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Bolsena Mass

Raphael Rooms: Room of Heliodorus

Vatican Museums

The Room of Heliodorus was where the pontiffs held their private audiences with ambassadors and kings.

It was the second room frescoed by Raphael and the entire decoration—not by chance—has purely political ends: its four frescoes were meant to show how, over the course of centuries, God had always protected Rome, the Faith, the pope and his works.

Mass at Bolsena

To show how God watched over the Faith, Raphael painted on one of the short ends of the room, an episode known as the Bolsena Mass. The fresco tells the story of a priest who doubted that the bread and wine offered at mass could be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

According to legend, at the moment of the Consecration, the corporal, a white linen cloth that was on the altar, became stained with blood. The episode created such a panic that the Cathedral of Orvieto was founded to preserve the corporal as well as starting the religious holiday of Corpus Domini.

The fact that Raphael was asked to depict this particular event was also not by chance: during that period, many doubts were being raised regarding Church dogmas and the Church used the artist’s work to calm the waters.

Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila

On the wall in front is the story of Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, King of the Huns. This served to show how God had also protected Rome, the pope’s city, over the course of history. When Attila reached Italy, he quickly marched on Rome. Pope Leo the Great decided to meet him and, according to legend at least, it was during this very meeting that Saints Peter and Paul, armed with swords, appeared miraculously. And so it was that the King of the Huns gave up the idea of invading Rome.

Raphael chose Rome for his scene design, showing the Colosseum and an acqueduct in the background—even though the meeting actually took place in Mantova, a city in northern Italy. Pope Julius II died just as Raphael was finishing this fresco so the artist decided to use the new pope—Leo X—as the model for Saint Leo the Great.

Oddly enough, Pope Leo X appears twice in the scene, both as the pope and as one of the cardinals in the pope’s entourage. This probably is because the artist had already painted the face on the cardinal before the death of Julius II.

Deliverance of Saint Peter

The Deliverance of Saint Peter is a fresco designed to remind man that God has always protected the popes. Raphael wanted to pay homage to Pope Julius II after his death and so gave Saint Peter the pope’s face.

The setting is dark and dramatic, the play of light and shadow reveals the miracle: a shackled Saint Peter is freed of his chains by an angel while the guards outside fall into a deep sleep. It’s almost dawn, the sun is about to rise and the torches burn brightly but even brighter is the angel that saves Saint Peter, which could also be interpreted as the deceased pope being accompanied into the hereafter.

Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple

The last fresco, from which the room gets its name, is The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. It narrates the Old Testament episode in which the Assyrian prince Heliodorus, after having tried to take over the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, is beaten and banished by three angels. The scene illustrate how God has protected the Churches patrimony through history.

Raphael also chose this episode to illustrate the fear that reigned in Rome during his time. In fact, the French were planning an invasion and this certainly presented a threat to the temporal power of the popes.

The Temple of Jerusalem is represented as Saint Peter’s Basilica and, here too, is Julius II; seated on a throne at the left, he seems to watch the biblical scene almost as though he were a spectator from another time.