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Paul Bril’s Restored Paintings in the San Silvestro Chapel at Rome’s Sancta Sanctorum

Art & Design

Paul Bril’s Restored Paintings in the San Silvestro Chapel at Rome’s Sancta Sanctorum

Scala Santa leading up to the Sancta Sanctorum

Scala Santa (Holy Stairway) leading up to the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies)
[Photo by David Willey]

ROME – Paul Bril is hardly a household name, but to art historians the Flemish master is hailed as a seminal landscape painter whose haunting and inventive works are “almost surreal,” in the words of Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican museums. Paolucci was speaking November 12th at the inauguration of the decade-long restoration of the San Silvestro (Saint Sylvester) Chapel in Rome, whose high vaulted ceiling and lunettes Bril decorated.

Today’s extraordinary restoration, which covers 1,700 square meters of wall space, was financed by a grant from the John Paul Getty Foundation. It was executed by some forty art restorers and experts under the direction of Maurizio De Luca, who also oversaw the recent restoration of the Pauline Chapel by Michelangelo inside the Vatican. “Like any good restoration, it is invisible,” Paolucci observed.

Technically it was also stunningly complex: deep fissures risked bringing down whole patches of painted ceiling plaster, and inside the chapel with its high, vaulted ceiling the painted walls and ceiling were literally obliterated by four centuries of accumulated candle grease and grime. Only the faintest traces of the paintings remained, and all colors and themes were literally lost to time, and hence forgotten. The restorers painstakingly removed one layer of dirt, then waited to see the result before tackling the next.

The rediscovered colors are vibrant, but at the same time remarkably subtle, with distant mountains in shades of blue picked out by pink and pale gold streaking across the sky. The end result is that Bril’s paintings and the decorations by other artists burst upon the art scene today as if newly minted. “What is interesting is that this was never published because [it was] essentially invisible, and hence unknown,” says Carla Hendriks, a Dutch art historian specializing in Bril’s works.

San Silvestro Chapel before restoration

Interior of the San Silvestro Chapel before restoration

San Silvestro Chapel after restoration

Interior of the San Silvestro Chapel after restoration

Born in Antwerp in 1554, Bril was working in Italy at the end of the century, where his landscapes marked the transition between what Paolucci called the “autumn of Mannerism” of the Renaissance and the birth of the Baroque style. The change was enormous, and Bril is acknowledged as among its authors. His San Silvestro Chapel works precede even Annibale Carracci’s painting in the Doria Pamphilj Museum, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, often cited by art historians as the first landscape painting in Italian art. Carracci’s is similarly a landscape with a religious theme intended for a lunette, but was painted after Bril’s, between 1606 and 1609, when Carracci died.

Bril was therefore also a precursor of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, the artists of the romantic ideal ruins and gilded landscape, who came onto the Roman scene two generations later; Bril is believed to have trained Agostino Tassi, who in turn was Lorrain’s art teacher.

In decorating the San Silvestro Chapel, Bril was assisted by the so-called “Sistine painters,” directed by artists Cesare Nebia and Giovanni Guerra, who, like the artists restoring the Chapel, worked in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Palace in the late 16th Century.

The Chapel, which is tended by the Order of the Passionist Fathers, is situated in one of the most ancient and revered Christian sites in Rome, the Lateran Palace complex. Originally known as the Patriarchium, this once unified complex had been the palace of the Emperor Constantine. When he moved his capital to Constantinople, he donated the palace to the Church, and the complex remained the seat of the papacy and of the government of Rome.

Paul Bril landscape before restoration

Paul Bril landscape before restoration

Paul Bril landscape after restoration

Paul Bril landscape after restoration

On the second story one hall became the pontiff’s private chapel, known as the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies). Even after a devastating earthquake and the ravages of time required reconstruction of other areas within the palace complex, the Sancta Sanctorum remained the pope’s private chapel. Its rich hoard of votive offerings were closely guarded behind a thick grating, which not even the Lanzichenecchi mercenaries managed to loot during the famous sack of Rome of 1527.

In 1586, to embellish the Sancta Sanctorum, Pope Sixtus V had architect Domenico Fontana transfer the ancient Scala Santa (Holy Stairway, supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Helen, the mother of Constantine) from elsewhere in the complex to the foot of the Sancta Sanctorum. An atrium was created, and, flanking the Stairway, he added four other grand staircases to handle the crowds of worshippers. In acknowledgement, on one chapel wall a colleague of Bril, Baldassare Croce, painted a larger-than-life-size depiction of the saint, given the face of Sixtus.

Inside the San Silvestro Chapel Bril’s large landscapes occupy three lunettes, given fake frames of gilded “wood” so that they appear to be windows, whereas a fourth is actually shaped like an open window that reveals distant fantasy architecture. “They are all open windows, shown through shadowed borders of the lunette frames, suggesting that light is entering from the opposite side,” says Hendricks.

Within these windows daily life is shown, from fishermen in their boats in a river to hooded monks walking up a mountain path toward a triumphant Christian church surmounted by a cross. The church is joined via a viaduct to what appears to be a semi-ruined castle.

Elsewhere are other Christian shrines as well as pre-Christian temples, while in one scene a lively boar hunt is in progress with three hunters and a dog.

“This,” sentenced Paolucci, “was the landscape of both the realistic and the surreal.”

Paul Bril lunette during restoration

Paul Bril lunette during restoration

Paul Bril lunette after restoration

Paul Bril lunette after restoration

Together with his brother Mattheus, Bril came to Rome from Flanders in 1582. His brother died the following year, and Paul completed works Mattheus had begun. His other works can be seen worldwide in museums from the Hermitage to the Harvard University Art Museum and Oberlin’s Allen Art Museum. They include a famous view of the ancient Roman forum, at the time a field given over to pasture, called “The Campo Vaccino with Gypsy Woman.” He is also the author of fresco cycles in the casino of Palazzo Pallavicini and the Villa Aurora, both in Rome.

On the other side of the Sancta Sanctorum, Sixtus V also commissioned construction and decoration of the San Lorenzo Chapel, which similarly vaunts lunettes by Bril. That chapel is not yet restored and funding is actively being sought according to restoration project manager Mary Angela Schroth, an American curator.

Still revered by the faithful, today the Holy Stairway and Sancta Sanctorum attract up to 2,000 visitors a day, many climbing it upon their knees and reciting a prayer at every step.


The Scala Santa is open daily.
Summer hours: 6 am to noon; 3:30 pm to 6:45 pm
Winter hours: 6 am to noon; 3 pm to 6:15 pm
The San Silvestro chapel is open daily except Wednesday mornings and Sundays.
Hours: 10:30 am – 11:30 am and 3 pm to 5 pm
Reservations can be made to visit the San Silvestro Chapel and the Sancta Sanctorum (no email yet), E. 5.
Tel: +39 06 772 6641.
Without reservations, visitors can arrive on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 10:30 am or at 3:30 pm, meeting at the entrance to the San Lorenzo Chapel to the R. at the top of the staircases. No visit is possible, however, if a group has booked those times.

Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the "Cleveland Press" of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to "ARTnews" of New York and to "Current World Archaeology" of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey.

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