The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist and its Treasure

Church of São Roque, Lisbon

Chapel of Saint John the Baptism, General view (1742/1752) by Luigi Vanvitelli and Nicola SalviMuseu de São Roque

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.

D.João V sculpture (1902) by Alessandro Giusti (copy)Museu de São Roque

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.

Marble angels on either side of the royal coat of arms above the arch, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Antonio CorrradiniMuseu de São Roque

Watercolour drawing of the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1905/1910) by Roque GameiroMuseu de São Roque

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. 

View of the frontal altar, Chapel of St John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

Altar front pilaster, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

In September of that year, the chapel was dismantled, transported to Lisbon in three ships, and two years later reassembled in São Roque. 

Annunciaton (1742/1743) by Agostino MasucciMuseu de São Roque

The Chapel’s iconographic program was immediately agreed upon and the painter, Agostino Masucci (1691 - 1758), was selected for the painting works. 

Design of external arch and plan of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Luigi Vanvitelli, 1742, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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.

Project of Royal Coat of Arms and Monogramme, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, João Frederico Ludovice, 1744, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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.

Gilt metal coat of arms and royal monogram decorating the sides of the altar, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, João Frederico Ludovice, 1744/1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Front and side elevation, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Luigi Vanvitelli, 1742, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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.

Marble columns with gilt metal capitals, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Francesco GiardoniMuseu de São Roque

Frontispice of the Album Weale, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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.

Design for the capital and base of the pilasters, Album Weale, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Francesco Giardoni, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Design for the marble relief depicting St. John the Baptist, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Bernardino Ludovisini, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Interior of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, UCI/NAM - Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa, 2012, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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,

The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert (1743 - 1747) by Bernardino LudovisiMuseu de São Roque

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”.

Coffered vault ceiling, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Francesco Rosa and othersMuseu de São Roque

Gilt metal door, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Francesco GiardoniMuseu de São Roque

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. 

Metal gates from the balustrade, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Francesco GuerriniMuseu de São Roque

Metal decorations of the predella of the frontal, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

Detail of an angel from the Altar frontal, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

Gilt metal decoration on the porphyry frames of the central mosaic compostion panel, Chapel of St, John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

Baptism of Christ, Agostino Masucci; Alessio Mattioli; Mattia Moretti, 1742 - 1752, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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

Design for the Baptism of Christ pannel, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Agostino Masucci, 1744/1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the hand of Christ sustaining the cendal at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter), Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the archangel at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the chest of Saint John the Baptist at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the feet of Christ at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter), Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Annunciation mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist), 1746/1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Design for the Anunciation pannel, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Agostino Masucci, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the Virgin at the Annunciaton mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the cherubin at the Annunciation mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Massucci (painter), Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the archangel at the Annunciaton mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Massucci (painter), Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Design for the Pentecost pannel, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Agostino Masucci, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the Virgin surrounded by the disciples at the mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter), Matia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the disciples at the Pentecost mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the Holy Ghost and cherubins at the Pentecost mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Floor mosaic composition (1751 - 1752) by Ignazio Stern; Enrico EnnuoMuseu de São Roque

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

Design for floor decoration, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1744/1745)Museu de São Roque

Detail of armilary shere of the floor mosaic composition, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Luigi Vanvitelli, Enrico Enuo and Ignazio SternMuseu de São Roque

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. 

Detail of the mosaic compostion floor, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Luigi Vanvitelli, Enrico Enuo and Ignazio SternMuseu de São Roque

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

Detail of the metal friezes, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Antonio ArrighiMuseu de São Roque

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.

Last step of the altar, Chapel of St. John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Lucino CittadiniMuseu de São Roque

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.

Detail of one Doctor of the Church, great candlestick, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1749) by Giuseppe GagliardiMuseu de São Roque

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.

Great Candlestick, Giuseppe Gagliardi and Leandro Gagliardi; Giovanni Battista Maini, 1751 - 1752, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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

Design for the Torchiere, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Giuseppe Gagliardi, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Pair of titans (detail on the base of the great candlestick), Chapel of Saint John the Baptist by Giuseppe Gagliardi and 1749Museu de São Roque

Detail of the scene of the Apocalypse, Altar Frontal, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Agostino CorsiniMuseu de São Roque

Censer, Leandro Galiardi, 1749 - 1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Communion vase, Antonio Gigli, 1746 - 1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the Lid of the Communion Vase, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Antonio GigliMuseu de São Roque

Reliquary Saint Prosper, Carlo Guarnieri, 1751 - 1752, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the upper part of the reliquary of Saint Prosper, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Carlo GuarnieriMuseu de São Roque

Central Altar canon, Antonio Vendetti, 1751 - 1752, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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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.

Detail of the central altar canon, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1750) by Antonio VendettiMuseu de São Roque

Pair of cruets on a salver, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Antonio Gigli, 1744/1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Ewer and Basin, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Vincenzo Belli, 1744/1750, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Design for Ewer and Basin, Album Weale, Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Vincenzo Belli, 1744/1745, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of the White Liturgical Cope for High Mass, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Giulano SaturniMuseu de São Roque

Liturgical vestments

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

Detail of the Red Liturgical Copes for High Mass, Treasure of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Girolamo MarianiMuseu de São Roque

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.

Detail of the White Liturgical Gremial for High Mass, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Giulano SaturniMuseu de São Roque

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.

Altar Cushion - Purple Festive Vestment, Cosimo Paternostro; Francesco Giuliani, 1744 - 1749, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Chasuble - White Festive Vestment, Nicolo Bovi, 1744 - 1749, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Black quotidian liturgical burse, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Filippo GabrielliMuseu de São Roque

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

Door Curtain - Green Festive Vestment (1744 - 1749) by Filippo Gabrielli; Francesco GiulianiMuseu de São Roque

Festive Purple Liturgical Door hanging, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Cosimo Paternostro, 1744/1749, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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Detail of red and black quotidian liturgical chasubles, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Gio Batta Salandri (red) and Filippo Gabrielli (black)Museu de São Roque

Detail of white and green quotidian liturgical chasubles, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1749) by Carlo and Margherita Abbondio (white) and Benedetto SalandriMuseu de São Roque

Altar frontal - Rose Festive Vestment (1744 - 1749) by Filippo Salandri; Francesco GiulianiMuseu de São Roque

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.

Chasuble - Red Liturgical Vestments for High Mass (1744/1749) by Girolamo Mariani and 1744Museu de São Roque

Lacework

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

Alb Bottom Lace, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1744/1745) by Brabante SchoolMuseu de São Roque

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.

Missal Book, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746) by Mariam Henricum Salvioni Ex-Typographia VaticanaMuseu de São Roque

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. 

Missal, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Printer Mariam Henricum Salvioni, Ex-Typographia Vaticana, 1735, From the collection of: Museu de São Roque
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The set is made up of: two Roman Missals, one Book of Epistles, one Book of Gospels, one Canon Missal for use of Bishops

Evangeliary and engraving of the Anunciation (1746) by Printer Joannem Mariam Salvioni Joachinum et Jo: Josephum FiliosMuseu de São Roque

Church of Sao Roque - view of the Main AltarMuseu de São Roque

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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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