The Power of Absolution: The Chigi Chapel

Lara Belfield


St. Ansanus, as depicted by Duccio on the Maesta, 1308-1311. Photo Credit: La Via Della Santa

Figure 6: Duccio, detail of St. Ansanus on the “Maesta,” 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duono, Siena.  Photo credit: La Via Della Santa


The Chigi Chapel is located on the eastern part of the sacristy of Siena Cathedral, and features a rounded shape with a large dome.  Originally, the chapel space was dedicated to Ansanus, the first patron saint of Siena (fig. 6).  Ansanus was martyred by Emperor Diocletian, who beheaded the saint for spreading the Gospel while he was imprisoned in Siena.[1]  Ansanus was abandoned as the city’s patron saint and replaced with the Virgin Mary after Sienese soldiers prayed to her for victory in the battle of Montaperti against the Florentines.  Despite being incredibly outnumbered, the Sienese prevailed, and attributed their success to the Virgin.[2]


Before the redesign, the pavement in the Chigi chapel showed scenes from the cathedral’s consecration.  An elliptical area at the far side of the chapel was home to the Porta del Perdono, or Gate of Forgiveness.[3]  The pavement and the Gate were destroyed under Bernini’s plan, but the Gate did inspire him to theme the entire design around the concepts of absolution and forgiveness.  Chigi entrusted Bernini entirely with the redesign of the chapel, therefore giving the artist complete control over the entire design process. The chapel was intended to both honor the Chigi family and house an icon of the Virgin Mary.  The south side of the chapel, formerly the home of the Gate of Forgiveness, was chosen to house the Madonna del Voto (fig. 7). The image was created by a follower of Guido da Siena and was traditionally believed to have been the image to which the Sienese soldiers prayed before the battle of Montaperti, although this is under some debate.[4]    Nevertheless, this association caused the Madonna del Voto to be venerated by the Sienese, and therefore deserving of a special place within the cathedral. Two artists from Bernini’s workshop, Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi, carved sculptures of the current patron saints of Siena that are located in niches on either side of the Madonna.  Ferrata’s Saint Catherine stands in the southwest niche, while Raggi’s Saint Bernardine resides in the southeast niche (figure 7).  Though Bernini did not carve these figures himself, he directed his assistants in their design and chose the subjects in order to make the room more distinctively Sienese.[5]

The Madonna del Voto flanked by the St. Bernardine and St. Catherine. Photo Credit: Vassilik

Figure 7: Follower of Guido da Siena, “Madonna del Voto,” 13th century, flanked by “St. Bernardine” (Antonio Raggi) and “St. Catherine” (Ercole Ferrata), c. 1661, Chigi Chapel, Siena Cathedral, Siena. 
Photo Credit: Vassilik

However, the elements of the chapel that most clearly accentuate the theme of forgiveness are the St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalen figures that flank the entranceway.  Unlike most of the other sculptural or architectural elements found within the chapel, these sculptures were personally executed by Bernini between 1661 and 1663.[6]  The St. Mary Magdalen is located in the northeast niche, while the St. Jerome is placed in the northwest niche.  Since the sculptures are located on either side of the chapel’s entrance, visitors do not notice them upon first entering the chapel.  Rather, it is only when they turn to leave do they notice St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalen, which therefore act as visitors’ last impressions of the Chigi Chapel.  The placement of the figures was likely intentional, and studying the composition and symbolism surrounding these religious figures can shed light on their importance.

[1] Harriet Feigenbaum Chamberlain, “The Influence of Galileo on Bernini’s Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Jerome,” The Art Bulletin 59, no. 1 (March 1977): 71.

[2] Gerald Parsons, Siena, Civil Religion, and the Sienese (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), 10.

[3] Chamberlain, 71.

[4] Parsons, 26.

[5] Chamberlain, 71.

[6] Chamberlain, 71.