The Carafa Chapel

Filippino Lippi and his fresco cycle in the chapel of Cardinal Carafa in Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Cardinal Oliviero Carafa (Ceasre da Sesto c. 1511 detail) was a supporter of the observers. This was a reform movement within the church that wanted to return to the source of faith. They wanted to live frugally according to the rules of the monastic order. An important centre of the observers in Rome was the Dominican church: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In this church, famous Dominican observers like Fra Angelico lie buried, as well as the Dominican Catharine of Siena, who lies under the main altar. The text is largely based on Roetten, Steffi ‘The Flowering of the Renaissance 1470-1510′ Abbeville Press Publishers, New York London Paris Original 1944 (English translation 1996) p. 202-229

Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Santa Maria sopra Minerva facade Rome

At the right of the altar in the transept is the Cappella Carafa. These frescoes can be seen at Web Gallery of Art.  The scheme of the fresco cycle and the floor plan of the church.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva right transept with a view of the Carafa chapel large size          Carafa chapel and front side
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Santa Maria sopra Minerva right transept with a view of the Carafa chapel

photo: Enric Martinez i Vallmitjana

Lorenzo de Medici asked Filippino Lippi, who was working on a fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella (click here for the story of the Strozzi Chapel), if he wanted to work for his friend Oliviero Carafa. In August 1488, Filippino went to Rome to introduce himself to Cardinal Carafa. Oliviero was impressed by the young artist and a few days later the contract for the paintings was signed.

“The contract drawn up at the time between Carafa and Lippi has been preserved. In it we read that the cardinal paid 2,000 ducats to the master for his personal share in the work. The assistants and the ultramarine (a blue pigment) were charged separately. Lippi promised to paint the work himself and in particular the figures. It literally says: ‘tutto di sua mano, e massime le figure’.

Specifying the quality of the blue was important because the ultramarine, finely ground lapis lazuli, was the most expensive and most difficult colour a painter could use at the time. Depending on the quality, the price varied between 1 and 4 florins per 30 grams. Prussian blue (copper carbonate) was a cheaper option”.

Quoted from: S.P.Q.R. The famous Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Dutch). To read more about ultramarine click here.

When Lippi completed the vaults of the Strozzi Chapel, he left for Rome to start the fresco cycle in the Carafa Chapel.

Filippino Lippi ‘Self-portrait’ second half 15th century fresco Uffizi
Filippino Lippi 'Self-portrait' second half 15th century fresco Uffizi

Two years earlier in 1486, Cardinal Carafa had enlarged the chapel. An elegant marble triumphal arch had been erected as well as a balustrade of precious pavonazzo marble. Carafa was a supporter of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas. This theologian and philosopher from the 13th century described and defended pure doctrine and true faith. It is therefore not surprising that the frescoes on the right wall (east side) are entirely about Thomas Aquinas and that he can also be seen in the altarpiece, where he introduces Oliviero to Mary.

The wall at the altar: frescos and the altarpiece

In a church dedicated to Mary it is obvious that Carafa chose Mary’s Assumption. Moreover, this theme fits well with this chapel where Oliviero later wanted to be buried.

Altar wall zooming in and large size     Schedule of the fresco cycle
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Filippino Lippi Altar wall Carafa Chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

The way in which Filippino shapes the Assumption is highly unusual. Next to and above the altarpiece is a landscape depicted with the apostles at the bottom of the image, some of them looking upwards.

Assumption of Virgin Mary large size    Details angels:     Drum     Instruments     Angels 
Filippino Lippi 'Mary's Assumption' Carafa Chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In the sky we can see Mary in prayer standing on a cloud ascending to heaven.  She is surrounded by angels with musical instruments. Lippi’s design was influenced by his father, Fra Lippi, who had painted a Coronation of Mary.  It should be noted that Vasari describes the parents of Filippino Lippi as follows:

“[…] one day while he [Fra Filippo Lippi] was at work on it, he caught sight of the younger daughter of Francesco Buti, a Florentine citizen, who was living there either as a ward or as a nun. Once Fra Filippo cast his eye on Lucrezia (for that was the girl’s name), who had the most beautiful grace and bearing, he was so persistent with the nuns that they allowed him to paint her portrait in order to use it in a figure of the Madonna for the work he was completing for them. This opportunity caused him to fall even more deeply in love, and he then made arrangements, using various means, to steal Lucrezia away from the nuns […] she [Lucrezia] never wanted to return, and, instead, she stayed with Filippo, for whom she bore a male child who was also called Filippo [Filippino] and later became, like his father, a most excellent and famous painter.”

“[…] one day while he [Fra Filippo Lippi] was at work on it, he caught sight of the younger daughter of Francesco Buti, a Florentine citizen, who was living there either as a ward or as a nun. Once Fra Filippo cast his eye on Lucrezia (for that was the girl’s name), who had the most beautiful grace and bearing, he was so persistent with the nuns that they allowed him to paint her portrait in order to use it in a figure of the Madonna for the work he was completing for them. This opportunity caused him to fall even more deeply in love, and he then made arrangements, using various means, to steal Lucrezia away from the nuns […] she [Lucrezia] never wanted to return, and, instead, she stayed with Filippo, for whom she bore a male child who was also called Filippo [Filippino] and later became, like his father, a most excellent and famous painter.”

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. Bondanella, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, part II p. 195 (original edition 1568).

G. Castagnola ‘Love or Duty’ 1873 large size
Fra Filippo Lippi ‘Madonna and Child’ ca 1460-65 Uffizi large size
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Fra Filippo Lippi 'Madonna and Child' ca 1460-65 Uffizi

In the apse of the Spoleto Cathedral there is a ‘Coronation of Mary‘ (painted between 1467 and 1469). Filippino saw this fresco painted by his father in 1488. A second source is the fresco, ‘Assumption of Mary‘ by Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Ghirlandaio’s Virgin Mary is also accompanied by angels. Filippino is well aware that with his composition, in which the altarpiece covers part of the landscape, the Assumption will appear much closer to the viewer. The frame around the altarpiece is made of marble, so it becomes part of the viewer’s world. The painted space suggests another higher world which is beyond the reach of our senses. Vasari, who owned some drawings (The Triumph of Saint Thomas) by Filippino, was fascinated by such innovations.

Carafa chapel with altarpiece
Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel with the altarpiece 'The Annunciation', Santa Maria sopra Minerva
 
Apostles large size    Landscape detail Altar Apostles large size    Landscape detail
Filippino Lippi 'Assumption Mary' detail: apostles Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva   Filippino Lippi 'Assumption Mary' detail: apostles Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Because of the expressive attitude of the spectators (eleven apostles and Thomas Aquinas) it seems as if the event is taking place before your eyes. Aquinas at the right of the altarpiece is put in the background with his arms outstretched as if he is receiving the belt of Mary. This is the traditional proof of her Assumption. Originally the apostles had halos with their names (could be a later addition?). These were removed during the last restoration.

The two Putti above the marble frame of the altarpiece are heavily damaged. They used to hold a red ribbon. These ribbons held a stick in place from which a drapery was hung. Two other putti (almost completely disappeared) were keeping the sumptuous drapery slightly upwards. This suggests that the altarpiece was only temporarily visible.

The reason why an annunciation was chosen is obvious. Before Carafa was given the right to the chapel, the chapel was already dedicated to the Annunciation of Mary and the Assumption of Mary.

The Annunciation Altarpiece       The Altarpiece with Carafa and Thomas Aquinas       Thomas Aquinas presents Carafa to Mary
Filippino Lippi 'Annunciation' Altarpiece Carafa chapelSanta Maria sopra Minerva

By depicting the annunciation as a picture within a picture, Filippino creates a theological link between the incarnation and the crucifixion. Masolino had already done this in the chapel of Cardinal Branda in the San Clemente in Rome. In this regard, the gift of the belt resembles the Assumption in the chapel of Baroncelli (S. Croce) by Sebastiano Mainardi. This fresco was based on preliminary studies and cartons by Ghirlandaio.

What makes Filippino’s depiction so innovative is the enormous depth and grandeur of the landscape.

The vaults with four sibyls

Like the patriarchs in the Strozzi Chapel, the sibyls in the Carafa Chapel are a break with tradition in that they almost burst out of the vaults. These sibyls do not sit on a throne like Pinturicchio or Ghirlandaio, but are in full motion and stand on the ground. The accompanying angels are also in motion. Filippino used Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s tomb (The Philosophy) of Sixtus IV as a source for this.

Vaults with four sibyls
Filippino Lippi Vaulyts with four sibyls Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Lippi rejected the style, formulas and tradition of the 15th century. Lippi returned more to Donatello. This artist used principles such as chaotic disorder and disruption. Both the sibyls and the patriarchs in the Strozzi Chapel are new. The inner agitation is translated and shaped by powerful and dynamic movements as seen in the Carafa Chapel.

The sibyls on the vault are related to the Assumption of Mary. Directly above the Assumption in the vault is the Cumaean Sibyl. She foretold the coming of Christ.

The Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Sibyl
Filippino Lippi The Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Sibyl Carafa Chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This is shown again in the altarpiece where the annunciation takes place. Above Thomas Aquinas there is the Sibyl of the Hellespont. She predicted the Crucifixion of Christ. The other two sibyls refer to the birth of Christ.

Crivelli ‘Thomas Aquinas’  1476 (detail) 
The demidoff Altarpiece National Gallery, Londen
Crivelli 'Thomas Aquinas' 1476 (detail) The Demidoff Altarpiece National Gallery, London The triumph of Thomas Aquinas and the Carafas

 

“Thomas Aquinas was known to be very corpulent. This caused him to take two places in the choir stalls. The separation between the two was removed for this purpose. Dante thus described him as sitting in paradise, namely the sky of the sun (canto 10-11 & 13). For this he gave him his nickname: bos aquinatis (the cow of Aquino)”

Source: Wikipedia (Dutch) 

Oliviero Carafa was still a distant relative of the great scholastic from the 13th century: Thomas Aquinas. In the altarpiece Aquinas presents Carafa to Mary. The chapel was originally intended as a burial chapel for Oliviero. The frescoes on the right wall depict Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas right wall large size
Scheme of the fresco cycle and the floor plan of the church
Filippino Lippi 'Triumph Thomas Aquinas' right wall fresco Carafa Chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

According to Vasari, the scene in the lunette is about ‘The Miracle of the Speaking Cross’. The story goes that when Thomas is praying at a cross, Christ bends down on the cross and says, “You have written positively about me, Thomas. What reward would you like to receive?” Aquinas said in reply, “Nothing but yourself LORD.” Vasari quotes the Latin text from “Bene scripsisti de me Thomas (Quam mercedem recipies? Domine, non aliam nisi te ipsum)”. This spell often appears in the open book which Thomas holds in his hand.

The Miracles of Thomas Aquinas
Filippino Lippi 'The Miracles of Thomas Aquinas' right wall fresco Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In the chapel you can’t see this, it’s possible this spell is gone. A monk flees because he hears two voices while Thomas is really alone. The miracle of the cross took place in the family chapel of the Carafa’s in the San Domenico Maggiore in Naples (Velázquez’s Miracle).

The two women on the other side are probably the mother of the saint and his sister Marotta. She was so impressed by her brother that she entered the monastery in Capua. The other two figures probably give comments. The little boy with the dog tearing off a piece of his robe might be an allusion to the chastity belt that caused pain. Which relates to a second miracle: the Miracle of Chastity. This miracle was often cited by preachers and reformers in the 15th century. Often as a critique of the dissolute behaviour in church circles. Respected humanists preached on the feast day of Thomas Aquinas on March 7th in the chapel of Carafa. These sermons were based on the painted scenes. The adjoining room was for the Cardinal’s sarcophagus. The two rooms were likely to be connected by a door. In the burial chapel the story Virginia of Rome is painted on the barrel vault in classical frames. She chose not to be tarnished and chose to remain a virgin, thus signing her own death warrant.

The triumph of true faith

Under the lunette we see Thomas Aquinas debating with thinkers from the 14th and 15th century, such as Apollinaris, Plotinus, Arius, Sabellius, Eutyches and Mani who opposed the dogma of Trinity. Thomas defended the true faith against the infidels.Thomas Aquinas.

The Triumph of True Faith large size      Preliminary study of the Triumph 29 X 23.8 cm British Museum London      Detail: right side 
  Thomas Aquinas          Books
Filippino Lippi 'The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas' right wall fresco Carafa Chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This debate is combined with the triumph of faith over reason. It should be kept in mind that it was Aquinas’s teacher, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas himself, who took the view that reason could never conflict with faith. In addition to Plato, the more earthly Aristotle was now also accepted in the church. Thus, in his ‘Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Gozzoli gave Aristotle the place of honour on the right side of Aquinas while Plato can be seen on the left.

 Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Triumph of Thomas Aquinas’ 1471 Louvre detail and whole
Benozzo Gozzoli 'Triumph of Thomas Aquinas' detail 1471 Louvre

It was common, as can be seen at Rafael’s ‘School of Athens‘, to give Plato the place of honour.

Thomas is under a baldachin. Two putti are holding an inscription from psalm 119:130. ‘As your words are taught, they give light and insight for the simple.’ The book in the tondo says: ‘My mouth will utter truth, my lips detest wickedness.’ Proverbs 8:7. In the book Thomas holds in his hands it says, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,’ and on the banderolle it says, ‘For after this comes night, but no evil can overcome wisdom.’ Book of Wisdom 7:30.

The Triumph of True Faith detail large size
Filippino Lippi 'The Triumph of True Faith' detail right wall fresco Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Some figures look down at a square in front of them. Two townscapes are depicted in the background. A motif inspired by Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti chapel and the chapel of St. Fina in San Gimignano. They are predecessors of the School of Rafael. The two city views to the right and left of the baldachin are remarkable.

In 1538, Pope Paul III moved the equestrian statue to the Campidoglio. It never melted because it was thought to be Constantine, the first Christian emperor. At the time it was painted, it was commissioned by Sixtus IV for the holy year 1475, on a pedestal next to the Lateran Palace and the San Giovanni in Laterano.

Maarten van Heemskerck ‘Palace of Laterans and the San Giovanni in Laterano’
Maarten van Heemskerck 'Palace of Laterans and the San Giovanni in Laterano'

 

The triumph of Thomas van Aquinas detail
Filippino Lippi 'The triumph of Thomas Aquinas' detail: see-through equestrian statue Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

It was thought that Constantine lived in the palace of Laterans. It was also the Pope’s church for the city of Rome. Moreover, the founders of the mendicant orders, Dominicus and Francis (Fra Angelico c. 1430), met here.

The view on the right also has a specific meaning. The Ripa Grande (Wittel c. 1711) can be seen here. It was from this port that Oliviero Carafa as a fleet leader sailed out to fight the Turks. Defeating the Turks is another victory.

Filippino Lippi ‘The triumph of Thomas Aquinas’ detail: view through harbour Ripa Grande
Filippino Lippi 'The triumph of Thomas Aquinas' detail: view through harbour Ripa Grande Carafa chapel Left wall


Left wall: Paul IV or Gian Pietro Carafa’s funerary monument

Pius IV (1566-72) had appointed Gian Pietro Carafa, a nephew of Oliviero Carafa, cardinal of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pietro Carafa admired Thomas Aquinas.

Carafa chapel large size     The three walls
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Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In 1555, this cardinal became Pope under the name Paul IV. As pope he established the Inquisition in Rome, a powerful instrument to let truth prevail. After all, opponents could be condemned by the Inquisition.

The frescoes of the virtues and vices on the left wall (east wall) related at that time that the to the things in the Catholic Church that observers wanted to change. The church had to become virtuous again. When Paul IV installed a funerary monument on the east wall of the chapel in 1566, the frescoes disappeared.

Paul IV (Gian Pietro Carafa) funerary monument large size
Paul IV (Gian Pietro Carafa) funerary monument 1566 Carafa chapel Santa Maria sopra MInerva

One year later, in 1567, Thomas Aquinas was declared to be a teacher of the Church. Therefore the monument fits very well with the fresco cycle. It is a logical extension of the theological story that expresses the message of the fresco cycle.

Read more: S.P.Q.R. The famous Carafa Chapel in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva

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