The Veiled Christ, between Art and Alchemy

20 September 2019 Naples Monuments and History

During the 1700s, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, spent much of his life and money meticulously renovating the Sansevero Chapel, which was part of his family’s heritage.
He had a brilliant mind and was a talented scientist and inventor and he got heavily involved in the creation of art in the chapel. The Prince invented paints for the chapel’s ceiling, which created the best-preserved fresco of the Baroque Era. He also designed an intricate labyrinth of continuous marble for the floor. While he hired artists to create the projects, his input and inventions heavily guided their work. Unfortunately, Prince Raimondo was not inclined to share the secrets of his enigmatic inventions thus adding great mystery to the chapel. Moreover, his family was threatened to be excommunicated by the Catholic Church if they did not destroy all of his writings and scientific results after his death.
His brilliant mind created a monument that is not only full of mystery and beauty but also among the best-preserved of the Baroque Era as well as a part of the world’s artistic heritage.
The Prince expressed a strong desire to realize a sculpture of Jesus’s body after the crucifixion which, as he envisioned it, was to be covered by the thinnest of veils.
Originally, the Prince of Sansevero commissioned this marble art from Antonio Corradini who began working on a model but died before it could be finished. Thus, Giuseppe Sanmartino was commissioned to continue his work. Choosing to disregard the previous model, Sanmartino created his own version of The Veiled Christ, which, on 1753 , become a gem of Baroque art, made from a single block of marble as requested by Raimondo di Sangro. Its exquisite details amazed physicists and people alike who stood in disbelief and suspected that the Prince’s background in Alchemy played a part in the creation of the veil’s transparency.

Yes, because  the Prince was the Grand Master of the Neapolitan Masonic Lodge and a practicing alchemist. Some stories claim Sammartino covered his sculpture with a linen veil and he  managed to transform into marble by means of complex chemical-alchemical processes. Those very same legends would also claim that Raimondo di Sangro was himself an alchemist who taught Sammartino the mysteries of his pseudo-science. Of course, these are but legends.
The sculpture, however, as attested by historians, biographers, physicists and Raimondo di Sangro himself, was indeed fashioned from a single block of marble. Giuseppe Sanmartino’s masterful chiseling created an incredibly delicate veil that is as breathtaking and as mysterious as the man who commissioned it. Its perfection has created a legend around the Veiled Christ’s origins as some thought that the unbelievably transparent, embroidery adorned veil could have only been created through alchemy due to its undeniable perfection and life-like quality.

The marble veil  is so realistic that it’s tempting to try to lift it.

Jesus is portrayed at the moment after his crucifixion, laying and dead, but the most peculiar thing is the shroud covering him. The veil is transparent and light and makes the observer see everything beneath it; the sleeping and peaceful face, the vein on the forehead, the holes in the feet and the hands, his hair, the muscles of the body, his nail holes and visible wounds, that make this art piece not only lifelike but incredibly powerful in exciting emotion as well as endless beauty.

Sanmartino’s Veiled Christis one of the greatest sculptures of all time. Since the eighteenth century, visitors have been  disconcerted and amazed.
The great Reinassance artist Antonio Canova tried to buy it during his stay in Naples, and legend has it that he swore he would have given ten years of his life to have been the sculptor of this incomparable marble.
The Argentine writer Hector Bianciotti spoke of his “Stendhal’s syndrome” at the sight of the marble veil, “folded, unfolded, reabsorbed into the cavities of an imprisoned voice, slight as gauze on the relief of the veins”.
According to French author André Gide, “Sculptors don’t try to translate their thoughts into marble: they think directly as if everything was made of marble; they think in marble”. If that is true, the “Veiled Christ” on display in the Sansevero Chapel in Naples must be the most wonderful “thought” Neapolitan sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720-1793) ever had.
The great writer Matilde Serao caught “a glimpse of a smile, an indefinite hope” on the lips of Sanmartino’s Christ. She commented the work saying, “pain, it’s true, has passed from the body to the soul; the soul is saddened, but not desperate nor desolate. The soul has been given gall to drink, but has had a taste of consolation. The whole figure of Christ expresses the highest pain, but also the highest hope”, in such a way that “the only thing the faithful can do is fall to the ground weeping his death, and cover his feet with tears and kisses”.

The fame of the Veiled Christ is growing every day, raised it to the level of monument symbolising Naples. Prince Raimondo left behind a chapel filled with awe-inspiring art. At the center is Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ, is at the top of must see works of art in Italy.