A Chapel of Import

The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Church of São Roque: The Commission, the Building, the Collection

by ed. Teresa Leonor M. Vale
2017 Scala Arts and Heritage Ltd., 176 pages, $34.95
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Photo: The Chapel of St. John the BaptistThis beautiful book describes one exceptional commission of King John the Fifth of Portugal (1689-1750), placing the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Church of São Roque (Saint Roch) as one of the highest achievements of world art. The chapel in the Church of São Roque in Lisbon was the most expensive chapel commissioned in the period of Pope Benedict XIV. It involved artists of Rome, including Nicola Salvi (Principe of the Academia di San Lucca), Luigi Vanvitelli, (one of the architects of Saint Peter’s Basilica), Agostino Masucci as painter, and an outstanding leading group of masters of the complementary arts and crafts.

This extraordinary work of art clearly demonstrates how the commissions in the Baroque period encompassed all the arts and crafts in one wholeness. The commission covered everything from architecture, to sculpture, to painting, bronze-gilding to enhance the architecture, cladding of antique roman marbles, and the silversmiths and ironsmiths. It also included the complete set of liturgical celebration ware as well as vestments in silk and gold thread, carpets for High Mass, the liturgical books for all liturgical events with specially commissioned bindings. The whole set was viewed as one single unity of work, an object of pious devotion and aesthetic fulfillment—where no money was spared!

The book is edited by art historian Teresa Leonor M. Vale, a professor at the University of Lisbon. It includes authoritative contributions by herself and specialists, António Filipe Pimentel, Carlo Stefano Salerno, Magda Tassinari, Marialuisa Rizzini, Cristina Pinto Basto, and Maria de Fatima Rezende Gomes. Supporting the publication were the Santa Casa da Misericordia de Lisboa and the Museum of São Roque.

In a letter in 1742, the king ordered his ambassador in Rome, Commander Manuel Pereira de Sampaio, “His Majesty desires that a design be made as soon as may be by the finest architect who is presently to be found in Rome ... and adorn a chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit and Saint John the Baptist.”

The work took five years to complete. Only in 1747 was the whole chapel finally shipped to Portugal, but not without being first erected in Rome and the altar blessed by Pope Benedict XIV, who was impressed by the commission. The chapel was then dismantled, packed in over 320 boxes, and sent to Lisbon, arriving too late for the king to see his extraordinary commission. He died on July 31, 1750, and the chapel only arrived in Lisbon in the early months of 1751.

King John was one of the richest kings of Europe, due to the flowing riches of the Portuguese Empire. He was called the Magnanimous, due to his generous and immense commissions and the prolific and generous patronizing of all of the arts. He created the Academy of History, and through it also created in 1721 the first law on the protection of monuments and archeological artifacts.

Both the chapel and its contents survived miraculously not only the earthquake of 1755, but also the French Invasions of 1807, 1808, and 1810. It even survived the Decree of the Extinguishing of all Religious Orders in May 1834, which nationalized all property of the Church and was the cause of the melting of gold and silver of liturgical vessels to mitigate the financial crisis after Napoleon’s invasions of Portugal and the Civil War.

Vale states that in the chapel, “we thus find ourselves faced with an exceptional set of pieces—perhaps the most important in both national and international terms of any existence when taken as a whole.”

This book takes us back to a period where wealth in the hands of monarchs was generously invested into the decorum of the realm, patronizing the arts and crafts and the highlighting of religion as faith and devotion, speaking the language of beauty as message of the beautiful and the good.