The Cappella del Voto, a Baroque jewel in a medieval cathedral
It is unexpected to most that in a city like Siena, known for its ‘medieval excellence’, is possible to find masterpieces of Baroque architecture and sculpture. To discover one of these art treasures, the visitor just needs to cross the nave of the Siena Cathedral and, upon arrived under the dome, move to the right. After walking a few metres, you can find yourself in front of the Cappella del Voto. Built at the behest of the Sienese pope Alexander VII Chigi – who in 1660 decided to have a patronage site built in the city cathedral – the chapel was built to designs by Benedetto Giovannelli Orlandi.
The environment has a circular plan and with the walls marked by beautiful columns of African green marble, above which rises a dome with a tambour. Some hexagonal lacunars cut out the space of this golden vault; these then gradually reduce in scale towards the centre, thus also emphasising the sense of height of this space.
The Cappella del Voto in the Cathedral of Siena
Above the altar of the chapel there is a painted panel depicting the Madonna with Child (called by the Sienese Madonna del Voto); once this panel was part of a larger polyptych, dating back to the 13th century, traditionally attributed by critics to the painter Dietisalvi di Speme.
The statues of the Magdalene and of San Girolamo by Bernini
After standing for a moment on the entrance threshold, the visitor enters the chapel, and on the sides he encounters two masterpieces by the great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the niches: the statues of the Magdalene and San Girolamo. The statues present in the other two niches next to the altar, Santa Caterina da Siena and San Bernardino, are works by two important collaborators of Bernini, Antonio Raggi and Ercole Ferrata.
At the end of this brief description of the Cappella del Voto, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention by talking about the marble columns that enrich this sumptuous environment. They are columns made of the so-called “African green marble” (so called because of their origin) and they are elements dating back to a much older era than the construction of the chapel: in fact, as these valuable columns were available, the pope wanted the architect Orlandi adapted the shape of the new building to be built on the size of these.
But there is still one more interesting thing to know: tradition wants these marbles come from one of the most important monuments of Christian Rome and that, in order to be brought to Siena, they were even stolen from Rome during the night to then be embarked on a ship that arrived in Livorno after a perilous journey that lasted almost two months.
If you want to find out where these columns are supposed to come from, as well as the complex meaning hidden behind the works in the chapel, book a guided tour of Siena Cathedral ⟢