Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria – Baroque art on the move
The church, whose construction began in 1608 was initially to be dedicated not to Our Lady of Victory (Maria della Vittoria), but to St. Paul. Why was the patronage changed? In the bloody, unending battles between Protestants and Catholics, during the Thirty Years’ War, the Discalced Carmelites received an exceptional gift. This was the miraculous icon of Our Lady from Prague, which exhibited its unique power, saving, as legend would have it, the entire Catholic army in the Battle of White Mountain (near Prague), in 1620. This occurred thanks to the Carmelite, Father Dominic, the army chaplain, who at the moment when it seemed the tide of the battle was turning in favor of the enemy, entered the fray with a previously desecrated painting of the Madonna and Child hanging around his neck. And it was this painting that led the Roman Catholic forces to victory. Then, along with the army it was brought into Prague in a grand procession (hence its name), where a veritable slaughter of the Czech, Protestant elite took place. The general of the army, later gave it as a votive offering to Pope Paul V, who ordered it to be placed in the main altar of a newly created Roman church. At that time the painting acquired a propaganda significance, it was seen as a symbol of ultimate victory over the Protestants and the fear-inspiring heresy. It became an object of particular adoration and cult, while the name of the church itself began to be identified with this very painting – with the Victorious Madonna, the scourge of the Protestants. And so the patrons were changed – St. Paul had to give way to the Virgin Mary. Today the altarpiece is a copy of the aforementioned Madonna of Prague. The original was destroyed in 1833 during a church fire. At that time a fresco in the apse directly above the altar was also painted, commemorating the story of this holy image.
If somebody would like to see the formation of the armies which fought at White Mountain as well as the courageous Father Dominic, he can do so in the church oratory (on the right side of the altar), where there are several canvases illustrating this event, painted by, shall we say, rather pedestrian artists. In this very location, besides books and souvenirs, we can purchase, from a kind and always smiling friar, liqueur or other specialties made by the Carmelites.
The church was designed and built by one of the top architects of those times, the author of the façade of the Vatican Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano) – Carlo Maderno. His ornamental, single-nave interior is richly yet harmoniously planned, strikes with elegance of the shining, as if fit for Baroque, stuccos, multi-colored marbles and elaborate wall paintings. It was created thanks to the generosity of well-known families. It was their wish to be buried within the church, while as thanks they furnished the individual chapels with the best works of art of the most renowned artists of those times. In this way, the church acquired the paintings of top Roman painters of the first half of the XVII century – veritable stars of the epoch. Perhaps today it is difficult to believe, but in the past their fame was equal to that enjoyed by Caravaggio, or even greater. The first was Guercino, the second Domenichino, while the third, Guido Reni. It would also be impossible to overlook the paintings of Giuseppe Cesari (Cavalier d’Arpino), the protagonist of Caravaggio, but at the same time a popular and valued painter. We can therefore, assume that the church was a fashionable location, in which an elite final resting place was created.
Before directing our steps towards the work of art for which this church is generally visited, let us take a look at the paintings of the aforementioned artists.
It is also worth directing our attention to a chapel (looking from the enterance, second on the left), devoted to St. John of the Cross, shown in a Carmelite habit, in which there are paintings of a little-known Lorrain artist Nicolas de Bar. His works merit attention, as they remind us of a very important at that time figure of a Spanish saint (at that time still only Blessed) and a mystic, who in addition was the companion of St. Theresa d’Avila, along with whom they both left the Carmelite order, striving for reform of the congregation, or more appropriately its moral renewal. The chapel reminds us of an argument within the Carmelite Order, which took place in Spain in the seventies of the XVI century. It is a memory of the imprisonment and flagellation which befell John at the hands of Carmelites, as well as of the division which took place in 1580 in the order, resulting in the creation of the Discalced Carmelites (church owners) and Carmelites, meaning those who did not approve of the reforms.
And finally the crème de la crème, meaning Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is him that the Carmelites can thank for a lack of peace and quiet and the throngs of tourists, who continually fill their church. Or perhaps more appropriately it is thanks to his ingenious work – the Chapel of St. Theresa, devoted to the courageous Carmelite, who along with John of the Cross, fought for the new face of the order. She was canonized in 1622, meaning right after this church was consecrated. The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1646) is one of the most interesting sculptures of the divine Bernini. In it he depicted the moment in which the Spanish mystic, is pierced with the arrow of divine love. The association with Cupid’s arrow and a moment of sensual ecstasy are easy to notice. Hence, the controversy surrounding his work, which had already aroused emotions during the artist’s life. The composition is supplemented by men from the Cornaro family (the chapel founder), seated on balconies found at the sides – as if in a theatre.
A testimony, to the extent of the impression this masterpiece made on Bernini’s fellow artists as well as subsequent generations, is the sculpting group found directly opposite. In a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph, nearly 50 years later, Domenico Guidi, attempted to reference Bernini’s composition. As can be seen, he even created a similar scene (St. Joseph’s Dream), which cannot be accused of either lacking artistic spirit or artistic excellence, however, it does not possess the same power of stimulation and magic which had been achieved by the ingenious Bernini.
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Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa – an anthem on the subject of bodily union with God
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