Pittsburgh Architect Provides Personal Connection to the Cardinals’ Conclave at the Vatican

Chapel of the Holy Spirit under construction. Photo courtesy of Astorino.by Heather Livingston

Louis D. Astorino, FAIA, is the first American architect to design and complete a building at the Vatican, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Completed in 1996, the chapel serves not only as a private chapel for visiting clergy, but also as a place for the College of Cardinals to pray and reflect before they headed to the Sistine Chapel to vote for a new pontiff.

Pope John Paul II—who attended the two conclaves of 1978 after the death of Pope Paul VI, and then of Pope John Paul I only 33 days after he was elected—determined that the extreme discomfort of the cardinals’ quarters during conclaves was unnecessary, especially given that conclaves can last weeks, months, or, rarely, years. The Pope wanted to ensure that the next conclave would prove more hospitable, so he authorized the building of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a hotel on the grounds of the Vatican, and an adjacent chapel where the cardinals could reflect in private and pray for guidance.

Interior of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Photo courtesy of Astorino.In 1993, Astorino was asked to consult on the Domus Sanctae Marthae. “Once they saw how well we worked with [the Vatican architects], Cardinal Castillo Lara, then the president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, asked us if we’d like to design a chapel,” says Astorino. In a public television documentary entitled From Pittsburgh to the Vatican (WQED, 2004) Astorino recalls feeling despondent that his design for the Domus Sanctae Marthae wasn’t selected for construction, but that didn’t keep him down for long. Just a few days later, Cardinal Lara called him back to Rome to ask if he would design the Chapel of the Holy Spirit on a site between the Domus Sanctae Marthae and the Leonine Wall, the fortification separating Rome from the Vatican that’s named for Pope Leo III, who rebuilt the crumbling divide in the 9th century.

Pope John Paul II praying in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Photo courtesy of the Vatican.Replete with the sacred
Although just 3,300 square feet in plan, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit glows rich in materials and details. Constructed of travertine, marble, copper, masonry, mahogany, and glass, the chapel is replete with the sacred. Wedging the chapel onto a triangular site, Astorino incorporated the symbolism of the Holy Trinity (represented by a triangle) throughout: the marble floors are cut into “1,200 or 1,300 different sized triangular pieces”; the nave, east and west walls, and northern bell tower contain triangular elements; and the altar sits on a large marble triangle surrounded by 12 triangles that represent Jesus and his apostles.

A sculpture of an inverted cross honoring St. Peter (the first pope, who was crucified with his head downwards) sits at the chapel’s entrance directly on axis with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and his grave. Charged with constructing a chapel that would “reflect today’s thinking and blend with the history and magnificence of the surrounding architecture,” Astorino’s design incorporates the history of the Vatican and imbues the chapel with tranquility by enclosing one side of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit with a glass wall looking onto the Leonine Wall. The result is a space that delights the spirit and infuses the soul with warmth and light.

Pope John Paul II with Vatican spokesman Father Paul Marzilli, Jean Astorino, and Lou Astorino. Photo courtesy of Astorino.Although humble about his role in the project, Astorino takes pride in the fact that “there’s a connection between everyday America and this selection of a pope in the fact that an American architect designed this chapel that the were inspired in and prayed in before they went to vote.” Calling the Chapel of the Holy Spirit his “firm’s greatest work” and his participation in the project a life-enriching experience, Astorino notes, “I felt I was just a pencil in God’s hand. I don’t think any of this was my idea. I just happened to be the vehicle.”

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