Saints, Shrines, and Relics
Bernini's Reliquary Balconies in St. Peter's Basilica
by Letha Clair Robertson
© 19 May 2005
(all rights reserved)

The Square


Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
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Letha Clair Robertson
19 May 2005
Saints, Shrines, and Relics
Dr. Sally Cornelison
Bernini's Reliquary Balconies in St. Peter's Basilica

(This paper was written for a graduate seminar for Dr. Sally Cornelison at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.)

Upon his election as pope in 1623, Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini, r. 1623-44) faithfully continued the renovation and redecoration of St. Peter's basilica that was begun by Pope Julius II (Guiliano della Rovere, r. 1503-1513) in 1503. Urban's most important task was the creation of a monument that marked the tomb of St. Peter. This monument, known as the baldacchino, was to be surrounded by the four major relics of early Christianity (fig. 1)1. As explained by W. Chandler Kirwin in Powers Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1997), Urban's expediency in completing the projects was partly motivated by the Holy Year of 1625. Thousands of pilgrims were expected to converge upon Rome and the pope knew that central to their experience of the Jubilee was direct contact with the relics of Christ and early martyrs.2 The most important relics located in the basilica included the Volto Santo, also known as Veronica's Veil; the head of St. Andrew (fig. 2); pieces of the True Cross (fig. 3); and a piece of St. Longinus' spear, known as the Holy Lance (fig.4). Urban called upon Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) (fig.5) to redesign the crossing over the Apostle's tomb, including the eight niches in the four piers that supported Michelangelo's dome. Each of the piers contained two niches: the upper story was a reliquary balcony and the lower story contained a colossal statue of the saint associated with the relic housed there (figs.6a, 7a, 8a, 9a).3 With the exception of Kirwin and Irving Lavin's Bernini and the Crossing of St. Peter's (1968), most scholars have focused on Bernini, the baldacchino, and St. Peter's tomb when studying the crossing. A comprehensive study on the reliquary balconies has yet to be published. The purpose of this paper is to examine the history, function, and design of the balconies. I will begin by describing the balconies and then by briefly examine their history, legend, acquisition, and display. I will demonstrate that Bernini's design originated from several sources such as the original reliquary tabernacles. I will also consider other reliquary balconies and their influence on the artist's design. This paper will provide the reader with a thorough understanding of the reliquary balconies in the crossing of St. Peter's basilica which has long been overlooked by Renaissance and Baroque scholars.

Each of the reliquary balconies employed the same design (figs. 6b, 7b, 8b, 9b).4 The balconies are located within the upper niche of each pier. Three pairs of balustrades support the floor of the balconies, which extend slightly past the fluted corners of the piers. In between the middle pair is Urban's Barberini family coat of arms which is decorated with bees, the papal tiara, and crossed keys. Six gold panels on the railings correspond to the balustrades below. On the Veronica and Helena piers, the first, middle, and last panels are decorated with what appear to be shells and other objects. A bronze door, which presumably leads to a room where the relics were kept, is decorated with vines and the Barberini bees and is located in the middle of the balcony.5 The bronze lunettes above the doors are also decorated with vines and bees.

Above the doors are angels and putti who carry the relics or symbols of the saints. The angel and putti in the St. Andrew pier carry the decussate cross; the angel and putti in the St. Veronica pier carry the Volto Santo; the angel and putti in the St. Helena pier carry the cross; and the angel and putti in the St. Longinus pier carry the spear. Rose, yellow, and brown marble mosaics decorate the background of the central images and are shaped in the form of clouds. The entire composition is framed by a green marble border. Two twisted columns mark either side of the images and have corresponding fluted pilasters. The columns are the original columns that decorated the apse of St. Peter's.6 Fluted sections of the columns are separated by areas decorated with vegetation. The columns support a thin pediment which contains the Barberini bees and sea creatures that recall Greco-Roman motifs. A broken architrave and lunette is located on top of the pediment. An angel head with wings decorates the lunettes while two putti sit on top of the broken architrave. The top of the niche is decorated with gold and stuccoed clouds. Two more putti carry a banner which identifies the relic contained inside. The balcony design is reminiscent Bernini's bel composto, in which the artist utilizes painting, architecture and sculpture.7

St. Veronica and the Volto Santo

Although the story of Veronica appears in the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, it is largely considered legend due to the fact that it is not recorded in any canonical gospel.8 According to tradition, Veronica wiped Christ's face with her veil after witnessing his struggle with his cross on the road to Calvary. As a reward for her great compassion, Christ miraculously left his facial impression upon the cloth which came to be known as the Volto Santo, or the Holy Face.9 There are no records that indicate when the Volto Santo arrived at St. Peter's. However, its original ciborium dates to the eighth century.

One of the great difficulties in researching the legend and history of the Volto Santo is the fact that there are numerous copies in churches across Europe (fig.10a-e). In addition, it is unclear exactly what the Volto Santo and its reliquary looks like as it is appears never to have been photographed. In 1907, German Jesuit art historian Monsignor Joseph Wilpert was one of the last scholars to closely examine the Volto Santo. Wilpert was allowed to remove the two plates of glass covering the Veil. He described it as "…a square piece of material, somewhat faded through age, which bore two faint rust-brown stains, connected one to the other."10 The image that is most commonly shown today is a 1617 copy made by Pietro Strozzi, the secretary to Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese, r. 1605-1621) (fig. 11). The controversy over the authenticity of the Volto Santo continues to this day. In 1999, Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, a German Jesuit and a professor of Christian art history, announced at a press conference in Rome that he had found the real Volto Santo in a monastery in Manoppello, Italy (fig. 12). Pfeiffer believes that the Volto Santo was stolen from St. Peter's during the sack of Rome in 1527 and was passed from family to family until it came to the monastery.11 In a contrasting story, André Chastel, in The Sack of Rome 1527 (1983), wrote that the Volto Santo was put up for sale in the taverns of Rome by Lutheran soldiers of the imperial army.12 Unfortunately, we will never be certain of the authenticity of the Volto Santo or its provenance until the Vatican allows research to be conducted on the cloth.13

Fortunately today, precise drawings of the original tabernacles exist. In 1619, Pope Paul V commissioned archivist Giacomo Grimaldi to carefully document the translation of the relics from their original locations to the crossing piers. Grimaldi made careful sketches of the original tabernacle reliquaries, or ciboriums, for St. Andrew's head (fig. 13), the Holy Lance (fig. 14), and the Volto Santo (fig. 15).14 These drawings were published in a book entitled Instrumenta autentica translationum sanctorum corporum & sacrarum reliquarium…

The original ciborium for the Volto Santo was a marble parapet in the north aisle paved with porphyry and marble. It remained in this enclosure until Pope Clement III (Paolo Scolari, r. 1187-91) commissioned a new ciborium at the end of the twelfth century. According to Herbert L. Kessler in Old St. Peter's and Church Decoration in Medieval Italy (2002), the shrine for the Volto Santo began as "the tomb for Pope John VII (r. 705-707), the first papal monument in the basilica that included an altar, indeed, a church in miniature."15 The new ciborium (which is recorded by Grimaldi) included an altar table with an image of Veronica displaying the veil above it. Four columns support a second story that covers the altar space. In the second register, there is another image of Veronica holding the Volto Santo. It too contains two columns that support a third story on which the reliquary is housed. The reliquary is contained within an tabernacle that has two twisted columns, a grille, and small door, which presumably opened to the reliquary. The structure is topped with a cross and orb.16

The Head of St. Andrew

St. Andrew was one of the original Disciples of Christ and the brother of St. Peter. After the crucifixion, Andrew preached in areas such as Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Achaia. It is generally believed that he was crucified by the order of the Roman governor Aegeas or Aegeates, at Patras in Achaia, Greece. He was bound, not nailed, to the cross, in order to prolong his sufferings. The cross on which he was bound is believed to have been the X-shaped, or decussate cross, now known as St. Andrew's cross. After his death, his body was kept in the Church in Patras. In order to understand the significance of the head of St. Andrew and its relation to St. Peter's, it is important to briefly consider the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the papacy.

When Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, r. 1458-1464) began his pontificate, he was determined to oust the Turks from Western Europe, as they had slowly encroached upon the boundaries of Christendom. In the summer of 1460, Pius planned the Congress of Mantua, where he met with European princes in an attempt to mount support for a crusade against the Turks. His plea was met with disdain, and the pope returned to Rome, then deciding that instead of conquering the Turks, he would convert them. Pius sent a letter to Sultan Mohammed II, explaining the strengths of Catholicism, and even promised the Sultan an imperial crown if he were to agree to conversion. Not surprisingly, the pope did not receive a response. That same year, the Turks invaded the Peloponnese and the Greeks began to fear that they would lose possession of their precious relics in Patras, particularly those belonging to St. Andrew.17

Thomas Paleologus, the Despot of Morea, "rescued" the head of St. Andrew and fled to Corfu with his family. Pius II received word that the head was to be sold and he requested that Paleologus bring the St. Andrew relic to Rome. The pope then promised Paleologus that if he acquiesced, both he and the head would be protected as long as the threat from the Turks continued, and until, as Pius stated, "it might be one day be restored to its own throne with the help of its brother."18

St. Andrew's head arrived in Rome with great pomp and ceremony in 1461.19 It was displayed on Easter Sunday with the Holy Lance and Volto Santo. After the services, it was secured in the Castel' Sant'Angelo until a new reliquary could be completed for it (fig. 16). In a stroke of propagandistic genius, the pope used the ceremony "to ask for St. Andrew's help through St. Peter and St. Paul so that by defeating the Turks, it would be possible for the head to return in glory to Greece."20 Pius hoped that mass appeal of a public ceremony would sway the European princes to join his opposition against the Turks. However, his plan failed, and the Turks continued to encroach upon western boundaries. Little did Pius know that his promise would not be carried out until 1964, when the head of St. Andrew was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church in Patras under Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini, r. 1963-1978).21

When the new reliquary was completed in 1464, it was placed in a ciborium in the southeast corner of the basilica, near the entrance, in a new chapel dedicated to St. Andrew. It was a pendant to the tabernacle for the Volto Santo, which stood in the corresponding position in the northernmost aisle.22 The ciborium for the St. Andrew relic was simpler than that of the Volto Santo. Like the Volto Santo, it included an altar table with an image of St. Andrew and his cross above. Four columns supported a second story surrounded by a low railing. A tabernacle that held the reliquary was located on top of the second story. It had fluted columns and a pediment. A small door was located between the columns. In the lunette above the door, two angels hold a banner above which a head floats. Presumably, it was the head is St. Andrew.

St. Helena and the True Cross

According to Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote The History of the Church (c. 324 CE) and Life of Constantine (c.339 CE), Flavia Iulia Helena was born about 248 CE. Helena bore a son named Constantine around 272 CE. According to legend, he became the first Christian emperor of Rome. Highly influenced by her son, Helena converted to Christianity and Eusebius noted she was so devoted that it was as if she had been taught by Christ Himself.23 At Constantine's request, Helena journeyed to Palestine and other Eastern provinces in order to locate the site of Calvary. Remaining in the Holy Land for nearly two years (c. 326-328 CE), Helena also oversaw the construction of Christian churches throughout the area.24 Helena succeeded in her mission, and, as Herbert Muller notes, found the site of Calvary "with a speed and sureness that archeologists must envy."25

Helena discovered a number of important relics including: the nails of the Crucifixion, the Holy Lance, the Sponge, and the Crown of Thorns. In addition, according to the late fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan, Helena found three crosses: one belonging to Christ, and the others to the two thieves that were crucified with him. She believed that the middle cross was Christ's after having discovered the titulus (the plaque reading Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) along with it.26 Helena then sent the nails and pieces of the True Cross to Constantine in Rome. The rest of the relics were given to the church in Trier where she died about 328 CE. In April of 1629, Urban VIII gathered Helena's True Cross fragments from Santa Croce in Gersualemme and Sant'Anastasia in Rome and gave them to the basilica.27

The Holy Lance of St. Longinus

Longinus was the Roman centurion who pierced Christ's side with a lance in order to make sure that Christ was dead before allowing His removal from the cross. The soldier quickly converted to Christianity after experiencing the darkness that followed Christ's death. As mentioned above, the Holy Lance is believed to have been found by Helena on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was presumably given to the church at Trier. Much like the Volto Santo, replicas of the Holy Lance were widely produced and found in churches all over Europe. For example, there were claims in the Middle Ages that the Holy Lance could be seen and venerated in Constantinople, Paris, and Jerusalem.28 Similar to the relic of St. Andrew's head, it is important to briefly examine the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the papacy in order to understand the relevance of the Holy Lance's acquisition.

In 1484, Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cibo, r. 1484-1492) became pope and inherited the Turkish conflict. Four years earlier, the Turks had taken Constantinople as Innocent's predecessors had steadily lost ground. For six years, the pope pleaded with European princes to support him in a crusade against the Turks as he was becoming more fearful of an invasion of the Kingdom of Sicily. Like Pius II, the pope's efforts failed.

However, the situation began to change in 1487, when the pope sent an emissary, Leonello Chieregato, to Paris to plead support from King Charles VIII. Chieregato was unable to gain any support for the pope, but he was able to arrange the transfer of Prince Djem, the brother of Sultan Bajazet II, to Rome. Djem promised the west that if it helped him recover the throne from his brother, he would concede territorial acquisitions. In the meantime, Bajazet was paying an indemnity to the pope to keep Djem neutralized, and he continued to press further west. Without the aid of European princes, there was little Innocent could do but observe. Then, in 1492, much to the surprise of Rome, Bajazet, in fear of a unified retribution from Rome and Naples, sent the relic of the Holy Lance to Innocent VIII as an act of goodwill. Innocent planned a large ceremony for the arrival of the relic, similar to that of the reception for St. Andrew's head. It was his last public act and he was buried near it in Old St Peter's.29 He is depicted holding the Holy Lance on his tomb.

The Holy Lance was originally situated with the tomb of Innocent VIII. Designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo (c. 1432-1498), the tomb was first located in a chapel adjacent to the west face of the southern pier of the triumphal arch of the church.30 As Eric Frank explains, the relic was housed in a ciborium within Innocent's chapel. The ciborium was slightly elevated on a square platform. Like the ciboriums for the Volto Santo and St. Andrew's head, an altar table and image of Innocent kneeling before the Madonna and Christ child mark the first story. Double arches and columns support the second story which contained an entablature bearing an inscription. Above the entablature was a low railing enclosing the tabernacle of the relic. The tabernacle had fluted Corinthian pilasters and was topped by a small dome and lantern. The ciborium and Innocent VIII's tomb were visually related and obviously planned together.

In Pollaiuolo's sculpture of the pontiff (fig. 17), Innocent VIII is seated and turned to the left. He presents the Holy Lance in his left hand to worshippers. In 1507, when Julius II began to tear down Old St. Peter's and build the new basilica, the tomb of Innocent VIII was moved, and the Holy Lance was then housed with the Volto Santo. Nearly one hundred years later, when Paul V continued the reconstruction of the basilica, he transferred the relics from their ciboria to the piers.

Display of the Relics

The four crossing relics were displayed on Easter, Ascension, and other holy celebrations such as the Jubilee. During Jubilee years, pilgrims were required to venerate the relics in Rome's two main basilicas, St. Peter's and St. Paul outside the Walls, in five other basilicas, and in the titular churches in the city.31 The Veil was publicly displayed during the celebrations for the Holy Year 1300, and thereafter became one of the "Mirabilia Urbis" ("wonders of the City") for the pilgrims who visited Rome.32

Evidence of how the relics were displayed can be found in a woodcut from the Mirabilia Urbis Romae (1494) entitled Ostension of the Sudarium [Volto Santo] in Saint Peter's Basilica (fig. 18). In the image, clergy stand on a balcony of a free standing tabernacle. A priest is flanked by acolytes and displays the Volto Santo to worshippers below. In addition, today a record survives of one such occasion when the Volto Santo and the Holy Lance were brought out for veneration. Michel de Montaigne, a French politician and essayist, visited Rome in the Holy Year of 1580 and wrote this intriguing account:

[The handkerchief has] the representation of a face; this is shown to the people with much ceremony. The priest who holds it has his hands covered with red gloves. There is nothing regarded with as much reverence as this; the people prostrate themselves on the ground before it, most of them with tears rolling down their cheeks. The priest takes the effigy around and presents it to the people in each direction, and at each of these pauses the crowd raises a loud cry. They also show at the same time, and with the same ceremonies, the head of the lance. This exhibition takes place several times during the day, and the assemblage of people is so vast, that outside the church, as far as the eye can see, you can see nothing but the heads of men and women, so close together that it seems you could walk upon them. It is a true papal court; the splendor and the principal grandeur of the court of Rome consist in these devotional exhibitions.33

When Urban VIII became pope, he wanted to continue the tradition of regular display of the relics.34 As Kirwin explained, during Easter Mass on April 7, 1624, the Volto Santo and Holy Lance were shown from their temporary location in the upper niche of St. Andrew's pier. On the feast of the Ascension, May 16, they were once again venerated after the High Mass. The Volto Santo and the Holy Lance were considered the most precious relics in the Vatican. They represented Christ's Passion and "were links to an unbroken matryrological chain that eternally joined Him, his disciples such as Peter and Paul, and his followers with all of his faithful. Death became a rallying point, and the army of Christian troops who died for their faith was remembered as the worshippers crowded into St. Peter's to see these two holy relics."35

Intriguingly, other than the ceremony for the arrival of the relic of St. Andrew's head in Rome in 1460, I have found no other documentation of its veneration. However, considering the fact that Urban wanted to created a "matryrological chain" within the crossing, it can be concluded that the head of St. Andrew was included because the apostle was one of the soldiers that died for the faith. The pieces of the True Cross, as relics of the Passion, were Urban's contribution to completing the chain that connected him to Christ, His apostles and soldiers. These relics, placed within a centralized location of Peter's tomb, implicated a direct connection between the pope, Christ, and the early martyrs, thus reinforcing his position within the church and as the medium between heaven and earth.

The Reliquary Balcony

In the seventeenth century, the reliquary balcony was not a new configuration for the display of relics. These balconies, while not typical, could be found in other churches in Italy. For example, Michelangelo designed a reliquary balcony for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence (fig. 19).36 In 1532, Clement VII (Guilio de'Medici, 1523-1534) donated to the church a number of relics that were among the collection of his uncle, Lorenzo de'Medici. Clement initially commissioned Michelangelo to design a ciborium where the relics would be "safely protected and magnificently displayed."37 This ciborium was to be located near the altar of the church. However, Michelangelo convinced the pope to abandon the idea of the ciborium in favor of a reliquary balcony. As art historian William Wallace explains, by doing this, Michelangelo was breaking from the tradition of placing relics near the main altar of the church. In addition, the artist may have wanted to create a complementary balcony for the façade of San Lorenzo. As Wallace state, this indicates that Michelangelo was quite "aware of the public role and ceremonial potential of the relics."38 Wallace further states that Maderno's loggia on the façade of St. Peter's may have served as a parallel to Michelangelo's scheme. Wallace also believes that these balconies were a precedent in Donatello's and Michelozzo's pulpit at the Duomo in Prato (fig. 20).39

As explained by R. W. Lightbrown in Donatello & Michelozzo: An Artistic Partnership and its Patrons in the Early Renaissance (1980), the Duomo in Prato housed the precious relic of the Girdle of the Virgin. The veneration of the relic dates to c.1178, and it was exhibited on feast days (dedicated to the Virgin) to pilgrims that gathered outside the church. About 1211 a pulpit of wood and stone was created for its display. Nearly one hundred years later, after Giovanni di Ser Landetto attempted to steal the girdle and sell it to the Florentines, the church decided to build a special chapel in which to house the relic. In 1330, the Consiglio of Prato decided to replace the old pulpit and commission a new one of white marble on the façade of the church from which the girdle could be displayed outside as well as inside. The commission was eventually awarded to Michelozzo, who was to design the architectural part, and Donatello, who was to design its sculptural decoration.40 While it is possible that Bernini was familiar with these examples, it is more likely that his design originated from earlier decorations associated with St. Peter's and the relics.

Origins of the Balcony Design

When Bernini and his workshop began to decorate the crossing, the southwest and northwest piers had no large-scale decorations in the lower stories. The northeast pier housed the holy column, or colonna santa, an ancient marble column that was believed to be one of the original twelve that were made for the portico of Solomon's Temple.41 These twelve columns were also used to decorate the apse in Old St. Peter's-they separated the altar from the rest of the church. In addition, the colonna santa was venerated because it was believed that Christ leaned against it as he preached during his ministry. The southeast pier contained the tomb of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese, 1534-1549). The upper niches of the piers contained a variety of significant relics in their reliquaries. For example, the Volto Santo and the Holy Lance were kept in the southwest pier while the head of St. Andrew was located in the northwest pier. There were also a number of various body parts of other early martyrs.42

While too lengthy to examine here, Bernini's designs for the crossing and the pier niches underwent a number of revisions before being firmly established in 1627.43 As mentioned above, the Baldachin marked the tomb of St. Peter which was guarded by colossal statues of the four saints in the lower niches.44 A stairway is located at the base of each statue and leads to the saints' chapels in the grottoes below. A second stairway is located within each of the piers that provide access to the reliquary balconies. It is important to consider when the stairways within the piers were created because it may date the inception of the balconies.

The first stones for the piers were laid in 1506 under the direction of Bramante, who had been commissioned by Julius II to rebuild the basilica. When Bramante died in 1514, the piers and arches that supported the dome had been completed. Several artists were commissioned to continue the construction on the basilica.45 However, the building was not advanced until Michelangelo began work on the dome in 1548. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari explains that

Michelangelo found that the four principal piers, made by Bramante and retained by Antonio da Sangallo, which were to help support the weight of the cupola, were weak; so he partly filled them in, making on each side two spiral stairways up which the beasts of burden can climb with the materials, as can men on horseback, to the uppermost level of the arches.46

Thus, the stairways also served as a means for the workers to haul materials in order to construct the dome. Unfortunately, I have been unable to determine with certainty when the balconies were created, however, Bernini's biographer, Filippo Baldinucci states that since their inception, the piers were designed to house niches to display relics:

They said, moreover that the walls of the four piers were cut into in order to make the four spiral staircases which go from the floor of the church to the four upper niches. But in that same plan there are definitely provisions for the four stairways. Therefore, we can clearly see that the four shafts were left by the architects with the sole intention of placing the four spiral staircases there. We also know for certainty that there were four upper niches there, which were to serve for the placement of relics or organs or other similar things. We also know that the Sacred Sudarium [Volto Santo] was displayed from one of these niches.47

Baldinucci, quoting from the notebooks of Carlo Maderno, explains that the relics were already in the piers before Maderno began work on the basilica in 1606.48 Thus, the reliquary balconies may have been planned for as early as 1506 when Bramante began work for Julius II.

While we cannot know with certainty how the balconies were decorated before Bernini's designs, there are some indications of their appearance in two engravings by Giovanni Maggi (fig. 21-22). They are dated 1610 and depict the canonization of Carlo Borromeo. In these images, the balconies are empty and plain, and the doorway is clearly visible. Two draperies or paintings hang in front of the balconies. It is difficult to gauge who the images depict; however, they are more than likely representations of the saints. In addition, two engravings by Matthäus Greuter of the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola and others also suggest decorative sources for Bernini's design (fig. 23). Dated 1622, there are also hanging decorations like the ones in the Maggi engravings. They too appear to be images of the saints. Two paintings hang in the upper niches-one with Sts. Peter and Paul holding aloft the Volto Santo and the other showing St. Andrew with his cross. These paintings had been given to the basilica a decade before.49

Therefore, the most immediate source for Bernini's design was recent decorations for special occasions within the basilica. The second, and perhaps most important source, is the original reliquary tabernacles, which were not uncommon structures and could be found in churches all over Rome. They are medieval adaptations of earlier ciboria which have been traced to early Christian architecture.50 Some examples include Arnolfo di Cambio's ciboria in St. Paul Outside the Walls and S. Cecilia in Trastevere, the fourteenth-century ciborium at Saint John in Lateran, or Mino da Fiesole's ciborium for Santa Maria Maggiore (fig. 24). A medieval altar of the Relics once located in Santa Maria Maggiore is also a possible a source for Bernini's design (fig. 25). A free-standing structure, this altar stood in the nave to the right of St. Jerome's shrine. It is similar to the reliquary tabernacles in that it is double storied, has twisted columns, a grille covering the area where the relics were kept, and is topped by a lantern. It also has a small balcony from which the relics could be displayed.

In essence, each of the piers can be considered an enormous reliquary tabernacle. As mentioned above, an altar table is at the base of each of the original tabernacles. An image of the relic and the associated saint are located just above the altar table. A second story supports a ciborium which houses the relic. In comparison, beneath the floor of the basilica and under each of the piers is a chapel with an altar dedicated to each saint. The colossal statues of the saints can be likened to the images above the altars. The reliquary balconies house the relics, in a similar fashion to the ciboriums on the original tabernacles. The original tabernacles were topped with domes and lanterns and the four piers support Michelangelo's dome. Thus, the crossing could be considered a ciborium within a ciborium-one that houses and protects the holiest relics of St. Peter.


When Urban VIII undertook the redecoration of the crossing of St. Peter's, he was continuing a long process that was begun by his predecessors in the sixteenth century. The crossing not only housed the most precious relics of the body of St. Peter, but also the relics that were directly related to the Passion of Christ and one of the early martyrs. Bernini's design supported Urban VIII's scheme in that the pope wanted the decoration of the crossing to reflect the past, present, and future.

The balconies, with their inclusion of the spiral columns and the depictions of the saints' relics, recalled the past by referencing the original reliquary tabernacles and the area around the high altar in St. Peter's. The balconies recalled the present in that they were commissions that were carried out by Urban illustrating that he was making a conscious effort to continue the veneration and display for the relics. The balconies referenced the future in that the elaborate new home for the relics of the early martyrs ensured their safekeeping and protection for thousands of pilgrims who were yet to come to Rome to venerate them. The crossing decoration also referenced the past, present, and future by containing Passion relics, and the relic of an apostle who had direct contact with Christ. These objects, placed within a centralized location of Peter's tomb, implicated a direct connection between the pope, Christ, and the early martyrs, thus reinforcing his position within the church and as the medium between heaven and earth. In addition, because the acquisition of the relics of St. Longinus and St. Andrew were associated with the Turkish conflict, this too reinforced the pope's authority and power in secular matters. Possessing these relics also demonstrated that the papacy had the support of the saints in its battle against the Ottoman Empire.

When Urban commissioned Bernini to redecorate the crossing of St. Peter's, his primary concern was that he wanted it to be "a lasting memorial to Catholicism's beginnings, to its present, and to its end."51 In addition, he wanted to "highlight the most valuable relics for all visitors in the spirit of Roman Catholic reform as direct touchstones to the first witnesses of Christ's life, death, and reform."52 Bernini's Baroque design accomplished this task by referencing the past and recreating it on an enormous scale.




1"The baldachin is situated directly over the high altar (which is above St. Peter's tomb) of the basilica and slightly west inside the circumscribing square of the four piers and the circle of the cupola." See W. Chandler Kirwin, Powers Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (New York: Peter Lang, 1997), 79.

2Ibid, 83. The pilgrimage included stops at St. Paul outside the Walls which housed part of the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul; Saint John the Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore.

3 In the grottoes below the floor of the basilica, there are chapels dedicated to each of the saints beneath their respective piers. These chapels will not be considered here in detail. For more, see "The Grottoes" section in Antonio Pinelli, ed., La Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano (Modena: F.C. Panini, 2000). As this is a focus study on the reliquary balconies, the saints' statues will not be examined here. For more see Howard Hibbard, Bernini (London: Penguin Books, 1965); Lavin, 28-37; Tod Marder, Bernini and the Art of Architecture (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988); Ian Wardropper, ed. From the Sculptor's Hand: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage Museum (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1998) and Rudolf Wittkower, Bernini: Genius of the Baroque: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (London: Phaidon, 1997).

4 It is difficult to describe the details of the balcony as I have been unable to locate detailed photographs. The Panini catalogue, does not contain details of the balconies, only frontal photographs.

5 It is unknown exactly where the relics were kept behind the balconies since only chosen priests were allowed to enter the upper niches. In Holy Faces, Secret Places (New York: Doubleday, 1991), Ian Wilson reports that the only known person to penetrate the inside of one of the piers was in the 1970s, when Aubrey Menen, a resident of Rome was befriended by Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a priest of the entourage of Pope Paul VI. Menen had expressed interest in viewing the model of the basilica made by Antonio da Sangallo, and thanks to O'Flaherty's influence, permission was "reluctantly given" for this. Menen stated that:

"An official took me inside the basilica, opened a door, and led me up some steps. Soon I found myself in a winding corridor built inside the basilica's thick walls. The top was arched, the walls were white, and it was exactly as I though I were walking in the narrow alleys of some Moroccan town. We walked a long way; then, going through a heavy wooden door with an antique lock, we came into a vast room. We were inside one of the gigantic piers that support the dome of St. Peter's…We passed yet into another room. It was in total darkness. We switched on flashlights, and there, filling the room, was Sangallo's model…"

See pp. 30-31. I am a bit suspicious of Wilson's report, as neither Wilson nor Menen provide any details as to where he entered the basilica. Menen's initial statement, he "took me inside the basilica, opened a door, and led me up some steps" is a bit vague. I include the quote here, because it reinforces the great mystery of the piers, the relics, and their balconies.

In addition, I have not been able to determine with certainty where the relics are kept today. In 1985, an exhibition was held in Rome entitled Roma 1300-1875: L'arte degli anni santi (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984). Images of the Holy Lance, the True Cross and St. Andrew's head appear in the exhibition catalogue. The authors state that the Holy Lance and the True Cross are located in the Treasury Museum in the Vatican. St. Andrew's head, as will be examined below, was repatriated to Greece in 1964. The head reliquary is now in Pienza. The catalogue devotes a lengthy discussion on the Volto Santo, however, intriguingly, no image of the Volto Santo appears. Also, in an undated photograph of a papal ceremony in the basilica (a slide which I found in the KU collection), there are a group of nuns standing in one of the balconies watching the ceremony below. In the pier next to it are four structures which resemble confessional booths-although I do not think that the boots would have been placed there. Thus, this photograph lends support to the fact that the relics are no longer kept within the piers, as the pope may not have allowed a group of twenty or so clergy or nuns into the balconies with the relics present.

6 For more on the twisted columns and their original location within Old St. Peter's basilica, see Turpin C. Bannister, "The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome," The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 27, no. 1 (1968), 3-32 and J. B. Ward Perkins, "The Shrine of St. Peter and Its Twelve Spiral Columns," The Journal of Roman Studies 42 (1952), 21-33.

7 For more on Bernini's unification of the arts, see Hibbard, Wittkower, and Avery.

8 There is also speculation of the veracity of the story as the name "Veronica" seems to be a "lexical deformation of of the Greek and Latin words "vera icona" ("real icon" or "authentic image"), used in the Middle Ages to mean Christ's miraculous images." See Antonio Gaspari, "Has Veronica's Veil Been Found?" Urbi et Orbi Communications, November 1999, (accessed April 1, 2005).

9 Most scholarship on the veil is intertwined with that of the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth believed to bear the image of Christ; the cloth of Edessa (also known as the Mandylion), another cloth in which Christ pressed his face to and left a miraculous image; and the sudarium, the napkin size cloth that was placed on Christ's face at the time of burial. For more see Hans Belting, Likeness and Image: A History of the Image in the Era before Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Noel Currier- Briggs, The Shroud and the Grail: A Modern Quest for the True Grail (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987); Herbert L. Kessler, Seeing Spiritual: Picturing God's Invisibility in Medieval Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000; Joe Nickell, Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1987); John Beldon Scott, Architecture for the Shroud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Ian Wilson, Shroud of Turin: Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978); Ian Wilson, Holy Faces, Secret Places; and Ian Wilson, The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence that the World's Most Sacred Relic is Real (New York: Touchstone, 1998).

10 Wilson, Holy Faces and Secret Places, p. 36.

11 See Gaspari.

12 André Chastel, The Sack of Rome 1527 (Princeton, 1983), 104. For an excellent and complex discussion of the Veil and its legends, see Belting, 208-224.

13 This is not likely to happen any time soon.

14 The True Cross relic was given to the basilica by Urban VIII in 1629, thus there was no reliquary tabernacle for the True Cross in old St. Peter's. Part of the difficulty of the study is the fact that Grimaldi's book has not been definitely translated from Latin. Because his notations are extensive (and due to time constraints) a translation on my part would take months. In addition, I have been unable to locate any source that precisely describes the altar space beneath the ciborium. I do not know if the images of the saints were painted or carved. It is also interesting to note that the reliquary tabernacle for the Holy Lance was by far the most elaborate of the three.

15 Herbert L. Kessler, Old St. Peter's and Church Decoration in Medieval Italy (Spoleto, Italy: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'alto Medioevo, 2002),11.

16 It is difficult to describe the original tabernacles as it is not always exactly clear what Grimaldi is displaying in his drawings. For example, I do not know how tall, wide, or deep these structures were, or how the reliquaries were retrieved or put away.

17 See Claudio Rendina, The Popes: Histories and Secrets, (Translated by Paul D. McCusker, Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 2002), 419.

18 Ruth Olitsky Rubinstein, "Pius II's Piazza S. Pietro and St. Andrew's Head," in Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, (London: Phaidon Press, 1967), 22.

19 For a detailed description of the ceremony and procession of the head's arrival in Rome, see Rubinstein, 29-31.

20 Ibid, 29.

21 For contemporary reports on the return of St. Andrew's head to Patras, see New York Times articles Robert C. Doty, "Prelates Voting to Support Collective Rule of Church," (September 22, 1964).; "Pope Takes Relic of Saint to Council," (September 24, 1964); Robert C. Doty, "Council Gets Text on Jews with Hint for Amending It," (September 26, 1964); and "Pope Returns a Relic of Apostle to Greeks After Five Centuries," (September 27, 1964).

22 Rubinstein, 31 and Lavin, 3.

23 Jan Willem Drijvers, "The True Cross: Separating Myth from History," Bible Review 19, no.4 (2003), 27. Hereafter referred to as Drijvers, Bible Review. Also see Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Finding the True Cross (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 199). In both the article and book, Drijvers examines and compares various sources for Helena's legend.

24 For more see Drijvers, 1999, 55-72.

25 For more see Stephen Borgehammer, Old St. Peter's and Church Decoration in Medieval Italy (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'altro medievo, 2002).

26 Drijvers, Bible Review, 29

27 Presumably Helena's True Cross fragments and nails were placed in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and Sant'Anastasia in Rome as St. Peter's was not yet built. Irving Lavin states that Urban obtained the fragments from these two churches in Bernini and the Crossing of St. Peter's (New York: New York University Press, 1968), 20, n. 94. However, neither he nor Kirwin do not mention of the nails. Rufinus, in Historia Ecclesiastica reported that "The nails, too, which had attached the Lord's body to the Cross, she sent to her son. From some of these he had a horse's bridle made, for use in battle, while he used the other to add strength to a helmet, equally with a view to using it in battle. Part of the redeeming wood she sent to her son, but she also left part of it there preserved in silver chests." Quoted in Drijvers, p. 80. It is not clear if the nails survived and were part of the True Cross fragments. I am curious about this since Helena holds the nails in her left hand in the colossal pier statue. I do not know if this inclusion is simply a reference that she found the nails as well, or if it perhaps meant that the nails were part of the relic collection at the Vatican.

28 For other accounts of the Lance in relation to Charlemagne and the German emperors, see Howard L. Adelson, "The Holy Lance and the Hereditary German Monarchy," The Art Bulletin 48, no. 2 (June1966), 177-92 and Laura Hibbard Loomis, "The Holy Relics of Charlemagne and King Athelstan: The Lances of Longinus and St. Mauricius," Speculum 25, no. 4 (1950), 437-456.

29 The political history between Innocent VII and the Turks was taken from Eric Frank's "Pollaiuolo's Tomb of Innocent VIII" in Verrocchio and Late Quattrocento Italian Sculpture (Florence: Casa Editrice Le Lettere, 1992), 333-335.

30 Frank, 322. The plan was illustrated in Frank's article as fig. 255. One must keep in mind that Alfaranus' plan was executed before the crossing as we know it today was designed.

31 Kirwin does not specify, however, the pilgrimage probably included the following: S. Giovanni in Laterano, S. Maria Maggiore, S. Croce in Gerusalemme, and possibly even Sant'Anastasia (since Urban VIII retrieved the True Cross pieces from the latter two churches). See Fagiolo and Madonna, pp. 131-80. Due to time constraints, I was not able to translate the entire section of the catalogue.

32See Gaspari above.

33 The Complete Works of Michael de Montaigne, trans. J. Florio (New York: Worthington, 1889), 611, quoted in Kirwin, p. 84.

34 Kirwin, 85.

35 Ibid.

36 Dr. Sally Cornelison made me aware of this balcony. All information on the reliquary balcony in San Lorenzo is taken from William Wallace, "Michelangelo's Project for a reliquary tribune in San Lorenzo," Architectura 17, no. 1 (1987), 45-57. In addition, Michelangelo also designed a reliquary tabernacle for Piero Sordini in San Silvestro in Capite in Rome. However, this is problematic for my discussion here since Michelangelo's design was covered by Bernini-esque decoration in the seventeenth century. See William Wallace, "Friends and Relics at San Silvestro in Capite, Rome," Sixteenth Century Journal 30, no.2 (1999), 419-39.

37 Wallace, 46.

38 Ibid, 56.

39 Ibid, n. 42. I also want to thank Dr. Cornelison for bringing this pulpit to my attention. She discusses the pulpit and its relationship to relics and architecture in her article mentioned above. See also Gabrielle Morolli, ed., Michelozzo: Scultore e Architetto (1396-1472)(Florence: Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, 1998); Anna Maria Gusti, ed., Donatello restaurato: I marmi del pulpito di Prato (Pistoia: Artout/maschietto&musolino, 2000); and R. W. Lightbow, Donatello & Michelozzo: An Artistic Partnership and its Patrons in the Early Renaissance (London: Harvey Miller, 1980), esp. 230-255.

40 Lightbrown, 230-233.

41 After the temple's destruction, it was sent to Rome from Jerusalem after Christ's death. See Alice Baird, "The Colonna Santa," Burlington Magazine 24, no. 129 (1913), 128-129, 131.

42 Kirwin, 80-81. Kirwin does not specify the other saints or their relics. I have searched extensively and have not been able to conclusively discover what other relics were kept in the pier. The Vatican now houses a collection of relics in the Museum of the Treasury and in the Museo Sacro in the Vatican Library. However, I have not been able to ascertain their provenance in order to determine if some might have been housed in the piers. These include, but are not limited to, the head of St. Anges, the hand of St. James, the head of St. Sebastian, among others. A number of relics have also been repatriated, which makes the task even more difficult. There may be mention of these relics in Giacomo Grimaldi, Instrumenta autentica translationum sanctorum corporum & sacrarum reliquarium… 2 vols. Rome. Bibl. Vat. MS Barb. Lat 2733, or O. Pollak, Die Kunsttätigkeit unter Urban VIII, ed. D. Frey et. al. 2 vols. Vienna, 1928-1931. However, I was unable to thoroughly consult either source due to my lack of ability to translate and read seventeenth-century Latin and German.

43 For a thorough account, see Lavin, 19-20.

44While based on Bernini's design, each of the colossal statues was created by a different artist. Bernini created St. Longinus; Andrea Bolgi carved St. Helena; Francesco Mochi created St. Veronica; and Francois Duquesnoy created St. Andrew.

45 Bramante died in 1514, and his work on St. Peter's was continued by Guiliano da Sangallo and Fra Giacondo da Verona. They died in 1515 and 1516 respectively. Raphael then picked up the construction of the basilica until his death in 1520. Antonio da Sangallo begun work in 1518; Baldassari Peruzzi in 1520.

46 Vasari, 387.

47 Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, trans. Catherine Engass, (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), 96. Baldinucci also explains that Bernini had continued to work on the staircases within the piers as well. Work on the piers was believed to have weakened the structural support of the dome and Bernini was charged with damaging the dome. For Baldinucci's explanation and defense, see p. 97-108.

48Maderno began work on the basilica after Michelangelo.

49 Lavin, 3.

50Shelley E. Zuraw, "Mino da Fiesole's First Roman Sojourn," in Verrocchio and Late Quattrocento Sculpture, ed. Steven Bule. (Florence: Casa Editrice Le Lettere, 1992), 311

51 Kirwin, 79.

52Kirwin, 83.


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