The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist and its Treasure

Museu de São Roque

Church of São Roque, Lisbon

Chapter 1. The Chapel
Within the patrimony of the Church of São Roque stands out the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, commissioned by king D.João V (1706-50) intended to be a unique work of art in the artistic context of his time. The king of Portugal had a determinant role regarding the iconographic choices, as well as about his artistic preferences, himself showing a particular sensitivity towards taste.

Fortunately spared by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, this Chapel was one of the most famous enterprises of the Magnanimous king, who wished to leave in this church of the Society of Jesus the mark of his reign, namely the image of a sovereign that would be no less important than the main European courts of the time.

As a masterpiece of priceless value in the context of the European art of the 18th century, its construction took place between 1742 and 1750, when it was officially inaugurated in Lisbon. Consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV on 15 December 1744 in the Church of St. Anthony of the Portuguese (Sant'Antonio dei Portoghesi) in Rome, it was sufficiently finished so that the Sovereign Pontiff could say mass in it on 6 May 1747. 
In September of that year, the chapel was dismantled, transported to Lisbon in three ships, and two years later reassembled in São Roque. 
The Chapel’s iconographic program was immediately agreed upon and the painter, Agostino Masucci (1691 - 1758), was selected for the painting works. 

The architectural project, however, was involved in a somewhat heated controversy between the responsible for its development in Rome, Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) and Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773), and the coordinators of the commission in Portugal, led by João Frederico Ludovice (1673-1752), the German architect at the service of King João V.

Ludovice did question often times the choices made and would even propose variations, sending alternative drawings to the architects, which prompted frequent reactions. He even imposed alterations rather significant.

In turn the Roman architects keen to develop the artistic side tried not without difficulty to satisfy all the directives emanated from Lisbon, as explained through the documents emanated from Portugal. Thus, Salvi and Vanvitelli had to change more than once their project, even the more original components, so that the work would comply with the more classic and formal tastes imposed from Lisbon.

An important element to be mentioned here related with the commission is the Weale Album (the name coming from the English editor, John Weale, who owned it). The volume in question, despite various vicissitudes which threatened its survival in the 19th century, is currently deposited in the library of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was entitled “Libro degli Abozzi de Disegni delle Commissioni che si fanno in Roma per Ordine della Corte” and is a meticulously written and drawn record of the Italian art commissions for Lisbon ordered by the Ambassador Manuel Pereira Sampaio in Rome.

Regarding the iconographic program for the Chapel, this should try to respond to the triple invocation/title of the Chapel, namely the Holy Spirit, Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist, and develops in two elements: the altar and the lateral mosaic compositions,

as well as the sculpture, namely the pair of medallions on the ceiling, which represent “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist in the Desert” and “The Visitation of Mary to Elisabeth”.

As for the ornamental components in metal, several artists and artisans participated, all of them belonging to professions related to metalwork. So, we can recognize there the intervention of metal workers such as goldsmiths and silversmiths, blacksmiths and iron workers. 

Equally the mosaics, which feature the Baptism of Christ (the central one), the Annunciation and the Pentecost (the side ones).All these professionals, as well as the mosaicists, the sculptors and even the painter Agostino Masucci, responsible for the execution of the original paintings here transposed on to the mosaic panels, all worked under the straight coordination and supervision of the Italian architects, who were the ultimate responsible for the compositions

The paving is also decorated with vitreous mosaics, slightly bigger than the ones used at the panels.

Around the central oval, containing the armillary sphere, encircled by festoons of flowers, there are two major features in red porphyry, set in a mosaic frame, made up of winding yellow acanthus on a blue background. 

The frames are divided in decorative strips of varied old and modern marble, unusually assembled by brass fillets, similar to gold in colour.

Among the materials used for coating the walls 24 types of ornamental stones exceedingly rich are counted, namely lapis lazuli, agate, antique green, alabaster, diaspor, Persian gold-yellow, Carrara marble, French white-black, amethyst, purple porphyry, ancient brecchia, among others.

Alongside the ornamental stones, were used vitreous mosaics and gilded metals strikingly rich, as well as the marquetry work made up of precious woods and ivory which composes the last step of the altar, thus giving the Chapel a superlative beauty.

Chapter 2: The Treasure
On 9th March 1744, it was also commissioned to Roman artists, a set of liturgical vestments, utensils, lacework and missals, a collection truly unrivalled anywhere else in the world for their magnificence. They were made by the most highly reputed artists and craftsmen available in the Eternal City, who themselves supplied the Vatican.

The Italian baroque silver pieces that make up the treasure of the chapel of Saint John the Baptist is, indeed, a unique collection, that were truly unrivalled anywhere else in the world in their range and magnificence

They were made by the most highly reputed artists and craftsmen available in the Eternal City, who themselves supplied the Vatican. Despite the significant losses that time has inflicted upon this collection, it still amounts today to a unique set of liturgical instruments worldwide.

Liturgical vestments
The liturgical vestments constitute another exceptional collection, comprised over one hundred and fifty pieces, including, 

The homogeneity of the materials, the uniformity in the execution and the formal unity characterize the chapel vestments as a whole, “conforming to the richest and best taste in Rome”. The aim was clear: as with the other works of art commissioned for the Chapel, so the textile works should not be secondary in the projection of the image, which had to emulate the taste, the style and pageantry of Rome.

The treasure of the Chapel includes white vestments and red vestments, for daily use, festive days and solemn, in white, red, purple, green, rose and black.

The remaining vestments (except for the black) have only versions for quotidian and festive days.

Particularly expensive and rare the pink vestment can be used only in two specific days: on the third Sunday of Advent and on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

In contrast to all the other works of art commissioned for the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, the lacework was not produced in Rome. Lace was simply not made in the papal city and the most important manufactures were to be found in Flanders and France

The lacework was, therefore, not purposely made but purchased as required, together with their fabrics. For this reason, the lacework does not share the sumptuous 18th century baroque style, but rather the more widespread rococo taste.

Liturgical Books
The liturgical books for the royal Chapel of St. John the Baptist plays a significant role in the liturgical services held in the chapel. Conceived with similar type of design and decoration so to match the other pieces in the collection, they constitute fine examples of elaborate printed works composed for the religious functions. As sacred objects they could be no less worthy in dignity as the other sacred objects of the royal commission. 

The set is made up of: two Roman Missals, one Book of Epistles, one Book of Gospels, one Canon Missal for use of Bishops

In sequence to the expulsion of the Society of Jesus in 1759, the Church and the Professed House of São Roque were entrusted to the Misericórdia de Lisboa, in 1768, by king José I. Nevertheless the Chapel of St. John the Baptist continued in possession of the Royal House up to 1892, when its care was handed over by the Ministry of the Kingdom to the Misericórdia de Lisboa, together with the whole ensemble of liturgical items, creating the museum in 1905.

Credits: Story

General Coordination: Margarida Montenegro

Executive Coordenator: Teresa Morna

Exhibition Curators: Maria Lino; António Meira; Luísa Colen; Patrícia Lamas

Photo Credits: Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa; Cintra & Castro Caldas, Julio Marques

Credits: All media
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