The grand and sumptuously decorated Cappella Paolina, (Pauline Chapel), which is part of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, was built at the behest of Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21) to house the ancient and much-venerated Byzantine icon known as the Salus Populi Romani (Health/Salvation of the Roman People). The icon is thought to have arrived in Rome during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604).
The Cappella Paolina, which was designed by Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) and built between 1606 and 1612, was consecrated on January 27th, 1613.
The fresco (1612) in the cupola is the work of Ludovico Cardi (1559-1613), better known as il Cigoli, who was charged to paint the Woman of the Apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation: 'And there appeared a great wonder in Heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars' (12:1, KJV). The Woman of the Apocalypse is widely identified as the Virgin Mary.
The painter was a close friend of the great scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and in his depiction of the Virgin Mary we see the first example of Galileo's discoveries about the physical nature of the moon. Before this, the moon, when included in images of the Virgin Mary, was always perfectly smooth. Here it is pock-marked with craters, just as Galileo himself drew it in his ground-breaking astronomical treatise Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), which he published on March 13th, 1610.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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