Temple, Tabernacle, and Sepulchre: The Legacy of Bramante’s Tempietto

by Jack Freiberg, appearing in Volume 39

Bramante, Tempietto, San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, 1502. Photo: Marcello Leotta

The first fully articulated expression of the Renaissance mastery of classical architecture, Bramante’s Tempietto, was created to honor the place where pious tradition located Saint Peter’s crucifixion in Rome. Less known is the fact that the Tempietto also celebrated its patrons, King Ferdinand of Aragón (reigned 1479-1516) and Queen Isabel of Castile (reigned 1474-1504), who together furthered the quest for Christian hegemony. Created at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in succeeding centuries it became a symbol of Spain and an important part of the iconography of Spanish rule.

Around the year 1500, an extensive program of Spanish state celebration was mounted in papal Rome to honor the achievements of Ferdinand and Isabel in spreading the faith, especially in two achievements that marked the year 1492. They did so at home through the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which completed the recovery of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim domination, and abroad through funding Columbus’s first journey of exploration to the New World.

Bernardino López de Carvajal (d. 1523), first their representative to the papal court and then a cardinal, coordinated the celebratory effort in Rome, including publishing tracts, sponsoring festive celebrations, and patronizing  the monumental visual arts.

The Artistic Program

The artistic program centered on the Constantinian basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Pietro in Montorio, both in Rome. At the second, Carvajal acted under the direction of King Ferdinand, overseeing the rebuilding of the church and monastery and the construction of the Tempietto. The foundation of the Tempietto in 1502 marked the tenth anniversary of the monarchs’ achievements of 1492 and coincided with contemporary events that nourished the idea of their divine election to lead Christendom in recapturing the Holy Land.

The Tempietto is a pivotal monument in the Western architectural tradition and one of the canonical works of the Italian Renaissance. Its history has largely been told in terms of those features of the architecture derived from ancient models. This can be appreciated in the coordinated system of proportions, the sixteen ancient granite columns encircling the cella, and the use of the Doric order with its distinctive entablature composed of alternating triglyphs and metopes, the first of the Renaissance.

By following the Tempietto’s influence on monuments created to honor Spain and its monarchs, we gain greater insight into the spiritual and ultimately political meaning it held for Ferdinand and Isabel, for their grandson Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, and for his descendants. In all these works, the Tempietto is presented as the Palladium of the Spanish crown, simultaneously royal insignia and battle standard.

Bramante and the Tempietto

Bramante designed the Petrine memorial on a centralized plan, surrounded it with a colonnade, and crowned the structure with an exposed dome raised upon a drum. In doing this, he brought together two types of sacred architecture: the peripteral tholos temple of Roman antiquity—a round temple ringed with columns—and the Christian martyrium characterized by a dome supported by a drum. In effect, Bramante invented a new species of architecture fully classical and fully Christian.

Two early responses to the Tempietto acknowledge those previously separate architectural traditions and help to define their meaning. An antiquarian-scholar who likely knew Bramante, Andrea Fulvio (d. 1527), associated the Tempietto with the temple located on the acropolis of ancient Tibur (modern Tivoli), one of only two tholos temples to survive into the Renaissance. Fulvio would have favored the Tivoli temple as Bramante’s model because it was identified with the Tiburtine Sibyl, who was credited with announcing the birth of Christ to Augustus and with prophesizing the triumph of the Church at the end of time.

Fulvio’s counterpart, the Franciscan Observant friar Mariano da Firenze (d. 1523), provided the second early response to Bramante’s shrine. He characterized the Tempietto as a “large marble ciborium embellished with columns,” referring to the architectural structure typically used in Christian churches to shelter altars, relics, and holy sites. By characterizing the Tempietto in this way and further identifying the site as “mons crucifixionis,” Mariano evoked the equivalence of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome and Christ’s death on the cross in Jerusalem.

I have argued elsewhere that the principal Christian model for the Tempietto was Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem, known to the Renaissance through pilgrims’ accounts as having a circular plan, ornamented with columns, and with a prominent dome.

The Cruz del Coso

Miracle of Saint Lambert and Martyrdom of the Innumerable Martyrs of Zaragoza, wood relief in the choir of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza, showing the Cruz del Coso, ca. 1544. Photo: Fundacío Instituto Amatler del Arte Hispánico. Archivo Mas.

In 1534, six years before Sebastiano Serlio published the Third Book of his treatise on architecture containing the first extended description of the Tempietto accompanied by four woodcut illustrations, the citizens of Zaragoza, capital city of Aragón, erected a remarkable monument known as the Cruz del Coso to memorialize the “innumerable martyrs” who had lost their lives in the Roman persecutions of the late empire. Although the monument is no longer extant, literary and visual records provide an idea of its original appearance. The architect, Gil Morlanes the Younger, recalled the Tempietto by assimilating its centralized plan, stepped platform, Doric colonnade, and hemispherical dome rising from an articulated drum.

The classical reference was reinforced by an epigraph along the frieze in “letras antigas” referring to the martyrs. Morlanes adapted the Tempietto to conform to local traditions: he increased the height of the structure in relation to its width, reduced the number of columns to eight, eliminated the cella walls, and constructed the dome of wood. He also inserted between the capitals and the entablature zapatas, transitional elements of the type commonly found in Mudéjar architecture. The stone cross from the preceding shrine on the site was relocated at the center of the new structure.

With this hybrid architectural vocabulary, Morlanes achieved something similar to Bramante’s synthesis of architectural sources, now addressing the city’s eminence, founded by Augustus in his own name, Caesaraugusta, and consecrated by the blood of the local martyrs. The evident references to the Tempietto moved that ancient Roman and early Christian heritage into the modern age, and honored King Ferdinand of Aragón, patron of the Tempietto, in the capital city of his realm.

The Temple in Antwerp

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, festival display honoring Prince Philip of Habsburg, woodcut, 1550. Image: Public Domain

The process of absorbing the Tempietto to the iconography of Spanish rule was advanced with the ephemeral apparatus mounted by the Spanish community in Antwerp to celebrate the arrival in 1549 of Prince Philip of Habsburg (later King Philip II), son and heir apparent of Charles V, at the conclusion of an extended tour of his realm. The theme of Spanish conquest was introduced at the entrance to the space by the columns of Hercules that Charles V used as an emblem of his rule, and was extended at the sides by statues depicting the seven Christian virtues paired with Spain’s illustrious kings, from Pelayo, who began the Christian Reconquest of Iberia, to Ferdinand the Catholic, who brought that military effort to conclusion.

A monumental rusticated arch at the far end supported a centralized, colonnaded structure identified in the accompanying description as the temple of Janus in Rome, long lost but known from descriptions and images on ancient coins. The festival apparatus is described as painted to simulate bronze, outfitted with an Ionic columnar system, and embellished with projecting porticoes. This imaginative rendering of one of Rome’s most sacred temples adapts a number of features from the Tempietto, reinforcing a link between the two that was also suggested by the location of the Tempietto on the mons Ianiculensis, the hill sacred to Janus in Rome.

The idea of universal pacification furthered that link. In antiquity the temple of Janus was opened only in time of war: Augustus, who closed it for the second time in its history, appears to the left of the temple brandishing a key, paired on the opposite side by Charles V and Prince Philip, who would repeat his action in the present age.

Images and inscriptions applied to the supporting arch lauded Charles V’s victories over the Turks, making clear that the anticipated peace would be achieved with victory. The underlying significance of the Tempietto as a marker of Christian dominion, and especially the role of the Spanish monarchy in achieving it, finds an unmistakable echo in this work.

The Tabernacle of Santa Croce

Jacopo Sansovino, Sacrament tabernacle, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, 1536. Photo: Marcello Leotta

During the sixteenth century, the Tempietto was also adapted to exalt the spiritual and temporal authority of Spain through association with Christ in the Eucharist. In each of the three examples that follow, the Tempietto was interpreted rather than copied, but the reference to Bramante’s architecture is evident.

The first example is the gilded bronze Sacrament tabernacle in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, positioned at the center of the apse directly behind the high altar. The tabernacle takes the form of a freestanding tholos with attached Doric columns, three pedimented portals surmounted by oculi, and volutes adorning the drum beneath the hemispherical dome. Its patron, Francisco de Los Angeles Quiñones (d. 1540), who served as titular cardinal of the basilica, is buried at the base of the monument with an inscription identifying him as “From the Spanish Nation, and the Homeland of Léon.”

Both the design of the Sacrament tabernacle in the form of a recognizable architectural structure alluding to the Tempietto and its prominent placement at the focal point of the apse, formerly occupied by the episcopal throne, emphasize the basilica’s identification with Jerusalem. This identification was based on the relics of Christ’s Passion that Constantine’s mother, Saint Helen, was credited with bringing to Rome from the site of Christ’s crucifixion, hence the topographical reference in the basilica’s title, “in Gerusalemme.”

That same connection to Jerusalem was expressed in the Tempietto-tabernacle. All Sacrament receptacles evoke the Holy Sepulchre by virtue of containing the consecrated host, an equivalence that the Quiñones monument reinforced by reference to the Tempietto, which as noted evokes the Lord’s tomb.

The statues of David and Solomon in the lateral niches of the aedicula framing the tabernacle reinforce the relationship to the Holy City and recall the title King of Jerusalem that Ferdinand and Isabel possessed and that Charles V and his descendants employed as a hereditary right.

Granada’s High Altar Ciborium

Frans Heylan, high altar of Granada Cathedral, detail, engraving, 1614. Image: Public Domain

Memories of Jerusalem lent equal force to the high altar ciborium of the Granada cathedral, the second evocation of the Tempietto in a monument associated with the Sacrament.

The ciborium formed the centerpiece of the cathedral that Charles V built next to the Royal Chapel founded by Ferdinand and Isabel to serve as their mausoleum. The ciborium, lost in a later refurbishment of the church, was executed in wood, ornately carved and gilded. It consisted of two levels, the lower one defined by four columns of the Corinthian order linked by arches and decorated with Old Testament patriarchs and “sacerdotes de la anciana Ley.” The upper level was treated as an open construction forming an octagonal tholos, consisting of Doric columns set against arches, a balustrade at the middle level, and a dome raised upon a drum.

The defining architectural feature of Granada Cathedral throughout the extended period of design and construction from 1523 to 1563 was the assimilation of a basilican nave to a rotunda with ambulatory, recalling the Crusader church that marked the spot of Christ’s death and burial in Jerusalem. This model reinforced the identification of Ferdinand and Isabel’s Granada victory of 1492 with the broader goal of Holy Land recovery.

That same idea received emphatic expression at the high altar where the consecrated host was displayed for perpetual veneration in a large monstrance visible from every part of the church. The placement of the high altar directly beneath the cathedral’s dome, rather than against the presbytery wall as was traditional in Spanish churches, recalls the location of Christ’s tomb at the center of the domed chapel of the Anastasis in Jerusalem. Allusion to the Tempietto in the upper stage of the ciborium draws those associations close to the meaning of Bramante’s monument in Rome. 

The Tabernacle of the Escorial

Pedro Parret after Juan de Herrera, Sacrament tabernacle, high altar, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, engraving, 1587. Image: Public Domain

The Tempietto received the most splendid presentation and the most explicit expression of meaning in the third example to be considered, the Sacrament tabernacle of the high altar retable of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It was completed in 1585, and fashioned in the most splendid materials, red and green jasper, rock crystal, gold, silver, and gems.

This tabernacle stood at the heart of the vast complex built by Philip II to serve as the dynastic mausoleum of the Spanish Habsburgs. The form of the Escorial altar drew force from the earlier projects in Rome and Granada, but its meaning was declared more directly by the presence of Charles V and Philip II along with their queen consorts depicted kneeling in prayer in the over-life-size gilded bronze effigies set within elevated balconies on the walls to the left and right of the altar. The presentation of the royals as “eternal adorers” descends from a long tradition that identifies burial near the altar and in proximity of the Sacrament with the deceased’s faith in Christian salvation.

Two prominent examples of that tradition in Spain provided the direct models for the Escorial. One is the tomb-altar ensemble of Isabel’s parents, King Juan II of Castile and Queen Isabel of Portugal, in the Carthusian monastery at Miraflores. The other example is located in the Royal Chapel at Granada, where Ferdinand and Isabel are buried, and where the Sacrament was reserved in accordance with their wishes. In both ensembles the deceased are depicted kneeling in prayer in lifelike painted reliefs set across from one another flanking the altar.

Personal piety and the mission to recover Jerusalem came together in these works as they would again at the Escorial where the dynastic commemoration is extended to Ferdinand and Isabel’s descendants Charles V and Philip II and the focus is provided by the Tempietto-tabernacle. These kings and queens of Spain fix their pious attention on the Eucharist, central mystery of the faith, and on Jerusalem that it evokes. 

The Royal Interest

Pedro Rodríguez de Monforte, emblem for the exequies of King Philip IV, woodcut, 1666. Image: Public Domain

During the seventeenth century, royal interest in the Tempietto was expressed through works sponsored by the monarchs at San Pietro in Montorio. In 1604-1605, King Philip III funded a new road to the monastery and the partial rebuilding of the dome to protect the Tempietto. At that time, a stout lantern was added to the dome bearing the coat of arms of Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See, a clear assertion of royal custody of the site.

In 1628, during the reign of King Philip IV, access to the crypt of the Tempietto was facilitated by the construction of an external stair and the crypt was sumptuously decorated with colored marbles and gilded stuccoes. The pavement of the upper chapel was opened at the center to provide a view below where the holy earth that supported Peter’s cross could be seen and venerated.

At that time, the ritual foundation stone of the Tempietto was discovered and treated as a relic, installed in the pavement below the crypt altar where it was protected by a grate and illuminated by a lamp. The stone recorded the names of Ferdinand and Isabel as patrons of the shrine on one side, and Cardinal Carvajal’s name and the date 1502 on the other. At the conclusion of those works Philip IV announced his intention to sponsor a comprehensive restoration of the monastery, linking his beneficence to his forebears, Ferdinand and Isabel, and citing the evidence provided by the recently discovered foundation stone.

Both Philip III and Philip IV, when dedicating funds to support those initiatives at San Pietro in Montorio, requested confirmation of jus patronatus, legal status that would grant the crown responsibility for administering the monastery, including its lands and benefices. In 1629, Philip IV conveyed to his ambassador in Rome vigorous objection to Pope Urban VIII’s plan to place the papal coat of arms at strategic places in the monastery, concerned that they would eclipse royal commemoration on the site.

Spanish claims to San Pietro in Montorio remained a vital issue throughout Philip IV’s reign. When he died in 1665, the image of the Tempietto appeared among the sacred emblems displayed during the memorial service held at the Real Convento de la Encarnación in Madrid.

In this same period in Rome, Bernini revived an earlier project, first conceived for Pope Urban VIII, to construct a Sacrament tabernacle in the form of the Tempietto for Saint Peter’s basilica.

Bernini, Sacrament tabernacle, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, 1674. Photo: Alamy Photo/Hemis

It was completed in time for the Holy Year of 1675, fashioned in gilded bronze and lapis lazuli bearing luminous accents of yellow and deep blue, colors traditionally associated with Saint Peter. Bernini followed the form of the Tempietto more closely than the other works we have been discussing, better to emphasize the Petrine foundations of the Roman Church and the tutelage of the popes.

A Modern Symbol

In the modern age, the Tempietto continued to be embraced as a symbol of Spain. In 1876, Rome’s civil government conceded jus patronatus to King Alfonso XII, stipulating that the recently founded Academia Española de Bellas Artes en Roma be permanently accommodated in a portion of the monastery of San Pietro in Montorio.

A century later, in 1976, King Juan Carlos I dedicated state funds for the restoration of the Tempietto. He did so a second time in anticipation of the Holy Year 2000 when Spain’s Patrimonio Histórico Español and Italy’s Istituto Centrale per il Restauro partnered on an extensive campaign of conservation.

In 1998, during the course of that work, the foundation stone of 1502 was removed from the crypt altar where it had been installed in the nineteenth century, uncovering the name of Cardinal Carvajal on the reverse side, confirming the authenticity of the stone and the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabel.

In 2000, a lawsuit brought by the Franciscan order with the goal of rescinding Spain’s rights to the church and monastery was resolved in Spain’s favor. This opened the way to establishing a Spanish cultural and political hub on the Janiculum Hill. A comprehensive restoration of the monastery complex was announced and Spain’s embassy to Italy was transferred to that site.

It seems only natural that the Tempietto now serves as the official logo of this center of Spanish activity in Rome, a contemporary example of how Bramante’s architectural expression of religious, political, and cultural hegemony continues to exert its power.