The current appearance of the Sansevero Chapel corresponds to a very precise iconographic design, conceived by Prince Raimondo di Sangro and realised by the artists who worked under his supervision. From the main door, one enters the single nave, ending in an apse containing the High Altar. The two side walls have four rounded arches, each one containing a tomb, except the third arch to the left of the main entrance, where there is the side door, and the third arch on the right, that opens onto the Tomb of Raimondo di Sangro.
The tombs in the side chapels are dedicated to the illustrious ancestors of the di Sangro family, while the sculptures set against the pillars separating the arches are dedicated to the women of the household, past and present (except for Disillusion, erected to the memory of Antonio di Sangro, father of Raimondo). These statues are certainly the focal point of the Prince of Sansevero’s original iconographic design. In fact, they represent different Virtues, stages on a pathway to initiation leading to interior knowledge and perfection. No less important in the overall symbolic context is the floor with its labyrinth motif, designed by the Prince and laid by Francesco Celebrano. An ancient symbol, the labyrinth represents the arduousness of the journey towards knowledge.
The Veiled Christ, a world artistic masterpiece, was to have been – in the intention of the Prince – located in the Underground Chamber designed by di Sangro himself, in the Underground Chamber that was also to be have been used to house the future tombs of the Sansevero family, but which was never finished as the Prince envisaged it (the present appearance of the Chamber is the result of work completed after his death). The Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino was to have been illuminated by the flame of a perpetual lamp, invented by the Prince of Sansevero; it too evocative of esoteric symbolism.
The rich symbolism of the works in the Sansevero Chapel, whose complexity does not make them suited to a clear and unequivocal interpretation, does not explain the meaning of di Sangro’s project. As well as being a Temple of the Virtues and a home of philosophy, the Sansevero Chapel is also, and above all, a monument meant to exalt the rank of the Sansevero household, and immortalise the glory of its members. It should not be forgotten, furthermore, that when he commissioned the work, Raimondo di Sangro bore in mind the long theoretical, plastic and figurative tradition that had preceded him. The most obvious example being that almost all the allegories of the Virtues take as their model the iconographic principles of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593), a work for which – by no coincidence – di Sangro himself had financed a monumental new edition in five volumes. However, the Sansevero Virtues never imitate the model slavishly. Indeed they enrich it, modifying it and departing from it in many details, but always significantly.
The creative interaction between Raimondo di Sangro and his artists has made the Sansevero Chapel an inimitable place of art, magnificence and awe, and to it the Prince dedicated much of his life and wealth. An example of the care he lavished on each detail of his fascinating project is the fact that he left instructions in his will that his heirs should alter nothing of the layout and the symbolic display that he had conceived. For this reason it may be categorically stated that the Sansevero Chapel constitutes, more than any of his other inventions or literary works, the message that Raimondo di Sangro has left to posterity.