An Italian Sculptural Pilgrimage - part XXIV

Michelangelo's Cristo della Minerva at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome (LEO Design)

Join me on my summer holiday as I travel (mostly) through Italy—as always, in search of beautiful sites, sculpture and all things sculpture-ish. 

Change is eternal—and in The Eternal City, that change has been happening for a long, long time.

The building of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was begun by the Dominicans in 1280. They thought that they were building over the ruins of an earlier (50 BC) pagan temple to the Roman goddess Minerva, therefore the name "sopra (over) Minerva." In truth, they were building over an ancient temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, a fact archaeologists did not discover until the name "Minerva" had become firmly-rooted in the minds of Romans. The original Gothic church had been modeled on the Florentine Dominican church, Santa Maria Novella. And although the façade had been given a Renaissance update, the interior retains its original Gothic aesthetic—the only remaining Gothic church in all of Rome (all other Medieval churches in Rome were re-designed in the Renaissance or Baroque periods).

As the Dominicans were the prosecutors of the Inquisition, many important (albeit terrible) events took place at the church or in its nearby Minerva Convent. In the convent in 1633, Galileo (the "Father of Modern Science") was tried for heresy, found "vehemently suspect of heresy," was forced to recant his (true) theories, and condemned to a life sentence of house arrest.

Doctor of the Church, Saint Catherine of Sienna, died on this site and (most of her) is entombed beneath the main altar. Early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico died in the convent and is buried in the church.

Amongst the precious works of art in the basilica is Michelangelo's Cristo della Minerva (shown above), sometimes called "The Risen Christ" (in English). The Renaissance master was commissioned to sculpt in marble a standing figure of the nude Christ, holding his cross. Michelangelo began work on a first version, only to abandon it when a black vein was uncovered on Christ's cheek. With the lucrative contract's deadline approaching, he quickly started a second version (which we see today), sculpted between 1519 and 1521. This (second) version was started (and nearly completed) by Michelangelo in Florence, after which he entrusted his apprentice, Pietro Urbano, to deliver it to Rome and to complete a few "finishing touches." Apparently, scholars have never forgiven Urbano for his ham-handed attempt to "touch-up" a few of Michelangelo's unfinished body parts. Michelangelo did not like the finishing touches, either, and he offered to carve his patron a third version. Worried that a third version might never be delivered, the patron accepted the second version—on the condition that the artist gave him the first (unfinished) version, too. In the Baroque period, a bronze wrap was floated over the figure's exposed privates. And the first version was eventually completed by another sculptor in the early 1600's.

Bad apprentice or not, I will never pass-up a chance to appreciate any of Michelangelo's masterpieces. And, Dominican Inquistors or not, I appreciated the chance to pray before the relics of the remarkable woman, Saint Catherine of Sienna.

We'll continue our summer holiday tomorrow. 


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