A beautiful location, a church stripped to the bone. I think that would be a good summary of the current state of the Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore on the Piazza Navona. The church was one of two Spanish national churches. In the past it was known as San Giacomo dei Spagnoli and dedicated to Saint James the Great, patron saint of Spain. At the start of nineteenth century, however, the church fell out of favour and lost its position to the other Spanish church in Rome, the Santa Maria in Monserrato. Almost all of the interesting art in the San Giacomo was moved to the other church or to museums. The situation somewhat improved when, at the end of the nineteenth century, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart took over the church, renovated it and gave it a new name. But in spite of all their efforts, the Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore – as the church is now called – is still quite dull in terms of art and culture. On the other hand, there is no denying it has a truly splendid location, on the Piazza Navona, directly opposite the Fontana del Moro with the famous Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
For a long time, Spain was composed of two separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon. The marriage between Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 basically created a single new kingdom, although Spain did not become a unitary state until the beginning of the eighteenth century. While the aforementioned Santa Maria in Monserrato (then still called San Niccolò dei Catalani) had strong bonds with Aragon, and especially with Barcelona and Catalonia, the San Giacomo dei Spagnoli was known as the church for Spaniards from Castile. The first church on this spot dates from 1259. It was rebuilt in 1450 on the orders of the cleric Alfonso de Paradinas (1395-1485). After Alfonso’s death the project was continued under Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), who was himself a Spaniard. The pope was also involved with the other Spanish church in Rome, so perhaps the original thought was to treat both churches as equals.
However, this all changed after Alexander’s death. The San Giacomo dei Spagnoli became the one and only Spanish national church in Rome, while the Catalans and Aragonese went their own way and built themselves a new church. Artists such as Perino del Vaga, Cesare Nebbia and Baldassare Croce were hired to embellish the San Giacomo. Pellegrino Aretusi (ca. 1460-1523), a former assistant of Raphael, was commissioned to decorate the chapel dedicated to Spain’s patron saint, which had been built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546). In the chapel stood a statue of Saint James the Great by Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570). The Golden Age of the San Giacomo came to a close around the end of the eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth century. After Napoleon’s French had been evicted from Italy in 1815, the Spanish authorities chose the Santa Maria in Monserrato as their national church in Rome. While that church was thoroughly restored, the San Giacomo was neglected and stripped of its art, which was taken either to the Santa Maria or to Spanish museums in Barcelona and Madrid.
After a vacancy of some fifty years the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart took over the church in 1879. The building was restored and dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (of Jesus). One remarkable intervention by the Missionaries was the reversal of the orientation of the church. Originally the rear of the building adjoined the Piazza Navona, but the Missionaries decided to make this side the front of the church. Then in 1938 their intervention was reversed again when the broad Corso del Rinascimento was built. The current main entrance of the church on this street is hardly noticed by passers-by. It should usually be possible to enter the church from the Piazza Navona as well. The façade on this side – which I repeat is the rear of the building – is much more beautiful and is unfortunately basically the only interesting element of the church. The lower part dates from the fifteenth century and was designed by Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464), while the upper part was added in the nineteenth century. What the top part originally looked like can be seen here. The painting below by Caspar van Wittel (1653-1736), painted in 1699, also gives a good impression.
The interior of the church is disappointing, but then again one cannot expect that much from a church that has almost completely been stripped. The original altarpiece, a Crucifixion by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta (ca. 1521-1580), can now be admired in the Santa Maria in Monserrato. The current altarpiece is something undefinable. Of the chapels on the left side I have already mentioned the one dedicated to San Giacomo. The original statue of Saint James the Great by Jacopo Sansovino can now also be admired in the Santa Maria. In the chapel we find a replica, without a staff. The frescoes by Pellegrino Aretusi have been preserved, but they are in poor condition. On the right we see how the apostle grants victory to the Christians in Spain in their war against the Moors. The fresco depicts the battle of Clavijo, which is entirely fictional. Unfortunately it is very dark in the chapel.
Also on the left side we find the Herrera chapel, which was dedicated to the Spanish saint Didacus or Diego of Alcalá (ca. 1400-1463) in 1602. The decorations in the chapel were sponsored by the Spanish nobleman Juan Enriquez de Herrera. The altarpiece by Annibale Carracci (1560-1619) was moved to the Santa Maria in the nineteenth century, while the frescoes were detached and can now be enjoyed in famous art museums in Barcelona and Madrid.
Further reading: Churches of Rome Wiki.
A beauty in its simplicity👍