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The family's parish church of pope Pius XII (the pope during the Second World War) in Rome was the Chiesa Nuova where the body of St. Philip Neri was under the altar in a silver casket. The saint, with his unending sense of humor and love for education, music and culture, was one of the great heroes of young Eugenio Pacelli. Eugenio served as an altar boy at Chiesa Nuova, and, after his ordination as a priest, took weekly confessions there, celebrating often at the altar in the sacristy. He was born just behind the church. Padre Peppino, one of my mentors, had wonderful memories of the young pope Pius XII. And it’s amazing how this church and it’s spirituality, build by st. Philip Neri in the sixteenth century, still can have so much influence today (look my article about the Oratory). Think about it: Pius XII, born in the parish, his successor, the joyful John XXIII as historian wrote his doctorate on the successor of st. Philipp, Ven. Card. Cesare Baronius the historian. Pope Paulus VI came from the parish of the Oratorians in Brescia and had as confessor and spiritual director father (and nominated by him) Cardinal Bevilacqua. We can say for sure that the spirituality of that strange man, St. Philip Neri, determined a great deal of our modern history. I would say that his spirit was of the forces that led to the Second Vatican Council. And ... very recent, Prime Minister Tony Blair (at that time still Anglican) send his children to school in the Brompton Oratory of St. Philip in London.
To understand the man, and his witty spirit, who originated the church described below, please visit the page: The Oratory of st. Philip Neri.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH (1)
When in 1575, pope Gregory XIII recognized officially the group of people around St. Philip, a shockwave must have been gone through the spiritual movements of Rome: St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, needed years before his rule was approved by the Church. He even got a while in prison for it. The Capucinni monks got accused of heretics, and almost abolished. And than seeing that the Pope is approving a movement, not an order, something that didn’t had rules, neither a constitution or vows, just a bunch of people living together in the spirit of charity and independent of church hierachy, going so easily to be recognized by the Church ... try to understand it. But it was the founder himself, Philip Neri, whose charisma convinced the Pope. When the pope insisted that Philip Neri should organize his movement, he received the dry reply: “I never founded something, our Lady (Mary) did it. If you want a rule for our congregation, you should ask her!” It seems that Mary was pleased with a spirituality only based on “charity”. And “Charity” became the only rule of the movement, founded by the bull Copiosus in misericordia Dominus of the Pope Gregory XIII in 1575: today well known under the name of the Oratory. It was not a religious order, neither an accidental living together but a “Society of Apostolic life”. All members were equal, there was no superior, but only a “first among equals - a primus inter pares”,by majority elected for three years. Common people called it: “The Republic of Philip Neri”. Decisions are made by the majority of the members. The fathers and laymen in the Congregation can have private property, have to find a job and many more strange things compared to classical religious orders. Earlier in the history, some mystics had tried to do something similar, like the medieval association of priests in Flanders’ Brussel’s: Ruysbroeck and Thomas a Kempis. But there attempt failed. Mostly because there was to much mistrust from Rome. By recognizing the order in 1575, the pope give Philip Neri also a fatigue, but central located little church: Santa Maria in Vallicella. Restructuring the old one would be useless. But
in the old church there was a miraculous image of 1400 of Mary with Child, which St.Philip wanted to conserve in the New Church. Later, after his death it would become the center-piece of the main altar in the work of Pieter Pauwel Rubens. Money, nonetheless was scarce and the architect was offering a plan for a small church. St. Philip was not agree and pointed out were the dimensions of the new and much bigger church should be. A good intuition for sure, because, when they started digging, were found the remains of a Roman structure. Recycling the stones gave the building stones for the left wall and a great deal of the facade. A further vision of St. Philip -beautiful depicted by Pietro della Cortona in the nave (left) - that also the roof was about to collapse (but was supported in time by Mary so that nobody got injured), convinced the early fathers to rebuild the whole. St. Philip wanted a simple church. But please, don’t err and think that simple means also cheap !
I believe, in arts, it’s one of the wealthiest churches in Rome, and nonetheless simple. The church reflects the spirit of his founder, father Philip , who was against all kind of vanity:
A young Nobleman wanted to become member of the Congregation. Philip Neri said that it was no problem for him, but before becoming a member, he should go for two week through the streets of the city with a fox-tale stitched on his beautiful clothes. The young nobleman never became a member....
In the same spirit, there was very little space for individual glory of the benefactors, as we see in most roman churches. The only space left for them was the floor. And that floor became one of the most beautiful inlay-works of marble and precious stones. But in his Republic, the fathers were sitting together to create the spiritual program of the whole church that reflected the profound Marian devotion of the founder. This church, with it’s united program of the life of Mary - Mother of God, would inspire a friend of Philip Neri, St. Charles Borromeo, to write his trattato di Architettura, the blueprint for a lot of churches in the north of Italy. It was inspired on the Visit of the Seven Churches, founded by st. Philip. A church shouldn’t be a mix together of chapels of benefactors, but should be build around a theme. In the Chiesa Nuova (the New Church) as it was commonly named by the people, every chapel is dedicated to a part of the life of Mary. From the beginning of her life (Her presentation in the Temple) until Her coronation in heaven. Everything in the church swings between Alfa and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The frescoes and the colors of the marble in the chapels are in harmony and related to the altar-piece. Rarely you will find one church with so much harmony. Also the fact that in less than forty years all the chapels of the church were completed, added a lot to it’s harmony. If you are in Rome on May, 26th, go and visit that church. It’s the feast of st. Philip, and the whole church is still decorated in those days with gold silk and red damask.
List of the different chapel’s and their artists
Presbyterium: Glory of Mary and Angels
on left: Gregory the Great/Maurus and Papius
on right: Domitilla Flavia, Achileo and Nereo (all by Pieter Pauwel Rubens, 1608)
Chapel of st. Philip Neri (Guido Reni)
Chapel of st. Charles Borromeo (Carlo Maratta)
Chapel of the Presentation of the Vergin Mary in the Temple (Federico Barocci, 1603)
Chapel of the Coronation of Mary in heaven (Cavalier d’Arpino, 1615)
Annunciation (Pasignano, 1591)
Assumption of Mary in Heaven (Domenico Cerrini, +/- 1650
Visitation of st. Elisabeth (Federico Barocci, 1586) (left)
Pentecost (Giovanni Maria Morandi, 1689)
Nativity (Durante Alberti, 1590)
Ascension (Girolamo Muziano, 1587)
Adoration by Kings (Cesare Nebia, 1578)
Deposition (Originally by Caravaggio 1604) (right)
Purification (Cavalier d’Arpino, 1627)
Crucifixion (Scipione Pulzone, 1586)
All frescoes are made by Pietro della Cortona around 1635-1645
Sacristy: Statue of st. Philip Neri, Algardi
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