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The Chapel of the Shroud, Part II

In this second part of the article by Ignacio Huertas we will delve into the history and symbolism of the Chapel that has housed the Shroud for more than 300 years. This article is part of our tribute to Guarino Guarini, on the 400th anniversary of his birth.

2) History

In 1576 a plague epidemic ravaged Milan and other cities in northern Italy. The cardinal archbishop, Charles Borromeo, made a vow to make a pilgrimage on foot to Chambéry, to the Saint Chapelle, to venerate the Holy Shroud if the city was spared from the disease. When Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy[1] learned of Charles Borromeo's vow, he ordered the capital transferred to Turin. The aim was to ingratiate himself with the cardinal, one of the most relevant figures of the Counter-Reformation, and to distance the syndone from the Huguenots, who wanted to destroy it.

The end of the plague came in 1578 and the Shroud was moved to Turin. It was moved by secondary roads to avoid the Huguenots who, upon learning of the transfer, had expressed their intention to seize it in order to destroy it. At the entrance of the city she was received with great ornamentation and accompanied in solemn procession to the ducal palace. On October 11 an ostension was made before St. Charles Borromeo who, the day before, had fulfilled his vow at St. Mary in Praesepe[2].

Manuel Filiberto's will provided that a chapel be built to house the shroud where it could be venerated with "dignified pomp" and that it be financed in its entirety with alms collected during his funeral. Meanwhile, the shroud remained in the chapel of St. Stephen and St. Catherine, on the left side of the cathedral[3].

Two options were contemplated for the custody of the shroud: to build an independent space with an annexed convent to guarantee the liturgy or to build an altar under the transept of the cathedral. In this case, its grandeur had to be proportional to the importance of the relic. Pellegrino Tibaldi[4], chief architect to Charles Borromeo, was consulted. Through him, Borromeo pressured Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy, not to leave the shroud in the palatine chapel (accessible to a select few) but to place it in a public place where it could receive worship and veneration by the faithful. To this end, Tibaldi designed a temporary altar located in the presbytery. But, as soon as Borromeo left Turin in 1584, Tibaldi disappeared from the scene and the shroud had to be placed in a very provisional construction. It consisted of an edicule supported by four wooden columns stained blue and adorned with golden angels supporting a canopy.

Although it was to be a temporary location, it stood for 83 years. It became necessary to replace the wood with a large altar with a stone base, four huge columns of black marble from Frabosa (a town near Turin) and a complex wooden structure.

Charles Emmanuel commissioned the project to the engineer Ascanio Vitozzzi and Carlo di Castellamonte who designed an elliptical chapel between the ducal palace and the cathedral. Its location, elevated with respect to the cathedral, reiterated the position of the Savoy house with respect to the two powers and made clear its divine approval as guardian of the resurrection of Christ. However, after 14 years, by 1624 only the foundations and part of the walls had been partially laid, and it did not progress during the regency of Victor Amadeus I nor during the regency of his widow, Marie-Christine of Bourbon-France[5].

It was Charles Emmanuel II who, in 1657, released the work thanks to the pressure of Cardinal Maurizio, uncle of the duke, who, aware of the fire of 1532, was afraid of a new fire. The direction of the work was entrusted to Bernardino Quadri[6]. A temple with a circular plan raised several meters above the cathedral was chosen. This would allow a privileged view from inside the basilica through a window that would be obtained by demolishing the apse. It would be accessed through two staircases with huge black marble portals, one going up and the other going down for a better organization of the faithful. The ducal family would enter through a portal located on the second floor of the palace. The idea was to build a dome that would surpass the Renaissance dome of the cathedral in both height and beauty. In 1666, shortly after work began, Quadri was relieved of his duties. In 1668, he was succeeded by the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini who, two years earlier, had arrived in Turin for the construction of the church of San Lorenzo.

Given the advanced stage of the works, Guarini had to maintain the original layout, although he adapted it to his own architectural language. He strengthened the walls, which were too thin, and revolutionized the rest of the project, especially the dome. In the pilasters, he added symbolism linked to the Passion by giving a new language to the Corinthian capital. Instead of acanthus leaves and volutes, he inserted olive branches, a crown of thorns and a passion flower (passionflower) from which three nails and the Titulus Crucis emerge. In the dome, he converted the original four pendentives into three, inscribing a triangle within the circular plan. With the modifications, he made it clear that he wanted to eliminate the previous projects. His idea was to erect a tower structure that would evoke an ascent to infinity.

To lighten the weight of the dome, he added three large arches and opened six circular windows in the pendentives, where the light penetrates with great theatrical effect. The dome will be one of the most daring and complex works of all European baroque. The structure ascends as a conical drum truncated by three large arches on which sits a drum with six large windows[7]. The outer part has a wavy profile that gives it an oriental feel. The dome is like a basket formed by thirty-six stepped arches. It is topped with the dove symbol of the Holy Spirit on the inside, while on the outside it is topped by a cross with the symbols of the Passion.

On October 24, 1679 the dome was completed and on May 12, 1680 Guarini celebrated the inaugural Mass consecrating the Chapel to divine worship. He officiated on a wooden altar because the work was not finished. Three years later, Guarini died, leaving his work unfinished.

In 1685, Livorno Donato Rosetti was commissioned to continue the work. He died the following year and was replaced by one of his students, Antonio Bertola, who completed the work and designed the reliquary altar.

In 1694 the construction of the chapel was completed, after a century of work, with the placement of the shroud inside the altar.

c) The work

Externally, it is a square building attached to both the cathedral and the royal palace. On its base, there is a polygonal brick drum with six large arches with large windows, framed by pilasters and protected by a roof that rests on the arches. The roof of the chapel is supported by ribs on which stone urns are installed. Between the ribs, gently arched lines emerge, in oriental style, allowing numerous semicircular openings, up to the top of the dome. This is a small circular drum with a window and prolonged with a telescopic structure. The whole ensemble creates the illusion of greater height.

Inside we find all the expressive language of Guarini. On either side of the main altar there are two black marble portals leading to two dark staircases. At the end of them, there is access to two circular vestibules delimited by three groups of black marble columns.

In the center of the circular plan of the chapel is the reliquary altar. The chapel has five lateral chapels, the central one acting as apse and vertex of an equilateral triangle.

The floor has a black and white marble design while bronze stars framed in white marble reflect the light. The elevation of the chapel is marked by pillars, joined in pairs by three large arches that delimit the pendentives under the dome[8].

The dome is one of the most important and fascinating features of the chapel. Guarini used its structure to create an optical illusion. His knowledge of geometry and mathematics allowed him to create these superb structures[9].

The dome is divided into six layers and, as it rises, the height between layers decreases, creating an optical effect of receding. For Guarini, the domes are a fundamental part of the construction, the most complex to design and implement[10].

Guarini designs a skeletal structure formed by a network of independent spatial cells that intersect around a single point of support based on a hexagon, taking as a symbol the 6, the number of days it took God to create. Guarini clearly shows his concept of architecture as a living organism, in constant movement, generated by the encounter of independent spaces and pure forms that, by interlinking, mutually influence each other, giving life to the structure.

Although it does not appear particularly tall from the outside, when viewed from the inside it gives the sensation of greater height. This is because Guarini plays with three elements: geometry, light and color.

By decreasing the width of the arches as they get higher, it develops a telescope structure that creates the optical illusion of greater depth, giving that sense of greater height.

The play of light is masterfully executed. The more intense the light, the less the eye is able to distinguish the contours of an object and it will be perceived as more distant. For this reason, the drum and the dome filter the light through abundant openings and, as it descends in height, less light enters. To enhance this effect, the marble of the soffit was not polished, but only smoothed.

Following Leonardo's canons in terms of color (a color appears darker the closer it is and lighter the further away it gets), the two staircases and the base of the chapel used mainly black marble, and as it rises, gray marble is used[11].

The number 3, which has already appeared on several occasions, refers to the three days of Jesus in the tomb. This is the meaning of the three columns of the vestibules. But it also evokes the Trinity. Thus, the three large arches that support the dome, or the three pendentives[12].

As we can see, the symbolic elements are abundant: on the lintels of the three large arches, the nails alternating with olive branches refer to the sufferings of Christ. On the three pendentives, the Greek and Jerusalem crosses allude to the mystery of redemption. The hexagons and six-pointed stars symbolize creation and the ninth heaven (the Empyrean as the ancients said, alluding to the concentric spheres that form it). Going up the drum, on the next level, Guarini further lightened the structure by introducing an internal annular walkway and six huge arched windows, from which light penetrates in quantity, causing theatrical effects with light. On the pendentives of the dome, the pentagon it draws evokes the five wounds of the cross[13].

The light that enters is a symbol of the light of God that penetrates everything and floods everything. It is the passage from darkness to light. To enter through stairs covered with black marble, dark is to enter into death, into the tomb. Each staircase has 33 steps, the age of Christ. The vestibule introduces you to the mystery of death and, upon entering the chapel, the spectator is pushed upwards, passing from the darkness that surrounds the entire first level and gradually ascending through a light that culminates in a luminous explosion in the vision of the lantern, where we find the Holy Spirit. Through the architecture, the play of light, the blacks and grays, Guarini introduces us to the experience of death and resurrection. To venerate the Shroud, we must walk with Christ, through his life (we climb the stairs), until we reach Calvary, the center of death. Here, the black marbles refer us to death and sin and introduce us to the tomb of Jesus. But then, the light invites us to rise, to look up and let ourselves be transported to meet the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life and Love who completes the work. It is to enter into the mysteries of the passion, death and resurrection.

The white[14] capitals of the pilasters are adorned with the symbols of the Passion, the crown, the Titulus crucis and a passion flower with three nails.

The altar was designed by Antonio Bertola. Taking into account the circular plan, he designed a two-sided altar, one facing the cathedral and the other facing the Palazzo Ducale, elevated by six steps. Its centrality is underlined by the design of the floor, formed by concentric circles composed of golden brass stars placed inside Greek crosses in gray marble. The body of the altar is made on black marble enriched with different decorations and illuminated by four lamps. In the central part, in a glass urn, with a gilded iron grille, kept the XVI century reliquary of silver and semiprecious stones, which contained the holy shroud. Over the balustrade hung eight cherubs in a prayerful or disconsolate attitude, some carrying the nails of the Passion[15].

During the first half of the 19th century, the chapel was decorated with statues of the great personages of the Savoy house, commissioned by King Charles Albert. They represent Duke Amadeo VIII, Manuel Filiberto, Charles Emmanuel II and Prince Thomas of Savoy-Carignano, founder of the family branch that will ascend to the Italian throne[16].

On May 4, 1990, a fragment of marble from the cornice of the dome came loose. This event led to the start of restoration work on the chapel three years later. Just as they were about to be completed, on the night of April 11, 1997, a fire broke out which, together with the jets of freezing water, caused enormous damage. After 28 years closed to the public and 21 after the fire, in 2018 it was reopened, although it no longer guards the Holy Shroud. Therefore, it has remained within the space of the Royal Museums. In April 2021, the restoration of the altar was completed, thus concluding the restoration of the chapel.


BARNARDI FERRERO, D. DE, «Chiese longitudinali del Guarini», en Guarino Guarini e l’internazionalità del barocco, Accademia delle scienze, Torino 1970.

CHUECA GOITIA, F., «Guarini y el influjo del barroco italiano en España y Portugal», en Guarino Guarini e l’internazionalità del barocco, Accademia delle scienze, Torino 1970.

DARDANELLO, G. - KLAIBER, S. – MILLON, H. A., Guarini, Ed. Umberto Allemandi, Turin 2007.

GRITELLA, G., «L'architettura barocca e le nuove sfide del costruire», en Il Contributo italiano alla storia del Pensiero, Tecnica 2013, en

GUARINI, G., Architettura civile 1683, introducción de N. CARBONERI, notas y apéndice de B. TAVASSI LA GRECA, ed. Il Polifilo, Milán 1968, p. XVII-XVIII.

G. GUARINI, Architettura civile, ed. por Gianfrancesco Mairesse, Torino 1737.

GUARINI, G., Dissegni d’architettura civile et ecclesiastica, ed. por herederos de Gianelli, Torino 1686.

GUARINI, G., Modo di misurare le fabriche, Herederos de Gianelli, Turín 1674.

GUARINI, G., Placita Philosophica ... physicis rationibus, experientiis, mathematicisque figuris ostensa, Dionysium Thierry, Paris 1665.

MARCONI, N., «Guarini, Guarino», en Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 60, Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, Roma 2003.

MARCONI, P., «Guarino Guarini ed il Gotico», en Guarino Guarini e l’internazionalità del barocco, Accademia delle scienze, Torino 1970

Mazziotti, A. - Brandonisio, G. - Lucibello, G. – De Luca, A., «Structural Analysis of the Basket Dome in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini175, en International Journal of Architectural Heritage, 11:3 (2017).

MEEK, H. A., Guarini, Electa, Milan 1991.

 MEEK, H. A., Guarino Guarini and His Architecture, Yale University Press, London 1988, p. 5-8.

MERLIN, P., Manuel Filiberto. Duque de Saboya y General de España, Ed. Pasado vivo, Madrid 2008.

N. CARBONERI, N., «Bertola, Antonio», en Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 9, Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, Roma 1967.

Registro delle spese della Fabrica et marmi cominciato nel 1657, Sezioni riunite, art. 197, en Archivio di Stato di Torino, en

ROCA DE AMICIS, A., «Notizie su Guarino Guarini nell'Archivio Generale dei Teatini», en Regnum Dei, CXX (1994).

SANCHO GASPAR, J. L., Fillipo Juvarra, Real Academia de la Historia, en

SCIOLLA, G. C., «Note sul «Trattato di fortificatione» del Guarini», en Guarino Guarini

SCOTT, J. B., «Guarino Guarini's Invention of the Passion Capitals in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud», en Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec, 1995).

SCOTT, J. B., Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

TAMBURINI, L., «La chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione di Torino», en Guarino Guarini e l’internazionalità del barocco, Accademia delle scienze, Torino 1970.

TIRABOSCHI, G., Biblioteca modenense, Modena 1783, III, s. V.

VÁZQUEZ LÓPEZ, E., Teoría e historia de la arquitectura, en


[1] Born in 1528, he spent his government recovering the territories lost to the French and Spanish. He moved the capital from Chambéry to Turin. For more information on the character, see P MERLIN, Manuel Filiberto. Duke of Savoy and General of Spain, Ed. Pasado vivo, Madrid 2008.

[3] Ibidem

[4] For further information on his figure, see D.G.L., Pellegrino Tibaldi, in Enciclopedia del Museo del Prado,

[5] Cfr. F SURFARO, o.c.

[6] Bernardino's interventions can be found in the State Archives of Turin, in a register that collects news from 1657 to June 30, 1666 (Registro delle spese della Fabrica et marmi cominciato nel 1657, Sezioni riunite, art. 197).

[9]For a more technical analysis of the dome, see, A. Mazziotti, - G. Brandonisio, - G. Lucibello - A. De Luca, "Structural Analysis of the Basket Dome in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini175, in International Journal of Architectural Heritage, 11:3 (2017), p. 324-338.

[10]G. GUARINI, Architettura civile, ed. by Gianfrancesco Mairesse, Torino 1737, pp. 183ff.

[11] Cfr. F. SURFARO, o.c.

[13] Cfr. F. SURFARO, o.c.

[14] On the capitals, see J.B. SCOTT, "Guarino Guarini's Invention of the Passion Capitals in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud," in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec, 1995), pp. 418-445.

[15] Cfr. F: SURFARO, o.c.

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