The Niccoline Chapel, aka Cappella Niccolina, isn’t seen by many visitors. Hidden away behind the Raphael Rooms and kept under lock and key, it’s not on the usual Vatican Museum circuit. Indeed, access here is usually reserved for visiting dignitaries, members of the clergy and famous people – until now.
The tiny chapel in the Tower of Innocent III was intended as a private place for Pope Nicholas V to pray. By his request it was frescoed by Fra Angelico – a renowned Italian painter all too often overshadowed by the masters that came afterwards. Born in 1447 (28 years before Michelangelo), Fra Angelico was a Dominican Friar noted by his contemporaries for his humbleness and modesty. In 1982 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II, making official his modern nickname il Beato Angelico, the Blessed Angelic One.
While the chapel is attributed to Fra Angelico and his assistants, it’s widely believed that he did the bulk of the work himself. An illuminator by trade, Fra Angelico covered much of the Cappella Niccolina in gold as he would have done to manuscripts but in the case of the Niccoline Chapel, this carries a special significance – the gold he used was some of the first brought back by Christoper Columbus from the New World.
The theme of the Niccoline Chapel frescoes was the first Christian martyrs, featuring St. Peter, St. Laurence and St. Stephen. While the Deposition of Christ that once existed in the space above the altar is gone now, most of Fra Angelico’s work is still incredibly well-preserved, particularly the lunettes in the arches of the room and the beautiful roof, featuring the four Evangelists.
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