The hidden symbolism of Cappella Sansevero

The Sansevero Chapel, built in 1590, was enlarged and embellished by Raimondo di Sangro in 1744 with an extensive collection of statues all dedicated to Mary, the mother of jesus. Beyond the religious orthodoxy of the statuary, there are a series of symbols of hermetic heterodoxy that characterized the esoteric thinking of di Sangro, one of the founders of Freemasonry in Naples and an avowed practitioner of alchemy.

On the left side of the chapel is the statue of Decoro (Decorum), a young man with a lion’s skin thrown over his shoulders in an allegory of Hercules, which symbolizes Strength and intellectual Power. Opposite you will find the statue of Amor divino (Divine Love) holding up a flaming heart, symbolizing the Power of the Spirit and the Heart that makes it possible to achieve a chemical Marriage as well as Divinity, as embodied by the Divine Mother, the patron of alchemists. A little further along, you will find Liberalità (Liberality): the coin (moneda) and the compass represent the Monad, the Spirit of Man, and the circle of the action of the Divine Will where its presence is diffused.

On the opposite side is Educazione (Education), which transmits to the child, the neophyte, the elemental assumptions of hermetic Initiation – respect for freedom of thought and feelings of our fellow beings, with decorum and love in the service of Divine Wisdom symbolized by the Virgin. These principles are reinforced by the presence of other statues, those of Sinceritá (Sincerity), Soavitá del giogo coniugale (Sweetness of the Marital Yoke), Zelo della religione (Religious Zeal) and Dominio di se stessi (Self-control). Whoever does not possess these qualities will inevitably fail the Initiation that the symbolism invokes.

Sincerity, a caduceus in his right hand and a heart in the left, represents spiritual introspection, the request for hermetic Illumination by the Initiate seeking to unite with the God within, in an act of absolute sincerity. Sweetness of the Marital Yoke, helmet on head and yoke in hand, indicates that gently but firmly, like a sacred warrior, he must gradually transform the life-energy into life-consciousness in the yoke of real life. Religious Zeal carries a torch evoking acquired knowledge and the duty to preserve it, without adulterating it with foreign elements, while respecting the freedom of thought which conforms to free will in general. Self-control (of one’s baser tendencies) is the greatest and most sublime of all battles that a man can fight, which is why the statue features a warrior holding a chained lion at his feet and an inverted torch, expressing the Love that emanates from the tamed beast (exterior and interior). This is the allegory of the triumph of Love and Wisdom over brute force, the ultimate transformation of the profane to the Initiate.

The abandonment of an ordinary life for one of spiritual existence is symbolized by the Disinganno (Disillusionment) statue, which represents a man releasing himself from the mesh of a net with the help of a winger genie, ann allegory of the divine Spirit. This is represented below by a bas-relief of Christ giving sight to the blind, transmitting the Light of Truth to those who live in the darkness of ignorance, the greatest blindness of all.

Finally, Pudicizia (Modesty) brings together all initiatory Wisdom, whose Light is sought by the neophyte wishing to become an Enlightened One.

There is no doubt that Cappella Sansevero is a visual delight and it does take more than one visit to take it all in. By giving some understanding to the meaning of and linkage between the statues, the Cappella becomes even more of a wonderment and I hope this small piece will encourage you to revisit or visit the Cappella and examine it through different eyes.



(Adapted from Secret Naples by Valerio Grimaldi & Maria Franchini, published by JonGlez)

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