Chigi Chapel

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Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Chigi Chapel or Chapel of the Madonna of Loreto (Italian: Cappella Chigi or Cappella della Madonna di Loreto) is the second chapel on the left-hand side of the nave in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It is the only religious building of Raphael which has been preserved in its near original form, the chapel is a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and is considered among the most important monuments in the basilica.


Drawing from the workshop of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1655

In 1507 Julius II granted assent to the acquisition of a burial chapel in the church to his friend, the wealthy Sienese banker and financier of the Roman Curia, Agostino Chigi. Chigi had bought the second chapel in the north aisle, and changed its dedication to the Madonna of Loreto whose shrine he was passionately devoted, the chapel was most probably rebuilt from scratch with Raphael as the architect, and an inscription on the dome marked the completion of the mosaics in 1516. In the following years Lorenzetto worked on the architectural decoration of the chapel and the statues under Raphael's patronage, the main iconographic theme of the chapel was the Resurrection; and visually it represented a marriage between Christianity and antiquity.[1]

Agostino Chigi was buried in the half-finished chapel on 11 April 1520, his widow, Francesca died in the same year on 10/11 November. Raphael himself died a few days before Agostino, the simultaneous death of both the artist and the patron stymied work on the chapel. Agostino's younger brother, Sigismondo Chigi commissioned Lorenzetto to go on with Raphael's plan in 1521,[2] but the work advanced slowly and the death of Sigismondo in 1526 left everything in limbo. Vasari records in his Lives, speaking about the statues of Jonah and Elijah:

"... the heirs of Agostino, with scant respect, allowed these figures to remain in Lorenzetto's workshop where they stood for many years. [...] Lorenzo, robbed for those reasons of all hope, found for the present that he had thrown away his time and labor."

The main altar-piece, a mural depicting the birth of the Virgin by Sebastiano del Piombo was begun in 1530 but it was left unfinished in 1534. Work on the chapel resumed in the 1550s when Francesco Salviati frescoed the drum and the spandrels, although Raphael intended mosaics on these surfaces, and completed the mural above the main altar; in 1552 Lorenzo Chigi paid his debt towards the heirs of Lorenzetto, and the two statues were finally placed in the chapel. After this the chapel was unveiled for the first time.[3]

In the early 1620s the funeral monument of Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini was moved into the chapel from the crossing. Sigismondo Chigi's great-grandson, Fabio made his first visit in the abandoned chapel in 1626, at the time the structure was in a state of serious disrepair. Fabio Chigi regained the ownership after a three year long litigation with the Augustinian friars, he complained about the presence of the alien funeral monument of Pallavicini in a letter in 1627 and later he managed to transfer it to the Montemirabile Chapel. Although the ownership debate was resolved in 1629, due to Chigi's long absence from Rome the chapel remained neglected in the next decades.

More important changes were carried out by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1652 and 1655, the works began in earnest when Fabio Chigi became cardinal-priest of the basilica. Bernini built a pyramid for Sigismondo Chigi, laid the present floor, raised the altar, renewed the lead roof, regilded and cleaned the dome. Painted wood panels by Raffaello Vanni were placed in the lunettes above the tombs; in 1656 and in 1661 Bernini filled the remaining niches with two new statues, depicting Daniel and the Lion and Habakuk and the Angel. Another restoration campaign was launched in 1682-88.


The dome with the mosaics of Raphael.


The exterior of the chapel is very simple: an oblong cube of exposed brick, surmounted by a cylindric tambour with rectangular windows, the low conical roof is covered with tiles but originally it was leaded. The dome is crowned by a small lantern, the exterior is practically invisible due to the location of the chapel behind the city wall and the main body of the basilica.


Raphael's centralized plan was inspired by the designs of Bramante for the new St. Peter's Basilica. Another source of inspiration was the Pantheon with its dome, marble revetments and Corinthian pilasters, the simple cube is surmounted by a hemispherical dome resting on a high drum which is penetrated by a row of windows that allow light into the chapel. The trapezoidal pendentives were the characteristics of Bramante but the whole conception of space, which requires the viewer to look at from several points of view to capture its splendor, is new and unique, the side walls are made up of round-headed arches, of which only the entrance arch is open, the others are blind; they are alternated with canted corners in which shell-headed niches are framed between Corinthian pilasters. The dropped frieze is embellished with fruit-garlands and ascending eagles (at the sides of the altar), a mask with two flanking lions, a siren attended by winged sealions (right and left to the entrance) or Chigi symbols (under the entrance arch), the subtle use of coloured marbles emphasizes the individual elements of the classical architecture. The use coloured stone was without precedent that time but became fashionable in the age of Counter-Reformation.[1]

The portal of the chapel has a monumental effect with double arches resting on huge Corinthian pilasters, the stone intrados of the arches are decorated with carved Renaissance ornaments; on the outer arch there is a meander, the archivolt of the inner arch is decorated with rich garlands of fruit and a mask, while the intrados of the inner arch has a central band of rosettes and grotesques, framed by two interlacement bands of classical motif. The Chigi coat-of-arms (the oak and the six mountain with the star) above the portal was added by Bernini in 1652,[4] the surfaces between the white marble pilasters are covered with a coloured marble revetment. The lower part of the entrance portal was inspired by the antae of the Pantheon.

There is a circular crypt under the chapel with an unornamented, empty pyramidal tomb set in the wall which was discovered in 1974,[5] the only access is from the chapel floor but before Bernini's reconstruction there was an aperture in front of the altar.


Luna, engraving of a mosaic panel by Nicolas Dorigny.

The dome is decorated with mosaics executed by the Venetian Luigi da Pace after Raphael's cartoon (1516), the original cartoons were lost but some preparatory drawings, that confirm the originality of the work, survived in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and Lille. The central roundel represents God, the Father, surrounded by putti, effectively foreshortened in an impetuous gesture, harking back to Michelangelo, which seems to give rise to the entire motion of the universe below. Eight mosaic panels show the Sun, the Moon, the starry sky and the six known planets as pagan deities depicted in half-length, each accompanied by an angel with colourful feathered wings, the figures are accompanied by the signs of the zodiac.

The sequence of the panels is as follows: the sky; Mercury, the god holding the caduceus (with Virgo and Gemini); Luna, the crescent moon jewelled goddess holding a bow (with Cancer); Saturn, the bearded god holding the scythe (with Aquarius and Capricorn); Jupiter, the king of the gods with his eagle holding a thunderbolt (with Sagittarius and Pisces); Mars, the god of war holding a sword and a shield (with Scorpio and Aries); Sol, the sun jewelled god holding a bow (with Leo); Venus, the goddess of love with Cupid holding a torch (with Taurus and Libra). A French engraver, Nicolas Dorigny created a series of plates depicting the mosaics in 1695 for Louis, Duke of Burgundy.

The mosaic panels are surrounded by richly gilded stucco decoration, the blue background creates an optical illusion giving the impression of an architectural framework opening to the sky above the chapel. The panels look like illusionistic skylights between the gilt stucco ribs while God is standing on the edge of the central oculus.

The traditional interpretation of the dome is that the composition shows the Creation of the World. Another interpretation, proposed by John Shearman, claims that it represents the cosmos as described by Plato in a Christianized Neoplatonist form, this idea had a widespread popularity in the Renaissance. In this case the dome is a depiction of the "Realm of the Soul after Death" with God, the Father recepting the soul (of Agostino Chigi) in his new home, the presence of the signs of the zodiac corroborates this interpretation because the signs were symbols of the passage of time in eternity, and they appeared in antique funeral art around the image of the departed.

Tambour and spandrels

Raphael intended mosaics for the decoration of drum and the spandrels but these were never executed; in 1530 the executors of Agostino Chigi's will commissioned Sebastiano del Piombo to produce eight oil paintings and four tondos but only preparatory drawings were made.

The frescos of Francesco Salviati between the windows of the drum depict scenes from the Book of Genesis (c. 1554) in order: Separation of Light from Darkness, God creating the Sun and the Moon, Creation of Earth, Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, Creation of the animals, The Original Sin and Expulsion of Paradise. The paintings show the strong influence of the sculptural style of Michelangelo's famous Genesis-cycle on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,[6] the same artist created the tondi of the spandrels with the allegoric representations of the Seasons. In 1653 the tondi were remodelled by Antonio della Cornia by order of Fabio Chigi, these were already described as being seriously damaged in 1842.[7] During a recent restoration the bronze frames of the tondi were removed.

The lunettes are filled with oil on wood panels of Raffaello Vanni, commissioned by Fabio Chigi in 1653, the theme of these often overlooked paintings is somewhat enigmatic, giving rise to different interpretations. Contemporary sources claim that the panel above Sigismondo's tomb represents The royal ancestors of the Virgin, while the other panel above Agostino's tomb shows The sacerdotal ancestors of the Virgin.[8] The royal ancestors are King David with the harp and Goliath's head, and a younger king, perhaps Solomon, looking up at heaven, the sacerdotal ancestors are a Jewish High Priest in traditional garb and his helpers offering doves to God. The lunette paintings thematically complement Sebastiano del Piombo's altar-piece creating a link with the stories of the Old Testament represented on the tambour.

Sebastiano del Piombo: Birth of the Virgin

The Birth of the Virgin by Sebastiano del Piombo

John Shearman proposed that the main altar-piece was intended to be an Assumption of the Virgin but the theory remains disputed. Soon after Raphael died, Sebastiano del Piombo was chosen to carry on the work on the murals but he achieved less than expected. Vasari gives a scathing account in his Lives:

"He did little work there, although we find that he obtained from the liberality of Agostino and his heirs much more than would have been due to him even if he had finished it completely, which he did not do, either because he was weary of the labors of art, or because he was too much wrapped up in comforts and pleasures."

During the next decade Sebastiano produced several modelli to the patrons for the main altar-piece. Two surviving drawings still depicted an Assumption, while the other two presented a new subject, the birth of the Virgin. Finally the executors of the will of Agostino Chigi, Sebastiano Luciani and Filippo Sergardi, protonotary apostolic signed a new contract on 1 August 1530 accepting the final version.[9]

The Birth of the Virgin was eventually begun by Sebastiano del Piombo using an unusual technique, oil on peperino stone blocks, the mural was left unfinished by Sebastiano in 1534 and it was completed by Francesco Salviati around 1555.[1] The upper part with the figure of the Holy Father and the angels is mainly Salviati's work.[10]

The iconography of the painting is rather unusual. According to Costanza Barbieri the presence of God in the upper part combines the traditional subject of the birth of Mary with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which was still not generally accepted but it was heavily promoted by Pope Sixtus IV, and by Agostini Chigi, who requested in his will the celebration of a solemn mass in his chapel on the day of the birth of the Virgin. The idea that Mary, mother of Jesus can be stained by the original sin is abhorrent for God, the Father who averts this risk with his strong gesture even before Mary is conceived.

The ornate gilded bronze frame of the painting with oak leaves and acorns was made by Francuccio Francucci in 1655. Similar frames surround the lunette panels of Raffaello Vanni above the tombs.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Christ and the Samaritan Woman, relief panel by Lorenzetto

The bronze bas-relief panel on the altar front is Christ and the Samaritan Woman, by Lorenzetto, the relief was made in the 1520s and bought by Lorenzo Leone Chigi from the heirs of sculptor in 1552. Placed on the pyramidal tomb of Agostino Chigi it was moved to the main altar by Bernini and set in a luminous golden-yellow stone frame.

The relief depicts the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well, the relevant part of the passage in the Gospel of John (John 4:10–26) is called the Water of Life Discourse, and Jesus' words make it clear why the imagery was appropriate on a tomb:

‘...those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Lorenzetto chose to represent the second part of the episode. Jesus is sitting at the well under a tree, and the disciples are offering him food that they bought in the town nearby, on the left the Samaritan woman is guiding the inhabitants of Sychar towards the well to see the Messiah.

The figures, the Samaritan woman and the second woman on the left were copied from a famous antique marble relief called the "Borghese Dancers" that is now kept in the Louvre but originally it was in Rome, and was an important source of inspiration for the artistic circle around Raphael.[11]

The four prophets

Part of the statue of Daniel by Bernini

The statues of the prophets standing in identical shell-headed niches in the four corners of the chapel belong to two distinct groups, the first two (Jonah and Elijah) were created by Lorenzetto following the designs of Raphael. These were left in the workshop of the sculptor until the Chigis bought them from Lorenzetto's heirs, and they were put up in the chapel in 1552, the latter two (Daniel and Habakkuk) were added by Bernini during the 17th century reconstruction.

There are differing theories on the arrangement of the niche figures in the original plans. Shearman assumed that the statue of Jonah was planned for the niche to the right of the altar because this place offered the best angle to view the composition, he thought that the statue of Elijah was most likely intended for one of the two niches by the entrance. After 1552 the two statues were supposedly placed on the two sides of the entrance, the present arrangement was created by Bernini who placed the statues of Habakkuk and Daniel diagonally facing each other creating a coherent composition.

The statue of Jonah and the whale, a prophet who prefigured the Resurrection, was carved by Lorenzetto (1520), the statue of Elijah, who lived by the grace of God in the desert, was created by Lorenzetto but it was finished by Raffaello da Montelupo in 1524-27.

In two other niches are sculptures by Bernini: Habakkuk and the Angel (1656–61) that took him by the hair and transported him to Babylon to succour Daniel and the Lion, who is represented in the corresponding niche on the opposite wall, sculpted by Bernini in 1655-56. With these two statues Bernini created a spatial relationship that enlivened the entire chapel, turning its classical form to a new religious use.


Salviati's drawing depicting a pyramidal tomb in its original form.

On the side walls are the matching pyramidal wall tombs of Agostino Chigi (died 1520) and his brother Sigismondo (died 1526), each represented in a medallion, looking towards the altar. Pyramidal tombs were a new invention at the time inspired by antique sources because they recalled the tombs of the pharaohs and two famous Roman funeral monuments, the pyramids of Cestius and Romulus, and due to their slender form, the ancient Egyptian obelisks embellishing the squares of the city. They were also the traditional symbols of immortality, the monuments were probably designed by Raphael but their execution was left to Lorenzetto who finished Agostino's tomb around 1522.

As for the other pyramid, the evidences are inconclusive. Perhaps it was planned from the outset for Agostino's wife, Francesca Ordeasca but in 1552 it was still missing, it might be that the second pyramid was only erected by Fabio Chigi for his great-grandfather, Sigismondo.[12]

In the first phase of the reconstruction of the chapel (1652), the tombs were finished and simplified by Bernini. Originally the medallions were to be gilt bronze, and three sides of the monuments were to be decorated with bronze reliefs, these were replaced with green verde antico marble panels. Only one relief survived which was on Agostino's tomb, the above-mentioned bronze relief of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (now on the altar-front) which illustrated Christ's words on the water of eternal life, the new medallions were made of white marble, and instead of the planned bronze plates the funerary inscriptions were composed of bronze letters. A modello drawing for a tapestry by Francesco Salviati (c. 1548) shows the standing pyramid crowned with a cap and small bronze ball which were also removed (or never existed).


The geometric pavement by Bernini

The present pavement was designed by Bernini who walled in a preexisting opening in front of the altar and raised the altar by two steps (the third step is a later addition), the white and gray bardiglio marble pavement has a geometric pattern corresponding with the decoration of the dome. There is an inlaid opus sectile roundel at the center, surrounded by a frame of stylized roses and oak leaves. Inside the figure of a winged skeleton is lifting the coat-of-arms of the Chigi family symbolizing the triumph of dynastic virtue over death. There is a scroll with a Latin inscription under the figure: Mors aD CaeLos (meaning "through death to heaven"), the capital letters add up the date of the beginning of the reconstruction in Roman numerals: MDCL = 1650. The roundel was executed by stonecutter Gabriele Renzi in 1653/54. (Contemporary sources prove that the inscription was originally "Mors aD CaeLos Iter", the letters adding up to 1651, the year when Fabio Chigi returned to Rome on the last day of November after his long absence abroad.)[13]

The entrance of the chapel is protected by a Baroque giallo antico marble balustrade and carved wooden doors replacing an earlier wooden rail.


At present there is almost no furniture in the chapel except an attractive bronze eternal lamp that was made by Francuccio Francucci in 1656, it forms a gilded crown hanging on chains which is decorated with the eight-pointed stars of the Chigi and supported by three putti. The two monumental 1.7 m high bronze candelabras with the Chigi symbols are standing guard at the entrance; these were lit during the celebration of the holy mass.

Originally Fabio Chigi provided other pieces of ecclesiastical furniture for the restored family chapel. Six gilded bronze candlesticks were placed upon the table of the altar, their shape and number evoking the six mountains of the Chigi emblem, they were variants of those conceived by the artist for the altar of the St. Peter's, they were supplemented by gilded wooden altar cards and a bronze crucifix-tabernacle, the chest of which was supported by four seraphim and the door decorated with a chalice and a radiant host. A similar set was created for the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Ariccia by Bernini, these liturgical pieces were still recorded in an inventory in the 1720s.

Fabio Chigi granted eight reliquaries to the chapel in 1654 and in 1656, containing the bones of different saints, the two set of small crystal pyramids are preserved in the treasury of the basilica. The pyramidal shape seems to be an homage to pyramidal tombs in the chapel.[14]


The use of rare and expensive stones all over the chapel is an important characteristic invoking the interior of the Pantheon which was the main source of inspiration for Raphael.

White Carrara marble (with grey veins): fluted pilasters; white "bianco purissimo" Carrara marble: capitals and friezes; Egyptian "rosso di Syene" granite: monolite entrance step; africano and rosso antico marble: frames of the niches; rosso di Numidia: shells of the niches; Portasanta marble: pyramids; verde antico: bases of the pyramids; giallo antico: mouldings of the pyramids, balustrade; rosso di Numidia and Portasanta rectangles, africano borders: revetment behind the pyramids; arches, entablement and moulding rings of the dome: white Carrara marble.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

Part of Dan Brown's book Angels & Demons takes place in the Chigi Chapel, where the sculpture of Habakkuk and the Angel is one of the four "markers" leading to the Illuminati's secret lair.



  1. ^ a b c Marcia B. Hall, cit., pag. 131-132.
  2. ^ Norbert Walther Nobis: Lorenzetto als Bildhauer, 1979, Bonn, pp. 72-73
  3. ^ John Shearman: The Chigi Chapel in S. Maria del Popolo, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 24, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1961)
  4. ^ Cecilia Magnusson: Lorenzetto's statue of Jonah, and the Chigi chapel in S. Maria del Popolo, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 56:1, 1987, p. 24
  5. ^ Christoph Luitpold Frommel: Das Hypogäum Raffaels unter der Chigikapelle in S. Maria del Popolo zu Rom, In: Kunstchronik vol. 27 (1974) p. 344-348
  6. ^ Catherine Dumont: Francesco Salviati au Palais Sacchetti de Rome et la décoration murale italienne, Institut suisse de Rome, 1973, p. 146
  7. ^ Ernst Platner et al.: Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, Stuttgart and Tübingen, J.G. Cotta'schen Buchhandlung, 1842, III., p. 221
  8. ^ Christina Strunck: Bellori und Bernini rezipieren Raffael. Unbekannte Dokumente zur Cappella Chigi in Santa Maria del Popolo, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 30. Bd. (2003), p. 149
  9. ^ Costanza Barbieri:La Pala della Concezione e Natività della Vergine di Sebastiano per la cappella Chigi e un disegno inedito, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 81:4, 2012, pp. 245-253
  10. ^ Antonio Muñoz, cit., pag. 384.
  11. ^ Emanuele Loewy: Di alcune composizioni di Raffaello, Roma, Typografia dell'Unione cooperatura editrice, 1896, pp. 248-51
  12. ^ Nicole Riegel: Die Chigi-Kapelle in Santa Maria del Popolo. Eine kritische Revision, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, 30. Bd. (2003), pp. 100-101
  13. ^ Gasparo Alveri: Roma in ogni stato, V. Mascardi, 1664, p. 10
  14. ^ Maria Grazia D’Amelio: Gli eroi della fede.I reliquiari di Alessandro VII per la cappella Chigi nella basilica romana di Santa Maria del Popolo, 2005
  15. ^ Cecilia Magnusson:The antique sources of the Chigi chapel, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 56:4, p. 135


  • Marcia B. Hall, Rome (Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance), Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Antonio Muñoz, Nelle chiese di Roma. Ritrovamente e restauri. in: Bollettino d'Arte, 1912
  • Touring Club Italiano (TCI), Roma e dintorni (Milan) 1965:183f.

Coordinates: 41°54′41″N 12°28′35″E / 41.91139°N 12.47639°E / 41.91139; 12.47639