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Dr. Utr. Iur.


Van den Broeke

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Snake looks in mirror

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza

The foundation stone for the new chapel in the 14th century University La Sapienza, was laid in January 1643 by Borromini. He completed the work and finished the interior decoration in 1660 and the church was consecrated in the same year. Borromini once again stood in front of a pre-existing building. His question was how to use the minimal space he got, in order to receive the maximum.

The new chapel would have a double function: first of all liturgical, but also as aula for the university. It became a church of Wisdom (Sophia-Sapienza). In my article of Borromini, I gave an introduction on his symbolism. Also this work is a real masterpiece of symbolism of wisdom in the Bible.

There is an enormous difference between the inside and the outside of the building. Both have a proper iconographical plan. The outside reveals the wisdom in the Old Testament, while the inside reveals the wisdom in the New Testament.

A snake looking in a mirror

(see also Tablets of the Law <-> Sermon of the Mont)

But every detail has his importance. If you enter by the backdoor (from the Piazza Sant’Eustachio, you will notice the decoration above the door underneath the balcony. A little rebus, made by Borromini himself. On the left hand side we see the images of a sword, a book and a wage. Opposite we have a snake looking in a mirror. Before you enter, you would know already in what kind of building you’re coming. It’s a University. The first three images are representing what you will study in a medieval university: the book for philosophy and theology, the sword for ius or law and the wage stands for medicines. All tree disciplines are bringing you to wisdom.

The other side with the snake is more complex. Biblically, we have the first snake in the Genesis story, chapter 3

1 Now, the snake was the most subtle of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had made. It asked the woman, 'Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?'

2 The woman answered the snake, 'We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden.

3 But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, "You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death." '

4 Then the snake said to the woman, 'No! You will not die!

5 God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil.'

6 The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was enticing for the wisdom that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.

7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths.

And who was that snake? Commonly known as the devil. A creature with many names: Mephistolos, Satan, Belzebub, Venus, Lucifer. I, personally, like the name Lucifer the most. That name is a contraction of two latin words: Lux (light) and ferre (to carry). What means that the devil the one is who is carrying the light; who is bringing us the light.

Who’s enlightening us: the famous Illuminati of Dan Browns book Angels and Demons. And in Gen. 3,6 we are to believe that the devil is bringing wisdom. And originally, when he was one of the most beloved angels of the Lord he helped Him by the creation, but after a few days learning the technics how to do so, started a company on itself. And Lucifer thought he had all the technics of the Lord, but got not the wisdom, but only the knowledge of good and evil.  And what is now the exact difference between wisdom and knowledge of good and evil?

Knowledge of good and evil is very simple: it is conducting you towards the original sin: I am good and you are evil. Ad ex. I am good because I am white and you are bad because you are black; I am good because I am working and you are not because you are unemployed. I am good because I am a man, and you are evil because you are a woman. ..... And so on. All vises as there are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia are a  consequence of the original sin. (1) Adam understood it immediately after eating from the three of the knowledge of good and evil. He knew from that moment what was good for his wife: she from that moment on she has to sit in the house, doing the cooking, the cleaning, looking after the children and so on. He would go fishing.

Indeed, all kinds of discrimination are a consequence of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge consists in only listening to yourself and not to the other. It happens that if you ask a single child if he took a cooky, it probably would reply: “I didn’t do it, ‘t was my hand who did it .... I am good, but my hand was evil”. Judging others is indeed the original sin. For that reason Christ came on earth: to take away the original sin. Wasn’t it Jezus who said: “Who is without sin take the first stone .... ?”. And nobody picked up a stone.

This is the reason that the snake is sitting outside the door of the University, looking in a mirror. Wisdom is listening to others and building borders of living-together. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit among understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.(2) A society can only survive if we are respecting borders and by not listening to yourself, but to the other: And that is what you learning inside the building: philosophy, theology, law and medicines. The snake remains outside, never asks the opinion of the other, but questions only herself, by looking in the mirror. The fairy tale of Snow White originated by the brothers Grimm, was inspired on that universal symbol when the queen looks in the mirror and asks herself: “Who is the fairest of all?”. She didn’t listen to others, only to herself.

And this is probably also one of the big revolutions that Michelangelo did during the creation in the Sistine Chapel: The downfall of Adam and Eve. As we can see clearly, Adam takes the apple by himself ! Not she is guilty, but both are guilty.

Since the original sin, in every person there is good and evil. It is the temptation to listen only to our own judgement and not considering the other. Sant’Agostino was the saint who formulated as first the doctrine about sin and redemption. He knew everything of it, being himself a converted sinner. In his church in Rome, Thomas Krueger, a friend of mine found another image of a snake looking in the mirror.

Never forget that “the devil” knows us often better than we know ourselves, and plays with the qualities and talents that we have (here: beauty), and tries to turn them around in vices (being a courtesan). If you like to know more about this argument, follow the link: The Temptations of Christ.  In the 16th century it was the only church in Rome were also courtesans were allowed to be buried. Among them, the most famous of all, La Fiammetta de Michaelis, lover of the most infamous son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia and of Giulia Campana with her daughters, Penelope and here the notorious Tullia d'Aragona.  Having a funeral monument with a beautiful woman and a snake looking together in a mirror was probably the most appropriate thing she could have.

And he found another one at the Saint Peters Basilica in Rome at the arch of the Bell Entrance, on the left hand-side were the Swiss Guards are.


    (1)CCC 1866, SAN GREGORIO MAGNO, Moralia in Job, 31, 45; PL 76, 621A

    (2)CCC 1831; cfr. Is 11, 1-2