Completing the Work: a pilgrimage in the Sansevero Chapel, in Naples

Visiting the temple conceived by Prince Raimondo di Sangro means taking part in a great collective history, branched out between artistic wonders and initiatory symbols. Even as spectators, it is an experience that should be done at least twice in a lifetime.

di Lorenzo Pennacchi

Igne Natura Renovabitur Integra.

Naples is there city ​​of opposites par excellence. Just spend a few hours to understand how sacred and profane, wealth and poverty, glory and decadence are inevitably contaminated. The historic center of Naples is a tangle of inimitable popular culture, extremely extensive, neatly structured through the original urban layout, defined by hinges and decumani. Among improvised singers on the balconies, normal scooters among pedestrians, clothes hanging in the street and constantly fed palates, the search for harmony could seem like a paradox. Still, there are places where time seems to have stopped and where to find answers also for our declining world. One of them is definitely the San Severo Chapel

Panoramic view of the Chapel.

Located next to the palace of the princes of Sansevero, a noble family of Apulian origin, the Chapel has mysterious origins at the end of the sixteenth century, serving for the following century as a family mausoleum, already embellished with significant marble statues. But it's only in eighteenth century which asserts itself in all its majesty, thanks to the planning and investments of the prince Raimondo di Sangro. Known as Prince, he was a patron, Freemason, anatomist, esotericist, an eccentric personality exposed to (more or less legendary) scandals and for this reason not appreciated by his contemporaries. Prominent figure of the nascent Neapolitan Freemasonry, of which he held the position of grand master for just over a year (1750-'51), before being summoned by Pope Benedict XIV to retrace his steps, his life was directed towards eternal knowledge, setting the glory of his house in marble, safe from easy condemnation.

It is no coincidence that in order to embellish the Chapel, he made use of some of the greatest artists of his time, to whom he provided precise instructions and who he meticulously followed during their work. This attention, as well as deep love, for the work is due to the fact that the Sansevero's is not a dilapidated commemorative mausoleum, but a initiatory temple structured according to esoteric principles and Masonic codes, meticulously cared for in detail and stainless with the passing of the seasons, albeit veiled to most. In fact, the Chapel should be visited at least twice in life: one to admire it while remaining breathless, the other to start breathing again and try to really understand it. The initiatory path is obscure, beyond the retinal eye and common spiritual perception, as he underlines Martin Rua in the preface to his stone ritual

A monument like the di Sangro temple cannot and must not be visited only like any splendid baroque or rococo noble chapel. The intent of his most famous restyler – Raimondo Maria, VII Prince of Sansevero – was also to communicate a message that went beyond the immediate and edifying Christian symbology, which is also present. Sansevero had in mind that baggage of knowledge so dear to him and for which he had earned the nickname of Prince Riavulo, the Devil Prince. Knowledge that ranged from alchemy to hermeticism, from anatomy to Masonic symbolism. 


Rua's agile guide aims, from Freemason to Freemason, to understand the work of the Master, through the use of numerous contributions, including the impressive Philosophical Chapel of the Prince of Sansevero di Siegfried EF Höbel and the unpublished notes of the Neapolitan esotericist Mario Buonoconto, made available by his wife and follower Maria Grazia Ritrovato. After a brief timely contextualization, the author staged a narrative in dialogue form between a master Mason and a learned apprentice to discover the buried mysteries of Sansevero. The dialogue allows the reader to return with his mind to the place he has physically visited previously, with a renewed but never fully acquired awareness: the rite necessarily provides for participation, here we are limited to speculation, you have to keep that in mind.

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An outdated speculation among the numerous marble works dazzled by the Paradise of the Sangros, the fresco that adorns the ceiling made by Francis Maria Russo in 1749 and incredibly, given its brilliance, never retouched. Broadly speaking, the sculptures can be divided into two large groups that are interspersed along the way: the ten statues of the virtues and the same number of celebratory monuments, as well as a few others that do not fall into these categories, but no less important for this. Referring to Rua's text, in addition to the teleological and theological purposes of the complex, the first fundamental indication provided by the grand master is spatial character

Where we are, the main entrance, is the West; to the right is the South – which we define Southern Column – on the left the North, that is North Column, and opposite is the East […] You cannot go around the Workshop freely, but you must always maintain a composed and regular, almost martial pace, and starting from the West it must pass through the North, then through the East and back West crossing South. This is the Freemason's march through the Temple. 


Of this profound march we can only retrace some significant stages, favoring the understanding of the whole over the individual parts. 

Monument to Cecco de' Sangro, Francesco Celebrano, 1766.

Above the entrance to the Chapel is the monument in honor of Cecco di Sangro, created by Francis Celebrano in 1766, which acts as a guardian of the temple and merges two types of meanings in itself. The first of a historical nature, given the feat carried out on the orders of Philip II by the prince's ancestor, who remained hidden for two days inside a coffin and then came out and conquered the rock of Amiens. The second of an initiatory nature: «So I am not mistaken if I say that this sculpture reminds me of the second part of the work at its end: the king coming out of his tomb. The first part of the transformation, la Nigredo, is finished and appears lo Sulfur o Philosophical gold» [3].

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The warrior spirit is fueled by the eagle above, while the two hippogriffs ensure care and protection. To a similar extent the relationship between exoteric and esoteric meaning occurs in the other works, starting from decor, the first of the statues dedicated to the virtues on the north side, made by the master Antonio Corradini. Sic floret decoration decus, reads the writing on the column: the beauty that shines through the decoration and projects its light on Liberality di Francis Queirolo, the first of the two temple overseers, that of the northern column, Boaz, symbol of strength and determination. The apprentice's analysis allows us to understand the initiatory meaning of the main sculptural elements: 

At first glance, the lady with the cornucopia represents herself alchemy showing the compass, symbol of golden measure and gold, symbol of the Work achieved: the Great Work. The eagle and the Cornucopia, which are on the sides, underline the sublimation of the concept of wealth in spiritual wealth. [...] From the cornucopia – full of no fruit but only of metals, which reminds us that we are talking about the latter – comes the XNUMX cups milk that serves inAblution of the alchemists and during which the Matter is bleached, while the care with which the Alchemist must operate 'according to weight and measure' is highlighted by the presence of the compass and the coins that we see in the right hand of our statue.

Liberality, Francesco Queirolo, 1753-54.

Going all the way up the North side, you will eventually find yourself in the vicinity of one of the three generally recognized masterpieces of the Chapel. There Modesty, created by Corradini in the year of his death (1752), is dedicated to the mother of prince Riavulo, Cecilia Gaetani of L'Aquila d'Aragona, died prematurely in 1710. In this mysterious composition myths and traditions merge, from the cult of the veiled goddess Isis to the evangelical episode of Noli Me Tangere, in which Christ appears to the Magdalene as a gardener. Moreover, numerous flowers are superimposed on the veil, aimed at highlighting the process of progressive unveiling of the Work. A path that finds in the Veiled Christ di Joseph Sammartino the nodal point. Originally commissioned to Corradini (who died after having made the sketches) and conceived to be placed in the underground crypt, the masterpiece par excellence is placed in the center of the temple.

Il Veiled Christ, in addition to leaving you breathless for its eternal beauty carved in a single large block of marble, it is striking for the audacity with which it was created by the young Neapolitan artist, free from academic theorizing and ideological prisons. Almost paradoxically, the body covered by the delicate shroud expresses vitality, with the pulsating veins highlighted to suggest that that may be the moment of the Resurrection. A celebration of life after death, supported by the other instruments placed at the Lord's feet, hermetically highlighted by Höbel: 

La Tenaglia, extracting i Nails [...] in fact allows the detachment of the Body from the elementary Cross, extracting the purest part, which can be variously indicated as Quintessence, White Color, Candor or Knowledge. The third nail, placed under the Crown of Thorns, refers to the last Purification of Matter, subjected to Wheel fire in the phase of cooking. Finally, the Crown of Thorns re-proposes, with the triple circle of branches, the symbol of the three purifications.  


Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum is the famous inscription placed on the Cross, which in the alchemical symbolism changes into Igne Natura Renovabitur Integra. And if nature is completely renewed with fire, the Resurrection, in an initiatory key, can only coincide with the completion of the work

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veiled Christ, Giuseppe Sammartino, 1753.

After admiring the high altar, with the Deposition del Celebrano, one could retrace the south side in a way that mirrors the north. in front of Modesty is the disillusion del Queirolo dedicated to Anthony of Sangro, the Prince's dissolute father, the last of the Chapel's immortal masterpieces. The figure is wrapped in a prodigious marble net, a symbol of sin, of such a high technical value as to frighten any subsequent artist to emulate him. A hymn to the void that opens the way to another statue by Queirolo, placed in front of the Liberality, or Education, the overseer of the southern column, Jachin, pillar of immortal beauty.

In conclusion, beyond the particular meanings (most of which are omitted in this contribution) and the initiatory doctrines, we want to highlight the planning skills, vision and clairvoyance of the temple by Raymond. An artistic-curatorial genius that can still be applied today to all fields of culture, in order to give life to living spaces animated by wonder which, according to Aristotle, is the first moment of true philosophizing. A culture capable of actively facing the challenges of its time, far from the logic of consumption, a supporter of virtuous research aimed at personal and community growth. Paths that reject the ideal of ignorance as a distinctive trait of contemporaneity and return to history a eternal memory, like what visitors from all over the world have the opportunity to relive in the Sansevero Chapel.    


[1] M. Rua, The stone ritual. Symbols and secrets of the Sansevero Chapel, Alos editions, Naples 2016, p. 7. 

[2] Ibid, pp. 39, 44. 

[3] Ibid, p. 41. 

[4] Ibid, pp. 46, 48. 

[5] S. Höbel, Philosophical Chapel of the Prince of Sansevero, in Rua, p. 83. 

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