Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons novel stirred as much interest and controversy as his other novel the Da Vinci Code. And like the Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons was also destined to become a movie with symbologist Robert Langton on another crime solving adventure involving conspiracies of secret societies, precious art, historic monuments and religious groups….but this time taking Rome by storm!
If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, you’d know that the story follows the path of the Illuminati, or the enlightened ones, to 4 locations in Rome that represent the Four Altars of Science:
~ St Maria del Popolo’s Chigi Chapel represents EARTH
~ St Peter’s Square’s West Ponente represents AIR
~ St Maria della Vittoria’s Ecstasy of St Teresa sculpture represents FIRE
~ The Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona represents WATER.
There were also other locations in Rome mentioned in the novel that we’ll visit, and that’s the Pantheon, Castel San Angelo, Piazza Barberini, and Isola Tiberina.
In this episode we will explore the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, situated in Piazza del Popolo.
One name that remains constant through the 4 altars of science is Bernini one of the greatest sculptors and architects that ever lived. We’ll talk about Bernini later on in the shows, but as we’re standing here in front of St Maria del Popolo, we see the work of Bernini in its façade….. before we even go inside. St Maria del Popolo went through some transformations since it was first built, it houses treasured works of art by Caravaggio, Raphael, and of Bernini, unusual tombs, has enough symbols to keep Robert Langdon busy till retirement, and it’s legendary haunting beginnings still spook people today. Boy, I can’t wait to go in!
Like with everything else, different people have different reactions to the same thing. When I first walked into this church, first thing that caught my eye …was the floor. No smooth polished marble patterns and designs here…just smoothly polished off faces on tomb covers depicting whomever decided it was a good idea to be buried where surely they’d be trampled over. I guess if you’re gonna let people walk all over you, it’s best to let them AFTER you’re dead.
The other thing I noticed inside the church was a high concentration of skulls, many with wings. What, where did all the happy cherubs with wings go? I was starting to get the eebie-geebies, as if walking on dead people’s marbled faces bas reliefed onto their tombs wasn’t creepy enough. All this before I even made it to the Chigi Chapel.
On a previous visit to Rome, I met a friend, Cate, who was also a guide, and she was able to shed some light on some of the peculiar things about this church that I never imagined, mostly surrounding the subject of death.
We finally moseyed over to the Chigi Chapel. Lucky for me, I was able to see it when the Chigi Chapel didn’t look like it was part of the movie set and the crew forgot to take the props off. I don’t know if the chapel is in real need of repair, or the church is trying to discourage the onslaught of Angels and Demons fans in large tour groups from hoarding the chapel. Anyway, before I fire off my questions about Chigi Chapel to Cate, I will fire off some Chigi stats to you, so hopefully if you get to come and see it in person, minus the tarp, you’ll know what’s what.
According to the Angels and Demons novel, Chigi chapel is Santi’s Earthly tomb, covered in pagan and apparently Illuminati symbols, including the Demon Hole, which, as it turned out wasn’t inside the Pantheon afterall. And if you had no clue who Santi was at first, that’s because like Michelangelo, or Madonna, the greatness of Raphael requires no surname.
This was a private mortuary chapel belonging to Agostino Chigi, a prominent banker from Siena with more money than the Pope, and a generous patron of Renaissance art as well as Raphael whom he commissioned to design his chapel. Both patron and artist died before the chapel was completed, and the work was passed on to Gian Lorenzo Bernini by his patron Fabio Chigi, Agostino’s great grandson, who became Pope Alexander VII, and so the chapel was completed 100 years after Raphael’s death. The work attributed to Raphael, like the mosaics, and the statues of Jonas and Elija, was done by other artists based on his cartoons and sketches.
The two pyramids, monuments to Agostino Chigi and his brother Sigismondo, as well as the statues of Prophet Habbakuk and the Angel, as well as Prophet Daniel, were created by Bernini. Above, you’ll notice a spectacular dome, reminiscent of the one in St Peter’s but at a much smaller scale, and it has a lot going on: oil painted Medallions of the Allegories of the Seasons, and from Raphael’s drawings, mosaics representing the Creation of the World surrounded by the sun and the seven classical planets, each moved by an angel.
In the center is a mosaic of God in the act of Creating, which also resembles the Creation fresco in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. On the floor beneath the dome is a creepy skeleton manhole, with an inscription that reads: Mors Ad Caelos, which loosely translates to something like: “from Death to Heaven”.
If St Maria del Popolo is indeed haunted, it’s not for the first time. Although St Maria del Popolo was built on the tomb of Ancient Rome’s Domitia family, a certain Emperor Nero was also buried there. According to legend, the site was possessed by Nero’s evil spirit and demons in form of crows that tormented the people. So in 1099, Pope Paschall II, chopped down the walnut tree that sheltered the demonic crows, and consecrated the site by building a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Other legends have it that the skeleton manhole inside the Chigi chapel was designed over a lid that covered the exit to the demon hole, and the altar covered the entrance into the demo hole. The chapel didn’t become a church until 13th century when Pope Gregory IX placed it charge of the Augustinian order, who still oversees the church today.
It was reconstructed again twice, the 2ndtime when Bernini modified the façade in a more contemporary Baroque style of that time. Even the altar was Baroque-ified when the simple one was replaced with the ornate masterpiece that we see today.
The Chigi Chapel is not the only work of art created by the masters of that time, there’s also the Cerasi Chapel, to the left of the altar, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, where 2 large oil paintings are displayed, painted by none other than Caravaggio: the Crucifixion of Peter, and Conversion of Paul. To preserve the oil paintings, this chapel is kept in the dark. To turn on the light, you place a coin in a small box just outside the chapel and the light turns on temporarily so you can get a better view.
Thank you for watching the video…now go on to Part 2 of the Angels and Demons tour series.
Ciao for now!