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The Veiled Christ; Raimondo di Sangro; Giuseppe Sanmartino

A friend asked me recently if I had ever heard the story that the sculptor of the famous Veiled Christ within the Sansevero chapel had been "rewarded" by the person who commissioned the work by having his eyes put out so that he would never again create such a work of beauty! I said, no, that I had not heard that story—or even that kind of repugnant story—except in connection with Ivan the Terrible and the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, who built St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. That story is false since Yakovlev's works after St. Basil's are documented.

The same goes for the sculptor of the Veiled Christ, Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720-93). He created the masterpiece in question in 1753. His further works throughout the rest of his life are well documented in any catalogue of Neapolitan sculpture; they include prominent works in the monastery/museum of San Martino and the Naples Cathedral (Duomo). His last work appears to have been in 1792: a sculpture, Moses and Aaron and the Tablets of the Law, on the entrance of the Church of the Gerolomini

So much for that horrid story about being blinded. It set me to wondering, though, where my friend had come up with such a story. There are a number of encyclopaedia references and short biographical sketches of Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710-1771), the gentleman who commissioned the Veiled Christ for his family chapel. He is listed—when briefly—as an "inventor and the person who imported freemasonry into the Kingdom of Naples" and—when at length—with rambling descriptions of his reputation as a sorcerer, inventor, charlatan, alchemist, friend of Charles III of Bourbon, even lover of music. In that regard, he is said to have bought young boys with good voices from their poverty-stricken families and castrated them to preserve their fine soprano voices as castrati—in search of the "primordial androgyny". God help us. Even the infamous Count of Cagliostro at his trial before the Inquisition court in Rome in 1790 is said to have claimed that everything he knew about the evil arts and alchemy he learned from di Sangro. 

Raimondo di Sangro was no doubt the kind of mysterious and powerful person that inspired awe among the masses of the mid-1700s in Naples. A good description to that effect is found in Benedetto Croce's Storie e Leggende napoletane. Croce says that for the masses that live in the narrow by-ways of the inner part of the city where the chapel is located, di Sangro was the perfect comparison with Faust, who sold his soul to the devil for magical powers. Croce repeats a number of rumors about di Sangro: that he murdered seven cardinals of the church and had furniture made from the bones and skin; that he could reduce metals and marble to dust by touching them; and—here it is—that he had the eyes removed of the sculptor of the Veiled Christ

That remarkable piece of sculpture, by the way, always evokes the same comment: How did he make the veil? How is it that you see the features of the Savior beneath the veil? Did Sanmartino sculpt it that way? How is that possible? One hypothesis is that the finished statue was covered with a cloth and that the cloth was permeated with a solution that crystallized as calcium carbonate, creating the veil. Only Sanmartino knows for sure. 

With all due respect to one of the most beautiful works of art I have ever seen, the Veiled Christ is surrounded by an almost Barnumesque display of weirdness. In the ex-secret chamber of the chapel, there are the remains of a man and woman, mummified such that the inner organs and the arteries and veins of their circulatory systems are preserved and on display. Whether or not the two persons on display were di Sangro's servants whom he put to death for minor disobedience—as rumor has it—is almost irrelevant. Indeed, a strange duck, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero. He even wrote his own epitaph:   

A person to be admired, born to dare…illustrious in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, unsurpassed in discovering the secrets of nature and esteemed master of the military arts…this temple is dedicated to his everlasting memory.


Nov. 2010: Thixotropic update on di Sangro and the Miracle of San Gennaro!

Thixotropy is the property of some gels or fluids that are thick under normal conditions to flow when shaken or agitated. That describes what happens in the purported miracle of San Gennaro: a vial of clotted blood turns liquid, producing the miracle. I make it a point not to judge the miracles of others. I simply note a recent three-day congress, "Reason and Mystery," held at the Orientale University of Naples and sponsored by the Sansevero Chapel Museum on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Raimondo di Sangro's birth. The highlight of the event was a presentation of a long-forgotten account by French mathematician and geographer, Charles Marie de la Condamine, of his Grand Tour to Naples in 1754. The author describes how di Sangro manipulated a vial containing mercury, tin and bismuth—the amalgam of which appeared to be clotted blood—such as to obtain a similar "miracle" of liquefaction. Di Sangro was already in hot water with the Vatican, and this bit of "blasphemy" didn't help.

update: Nov. 2011. Also see this small item about a remarkable copy of The Veiled Christ.

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