Building of Solomon’s Temple by Giovanni Battista Ricci (designer)

Giovanni Battista Ricci

Building of Solomon’s Temple, 1623–27, Gilded stucco, Blessed Sacrament Chapel vault, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Courtesy of the Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano

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The New Sacrifice

Commentary by

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).

 

References

‘The Blessed Sacrament Chapel-Detail Maps’, http://stpetersbasilica.info/Altars/BlSacrament/BlSacramentDtl.htm [accessed 5 October 2020]


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