Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 2004
John Beldon Scott Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 496 pp.; 16 color ills.; 202 b/w ills. Cloth $91.00 (0226743160)

Winner of CAA’s 2004 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award

Two types of publication, kept quite separate in the past, are brought together in John Beldon Scott’s sumptuously produced book: a “shroud” literature, or “Sindonology” (the local, devotional, and scientific literature around the relic), and a “chapel” literature, focusing on Guarino Guarini’s housing for the shroud, a black marble–clad chapel long considered wildly enigmatic. While the “shroud” literature may smack to some of incense, Scott discovered that it is, in one respect, more clear-sighted than much art-historical literature, which had turned a blind eye to the determining role of ritual in the design of the chapel and related structures for the shroud’s display. Spanning over five hundred years, Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin situates Guarini’s chapel as one component of a longer history that extends from the Savoy’s first housing of their relic in fifteenth-century Chambéry to today, and that encompasses the Savoy palace complex, Guarini’s chapel, and the urban fabric of the city of Turin. Indeed, Scott’s book could more accurately be called “Architectures for the Shroud,” in light of its comprehensive treatment of all architectures—permanent and ephemeral—built to house, frame, or process the Savoy shroud.

As Scott establishes in chapter 1, the cloth in which Christ’s body was believed to have been interred, bearing traces of his wounds and bodily effusions, was a unique relic with special problems for its display. The history of the shroud (measuring 1.10 × 4.36 meters) is wrapped up in the challenge of its housing, unfolding, and display to masses of pilgrims encouraged by indulgences to visit it in person. This chapter also outlines the history of its “ostension” and argues for its dynastic function “in the aggrandizement of the ducal house and the transformation of the Savoyard state under an aspiring absolutist regime” (37). Indeed, if the book could be summarized in a sentence it would be that the shroud itself had the force of a sacral-political argument, and that the architectures to house and display it had to make this argument manifest.

Given this important premise, Scott sets out to show how the political and architectural genealogies for Guarini’s chapel were intertwined. Chapter 2 treats the palatine-type Gothic chapel built by Amadeo VII, first duke of Savoy, to house the shroud in Chambéry (seat of the Savoy until 1578). He compares the building to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a reliquary chapel that the Savoy would have wanted to invoke because it was both royal and housed a royal relic (the crown of thorns). Having shown in the previous chapter that the Savoy took their possession of the royal relic as an argument for their own regal aspirations, here Scott shows that even the earliest architectural housing for this precious piece of evidence treated that aspiration as if it were a self-evident fact.

The relic arrived in Turin, the new Savoy capital, in 1578, and with this transfer commenced a new phase of architecture for its housing. Between its arrival and the completion of Guarini’s chapel in 1694, the shroud was housed in a variety of makeshift arrangements, from freestanding independent structures to ciboria located in the Turin cathedral, whose choir the Guarini chapel would ultimately abut (and rise above). Chapter 3 reconstructs the history of the shroud’s housing and the design of the sites of (and the routes to) its public ostension. Drawing upon the parallel research of Susan Klaiber (“Guarino Guarini’s Theatine Architecture” [Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1993]) and a mass of fragmentary descriptions and engravings, Scott demonstrates that while the various provisional housings satisfied some criteria but failed in others, they all established elements for Guarini’s chapel to come: both Carlo Borromeo’s desire for a dignified housing for the shroud connected to the cathedral and the duke’s wish for a structure connected to the palace were ultimately satisfied by Guarini’s alteration of a design executed to the level of the cornice by Bernardino Quadri. From the study of the prehistory emerges a major aspect of Guarini’s tweaking of his predecessors’ partially executed plan (analyzed in chapter 4): enlarging the opening between chapel and cathedral choir and placing a balcony at the seam, Guarini created a place for ostension and made the chapel’s centerpiece for the shroud visible from the cathedral below.

In chapters 5–7, entitled “Faith in Geometry,” “Imagery of Faith and Devotion,” and “Illusion of Meaning,” Scott offers his reading(s) of Guarini’s chapel not as the engineering feat it is often considered but as an “optical tour de force” (153). Guarini’s intervention was needed to design a drum and cupola tall enough to be visible and emit abundant light, but one that could also be supported by the foundation and walls in place. Guarini both reinforced the walls (masking the structural elements) and designed a highly original conical dome pierced by seventy-two windows that diminish in size as they rise to the lantern. The result is a dome that, through illusionistic devices, is made to look hemispherical and much taller than it actually is.

Guarini’s chapel is best known for its black-marble cladding, a somber funerary interior with virtually no figurative decoration. Scott shows that Guarini, like Francesco Borromini, used architectural ornament quite expressively. This adornment begins with the strange, almost anamorphic caryatids over the entrance to the stairwells that one must ascend from cathedral to chapel. Scott cites Vitruvius’s description of the caryatid used by Greek architects as figures of “shame and punishment for the sins of their people” (162). Accordingly, for Scott, Guarini’s caryatids in the cathedral are reminders of “carnality and travail” of the “mundane world” left behind when one ascends to the shroud (162). Why, though, should the church be the space of the world? Perhaps these figures, with acanthus leaves covering their genitalia, are, rather, the architectural equivalent of Adam and Eve, an architectural form that gives voice to the shame of original sin, born by us all—eminently appropriate figures to grace the stair that brings people on their knees to worship at the tomblike shrine of the savior.

The capitals, carefully attributed by Scott to Guarini, creatively incorporate instruments of the passion or figures that allude to them. For example, the passion flower (referred to as the “king of flowers,” with elements considered “regalia”) was a perfect match for Guarini’s project, a unique synthesis of the dual aims for the shroud chapel: to honor the Christ and to argue for the royal status of its possessors. Not only did the chapel work as a hinge between palace and church, but the imagery of the capitals also suggested that the shroud was royal, and that the possession of it proved royalty. Is it then so surprising that the passion narrative altarpieces originally planned for the niches, eventually occupied by the Savoy tombs, were never executed? Although Scott does not venture an explanation for the incomplete pictorial program, it is worth asking whether scenes of the passion would have compromised the emblematic power of the passion symbols. The beauty of the emblem is its ability to make one thing equivalent to another, collapsing time and distance (between Christ and the Savoy), while making it uncertain, through abstraction, whose royalty was being represented. In a figurative altarpiece, in which one could imagine Christ’s passion viewed by Savoy actors, Christ and the Savoy royal pretenders would more obviously be separated by historical time; royalty could not, without making obviously inappropriate assertions, be so subtly suggested as in the capitals.

One of the most innovative aspects of Scott’s argument is his emphasis on geometry’s role in design as a form of argumentation. The pendentive zone is the key here, with its nestling figures of Greek and “potent” crosses, allusions to the Savoy cross and the Jerusalem cross, the latter derived from the heraldry of the kings of Cyprus. These allusions pertain to the basis for the Savoy claim to royal titles to Cyprus and Jerusalem (both of these intertwined with the history of their possession of the shroud, itself part of their claim to royalty). The cross was both Christ’s and the Savoy’s heraldry, a further argument for their royalty. The second geometric figure is the pentagon (in pendentives and the dome), which references the “pentalpha,” a geometric figure derived by drawing a line between Christ’s wounds. The pentagon, Scott argues, is not metaphor but a rational demonstration and proof of the passion for Guarini, one that replaced conventional passion symbols. In sum, the imagery in the chapel adduces no authorities of the church, or even historical narratives attesting to the authenticity of the shroud. There are no miracles attributed to the cloth (until votives accrued). Rather, geometry here provides proof of its authenticity; the shroud, in turn, provides proof of Savoy royalty.

Chapter 7 is dedicated to the “interpretation” of the chapel. Here Scott aims to make Guarini—often considered an architect apart—into a mainstream Baroque architect interested in illusion and effect, one who meant to please and to move. Scott wants interpretation of the chapel to stick to mainstream imagery, and hence chapter 7 is dedicated to the seduction of illusionism as the primary means by which Guarini appealed to the common viewer. Contextualizing Guarini’s chapel in the history of illusionistic dome painting from Correggio on, Scott describes illusionism as “trickery,” “optical wizardry,” “clever deception” (207), and “optical cajolery,” one of the “tactical weapons” of Counter-Reformation “armies” used for “spiritual beguilement” (209). This language belies Scott’s suspicion of the spiritual aims of Guarini (and of Andrea Pozzo and other Counter-Reformation manipulators) and the gullibility of the man on the street. Indeed, Scott is far more wary of persuasion of a religious sort than what he considers a secular ritual, dispassionately analyzed in the last part of the book.

Scott sets his approach—to the chapel’s function and ends—against previous interpretations of the monument, which he categorizes as psychological, geometric, numerological, Christological, narrative, exotic, or formalistic. Again, he is suspicious of a range of views, especially those that see the building as embodying an abstract, intellectual idea, which presuppose esoteric knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary viewer. He favors, instead, the idea that Guarini was driven by practical design problems. So, for instance, the height of the dome and the window openings were the solution to the problem of lighting the space and were not intended as an expression of a theological idea. It might be asked why these ideas be mutually exclusive? It was apparent at the time that light in a church was one of many signals of the presence of God. One wonders, too, why one type of common viewer should be privileged in arguing for the chapel’s primary goal of persuasion? Why should meaning be limited to immediately apprehensible imagery when signs of higher truths apprehensible by the select few must also be available?

Scott is at his best in part 3, dedicated to the wider theater for ostension beyond the chapel, in the neighboring palaces and squares. He shows how the chapel was an extension of the piano nobile of the new palace, like the relic itself, a hinge between religious and secular realms. He emphasizes the “secular” use of the shroud—the Savoy control over the ostension ceremonies (and linkage of them to dynastic events)—and conducts exemplary readings of ostension rituals (over time) through documents and extant imagery. He very convincingly applies Emile Durkheim’s argument that ritual reinforced social cohesion by making visible shared beliefs of the community, while showing how Mircea Eliade’s notion that structured rituals exposed and reinforced power can be seen in the sacralization of the Savoy shroud and the ways the dynasty related this to its constituents. In Scott’s view, the architectures for the shroud—spaces for its procession and unfolding, an ostension terrace cutting across the palace square and further balconies on the Palazzo Madama, the organization of the processions, the division of social groups in distinct viewing zones, and even the reorganization of Turin’s streets to lead to the ostension sites—were not emblems of state power but were themselves “instruments of rule” (262).

The Savoy subordination of the cathedral in the ostension ritual was reversed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the fascinating final chapter of the book, Scott traces the loss of the original motives, meanings, and forms of the ostension architectures, beginning with the French occupation of Turin, when the shroud’s dynastic meaning was still rightly perceived and the door between chapel and palace was literally walled up. A willful shift of the shroud from secular to sacred realm took place as the Savoy achieved their political goal of becoming a royal kingdom, moving to Florence and then Rome while marginalizing Turin as capital. More important, with the changed basis of rule from sacral to constitutional grounds, the shroud’s value as an argument (Scott refers to its “totemic utility” (298)) became moot, permitting its descent (as a prop of royalty) from the Savoy piano nobile, back to the church (as a relic alone). Savoy tombs rose in the niches in the chapel where the altarpieces were originally intended. And the relic was now held awkwardly by church officials in front of the cathedral. Photography brought about new scrutiny of the shroud, and television made ostensions truly mass events. What is the role of an architecture of ostension in the age of mass media? Where the shroud is concerned, this question remains suspended, for in spite of the ready availability of the shroud’s image, 3.3 million people still came to see it in person, pace Walter Benjamin, in 2000.

With scholars such as Scott now emphasizing the rituals that drive architectural form, we are poised to ask, what is a chapel? Is it, as modernist hermeneutics would have it, a site that has a closed and unified meaning, a universal meaning eminently decipherable? Or, is it a collection of meanings accrued by its different audiences over time? Is it a form of argument? Assertion? Proof? Iconography will always play a role in answering these questions, but it will not explain the nature of the chapel as a project, one which, as Scott shows, must issue forth from particular actors and particular circumstances. With time, as Scott also demonstrates, it is inevitable that those motivations will be forgotten, and with them may be lost the forms devised in response to those original pressures.

A tragic fire broke out in the chapel in 1997. Scott’s book—the site research for which was undertaken fortuitously before the fire—makes available to authorities in Turin the historical raison d’etre of Guarini’s design and the political changes since then that have led to new locations and modes of ostension. Owing to the final chapter on the political changes that gave rise to the alterations of Guarini’s chapel up to the present, one of the great merits of this book is that it does not engage in nostalgia for the past. One cannot but wonder whether and/or how his book might influence the restoration. What is certain is that whatever decisions are made about the chapel’s reconstruction will inevitably have been informed by the pressures of today.

Evonne Levy
Professor, Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto