The vault and walls of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the right-hand side of the nave in St Peter’s Basilica are ornamented with panels containing gilded stucco reliefs showing scenes of salvation history, from Adam and Eve to Christ. Of these, five are devoted to King Solomon, including two showing his building and dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem.
King Solomon, in Christian tradition, is both an ancestor and a type of Christ. The Song of Songs, attributed to him, was read by commentators like Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux as an allegory for the love between Christ and his Church. Above all, Solomon’s Temple was considered a symbolic archetype of the Church; the sacrifices performed at its dedication and later within it were seen as foreshadowings of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and its bloodless re-presentation in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Thus, the prominence of Solomon and the Temple in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel asks to be interpreted in light of the chapel’s dedication. The central panel of the vault represents a chalice and host, the sacrament that is present in the active celebration of the Eucharist at the altar, and reserved in the grandiose tabernacle designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the unmistakable shape of a Temple.
The foreground of the panel shows the building of the Temple and portrays King Solomon with the artisan Hiram (1 Kings 7:13–14). Solomon is dressed in Roman-style armour, with a turban surmounted by crown. Carrying a sceptre in one hand, he points with the other to the design, while an architect hovers nearby carrying measuring calipers. In the background we see building underway: workers chisel rock, carry stones, set bricks. The pillars of the Temple are modelled on Bernini’s pillars for the ciborium surmounting the high altar in St Peter’s.
The complementary panel in the series (not shown here) shows Solomon’s dedicatory sacrifice: flames with animals burning in them and bowls for blood. In the foreground, a man with a knife holds onto a goat intended for slaughter. As Solomon’s Temple in these reliefs evokes the Church, so the bloody sacrifices once performed in the Temple are contrasted with the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist that takes place in the chapel, and these in turn sacramentalize Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8:2).
‘The Blessed Sacrament Chapel-Detail Maps’, http://stpetersbasilica.info/Altars/BlSacrament/BlSacramentDtl.htm [accessed 5 October 2020]
62 Then the king, and all Israel with him, offered sacrifice before the Lord. 63Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord. 64The same day the king consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord; for there he offered the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to receive the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings.
65 So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great assembly, from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt, before the Lord our God, seven days. 66On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king, and went to their homes joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to David his servant and to Israel his people.
9 When Solomon had finished building the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all that Solomon desired to build, 2the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before me; I have consecrated this house which you have built, and put my name there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 4And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 5then I will establish your royal throne over Israel for ever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a man upon the throne of Israel.’ 6But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, 7then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and the house which I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 8And this house will become a heap of ruins; everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 9Then they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore the Lord has brought all this evil upon them.’ ”
4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the Lord. 5King Solomon offered as a sacrifice twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people dedicated the house of God. 6The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the Lord which King David had made for giving thanks to the Lord—for his steadfast love endures for ever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets; and all Israel stood.
7 And Solomon consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord; for there he offered the burnt offering and the fat of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar Solomon had made could not hold the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat.
8 At that time Solomon held the feast for seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. 9And on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly; for they had kept the dedication of the altar seven days and the feast seven days. 10On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their homes, joyful and glad of heart for the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to Israel his people.
11 Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord and the king’s house; all that Solomon had planned to do in the house of the Lord and in his own house he successfully accomplished. 12Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17And as for you, if you walk before me, as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 18then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20then I will pluck you up from the land which I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21And at this house, which is exalted, every one passing by will be astonished, and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22Then they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Lord the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore he has brought all this evil upon them.’ ”