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Jan Fabre's coral sculptures in Naples are an exploration of Neapolitan tradition

The new permanent coral masterpieces—Per Eusebia and Number 85 (with angel wings) in two of Naples's most significant locations, add to the city's artistic legacy.

by Alice ZuccaPublished on : Apr 11, 2023

The city of Naples has had an undeniably enduring impact on celebrated Belgian artist Jan Fabre. His body of work bears witness to his deep appreciation for the city's cultural heritage, rich history, and singular traditions—with the artist even naming his son Gennaro after Naples' beloved patron saint. Marking an important milestone in Fabre's career, he returns to Naples to unveil two new permanent works that pay homage to the city's past while inspiring future generations to discover its multifaceted beauty and complexity.

The recently unveiled works are a tribute to the heritage and spirituality of Naples, conveyed through symbolic and poetic language characteristic of the multidisciplinary artist. The city of Naples, too, reciprocates this admiration bestowed upon it, by granting him access to two extremely significant locations: the Chapel of San Gennaro and the Church of Purgatorio ad Arco. The two new coral sculptures are the latest addition to Fabre's already notable oeuvre, which also includes four significant coral sculptures created for the Pio Monte della Misericordia in conversation with Caravaggio's masterpiece Seven Works of Mercy in Naples. The coral, once again plays a central role in the two exceptional new pieces, drawing on the local tradition of crafting with the precious element and elevating its use in contemporary art. The permanent installations, entitled Per Eusebia and The Number 85 (with angel wings), were created through generous donations of the visual artist himself, Gianfranco D'Amato, an entrepreneur and collector, and Vincenzo Liverino, a board member of World Jewellery Confederation.

Numero 85 (con ali d_angelo), 2022, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco 2, Jan Fabre | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Numero 85 (con ali d_angelo), 2022, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco 2 Image: ©Luciano and Marco Pedicini Art Archive (Naples)

The installation Per Eusebia (2022), a panel completely made of a chiselled mosaic of red Mediterranean coral, is an enchanting addition to Naples Cathedral, dedicated to the city's patron saint, San Gennaro. The artwork fits organically alongside other treasures in the cathedral, such as paintings by Domenichino and Lanfranco, more than 50 art sculptures and statues of co-patron saints, and four quintals of silver from the 'Splendors of the Chapel' of the 'Treasure of San Gennaro.' The panel is located in Antisacrestia, where the keys to the safe containing ampulla with St. Gennaro’s blood—an object of popular worship and devotion—are kept.

Here, Jan Fabre, as in other works, pays tribute to women who have played a fundamental role in history, he does so by recalling the pious woman Eusebia, (contested as) relative or nurse of the saint who first collected his blood after his martyrdom in 305 A.D. The 'cult of San Gennaro blood' is a religious practice that involves the annual liquefaction of the blood of the Saint, with devotees believing that when the blood liquefies it is a sign of good fortune and protection for the people of Naples.

Cult of the souls, adopted skulls and bones of the pezzentelle souls with offerings from the faithful at the church of the Souls of purgatory ad Arco in Naples | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Cult of the souls, adopted skulls and bones of the pezzentelle souls with offerings from the faithful at the church of the Souls of purgatory ad Arco in Naples Image: Alice Zucca

The sculpture artist creates an ethereal depiction of the saint through a fusion of various objects that are associated with the veneration of the miraculous blood. The mitre, adorned with an array of coral springs and surrounded by fiery tongues, boasts large coral tiles that mimic dazzling diamonds, emeralds, and rubies that embellish the real-life artefact. Positioned atop the panel are two keys that mirror the ones used to access the safe containing the blood, while red cornets shaped like cruets—symbols of prosperity and fertility—flank on either side of the composition. The composition exudes a sense of fluidity, as the keys seem to make contact with the balms from which droplets of deep crimson blood simultaneously fall, giving rise to clusters of exquisite half-pearls and cylinders. Against an infinite background of coral red, the monochrome hue comprises natural variations in shade and structure and composed of tiny rosettes, leaflets, and cornets that resemble delicate starfish, thereby evoking the natural habitat of the precious element.

Per Eusebia, 2022, particolare at Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Per Eusebia, 2022, particolare at Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro Image: ©Luciano and Marco Pedicini Art Archive (Naples)

The church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco is renowned for its exquisite Baroque architecture and its collection of significant artworks, among which is the new second sculpture, Number 85 (with angel wings), occupying a niche to the left of the altar. This work accentuates the mystical-sacral atmosphere of the church's surroundings.

With a rich history, the church was a pivotal pilgrimage site in Naples during the Middle Ages and continues to be owned by the confraternity Opera Pia Purgatorio ad Arco, which received papal approval from Pope Paul V's Brief in 1606 and is primarily dedicated to the celebration of masses for the souls in purgatory. The Council of Trent's (1563) affirmation of the importance of masses in reducing souls' stay in purgatory found fertile ground in Naples, the capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty, where overcrowding, poverty, and illness posed a constant threat of death. This practice also served to unite the living and the dead, contributing to the church's significance in Naples's cultural and religious landscape.

Cult of the souls, adopted skulls and bones of the pezzentelle souls | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Cult of the souls, adopted skulls and bones of the pezzentelle souls Image: Alice Zucca

The expansive and austere chamber of the church, bereft of embellishment, came to symbolise an authentic physical descent into purgatory. One could access the Terrasanta, also known as the ‘little garden of the sources’—where the brethren were interred—at the end of the subterranean space via a narrow corridor. Over time, it is highly probable that the Terrasanta also came to accommodate remains of lesser nobility, thereby filling with skulls, femurs, and other human remains that would later be recognised as ‘pezzentelle souls.’ From the worship of souls in purgatory to that of the ‘pezzentelle souls’—anonymous remains designated specifically to implore someone else's intervention in order to obtain a celestial and non-purgatorial destiny—the transition was not prolonged.

The people of Naples, accustomed to coexisting with death owing to the succession of plagues and cholera epidemics, quickly transformed this spiritual relationship into something tangible and corporeal. It is unclear when or where the cult took shape. What is certain is that the Neapolitans used to visit the remains of the deceased, and the tradition of adorning the Terresante with skulls was ancient. The frequented hypogean spaces, even in times of war, transformed the visit to the bodies into the actual adoption of the skull, which is still present in some areas of the city today. On Monday afternoons, hundreds of faithful, predominantly women, flocked to the hypogeum and the Holy Land seeking the soul, the skull to adopt. Prayers and care were subsequently assigned to the chosen remains: the bones were cleaned, dusted, and then placed in small shrines on embroidered pillows with a set of objects devoted to them. The worshippers aided the soul in liberating itself from the purgatorial fire so that it could ultimately enjoy the freshness of heaven. However, once in heaven, the soul had to repay the care received: the worshipper requested grace in the hope of reciprocation.

In the Holy Land of Purgatory in Arco, the skull of Lucia, a young maiden who passed away prematurely and who became, by virtue of being a young bride, the protector of unhappy loves, still garners significant devotion. By 1969, this cult, which was aimed at anonymous remains, had assumed such proportions that Cardinal Ursi banned it by Decree. The cult underwent fluctuating seasons between the late 1960s and subsequent decades, owing to the repeated closure of the hypogeum following the earthquake of 1980. However, the connection between the disbelieved souls, the ‘pezzentelle souls,’ and the Neapolitans has never diminished, and today it has taken on a new dimension due to the presence of visitors who leave anonymous and surreptitious prayers or requests for grace next to the skulls preserved in the Holy Land—attesting to the potency of this relationship that transcends time, origins, and cultures.

Per Eusebia, 2022, particolare | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Per Eusebia, 2022, particolare Image: ©Luciano and Marco Pedicini Art Archive (Naples)

In light of this, Jan Fabre's sculpture art, The number 85 (with angel wings) (2022), is a work that harmonises seamlessly with the setting in which it is situated. The sculpture, crafted from red coral of Mediterranean origin, is a creation specifically designed for the Neapolitan Church of Anime del Purgatorio in Arco, where Fabre has evidently assimilated the Neapolitan Baroque's essence that represents death in life and life in death. The artwork, which appears to be the direct descendent of the Winged Skull sculpture created by Dionisio Lazzari for the high altar in 1669, comprises a human skull with elongated, tapered wings emerging from its sides. The front displays the number 85, the numerological significance of which is attributed to the souls of Purgatory and establishes a direct correlation with the 'cult of the souls.' The artwork serves as an anatomical meditation that enables one to comprehend the form of life as it unfolds into other living forms. The Flemish contemporary master’s work reveals a great passion for transformation, evoking a visionary presence that rests somewhere between Bosch, Artaud, and Cuvier. It also extends an invitation to embark on an initiatory journey, a journey towards purification, a journey symbolised by the wings stretched upward, and one that aspires to heal the soul, a theme which resonates with Dante Alighieri's notion of purgatory in The Divine comedy.

Terrasanta of the church of the Souls of purgatory ad Arco in Naples | Jan Fabre | STIRworld
Terrasanta of the church of the Souls of purgatory ad Arco in Naples Image: Alice Zucca

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