“No picture taking please, thank you,” says the mechanical voice of the chapel attendant when you enter the Chapel of Sansevero in the historic center of Naples as he checks your entrance ticket. Then you notice how small the chapel is about 90 square meters, cloistered with 18th century art. From the looming ceiling fresco by an artist named Francesco Maria Russo to numerous marble sculptures by various artists of the period each of which deserves an undivided attention, there is a dizzying air of abundance and excess that causes one—if you’re not careful enough—to suffer from aesthetic indigestion. Add to the cluster the indefatigable tourists who despite their disappointment at having been disarmed of their photographic inclination nonetheless enjoy the enclosed Rococo scenery of the chapel.
As you begin to compose yourself the next thing that draws your attention is the centerpiece of the chapel. Your eyes are directed to the soles of the feet covered by a very thin blanket of a man seemingly asleep. The silk-like blanket is so thin you can trace the shape of his toes in the distance pointed at around 45° angle. As you approach you recognize that the feet are not that of an aristocrat. They are the feet of one familiar with toil and hardship, of one who walked all his life, the soles calloused and hard, the thick protruding veins speak for themselves.
The Veiled Christ by the Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Sanmartino. It is difficult to believe that this piece of work, about 180 cm in length, breathtakingly life-like as it is, was completed in a space of a few months in 1753. It’s quite inconceivable the concentration and determination it took to undertake such work. The masterful chiseling tempts the visitor to reach out his hand on the surface to brush off any lingering doubt of its materiality. One marvels at how a block of marble can yield to prodigious skill; furthermore, how a marble can turn into pathos itself.
All is marble yet nothing seems marble!
The transparency and details of the veil are so convincing that legend has it the eccentric patron and inventor Raimondo di Sangro used alchemy on the sculpture to give it an extraordinary visual realism. But beyond the legend what moves the spectator is what this realism resonates. A realism which has little or nothing to do with the aesthetic liberties of late Baroque and Rococo, but the realism that often accompanies the life of the poor; the realism continually designed and enlarged by a system of financial speculation and resource exhaustion. The Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre:
Luminous night above the corpse stretched out without its soul.
The soul outside, soul outside the body, swooping
with such delicacy over the shape sad and abandoned.
Soul of soft mist, held floating
above its former lover, the defenseless and pale
body, which grows colder as the night goes on.
Why the veil?
The veil works not to conceal but to reveal. To reveal what? Something of the nature of suffering.
Observe the centerpiece carefully. Look at his facial expression—particularly the way the veins on his forehead touch the veil, the way his body is stretched out on the bed, the muscles in his thighs still tense, the nail holes like eye sockets: everything speaks of the freshness of pain he carried in his body. It seems that he has been taken out of the cross not that long ago. Looking at it you begin to feel in your hands the texture of the polished marble and the texture of a nameless pain. Suffering is a living presence.
As for the artist he needed the veil both to decrease the visibility of the horror inflicted on the subject and to increase the already severe labor of his life-work. For the artist Giuseppe Sanmartino, the slave-like toil of the act of sculpture of such scale is both a homage and an attempt to match the labor of Christ’s sacrifice. Art presupposes another kind of suffering.
Why the veil?
Perhaps to render a partial sense of anonymity of pain. Beneath the veil could be Christ or Nicola or Olga; it could be an immigrant, a political prisoner, an indigenous, a student, or a nurse; or it could be—following the sculptor and the patron’s tactless conviction—an artist. The degree of suffering may vary but the presence of pain reaches out towards us without awkwardness or embarrassment, demanding, more than pity and awe, a generous understanding on our part.
Within this distance of anonymity between we the spectators and the work of art, between our eyes and the veil which we cannot lift or undo, between our pain and the other’s we are reconciled to what our bodies remember and endure, to everything that is down to earth, to everything that makes and breaks us.