Innovation at the Chapel of the Holy Shroud

by John Beldon Scott, appearing in Volume 40

Interior of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud. Credit:

Early modern commentators and theologians understood the relic known today as the Shroud of Turin as a witness of Christ’s Passion and a material proof of his suffering and resurrection. Of all the instruments of the Passion, they asserted, it was the most important. Not only because it alone depicted the image of Christ’s tortured body, front and back, but also because it displayed the painful effects of the other instruments. The bloody wounds caused by the nails, spear, flagella, and crown of thorns are visible on the relic.

Guarino Guarini (1624-1683) created a new type of capital for the rotunda of the chapel housing the shroud, the Passion capital with its obtrusive display of the instruments of Christ’s suffering. It appeared on the gilt-bronze Corinthian capitals employed on the eight major-order fluted pilasters and on the two free-standing columns around the perimeter of the Shroud Chapel’s rotunda.

To appreciate his motivation, we must consider the object the chapel was intended to house. The concept of meaning and invention within classical norms upon which this essay is premised depends on Thomas Gordon Smith’s approach to architectural design and the classical orders, which has been an inspiration since our time together at the American Academy in Rome, 1979-80.

Guarini’s contemporaries produced an extensive literature on the relic, always focusing on specifics such as the bloodstains made by the crown of thorns, the spear wound, and the nails. We also see this in the devotional aid published by Guarini’s contemporary and fellow Theatine priest at Turin, Vittorio Amedeo Barralis. In the border around the image of the relic, he illustrated the instruments of the Passion to make that point. Thus we see the cross, titulus, spear, nails, and scourge. (The titulus is the INRI inscription affixed to the top of the cross, reading: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.”) This imagery provides us with the devotional context of Guarini’s thinking about the shroud.

Plan drawing by Guarini of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud and an engraving of a section through a wooden model of the chapel above. Credit: The Newberry Library of Chicago (above) and Disegni d'Architettura (below)

An engraving showing a cross-section of Guarini’s wooden model of the chapel illustrates how the architect initially intended the imagery to guide the worshipper’s understanding of the relic. In the lower section depicting the rotunda and its decoration, we see paintings above the subsidiary chapel altars illustrating scenes from the Passion such as the Pietà and crucifixion.

On the wall above the cathedral altar at the lower level, angels carry the cross heavenward and Christ arises from the tomb. In the dome above, the window spandrels hold nails and the dice used by the soldiers who gambled over Christ’s cloak.

Guarini’s Capitals

Penetrating the sepulchral gloom, the Passion capitals form a prickly chiaroscuro pattern when occasionally struck by a ray of sunlight piercing the faceted dome high above. The choice of materials for the chapel, black-grey marble and bronze, reflects the funereal dedication, as does the Corinthian order with its necrological associations—but these were only starting points for the architect.

To appreciate Guarini’s ingenuity, comparison with a conventional Corinthian capital is helpful. We can see an orthodox example in the minor-order of the rotunda, designed by Guarini’s predecessor for the project, Bernardino Quadri.

A “conventional” Corinthian capital by Bernardino Quadri (minor order of the rotunda). Credit: Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici del Piemonte, Turin

Acanthus leaves grow in three tiers from the inverted bell-shaped body of the capital, with spiralform caulicoli emerging at the top. Uniting the shoots is the lip of the bell. At the top, in the center of the concave abacus, the flower, or fleuron, blossoms forth, representing the acanthus bud and its fishtail-like stigma (the botanical term for the pollen-receiving part of the flower’s stamen) growing from the center.

Guarini’s Passion capital, as seen in a close-up detail taken from a scaffold, deviates considerably from the traditional type. He reduced the treatment of the foliage to two tiers and used olive rather than acanthus.

Guarini’s capital with instruments of the Passion (major order of the rotunda). Credit: Giuseppe Dardanello, Turin

This modification makes room for the crown of thorns inserted between the helices. Three nails protrude from the fleuron, and, at the top, appears the titulus. Modification of the major-order capitals avoided a repetition of the same capital type in close proximity to the minor order below, but the architect’s design had behind it a weightier conviction than desire for variety.

An Innovative Approach

Guarini’s innovative approach to the design of capitals can be seen in his architectural treatise, where he illustrates numerous examples of imaginative capitals. Like most architect-treatise writers who preceded him, Guarini devoted a major portion of his theoretical discussion to the design and application of the classical orders.

Unlike some of his Italian predecessors, however, Guarini seems to have been more interested in offering creative variants to the standard orders, particularly in the design of capitals, than in repeating definitive versions of the canonical types.

In his Architettura civile (written around 1689 and published in Turin in 1737), he provides three capitals each for the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian—each also with three distinctive proportional systems—and four alternatives for the Composite. The reader may easily infer from the text and illustrations that the number of permutations need be limited only by the creative imagination of the designer.

In addition to the twelve different capitals illustrated for the orders, many of them based on unusual plant or floral motifs, Guarini presents still other capitals for the reader’s consideration. Among these we find fruit baskets, phoenix, cornucopias, crowns, angels, feathers, and other elements implying symbolic meaning.

Imaginative Corinthian capital variants in Guarini’s Architettura civile, 1737. Credit: Architettura civile

In some instances Guarini explicates the significance of the imagery, as in the case of the capital with the stacked crowns, which he tells us he invented for a chapel dedicated to Louis IX of France. Here the pointed bands of the crowns substitute for the curling acanthus leaves. Since Louis was both king and saint, he merited two crowns. The Passion capitals in the Shroud Chapel derive from this regard for decorum and design logic, combined with a creative license.

Sensitive to the visual effect of his new capitals, Guarini did not merely add the instruments of the Passion to the standard Corinthian components. Instead, he incorporated them harmoniously into the canonical parts of the capitals—the titulus echoing the concavity of the abacus, the nails becoming the styles and stigmas of the fleuron, and the crown of thorns replacing the lip of the bell. Guarini created a variation on the standard capital type without violating the classical syntax of the composition—innovation within the perimeters of the classical norm.

The positioning of the crown with its rich, coloristic effect transforms the capital into a quasi-Composite. When the Ionic volutes and echinus molding enriched with egg-and-dart combine with the Corinthian abacus and acanthus, the Composite capital results, the most elaborate of all the orders.

Conceptually we should imagine the echinus, a crucial component of the Ionic, continuing around behind the volutes and thus forming a crownlike cushion or ring, which must be the generating source for Guarini’s idea of inserting the crown of thorns in this position between the spiral tendrils of his capital. We do not see the entire crown but only its forward edge as it merges with the compositional structure of the capital. The sculptural effect of the thorns even imitates the carved egg-and-dart moulding it replaces.

Guarini’s Reasoning

Guarini’s reasoning, however, goes beyond the visual and formal elements. The placement of the crown of the thorns fits logically with Vitruvius’s anthropomorphic interpretation of the orders, with the capital representing the head (caput/capo) of a human figure. Furthermore, we see here a reprise of the invention behind the crown capitals for the chapel of Saint Louis. Guarini created a decorous variation on the traditional capital type without violating the compositional logic of its constituent parts—invention within the classical system.

In other plates from Architettura civile Guarini offers additional capital variants. As in the case of the Passion capitals, Guarini’s deviations from the norm are meaningful rather than arbitrary. He offers, for example, a capital where large irises (he calls them “blue lilies”) substitute for acanthus. The broad plastic leaves create a sculptural effect with a strong light-dark contrast.

This type is useful, Guarini says, when the capital can be observed only at great remove, such as those on the second register of the façade of his Santa Maria Annunziata in Messina (destroyed) and on the exterior drum of the Shroud Chapel. Under these conditions details of delicate carving would be lost. Here the architect gives primacy to visual apperception.

Exterior capitals of the Shroud Chapel with irises instead of acanthus leaves. Credit: Author

If irises had any particular meaning for Guarini, he made no mention of it in the text, and no one standing at ground level could be expected to identify the exact botanical forms on the capitals located so high above. His use of the iris, however, cannot have been without meaning, for this is a flower laden with Christian significance.

Because of its commonplace association with both the Annunciation and the Passion, a seventeenth-century reader of Guarini’s treatise could hardly have overlooked the architect’s fitting choice of the flower for buildings dedicated to the Annunciation and to a major Passion relic. In his treatise Guarini may have emphasized the optical virtues of the iris-form capital, but he was also sensitive to the associative values of the imagery with which he worked, even when he did not explain the obvious.

A Comment on the Building

The overtly thematic category of capital variant employed by Guarini thus carries a comment on the function or dedication of the building it adorns. We have already noted the special capitals with crowns Guarini created for his chapel dedicated to Saint Louis, although, in that case, too, he did not elaborate on his reasons for employing the crowns. This usage would come under the rule of decorum as understood in the period: the application of imagery appropriate to the context into which it was to be placed.

Vitruvius associated the Ionic order with his notion of female characteristics, stating that the proportions were like those of a fair maiden and the volutes like the curls of her hair. Guarini thus elaborated wittily on this venerable anthropomorphic interpretation as he loaded his design with meaning.

Here we find a free-spirited designer who works within traditional meanings of the Christian imagery and architectural culture of his time.

We see this enfolding of Christian classical imagery also in ornamental details of the built chapel, such as the frieze of the pendentive-zone arches, where nails are sculpted into the fascia, point-to-point.

L: Detail of arch fascia with sculpted nails in the pendentive zone of the Shroud Chapel, R: Pentagonal insets are placed in the spandrels between arches in the dome of the Shroud Chapel. Credit: Author

Geometrical Proofs

Moving up into the dome, however, Guarini used more abstract geometrical imagery to reference the relic. In the spaces between arches he placed pentagons, in sunken relief.

This unusual five-sided shape does not conform with the other more regular triangular and hexagonal geometries of the chapel. Fitting oddly into the spandrel space and standing illogically on point, it must have special meaning.

The pentagon alludes to the five wounds of Christ, all of which are displayed on the relic and which were the focus of a devotional practice popular in Guarini’s time—the Cult of the Five Sacred Wounds of Christ.

But the thinking here is precise. Just as Guarini used geometry to resolve design problems, so does the irrefutable logic of geometrical proofs illustrate the truths of Christian doctrine. Because of its governing principles and its powerful visuality, the rules of geometry provided a paradigm in the search for exactitude and truth. By reason of what they saw as its persuasive clarity, the Jesuits translated Euclid’s Elements into Chinese and used geometrical demonstrations to make converts in their mission work.

We see this idea in Jesuit Mario Bettini’s mid-seventeenth-century treatise on the spiritual utility of geometry in evangelizing in China. As a demonstration of the theorem of the stellated pentagon, he illustrates the Christological pentagram and shows how it derives from the simple five-sided figure with its lines extended to meet at five points corresponding to the major wounds on Christ’s body.

Guarini knew Bettini’s work and cited it in his own treatise on Euclidean geometry. The pentagon in the chapel dome is inverted so as to stand on point, as in the illustration. Instead of a literal representation of the Passion instruments as indicated in the wooden model’s dome, here we see the abstract expression of Guarini’s thinking about the spiritual function of the relic and its chapel.

The Passion Capitals

As we lower our sights to the mundane level of the rotunda, however, we find more literal and naturalistic references to the instruments of the Passion and the working of God’s providence through it. These are the Passion capitals of the pilasters articulating the rotunda walls. Here, closer to the eye of the worshipper and to the relic at the center of the chapel, Guarini modified the Corinthian capital by inserting a crown of thorns between the two spirals. Above, we see the titulus.

Perhaps most striking and original of all is the flower positioned in the center at the top of the capital, in the traditional location of the fleuron or flower blossom of the standard Corinthian order.

The living Passiflora, indigenous to South America, is so-named because early missionaries in the New World saw in it the instruments of the Passion: the leaves are the spear point, the corona the crown of thorns, the five anthers the major wounds, the three stigmas as the bloodstained nails, and the spiral tendrils as the flagella with which Jesus was whipped. If we connect the anthers, we can even see the pentagon inherent in the Passion flower.

L: The Passiflora of South America is known as the “Passion flower” for its resemblance to instruments of the Passion, R: The fleurons of Guarini’s capitals are a simplified “Passion flower” design. Credit: Author

Guarini, however, chose to simplify the design and represented only the spear-like leaves and the prominent nail-like stigmas. We cannot be certain if he ever saw an actual Passion flower, but he knew about them indirectly in published exegetical works such as Giacomo Bosio’s early seventeenth-century illustrated analysis, where the parts of the flower are also simplified.

The blossom was known locally in Turin already in the early seventeenth century when Savoy tutor and political theorist, Giovanni Botero, dedicated a poem about the Passion flower to Duke Carlo Emanuele I.

More significantly, exegetes like Bosio fashioned a Christian moralized meaning from the exotic imagery of the flower, seeing it as a sign placed by God in the New World to enlighten the indigenous peoples there. No mere curiosity of nature, it represented God’s providential intervention in the world and functioned didactically to aid missionaries in evangelization.

Likewise, treatise writers on the shroud explicated the relic as a sign placed by God in the world to demonstrate his suffering and his role in salvation. Both flower and relic were proofs of God’s action in the world. Guarini’s Passion capital therefore speaks to the worshipper and comments on the meaning of the shroud to guide devotional thoughts toward a deeper understanding of the relic housed at the center of the rotunda.

Symbols For All Levels

The chapel’s ornamentation therefore serves—like the published treatises and devotional tracts—as visual aid and explanation of the shroud, even while the venerated object was located out of sight in its reliquary. These moralizing devices, moreover, range from the intellectual abstractions of the dome pentagons, to the straightforward frieze of nails in the pendentive-zone arches, to the naturalistic rendering of the Passion flower in the rotunda capitals. They provide devotional stimuli for all levels of viewer sophistication.

Guarini expanded the meaning of the Corinthian order without violating the nature or basic composition of the canonical type. With the sacred space around the shroud, he eschewed the anecdotal punning of his predecessors and contemporaries by manipulating the components of the classical orders to convey thematic significance, making of them visual means of spiritual communication. Yet the content of Guarini’s imagery, while fresh and creative, still rests well within the boundary of seventeenth-century Christian iconography.

Postscript: Guarini’s Shroud Chapel suffered extensively from the catastrophic fire of 1997. Following a two-decade-long restoration effort, the chapel is once again open to the public. Although some delicate components of the Passion flower capitals of the rotunda pilasters could not be retrieved from the debris for reassembly, those of the two colossal columns flanking the opening between the cathedral and the chapel were undamaged and remain fully intact.