The Guastalla Chapel
The Apparition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1956)
Situated next to the door to the Sacristy, this chapel houses the Guastalla altar - designed by Pellegrino Tibaldi – a triumph of baroque. The centrepiece is flanked by two angels, each seemingly supporting a pillar dangerously unsteady and dislodged from its base, so that the main beam surmounted by a curved tympanum is kept straight.
The idea for this unusual composition comes from the frame designed by Daniele da Volterra for the Orsini Chapel in the church of Trinità dei Monti in Rome, which Tibaldi knew well.
Originally the altar was not under the patronage of a local noble family as would be customary, but devoted to the burial of pupils from the all-girl boarding school founded by Paola Torelli, countess of Guastalla, where the Jesuits were spiritual counsellors.
In her will written in 1569, the countess left instructions for the construction of the chapel in local Ornavasso marble - but for the angels, to be carved in Carrara marble, and the pillars, to be carved in Lake Lugano marble.
Ambrogio Figino was commissioned to paint the Coronation of the Virgin (now in the vestibule to the Sacristy) and the smaller paintings of the saints Peter, Paul, Magdalene and Martha still on the side walls of the chapel. While under construction, the altar was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Coronation was moved elsewhere in the early 19th century when the Transfiguration by Bernardino Campi (1565) was re-housed here from the church of Santa Maria della Scala – until 1956, when the current installation of Lucio Fontana’s ceramic work was carried out.
Ever since the early 1950s father Arcangelo Favaro – founder of Galleria San Fedele – and the artist Lucio Fontana – Argentinian of Italian origins - had started a collaboration that had led to Fontana designing the little statue given as a prize to the winner of Premio San Fedele and the winners of all competitions organised by the Centro San Fedele since. Fontana was then commissioned the large Sacred Heart altarpiece in glazed and polished ceramic that we see in the chapel today.
It was an important commission for Fontana, who had also submitted his entry for the tender for the Fifth Door of the Milan Duomo in 1950 – sadly won by Luciano Minguzzi instead.
The concept of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is central to the Jesuits’ spirituality.
The French Jesuit Claude de la Colombière (1641-1682) was its main promoter, and also spiritual counsellor to French mystic Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), who had several visions of the Sacred Heart.
For his altarpiece made of twenty-eight tiles, Fontana takes inspiration from the traditional representation of the apparitions received by the saint, based on her autobiography, where she wrote: “The Divine Heart was presented to me in a throne of flames, more resplendent than a sun, transparent as crystal, with this adorable wound. And it was surrounded with a crown of thorns, and a cross above”.
The saint herself is depicted with stretched arms in the lower left-hand corner of the piece, while in the upper right-hand corner the church of San Fedele is clearly visible.
By Fontana are also the two small angels in the crescent inset above the altar, seen holding the ostensorium containing the Blessed Sacrament.