The Chapel’s Vestibule and the Private Oratory of St. Peter Martyr

The private oratory of Saint Peter Martyr consists of a small room internally divided into three parts, covered by floral coffers and characterized by rich wall decorations. The scenes depicting heroes and heroines of biblical stories are framed by Ionic-Corinthian pilasters resting on a high base and topped by a decorative frieze. The following biblical scenes are depicted in the west wall: “Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert Assisted by an Angel,” “Elijah in the Desert encouraged by the Angel” and “Jacob’s Struggle with an Angel.” The southern and eastern walls are decorated by the following scenes: “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” and “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Images of three episodes from the life of St. Peter Martyr frescoed in the liturgical area and the bloody image of “Joel killing Sisera” conclude the pictorial cycles.


The stylistic scarcity of the paintings may seem obvious but are characterized by a similar narrative approach and some common iconographic and thematic issues, unique in themselves. Many scenes are in fact linked by the active participation of angels who interact with the men and women depicted in the paintings. Most of the episodes are also characterized by the presence of female protagonists, who with the help of God, act on their own initiative. Lastly, the presence of symbols directly linked to the mystery of the Eucharist, a religious theme very dear to the Arese culture, is persistent throughout the cycles.
Reference to the stories of the Arese family, in particular, to the dramatic death of Giulio Arese II is readable in the entire nave. Bartolomeo Arese III is, in fact, identified as a male figure par excellence and is translated into the characters of Abraham, Elijah and Jacob, who were put to the test by God in dramatic circumstances. The women, on the other hand, represent his wife, Lucrezia (as Judith), a symbol of chastity, his daughter, Margherita (as Hagar), excluded by the Cesanese succession, and his daughter, Giulia (as Jael), who forestalled the extinction of the dynasty. These subjects of struggle, ambition, divine punishment and assistance in times of need, continue into the gallery where “Jesus in the Garden of Olives” and the monochrome depiction of “Jesus’ encounter with Veronica on His way to Calvary” are painted. It is more difficult to identify the elegant young man painted on the right, depicted as he comes in through a false door holding a head: too young to be Giulio Arese II, while critics identify him to be Carlo IV Borromeo Arese, born in 1657 and an incarnation of the divine promises for the continuation of the dynasty after the dreadful interruption due to the death of Giulio II.
The chapel was officially consecrated in 1677 although it is likely that the completion of the frescoes date back a few years, to around the second half of the 1660s. In fact, critics attribute the cycle of paintings to several painters, with the predominance of the painter, Antonio Busca (1625-1686), who completed the work commissioned with the help of his numerous students including Federico Bizzozero and Giuseppe Zanatta. The architectural walls and ceilings painted with columns and arches would have to be attributed to the team formed by Giovanni Ghisolfi (1623-1683) and by the members of the famous Mariani family of Lombard illusionistic art painters, who worked on the other rooms of the main floor of the palace.