Sometimes I have walked into churches in Italy and have been almost suffocated by the oppressive splendour that is found there. There is a darkness about them, that no amount of wonderful art and pomp can eliminate.
But the church of Santa Maria La Nova in the historic centre of Naples has a lightness about it that truly feels like a place of worship.
It is a treasure trove of combined art, history and religiousness. Built on the ancient Angevin foundations dating back to around 1279, it has had many transformations which can be seen throughout the different architectural styles.
It is called Santa Maria La Nova to distinguish it from the former church of Santa Maria ad Palatium, which stood where the Maschio Angioino (a mediaeval castle located in front of the Piazza Municipio, central Naples) stood.
Charles 1 of Anjou wanted to build this castle, so demolished the complex and gave the friars, in exchange, the place where the current church is located. Santa Maria La Nova was built in the Gothic style, but the architect is unknown.
Little is left of the original structure, due mainly to earthquakes over the 15th and 16th centuries, but also to a powder keg held near there that was struck by lightning in 1587 and demolished a large part of the church!
The church was rebuilt in 1596 funded by generous donations from the faithful followers, after a miraculous healing of a cripple, attributed to Madonna delle Grazie on 17th August 1596.
Two of the cloisters are part of the building and the smaller one holds sepulchral monuments from the church and frescoes from the life of Saint Giacomo della Marca, depicted by Simone Papa.
According to legend Vlad the Impaler, the dreaded prince of Wallachia, who inspired Bram Stoker’s imagination for his charachter for Count Dracula, died in Naples when he was a guest of his daughter, Maria. He was buried in the sepulchre of the Ferrillo family in the Franciscan citadel, built at the end of the 13th century by the Friars Minor, on a plot of land donated by King Charles I of Anjou. According to another source, Dracula, in fact, rests right under the porticoes of the small cloister, in the sepulchre.
The adjacent convent – in which the upper rooms, once were the monks’ cells – is composed of a sacristy, a refectory and two extraordinary cloisters. Since 2008, the Oltre il Chiostro association has set up the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (Arca) here.
The church has a Renaissance style facade and a Latin cross plan. The nave has a series of 16 beautiful, colourful, chapels which open wide along both its sides.
The ceiling is enriched by forty-six painted tablets, which constitute a true anthology of pictorial art inspired by the last Neapolitan artists, before Caravaggio took over the European artistic scenes.
Piazza S. Maria la Nova, 44
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