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 icon known as the Salus Populi Romani (Health/Salvation of the Roman People).The icon is at least a thousand years old and derives its name from the assistance it is said to have once provided in keeping the plague away from Rome.
The Cappella Paolina, which was designed by Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) and built between 1606 and 1612, was consecrated on January 27th, 1613.
The small chapel to the right, just inside the entrance gate, is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, while the matching chapel to the left is dedicated to St Frances of Rome. Pope Paul V canonised both figures.
The side walls are taken up with monuments to Pope Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605) and Pope Paul V. The statues of the two popes are the work of Silla Giacomo Longhi (1569-1622), also known as Silla da Viggiù.
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.