Santa Maria del Popolo: Caravaggio & Chigi Chapel

Located next to the northern gate of Rome, Porta del Popolo, the well-known Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo stands in the famous Piazza del Popolo, right in the heart of Rome’s city center.
This 15-century Church is a real jewel, full of masterpieces by celebrated Italian artists such as Raphael, Bernini, Pinturicchio and Caravaggio, and is regarded as one of the finest example of Renaissance art.

The Church elevates on top of a staircase. This was an ancient construction technique to protect the building from recurring floods of the Tiber River.

Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel by Raphael
Opening Hours: 7.15 am 12.30 pm / 4.00 pm - 7.00pm
Mass Times: Weekdays: 8.00 am, 10.00 am and 6.30 pm;
Location: near Piazza del Popolo
Tickets: Not Needed
Accessibility: Accessible

Origin of the Church

The construction of Santa Maria Del Popolo started in 1099, preceding the building of Piazza del Popolo itself, which origin began just in 1538. The history of the Basilica is also quite unique and finds roots in history and legends at once.

Indeed, in 1099 Pope Paschal II decided to destroy the Domizi Enobarbi Mausoleum, an ancient memorial of the first Imperial Age, where Nero was buried.
Over the centuries, the figure of the Emperor Nero turned out to become really unpopular. Rumors were spreading that the area was cursed by the Emperor Nero’s ghost. To solve this unusual problem, Paschal II exhumed the body of Nero and burned the remains. To bless the area he had a Chapel built on that very same site.

The most ancient part of Santa Maria del Popolo is the altar. According to legend, on this exact spot there was a walnut tree under which Nero’s remains were buried.

This story is depicted inside the Basilica, above the main altar, where you can notice the figure of Paschal ceremonially cutting down a walnut three, symbol of Nero’s curse. To learn more about the Story of Paschal II read the article about Piazza del Popolo.

The bas relief depicting Pope Paschal II in the act of cutting down the cursed tree present a curious anachronism. Looking closely you’ll see the Pope surrounded by Swiss Guards which were created however 400 years later, in 1505.

The Image of Virgin Mary

In 1227 the original Romanesque Chapel was enlarged by Pope Gregory IX and the famous Image of the Virgin Mary, which can be admired today, was moved inside the Church.

However, the present building we see today dates back to a later period. Indeed, during the Renaissance, and precisely between 1472-1477, the Church was completely reconstructed under the papacy of Sisto IV. From that time on, some of the greatest artists who ever lived were brought into Santa Maria del Popolo to decorate the church.

Given its location next to the ancient Roman Walls and Porta Flaminia, since its foundation Santa Maria del Popolo has always been a place of worship for every pilgrim, king or artist coming to the Eternal City from the North.

Caravaggio’s Paintings

Among those artists, Bramante designed the apse in 1502 for Pope Julius II. This was one of artist’s the earliest works in Rome, which vault was painted by Pinturicchio.

On the left of the choir in the north transept, you can see the Cerasi Chapel. Inside there are two major canvases painted by Caravaggio, depicting the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter, painting by Caravaggio
Credits: image by @RonPorter
The Conversion of St. Paul, painting by Caravaggio
Credits: image by @RonPorter

Chigi Chapel by Raphael

Then, it came the time for another great Italian artist, Raffaello Sanzio, also known as Raphael.
Raphael started designing the famous Chigi Chapel, situated on the left-hand side of the nave. The Chapel was ordered by Julius II who wanted a memorial for Agostino Chigi, a famous Sienese Banker, member of an illustrious family, who later became also treasurer and notary of the Apostolic Camera.

In 1513 Raphael began planning the chapel dedicated to the Madonna di Loreto, providing cartoons and drawings of all the decorations.
Raphael was able to give the Chapel a unique, pyramidal design, probably inspired by ancient Roman models and Egyptian pyramids.

The main theme of the Chapel was the Resurrection, represented by the statutes of the prophets. Inside the niches you can admire the statue of the prophet Jonah and the Whale, symbolically representing the Resurrection of Jesus, carried out by Lanzaretto.

Credits: image by @RonPorter

The dome of the chapel is decorated with an impressive mosaic of God the Father in Benediction, work of a Venetian artist, Luigi da Pace. The central roundel represents the Creation of the World, depicting God in an impetuous gesture to give rise to the Universe. The other eight panels shows the Sun, the sky and the planets.

In planning the layout of the Chigi Chapel, Raphael probably drove inspiration from Bramante’s designs of the new St. Peter’s Basilica and from the Pantheon for the dome.

Both Raphael and Chigi died in 1520. Ironically, works on the chapel were carried on by Raphael’s rival, Sebastiano del Piombo, who painted the altarpiece of the Nativity of the Virgin.

Bernini’s Sculptures

During the 1600’s another great Italian artist was destined to work on Santa Maria del Popolo. Bernini gave the Basilica its modern, Baroque-style facade and made significant changes on the architecture of the Church. Renaissance and Baroque elements were skillfully merged!

Two other niches inside Chigi Chapel contain Bernini’s sculptures: the statue of Habakkuk and the Angel, and the Statue of Daniel and the Lion on the opposite side.
The two statues are part of the same narration: the Angel is leading the prophet Habakkuk to help and feed Daniel who was thrown for days in the lion’s den.