Counter-Reformation Churches of Rome: Santa Maria in Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova)

Rome is a city in which we find various periods where there have been explosions of art. The eighth and twelfth century were certainly two such periods and another was the counter-reformation. The counter-reformation period was one which saw a great deal of attention paid to the arts as a means of expressing Catholic theology in the face of and as a response to protestant doctrines. The church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, better known as the Chiesa Nuova is certainly one of the church buildings of Rome which particularly exemplifies this particular movement.

An earlier church founded by Gregory the Great was originally on this site. This church would be granted to the Congregation founded by St. Philip Neri in 1575 at which point the rebuilding project for the new church ("chiesa nuova") began, being finally completed in 1605-6. As already mentioned, the Chiesa Noova is a church which exemplifies its period, for it was in this period that we enter into a design that many today would consider synonymous with a "traditional" arrangement -- namely, a central nave leading toward a high altar with the tabernacle situated centrally along with various chapels going down the sides of the church building. 

To understand how this was an evolution from what had come previously, one need only think of the classical basilica model with an altar, ciborium, schola cantorum and so on -- as for example can still be seen today in the basilica of San Clemente. 

The medieval Roman basilica 

Of course, what we are seeing here marks an evolution, not a rupture. The choir has been moved from down within the nave, separated by a short balustrade, now into the sanctuary and the altar in turn has likewise been pushed a little farther back toward the wall, now raised up on the predella. The biggest change here would be in relation to the altar being freestanding or not and the location of the tabernacle for Eucharistic reservation. In many regards, one might say that the classical basilica was more 'pontifically oriented" in its arrangement (i.e. Eucharisitc reservation separated from the altar, the pontifical throne centrally positioned, etc.) while counter-reformation designs tended toward what would become a more typical parish church arrangement with the altar and its adjoined reredos and tabernacle taking centre stage. 

Of course, this linkage between the altar of sacrifice and the tabernacle for Eucharistic reservation was quite purposeful as a response to contemporary protestant objections to the Mass as a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvaryl act and the Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ. This evolution was meant to accentuate and reflect these teachings, once again definitely taught by the Council of Trent. 

One wouldn't realize it today, but when the Chiesa Nuova was built, St. Philip Neri actually intended it to be fairly plain as far as art was concerned, punctuated by only select works of art taken from the life of the Blessed Virgin. It wouldn't take long after his death, however, before the Catholic and counter-reformation impulse to use art as a means of not only beautifying the temple and the sacred liturgy, but also to impart Catholic teaching, would take over. The results are nothing short of spectacular and the works found within contain some very significant works, including by the likes of the painter Peter Paul Rubens who is response for the painting that adorns the high altar as well as two others found to either side of the sanctuary, the one depicting the martyrs Ss. Papias and Maurus (whose relics are within the main altar) and the other depicting Ss. Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus. 

Ruben's altarpiece

Detail of the high altar reredos

The ceiling is particularly spectacular, with frescoes by Pietro da Cortona within the nave and within the dome. These were painted between 1664-1655. The nave fresco depicts a vision given to St. Philip Neri related to the church, while that of the dome is a depiction of the Holy Trinity.


Pietra da Cortona was also the  artist responsible for the apse fresco which depicts the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Of course, the church is also noteworthy for its possession of the relics of St. Philip Neri and one of the famous portraits made of this "Apostle of Rome." 

This particular church includes numerous side chapels as mentioned, one of which originally contained the original depiction of the Deposition painted by Caravaggio. (What you see today is a copy of the original.)

Certainly one of the most beautiful counter-reformation churches in all of Rome, alongside the Gesu and Sant'Ignazio. 

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