The Artistic Sacristy

The Sacrestia Artistica, the “Artistic” Sacristy or Vestry, situated on the left at the end of the cloister, was built in 1480, designed most probably by Pietro Antonio Solari, active in Milan between 1450 and 1493 on the worksite of the Duomo, San Pietro in Gessate and Santa Maria delle Grazie; he was appointed to direct the re-construction of the Carmine church after its partial collapse in 1446.

The Sacristy has a rectangular floor plan and, in common with other buildings of the period, has one side which is double the length of the other:16. 80m x 8. 40m. The ceiling has lowered vaults and lunettes with an unusual umbrella-like design in each of the four corners. Originally, the chamber was lit by eight symmetrical windows, four on each of the long sides. One has been closed to hold a painting of St. Andrea Corsini, a saint of the Carmelite Order.

The present flooring of the Sacristy is made of solid wood decorated in squares to match the cabinetry but the original flooring was in terracotta slabs, measuring 42 x 22 cms; after 1692, this flooring, still visible inside the wardrobes and the room adjoining the Sacristy, was overlaid with the present one. Due to subsidence of the original, the central part of the wood flooring was pinned down with spikes driven directly into the pre-existing one.

The precious tabernacle, made of wood set with gemstones and placed above the main altar of the Carmine church, was previously situated in the Sacristy.

The black walnut cabinetry of the Sacristy was made between 1692 and 1700, following the design of the Milanese architect Gerolamo Quadrio in 1692; it was he who designed and oversaw the transformation of the Chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The woodwork was done in the workshop of the master-carver from the Valtellina, Giovanni Quadrio, already working in Milan and, undoubtedly related to the better known Gerolamo.

The wardrobes and cupboards which cover the walls completely, to a height of 4. 9m. except where the windows are located, constitute a work of art, splendidly Baroque, with touches of Baroquette.

They were made to contain liturgical items and are situated along the two long walls, each side in the same way, with two massive wardrobes of maximum height in the middle; they are very deep and the upper part of the doors are decorated with bas-reliefs in eight delicately carved panels. These alternate with wooden counters with two-door cupboards above them. At the four corners of the chamber, the cabinetry follows the curved 45*line of the lunettes of the vaults with single glass door fronts, three of which open into built-in cupboards while the fourth, to the right of the altar, opens into a small room adjoining the Sacristy.

The cupboards are all separate and evenly ranged, but, at the same time, harmoniously and coherently conjoined by festoons, woven patterns and putti, all carved in the wood. There are wooden busts of prelates and princes on top of them and four female medallions, supported by putti, placed in the four corners.

There are wooden busts of prelates and princes on top of them and four female medallions, supported by putti, placed in the four corners.

The overall effect is that of a glimpse into an imaginative and fascinating Baroque world; the woodcarvers of Giovanni Quadrio”s workshop, inspired by the brilliance and creativity of the architect Gerolamo Quadrio, created an almost surreal ambient where architectonic, sculpted and perspective aspects blend according to the canons of “total” Baroque art in masterly fashion. This harmonious complex of wooden statues, putti in full relief and busts, massive, elegant cabinetry with delicate carving, panels in bas relief and high relief altarpiece leaves the visitor breathless, immersed in what Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini loved to define as “beauty that saves the world”.

Thus, the two Quadrios, architect and woodcarver, created an artistic ambient with a spiritual message; the Silentium (Silence) written above the doorway opens on to an itinerary of the Carmelite Order through the prophet Elias, portrayed over the entrance, the altarpiece of Our Lady dominating the altar, the founder of the Order, St. Simon Stock and its great reformer, St. Teresa d’Avila.

Further Details Of The Decoration

A polylobated panel above the doorway into the Sacristy depicts the sacrifice made by Elias on Mt. Carmel, linked to the Carmelite Order and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It shows the contestation between the prophet and priests of Baal narrated in the eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings (Kings 1, Ch. 18). The bas relief shows an altar with an ox, ready for sacrifice on it, in the centre; to the right, there is a woman sitting on the ground and, to the left, an old man, kneeling, with two soldiers nearby, one of whom is holding a sceptre. There is also a woman there but only her head is visible.

There is also a woman there but only her head is visible.

The panels decorating the wardrobe and cupboard doors in the Sacristy present historical moments related to the Carmelite Order. The compositive balance, ability to create background with few lines and delicacy of form, presenting gradual changes of volume, make masterpieces of these panels.

Facing the doorway from inside, above the glass door in the right-hand corner, a panel portrays St. Andrea Corsini. Restoring sight to a blindman in Avignon; another monk and two youths can be seen on the right with a tree and the outline of a building in the background.

On the other side, above the glass door in the left-hand corner, another similarly elegant panel shows St. Teresa, with a mantle covering her head, as she kneels in prayer before the Child Jesus who is proffering the Confessions of St. Augustine. The setting is a chamber defined by a segmented arch, partially covered by a drape, gathered to the left. The heads of cherubs can be glimpsed among the clouds and, at the saint’s feet, a putto is presenting a basket.

Another panel, on the imposing wardrobe in the middle of the left-hand side when facing the altar, also refers to the history of the Order; it portrays the baptism of two richly dressed nobles or Muslims, on their knees. One is upright with his hands joined and the other’s head is bowed towards a basin; the scene is completed with two monks, one of whom is baptising, an old man and a woman. The composition shows great finesse against a lightly delineated architectonic background.

On the opposite side of the Sacristy, the panels show St. Teresa returning to her mother and a Carmelite saint driving out a devil.

A panel showing St. Andrea Corsini healing a lame person can be seen above the glass door to the left of the altar and, on the right of the altar, in the same position, the apparition of the Lord to a Carmelite saint is portrayed.

The four oval medallions, framed in oak leaves and held by winged putti, in the four corners of the Sacristy are very striking; some scholars feel that they represent noble benefactors of the Carmine church and convent whilst others suggest that they are, instead, the four cardinal virtues, portrayed as well, in the smaller dome of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Chapel in the church. The craftsmanship is elegant and graceful and witness to the Baroque period predilection to enrich the front of imposing cabinetry, statues and ornamentation. Despite being part of the greater overall structure, the beauty and finesse of these medallions make them small masterpieces.

The altar is along the wall facing the doorway into the Sacristy; it is an imposing structure in wood in typical Baroque style with two spiral columns and decorative elements including two sibyls; the Eritrean Sibyl (Sib erit), on the left, is holding an inscription which reads: portas effringet averni, part of a longer quotation which means (fire will destroy). the gates of darkest hell. The second sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl (Sib cum) is holding a scroll with the words Domini manus obteget illos. the Hand of the Lord will strike them The partially gilded, architectonic and sculpted structure frames a precious, high relief, carved wood altarpiece; it can be considered to be one of Giovanni Quadrio’s masterpieces and he dedicated fifteen years to the carving of it. Polylobate in shape and surmounted by a great crown, the altarpiece portrays the Virgin and Child in Glory, seated on a cloud; as She is being crowned by an angel, Mary is offering the Carmelite Scapular to St. Simon Stock, founder of the Carmelite Order, kneeling before Her. The Child is offering a crown of roses to St. Teresa d’Avila, founder of the “Discalced” (barefoot) Carmelites, together with St. John of the Cross. Placing the Scapular on one side and the garland of flowers on the other signifies the sublime and freely given “heavenly gift” conferred on these two personages, portrayed together, suggesting the pacification of the Orders after the disputes and discord which historically opposed the Calced Carmelites with the Discalced Order.

The neutral background and gilding add to the importance of the figures portrayed. A scroll at the base of the altarpiece bears the following words, in capital letters: DECOR CARMELI… BEAUTY OF MT. CARMEL.

In the “frontal of the altar, with two full relief statues of putti, a walnut high relief shows the “ecstasy” of St. Teresa d’Avila; St. Augustine is hovering over the mystic Spanish saint in ecstasy, writing the name of Jesus in her heart. St. Teresa has a copy of the “Confessions” of St. Augustine near her-he was a deciding factor in her conversion. This work is a clear reference to the Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini.

Carmelite Spirituality

The Carmine Sacristy also consists of an itinerary of Carmelite Spirituality which can be seen in four different segments.

Biblical Pre-history

Carmelite spirituality has its origins based on the significance that Mt. Carmel, together with the prophet Elias, has assumed in the Hebrew and Biblical collective imagination.

Elias and his pupil, Elisha, represent the great prophetic phase of the Kingdom of the North which, having separated from Jerusalem, was at risk of falling into idolatry and worship of Canaanitic gods.

Elias was the great defender of the radicalism of the Hebrew religion, the central personage in the fight against polytheistic deviations and external, religious contamination. Elias was the great defender of the radicalism of the Hebrew religion, the central personage in the fight against polytheistic deviations and external, religious contamination. The “sacrifice on Mt Carmel” which connotes the contestation between the Phoenician and Canaanitic gods and the God of Israel, concluded with the fire that descended from the heavens and consumed the victim on the sacrificial altar-as shown in the panel above the entrance to the Sacristy. The prophet then proceeded to kill more than four hundred priests of Baal. Mt. Carmel thus became the symbol of the radicalism of the faith and propagation of the true religion.

Elias and the cult of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel

Elias and Mary are linked by a Marian reading of an ancient interpretation of a bible story, narrated in Kings 1, Ch. 18, after the massacre of the priests of Baal. The end of the drought, which had blighted northern Palestine, was announced by Elias as “a small cloud no bigger than the palm of a hand”, a cloud which was interpreted by an ancient tradition of the monks as prefiguring Mary.

The tradition also asserted that, by the beginning of the third century A. D. some Christian anchorites, who later became coenobites, settled on Mt. Carmel; in the fourth century, near the spring of Elias, they built a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, venerated as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Archaeological evidence also confirms this ancient Marian cult.

Thus Mt. Carmel, symbol of the radicalism of the Hebrew faith, also became the place of a special cult of Mary, Mother of God.

The portrayals of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, in both the beautiful statue in the Chapel in Carmine church and in the Sacristy, have the cloud of biblical tradition as Her throne.

The Origins of the Carmelite Order and St. Simon Stock

The Carmelite Order originated in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel, with anchorites and coenobites who increased in number during the crusades. With the Muslim re-occupation of the Holy Land, they were forced to leave the Middle East to settle in Europe, in particular, in England where St. Simon Stock, who lived in the 13th. century and of whom little is known, joined the Order. He became one of the first Superiors General of the Order who considers him to be their founder.

Devoted to Our Lady, he asked Her for a sign of special protection for his Order and, as a gift, received the Scapular. According to Carmelite tradition, Our Lady said to St Simon Stock :“Beloved son, take the Scapular of your Order, distinctive sign of My Confraternity. It is to be a sign of health, a safeguard when in danger, of alliance and peace with you forever. He who dies in the Scapular will not suffer the fires of hell.”

The Scapular, as seen in Quadrio’s altar piece, is a long strip of cloth made to cover the front and back of the body, with a hole in the centre for the head-a type of garment and mystic armour which guaranteed salvation. It must not be forgotten that theology of purgatory was developed during those years and the Scapular became the symbol of protection, a safeguard for the salvation of the soul and liberation from purgatory.

Carmelite Reform and St. Teresa d’Avila

The great Spanish mystic, born in 1515 and Carmelite nun in 1536, suffered a long, gruelling illness in her youth and, especially after 1557, had mystic experiences. From that time onwards, she devoted herself to the reform of both the male and female Discalced Orders with the help of St. John of the Cross and continued to have increasingly more profound mystic experiences; these overwhelming ecstasies placed the Person of Jesus Christ at the centre of her being and existence.

Thus, Carmelite Spirituality draws on these three sources:

– the radicalism of the Faith (the prophet Elias),

– the central position of Mary in the existence and spirituality of Christians and her help for salvation,

– the passionate central position of Jesus Christ, transmitted to us by St. Teresa d’Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Carmelite Spirituality was transformed into image and art through the artistry of Giovanni Quadrio, thus becoming a message for posterity and a font of admiration and wonder for all who see his masterpiece.