A Sneak Peak of the Private Papal Chapel at Castel Gandolfo

One of the most interesting places I have ever visited are the papal apartments at the papal summer villa of Castel Gandolfo.  Until recently this has been off limits of the public.  Under the current papacy the gardens and villa are open for tours.  Part of one of the tours includes special access to the papal apartments.  This is a rare privilege indeed.  In 1929 the Holy See concluded the Lateran Treaty with the Kingdom of Italy, creating the modern Vatican City State and in turn regularizing the status of the Church's properties in the former Papal States.  One of those was the papal summer palace, that Pius XI subsequently ordered renovated to be suitable for popes to inhabit once again.  His Cardinal Secretary of State was put in charge of the project.   

The chapel, therefore, was designed in the 1930s by the Secretary of State Cardinal Pacelli.  That was a time when a lot of construction projects were going on in Rome and the Vatican.  Pacelli obviously opted for a subdued style in the chapel in keeping with the times.  Pius XI never ended up living on the property.   When he died in 1939 the newly elected Pius XII was the fist Pope to spend his summers here.  Nevertheless, the arms of Pius XI can be seen everywhere in the palace, from the renovations of the 1930s.  In the chapel his arms can be seen on the base of the golden candlesticks.  Pius XI had been nuncio in Poland and he was consecrated bishop there.  Therefore he had a strong affinity for Polish history and spirituality.  The precious icon seen in the chapel of the Black Madonna, Patroness of Poland, he had received as a gift from the Polish bishops recalling his service in their homeland.  

Immediately next to the chapel is the papal bedroom (where Pius XII later died).  The appointments in the chapel are mostly original, including the precious icon from Poland of the Black Madonna.  One change: in 1999 the altar was moved to the other side of the wall, seen here, with only one step.  I assume this was done for Pope John Paul II to have an easier time ascending the altar and descending, at a time when his Parkinson's was setting in, making him more infirm.  

With this arrangement, the altar was positioned on either side of the only two windows in the room.  Previously the altar was on the other side of the room, illumined by the natural light from the windows.  I have a feeling the original arrangement was to facilitate the altar being visible from the papal bed in the adjoining room; in this way, Mass could be said within sight of a dying Pontiff as he lay in his bed, in the days before Mass was permitted in the actual bedroom of the dying.  

It was a great privilege to visit the and pray here, if only for a brief moment.  Paul VI also died here.

Above and below is how the chapel appeared at the end of the pontificate of Ven. Pius XII.

Below is how the attached bedroom appeared at the death of Pius XII.

The final image below is of one of two massive wall murals on the side of the chapel painted from 1933-1934.  The artist was the renowned Polish muralist Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891-1982).  He was the first painter to be invited to paint murals inside the papal summer chapel since Michelangelo.  He also did work in the US after he moved there in 1939, first painting murals at the Polish embassy.  With the coming of World War II, he remained in the US and accepted a research position at the Catholic University of America.  His other works can be seen at various places, including the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, the Cathedral of St. Louis, and the beautiful church of St. Luke in Buffalo (sadly closed and sold).  The artist lived to see the Polish pope elected in 1978.  He died in 1982.  

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.