dominican habit.
 
On the sides:
Saint Peter and Saint Paul give the Mission of the Order
During one of his trips to Rome, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared to St. Dominic to give him the Bible and the staff as instruments of his apostolic mission. On the left, Dominic, kneeling in front of the two saints, receives the staff and the book. On the right, Dominic gather his brethren to pass them the instruments of preaching.
 
Miracle of the bread brought by the angels to the Saint’s table

In 1218, Dominic was with his brethren in the Priory of Bologna. Since there was no food for dinner, Dominic began to pray. Immediately, two youths (or angels) appeared, carrying baskets full of bread. The scene shows seven friars, including Dominic in the middle,  sitting around a table. Before them, two youths bring the bread for the meal.  
 

 
The dome by Floriano Ambrosini
The dome by Floriano Ambrosini
In 1377, a new chapel started to be built to contain the Shrine of the Saint. The works ended in 1411. The chapel was built 5 metres above the ground in the right aisle of the church for the faithful, to avoid the obstacle represented by the colonnade of the cloister on the right side. Two flights of stairs led to the chapel, one from the side of the faithful, the other from the side reserved to the friars. The stairs led to a space surrounded by five arches with railings and columns. An opening marked the entrance to the chapel, which was 12 metres long and 9 metres wide. It had a groined vault of two bays. The Shrine was placed at the end of the chapel,  screened off and with an altar right against it; it was oriented to the east like the main altar. Externally, the chapel stood on pillars, from which departed arches and rib vaults, creating a charming effect, probably thanks to the contribution of the architect Antonio di Vincenzo.
 
From 1469 to 1473 Niccolò da Bari, who was then renamed “dell’Arca” (“of the Shrine”) after his contribution to the Shrine, was commissioned to create the crowning of the shrine. He conceived a system of statuettes and symbolical elements to develop a rigorous theological discourse which was immediately made more accessible and comprehensible to everybody through visual language. In this way, the Shrine became a real compendium of theology.
 
The composition is to be read from top to bottom, and illustrates both the hierarchy of the Church and the chronological order of events. On the top stands the statue of God the Father, creator and Master of the Universe, with a small globe in his left hand and a bigger globe under his feet, indicating that He dominates and loves what He created. In the lower part are represented the products of Creation: festoons of flowers and fruits, elements of earth, angels, inhabitants of heaven and dolphins, creatures of the sea. In the centre of the composition, as well as of Creation, is the Mystery of Redemption, represented by the image of Christ - dead and resurrected at the same time - as Man of Sorrows, flanked by two angels, the Angel of Annunciation and the Angel of Passion. On the same level are the four Evangelists who spread the message of Redemption to the whole world. On a still lower level is represented the work of the Church, exemplified by the eight Saint Patrons of Bologna (front: Saints Francis, Petronius, Dominic, Florian.  Back: Saints Vitale, John the Baptist, Proculus and Agricola).
 
Beside the crowning, Niccolò also made the angel holding a candlestick on the left, to which, a little later on, another very different angel was associated, characterised by a more vigorous style, sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. In 1494 the nineteen-year-old artist, who was escaping from Florence after the expulsion of the Medici, was in Bologna, where he was commissioned to complete the last three statuettes of the Shrine: beside the angel mentioned above, among the statues of the Saints Patrons, he sculpted St. Petronius on the front and St. Proculus on the back. 
In 1532 Alfonso Lombardi of Ferrara sculpted the step at the base of the Shrine. The scenes sculpted on the step are:
• St. Dominic’s birth
• Young Dominic sleeping on the floor as a penance
• The charity of the Saint who sells his books to help the poor
• The Adoration of the Magi
• The Saint ascends to Heaven by climbing a ladder held by the Redeemer and the Virgin Mary.
 
Guido Reni: The Glory of St. Dominic (detail)
 
In 1597 the chapel was renovated again and took on the appearance that it has today. It was enlarged by Floriano Ambrosini, who gave it a more regular structure: rectangular plan with semicircular apse and a dome 13.60 metres long, 23.80 metres deep and 38 metres high. He completely covered the dome with marble from Verona, conferring it a magnificent aspect. The decorative works of the chapel involved many artists: Guido Reni, for The Glory of St. Dominic, in the conch of the apse; Giovanni Andrea Donducci, called “il Mastelletta”, for the two largest canvases (The Miracle of the Forty Drowned and The Resurrection of Napoleone Orsini) and other subjects with angels and virtues on the ceiling; Alessandro Tiarini for the large canvas representing St. Dominic Resurrecting a Child, and Lionello Spada for the canvas “The Miracle of the Book Rejected by Fire. The scenes of miracles on the ceiling at the entrance of the chapel were painted by Mario Righetti. The chiaroscuro paintings in the drum of the dome are by Girolamo Curti, the angels in the webs of the vault were repainted in the 18th century over the originals by Alessandro Albani and Francesco Luzio. The four angels holding the chandeliers in stucco placed at the corners of the cornice are by Alessandro Algardi as well as the statues of the virtues on the wall of the apse.
In the 18th century there were two other additions: the altar by Alessandro Sarvolini, based on a design by Mauro Tesi, and the marble antependium designed by Carlo Bianconi and made in Parma in the workshop of Giovan Battista Boutard together with The Burial of St. Dominic. 
Behind the altar and under the sarcophagus is placed the Reliquary with the Head of St. Dominic, made by Iacopo Roseto da Bologna in 1383. The holy relic is enshrined in a small octagonal temple in a rose bed. The silver bust was added at a later stage.

[Mariella D'Elia]


 
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