Monday, September 18, 2006

Bernini and Urban VIII at St. Peter's

Rebecca Reh
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

The beginning of the 17th century was a time of celebration for the Catholic Church. Thanks in large part to the new orders that had been founded, such as the Jesuits, the Church was able to successfully battle the Reformation and retain much of its spiritual power. The strict style of the Counter Reformation gave way to the flamboyant style of the baroque, which appealed emotionally and worked to draw the viewer into the piece, as well as being extremely detailed and rich. At the time it was felt that God should be worshipped at least as well as any earthly prince, sparing no expense. In 1620 Catholic forces won the battle of the White Mountain, spurring optimism that the church may be able to regain their terrestrial power. This hope proved to be in vain at the end of the 30 year war, when Pope Innocent X was allowed only a minor role in the peace process of Westphalia.

The baroque era encompassed both periods of hope and despair, as the church lost more and more of its power. This led to continued attempts to reassert papal power, and many of the most impressive monuments of the baroque period are papal propaganda. The inner adornment of the new St. Peters venerated the popes of the time, and legitimized papal power on earth, instead of speaking to the people on a personal level. This is especially apparent in the Baldacchino, transept and Cathedra Petri. Together, these send a strong message of papal power on earth.

One of the first, and most influential popes of the baroque era was Pope Urban VIII, originally Maffeo Barberini. The Barberini’s were a Florentine merchant family, not exceedingly rich, but prosperous. Maffeo came to Rome on his uncle’s invitation when he was still a boy, and studied with the Jesuits. Later he studied law at the University of Pisa, and found a place in the courts of the Roman curia. He took holy orders in 1604, and was given the post of papal nuncio in Paris. The king was so taken by the clever Barberini, that he persuaded the pope to make Barberini a cardinal. In the conclave following the death of Pope Gregory XV, Barberini was put forth as a compromise candidate, after 8 cardinals had already died from the heat and malaria. Despite the fact that he was only 55, he was elected Pope Urban VIII.

Urban VIII was a well-educated and cultured man, and a great patron of the arts. His character was friendly and charming, although he was know for his mercurial temper, and was quick to take offense. He loved the arts and literature, and considered himself a poet, writing verse in Italian, Greek and Latin. Due to his love of literature, he adopted several of the symbols of Apollo as his own, including the laurel branch and the sunburst.

When Barabarini was still a cardinal, he was introduced to the young sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. Bernini was born December 7, 1598 to Pietro Bernini. Though he was born in Naples, his father was from Florence, and he always considered himself a Florentine. Bernini accompanied his father to Rome in 1605 when Pietro was called to work on a depiction of the Assumption for the Santa Maria Maggiore. Although only 8, Gian may have helped his father with the work. News of the precocious young artist soon reached the ears of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who introduced Bernini to Pope Paul V. The Pope recognized Bernini’s talent, and directed cardinal Maffeo Barberini to oversee his education.

Barberini took to Bernini, and showed an avid interest in his education. Bernini was given access to the Vatican museum, where he studied the masterpieces of classical sculpture. Bernini was encouraged to undertake larger works of his own, the most famous of which are his David (1624) and his Apollo and Daphne (1625). Through these works Bernini proved himself to be a truly gifted sculptor, who drew the viewer into the pieces he presented and captured the emotion of the moment.
When Barberini was appointed Pope, he had plans for Bernini, but he needed to expand Bernini’s capabilities in the technical aspects of art. He appointed Bernini the overseer of the Vatican foundry, and then superintendent of the Aqua Felice. Urban was getting Bernini ready for the most important commission of all, Reverenda Fabbrica.

. Urban VIII intended to leave his mark on Rome, and determined to undertake the decoration of the interior of St. Peters basilica. The reconstruction of St. Peters was begun during the papacy of Julius II, and was completed more than 100 years later, by Pope Paul V, in 1621. However, the interior of the church did not match the splendor of its new form, and there was no proper place for many of the valuable relics that are kept in the church. Especially contested was what to do with the space above St. Peters tomb. In the old St. Peters, a Baldacchino was located above the tomb in the center of the church, and this was the location of the high altar. However, this arrangement had been changed several times, and in the time of Paul V, the high altar was located in the western arm of the church. When Gregory XV became pope, he rebuilt a temporary Baldacchino over the tomb. Urban saw the redecoration as the perfect way to leave his mark, as well as one better his predecessor Paul V.
Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to design a permanent Baldacchino to place above St. Peters tomb. The Baldacchino is supported by four massive columns and stands above St. Peters tomb, in the center of the church. In fact, the Baldacchino is a combination of a ciborium and a baldacchino, which appalled many architectural purists. Ciampelli called the structure a “chimera”, stinging criticism at the time. The columns are made of bronze and their twist mimics the design of the columns of the high altar in the old St. Peters, which were rumored to have come from the temple of Jerusalem. The columns are gilded, and adorned with laurel branches and putti, with lizards and bees crawling up the sides. Bernini used a procedure called lost-wax to caste the columns, in which the actual items were used as molds in the wax, and consumed by liquefied bronze. When bronze for the project was running short, Urban VIII ordered that bronze be taken from the portico of the pantheon and used in the casting. This gave rise to the expression “What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did”.

The columns support a canopy, made of bronze but resembling a fringe of tassels, showing the three bees of the Barberini arms and cherubim alternately. Suns appear on the entablature of the columns, atop which stand four angels, each holding up the canopy by a garland of flowers. The four volutes that rise to the center are made of wood, and designed to resemble the ancient Christian symbol of diving dolphins. Crowning the entire structure is a globe with a cross on top, which symbolizes Christ ruling the world, and mirrors the cross on the top of the great dome directly above.

The transept was commissioned the first year that Bernini became Reverenda Fabbrica, which meant that while he did not carry out all of the work himself, he designed and supervised the entire construction. The pope and commission of cardinals decided to keep the most venerable relics of the church in the transept, and ordered that statues be made of the saints that corresponded to the relics to be placed in the niches of the piers. Bernini himself was to do the statue of St. Longinus. St. Longinus was a Roman soldier, who pierced the side of Christ as he was being led to the crucifix. Instantly after wounding Christ, Longinus realized that he truly was the Son of God, and converted to Christianity. In this statue you can see the action and motion typical of Bernini. Bernini has chosen to depict the moment Longinus converts to Christianity. His gaze is transfixed at an invisible Christ, the psychological link between the two drawing the viewer into the scene. The diagonal formed by his arms and the folds of his dress emphasize this gaze.

The other statues in the transept are St. Andrew, for the church had a piece of the cross he was crucified upon; St. Veronica, with the cloth she used to wipe the face of Christ; and St. Helen, who brought a piece of the cross Christ was crucified upon to Rome. St Andrew and St. Helen were carved by Bolgi and Duquesnoy respectively, and are reminiscent of Bernini’s work, since they were his students at the time. Franceso Mochi did the statue of St. Veronica. All of the statues seem alive, captured in a single moment. In Bernini’s original organization, St. Veronica and St. Helen look toward the high altar, while St. Longinus and St. Andrew are looking up toward the heavens, and God. The council of Cardinals changed this arrangement to that which we see today.

Decoration of the piers does not end with the statues, but extends upward. Above the statues are balconies, where the relics are kept, taken down on special occasions and paraded around the city. Angels are carved onto the back of the niches, shown carrying the relic. The sky behind them is made of yellow marble, with purple marble clouds. On either side of the composition are pieces of the columns from the baldacchino in Old St. Peters. The niches are concave in shape, which complement the concave sides of the Baldacchino.

One of Urban VIII’s major goals in undertaking the redecoration of St. Peter’s basilica was to legitimize his own papacy. The Barberini’s were not a noble Roman family, and were not established in Roman society. Also, Barberini was offered as a compromise candidate for pope, and was very young to have been elected, both of which caused people to question his right to the papacy. The Baldacchino and the transept decoration serve to highlight the fact that Urban was appointed by divine right. This is emphasized by the priority the project was given; construction was begun the first year of Urban’s papacy.
The Baldacchino is covered with Barberini symbols. The Barberini crest is featured on the column bases, and the three bees are featured on every other canopy fringe. Urban’s personal symbols, such as the laurel branch and the sun, are also prominently featured, sometimes displacing traditional Christian iconography. Laurel branches have replaced the grape vines that twist around the original Baldacchino columns, symbolizing the Eucharist. Medals that exult Urban and show the date the Baldacchino was completed are carved into the base of the statue, placed there by imaginary pilgrims.
That people noticed and analyzed the symbols on the Baldacchino is evident from the myth that grew up about the stemme of the crests on the base of the columns. The stemme are faces of women carved into the top of the crest, as part of the surrounding frame. As you walk around the Baldacchino, the faces grow more and more agonized, until the final crest shows the face of a cherub, instead of a woman. It was rumored that this depiction arises from Urban’s promise that if his favorite niece safely delivered her baby, he would build an altar to her. No one is certain of the meaning of the symbol; possibly it suggests the struggle of the Church, and the trials it had been through during the Counter Reformation, until finally delivered by Pope Urban VIII. More important than the meaning of the sequence, however, is the fact that it can only be read by circling around the altar. Thus Bernini is controlling people’s movement, and how the altar is viewed, as well as recreating the ancient tradition of circumambulating an altar.

The position of the Baldacchino is extremely important to Urban’s message. As the first pope, directly appointed by Christ, St. Peter’s tomb reminds all that popes are chosen by God. Above this is the altar, proclaiming the power and holiness of the current pope, Urban VIII. Finally, the globe with the cross above acts as God’s stamp of approval upon the monument below. St. Peter’s tomb is the most important relic in the church, and all the pilgrims are certain to spend a great deal of time in front of the altar. To increase the amount of time spent in the center of the church, where the Baldacchino is easily visible, all of the most important relics of the church were placed in the transept. Originally, the gazes of the saints would even have returned the attention to the high altar, and the Baldacchino.

During the papacy of Urban VIII, the throne of St. Peters was placed in the baptismal chapel, to signify the pope’s authority over all who are baptized. However, when Alexander became pope he felt the throne was such an important symbol of papal power and succession that it deserved a more prominent place. Alexander commissioned the throne be placed in the central apse of the basilica.

The chair itself is encased in a bronze statuary throne. Bernini personally did the relief’s on the back and side of the throne, although others did most of the monument under his direction. The clearest relief is that on the back of the chair, which shows the pasce oves meas, the scene in which Christ entrusts the care of his sheep to St. Peters. The side reliefs also show scenes from St. Peters life, namely the handing over of the keys and the washing of the feet. These scenes highlight the meaning of the monument, which is the right of papal succession.

The chair is held aloft by four doctors of the church, a term that refers to a theologian whose teachings had a great impact on the formation of Christianity and the Catholic Church. From clockwise starting from the bottom left are St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, and St. Augustine. Since St. Chrysostom and St. Athanasius are associated with eastern Catholicism, and St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are associated with western Catholicism, the doctors act as a bridge between east and west, symbolizing Catholic unity. Miraculously, the doctors are barely touching the throne, yet they are able to carry it. Instead, the chair appears to be hovering with divine power. This demonstrates that the work of the doctors in strengthening and guarding Christianity was the will of the divine.

The depiction of the dove and emanating rays and angels is known as “the Glory”. Although this is not the first time Bernini incorporated light into his designs, he usually uses a hidden window, which creates the impression his work is surrounded by a divine glow. Bernini agonized over what to do with the harsh, direct glow from the original window. In the end, Bernini decided to incorporate the window in the composition, softening the light by placing yellow stain glass in and painting upon it the magnificent dove. The dove shines above as a representation of the Holy Spirit, sanctioning all below it and inspiring awe in all who view it.

That the Cathedra Petri is relatively bare of Chigi symbols shows us that Alexander was not intent on justifying his particular papacy. Instead he was focused on a larger goal, relegitimizing the role of the pope in the modern world, and regaining temporal papal power. When Alexander was still cardinal, he was involved in the treaty of Westphalia, that ended the 30 years war. This treaty granted states ultimate power over their own boarders, and placed protestant countries on the same level as Catholic ones. This was a harsh blow to the church, and Alexander always felt personally responsible for this lost of temporal papal power. Thus it was his supreme goal to help the church regain this power while he was Pope. The Cathedra Petri is one of the greatest demonstrations of this goal.

Although the Cathedra Petri was commissioned much later than the Baldacchino and transept, the three work together as a cohesive monument. Bernini took great pains to bring the two together visually, using the Baldacchino as a frame through which the Cathedra Petri can be viewed down the center aisle of the basilica. This is the proper way to view the monument, and the view through which is creates its most striking impression.

A pilgrim, making their way through all of the other sites and trials, would come at last to St. Peters, and, walking down the center aisle to approach the site of St. Peters tomb, would be struck by the majesty and joy of the Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri. The spirals of the columns and the upward curve of the volutes create a striving upward to heaven, and the faces of the angels are joyous. Behind the Baldacchino, light comes streaming through the Glory, pronouncing the majesty of god. The faithful would linger in the transept, venerating the most important relics of the church. One would have to be blind not to understand that Urban VIII built the Baldacchino, and recognize his right to the papacy. There would be no doubt left in ones mind that the pope’s were powerful, to be able to build such monuments, that seemed to float in midair and glow with holy light.

The Baldacchino, transept and Cathedra Petri are amazing examples of Bernini’s work, and were extremely influential to the development of the baroque style. The practice of mixing both mediums and styles became acceptable, and using light as part of a composition was also introduced. Using concave lines became prevalent in the baroque period. The idea of using different colored marble to depict a scene, as was seen in the transept balcony niches, was often emulated by other artists.
As modern viewers, we are still impacted by the grandeur and the emotion contained within the Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri. The statues in the transept continue to impress us with their dramatic lines and expressions. However, the original meaning of the monuments has lost some power over the years, as the domain of papal power has become increasingly restricted to the spiritual realm. Also, the monument looses some meaning when viewed by a secular audience, which was not the intent. Even so, it is difficult not to be awed by Bernini’s triumphal work.

While researching this topic, I was impressed by how much meaning was packed into the monument, and how cleverly it was worked in. Every little detail has to be taken into account, from the stemma on the side of the Baldacchino to which Doctors of the Church were portrayed. Still, the monuments do not feel cluttered, because all of the details work together to tell a cohesive story, and also portray an overall emotion. It also interests me how it’s impossible to read a monument unless you know the context in which it was built, as well as the personalities of the people involved in its construction. I loved seeing how all the different threads of the story came together to make the monument.

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