Bernini at St. Peter's
by Irving Lavin, 2005

This section from the book "St. Peter's in the Vatican, edited by William Tronzo, Cambridge University Press 2005
is in copyright. No reproduction of any part may take place without
written permission of Cambridge University Press.

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Irving Lavin


(Figs. 136, 137, 138, 139)

An important model for Bernini's treatment of the tombs was provided by the series of magniloquent papal portraits in the Sala di Costantino of the Vatican, the ceremonial hall frescoed a century before by Giulio Romano; the purpose of the series was to display the continuity of the Church in the papacy from its inception under Peter. Urban's pose, including his glance downward to the left and the posture of his uplifted right arm, specifically refer to Giulio's image of Saint Peter himself. (Fig. 140). The seated allegories that accompany Peter in the fresco suggest the motivation for Bernini's reference: they represent Eccelesia at the left and Eternitas at the right. Peter, enthroned in heaven, seems to create the church by fiat with the expletive gesture of his right hand, while with his glance he regards its future on earth. Bernini has thus assimilated Urban to Saint Peter, except that the emphasis has shifted from simple chronology to an exposition of the underlying foundation for the eternal rule of the church in its earthly and heavenly domains - the exercise of Divine Wisdom.

Integral to their role as embodiments of the action of divine will is the fact that, without precedent in the traditions of papal portraits and tombs, Bernini's allegories do not sit or recline, but stand "on their own two feet" beside the sarcophagus, with whose spring-like lid segments they establish dynamic interrelationships. Lowered to the supporting plinth they cease to appear simply as "attributes" and become intermediaries between the realm of the tomb and that of the spectator. Through their actions and emotional expressiveness the tomb becomes the focus of an interplay that relates the underlying abstract thought to human experience. Seen in this light, it is evident that Bernini's allegories are not mourners, as is often claimed. On the contrary, they illustrate the roles played by these divine virtues, acting through this pope and the papacy, in the process of salvation. Charity incorporates a binary complementary moral and psychological contrast - "contrapposto," Bernini would have called it - between the extremes of the soul's route to salvation. 42 One child, having absorbed the milk of God's forgiving goodness, sleeps blissfully until the end of time. The other soul bawls at the top of his lungs: he is the repentant sinner reaching desperately for redemption, so utterly consumed by self-recrimination as to be unaware of Charity's benign and compassionate response to his excruciating Jeremiad. Charity is a vigorously dynamic and earthly figure who contacts the papal tomb primarily by resting her sleeping charge against the sarcophagus - an image that insistently recalls the themes of the Pieta and the entombment of Christ, who sacrificial death, which promised resurrection and salvation, was the prototype of all acts of charity. 43

In sharp contrast, Justice stands, or more accurately leans, against the tomb in a pose redolent of languor and passivity (Figs. 137). Whereas Charity has fewer accouterments than usual (two babies rather than three), Justice has more: the book and fasces in addition to the canonical sword and balance. While the balance illustrates the impartiality of Justice, the other attributes relate to the three quintessential forms of justice derived ultimately from Aristotle, developed by the Scholastics, and formulated definitely at the Council of Trent. Cumulative justice, individual to individual, is symbolized by the sword; distributive justice, society to the individual, by the fasces; legal justice, the individual to society, by the book. Three points are of particular concern here. The cross-legged pose of the figure and the inclusion of the fasces have a common theme as compared with the balance and sword, which evoke the impartial and retributive nature of justice.44 Crossed legs were a frequent attribute of figures representative of unhurried meditation and contemplation, and in this case the motif expresses one of the fundamental attributes of God's justice, that it is slow and deliberate. "Divine Goodness does not run quickly or noisily to castigate error, but belatedly and slowly, so that the sinner is unaware before he feels the pain."45 With respect to divine justice, "the fasces with the ax, carried by the ancient Roman lectors before the consuls and the Tribune of the People, signifies that in the execution of justice overzealous castigation is unwarranted, and that justice should never be precipitous but have time to mature judgment while unbinding the rods that cover the ax."46 The third point concerns the most commonly misunderstood feature of the allegory, that is, what might be called her mood: her head resting on her hand, her head and eyes turned upward, her lips parted as if in response to some message received from on high. There is nothing tearful or morbid about her expression, which is rather one of dreamy absorption tinged with a kind of melancholic lethargy. The very fact that her right elbow rests on the book of law - Urban was first and foremost a jurist, and his rise within the church hierarchy rested on that basis - indicates that her action has to do with justice, not mourning. To be sure, all writers emphasize that divine chastisement is inflicted only reluctantly, and with dismay, and hints of fearsomeness and withdrawal are expressed by the putti, one of whom hides anxiously with the scales, while the other turns away with the fasces. The allegory herself, however, has a quite different attitude. The head-on-hand motif is one of the most consistent postures of the thinker, the contemplator, the mediator, and the turn of her head and glance makes it clear, not only that she is slow to act, but that what she is contemplating is the heavenly source of divine justice. Together the two groups offer a veritable counterpoint of psychological and moral states, active and passive, that illustrate the divine origin and earthward dispensation of God's grace in the form of Charity and Justice.

The basic key to the significance of the allegories is that Bernini did not choose to accompany the pope with the cardinal moral virtues normally associated with the earthly ruler, whose loss they would properly mourn. Instead, he combined one of the cardinal virtues, Justice, with the chief theological virtue, Charity. This combination was common enough, but in the context of papal portraiture it specifically denoted the role of the papacy in the execution of God's wish that man be justified - that is, made just - and so redeemed from original sin. God achieves this result through the sacrifice of his only son and the exercise of the chief attributes of his Divine Wisdom, the divine virtues of Charity and Justice. The two virtues are equal and interdependent, operating together in the interest of mankind. Far from lamenting the pope's demise, the allegories enact the roles of God's virtues in achieving the beneficent result implicit in the pope's salvific gesture.

A final correlation and contrast are evident in the treatment of what is, literally and figuratively, the central theme of Urban's tomb as well as that of Paul III, death. In both cases the caducity of earthly existence is conveyed by wing-borne inscriptions with the names of the deceased, except that Bernini assimilated this motif to the figure of Historia writing on a shield of victory, represented on the front of Paul III's cope, and to the traditional winged Angel of Death - which now becomes also the fateful, victorious recorder of life. 47

The hyperbolic flattery usually taken as Bernini's exclusive concern in the tomb is belied not only by the universal significance of the allegories but also by the inordinate importance attributed to death itself: witness the prominent disposition of the Michelangelesque sarcophagus in front of the pedestal, and especially the central role played by the figure of the Reaper in the drama of the tomb (Fig. 138).48 Death seems to rise up out of the sarcophagus itself, a conceit derived, I think, from the tomb of a great Flemish cardinal of the sixteenth century; well known through contemporary engravings of monuments of famous persons, the tomb of Cardinal Erard de la March was an important progenitor of Bernini ideology of death (Fig 141).49 In the Flemish monument, however, Death performs his role as memento mori in a traditional way, brandishing an hourglass and beckoning to the effigy, whereas Bernini's figure writes, or rather finishes writing, the name and title of Urban VIII in the black book of death. The bookish Death seems to recall that along with his literary interests the pope was an avid historian and bibliophile. A more specific reference is suggested by a rarely noted, and to my mind never properly understood peculiarity of the motif, that is, the name of Urban's predecessor partially visible on a preceding page. Often assumed to refer to Gregory XV, the letters are clearly legible as CL above and AL below, that is, Clement VIII Aldobrandini. And, as if to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding, exactly three pages, corresponding to the number of intervening popes, are shown between that with Urban's name and that with Clement's.50 It is not hard to understand why the reference to Gregory was avoided: that pope's nephew, Cardinal Ludovisi, had been a bitter enemy of Urban's since the time of the conclave in which he had been elected. On the other hand, Urban had been a great favorite of Clement VIII, who had furthered his early career in many ways, and whose very name corresponds to the ideology of the tomb.51 However, the motif of the funereal scribe and record book had another, more universal implication. Recording in reverse the sequence of Peter's successors, Death displays not only the ephemerality of earthly things, including Urban VIII, but also the permanence of heavenly things, notably the Church as embodied in the persons of its temporary heads. Therein lies the ultimate, and supremely paradoxical, significance of Bernini's tomb of Urban VIII. The very figure that represents the triumph of transience, winged Death, is at the same time scribe of the Book of Life, guarantor of immortality through the divine virtues vested in the institution of the Church and the papacy.

The same quality informs the notorious bees that have alighted here and there on Urban's tomb. Having passed through a window of the basilica, they now participate in the commemoration of Saint Peter's departed successor, just as they had one twenty years before on the occasion of Urban's election. Transforming the papal coat of arms into a trio of monumental insects bumbling over the papal tomb was, surely, an act of unparalleled imagination and wit, which also served to transform the mood of melancholy and despair usually associated with funeral iconography into a moment of surprise, and even joy. Urban was an accomplished poet, and the bees certainly allude to his mellifluous verse. But in fact the three large bees that have escaped from the coat of arms are really leaders - king-size bees, one might say - of a swarm that populates the monument; the others are much smaller, worker bees - indeed, they are "life-size." This ingenious display conflates tow distinct emblematic themes evoked by the pope's device. Bees swarmed over the tomb of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who was vilified for his pungent tongue but celebrated as the progenitor of the Pindaric tradition that Urban emulated in his own poetry. (Fig. 142). And in an emblem of ideal social hierarchy and adhesion, the apian chorus is attracted to its beneficent ruler, Princely Clemency (Fig. 143). The bees thus celebrate the triumph of Christian virtue realized, poetically, in Urban's verses on religious themes, and institutionally, in the divine charity and justice of the rule of Christ vested in every pope.

Considered in this light, the seemingly casual, "bumbling" placement of the big Barberini bees becomes charged with meaning. All three are facing upward and seem to rise in an ascending march past the skeletal figure of death, as if in response to the resurrecting command of the pope, enthroned on his seat of wisdom, itself ornamented with bees. The lowermost bee, perched on the rim of the sarcophagus basin, has no stinger - "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"! (1 Cor. 15:55). The other two, as if already resurrected- bees literally embodied resurrection: ancient writers consistently reported that they were generated spontaneously from the putrefying corpses of animals, notably lions - are whole again and proceed in their journey up to the very border between death, commemoration, and life.

The startling confluence of past, present, and future in the tomb of Urban VIII is the very theme of the coat of arms of the Barberini pope attached to the face of the arch at the apex of the niche (Fig. 139). Here an extraordinary operation is performed by two divine messengers, who detach the Barberini escutcheon from the papal tiara and keys and carry it aloft. The image is a living demonstration of the fleeting earthly presence and spiritual sublimation of one mortal who briefly occupied the center of an eternally abiding creation of God's will.52


The treatment of the tombs in the apse can only be understood in relation to the larger project of which they were part: to integrate the choir and crossing, and ultimately the nave, in one comprehensive program. At the center, the tomb of Saint Peter was crowned with a new Baldacchino that expressed Christ's sacramental sacrifice and triumph in its very design. In turn, the papal altar was surrounded in the crossing piers with relics and images of saints evoking Christ's passion. Altogether, the program encompassed the entire process of salvation as envisioned by the Church.

When it was decided to replace the Resurrected Christ atop the Baldacchino by a cross and globe, traditional symbols of the universal dominion of Christianity, Bernini dealt with the new situation, typically, be exploiting it.53 He found a new solution that expressed his underlying point of view even more vividly than before, in the context of the crossing as a whole, by interpreting the cross not simply as an emblem of the Church but as an allusion to the Crucifixion itself, the "real event." The result was a comprehensive, unified program, developed between June 1627, when it was decided to treat all four crossing piers in the same way, and April 1629, when the subjects and the basic form of the decorations were determined. This drastic, epoch-making decision inaugurated a new way of conceiving the relationship between a work of art and its environment, which might best be described as psychological. The principal of the scheme was to devote each of the niches to a saint whose relic was preserved in the basilica, thus also stressing the continuity between the old and the new. Simple, except that in the old basilica the relics, accumulated over centuries, and their reliquary altars were scattered throughout, whereas now the idea was to make a meaningful selection for a thematic union. The idea had various roots. There had been a proposal, presumably during the month-long reign of Leo XI, Paul V's predecessor, to place in the niches of the four crossing piers the tombs of four sainted popes who bore the same name.54 The common denominator with the high altar dedicated to Saint Peter was the continuity and sacrality of the papacy, often expressed in the choice of papal names. Another precedent for the unified planning at St Peter's was again the Cathedral of Florence, where the crossing was surrounded by chapels dedicated to the Twelve Apostles. The underlying theme was Christological, with historical reference to the church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, which Constantine had built as the eastern counterpart (rival) of St Peter's. Finally, an important tradition of unified and coherent programming in central-plan churches was the scheme involving the major feasts of the Orthodox Church that developed during the Middle Ages in the Greek East. This Byzantine formula had a particular relevance because it functioned in the vertical as well as the horizontal plane, rising to a crescendo of sacrality with the image of the Pantocrator in the apex of the cupola.

What distinguished the arrangement at St Peter's was, first, the use of the relics that had existed, dispersed, in the former building, and taking their exposition as the guiding theme of the design. The display, rather than simply the conservation of the relics, became the overriding concern. Second, the relics themselves were perceived not simply as precious remnants of an individual saint, but as integral parts of a coherent process, that of salvation through Christ's Passion. Two of the relics lent themselves directly to this theme: the kerchief of Veronica, imprinted with the face of Christ on the road to Calvary, and the lance of the Roman centurion Longinus who, blinded by disease, pierced the side of the crucified Christ, "saw the light," and was cured by a touch of the blood. A third relic, the head of Saint Andrew, was indirectly related by virtue of the particular form of his martyrdom on a diagonal cross, which he requested of his oppressors in order to imitate but not presume to repeat Christ's own death. In other words, the three major relics of St Peter's were perceived, for the first time together, as having a common denominator in Christ's sacrifice and its promise of salvation, precisely the theme that dominated in the conception of the Baldacchino at the same time. A fourth suitable relic was required to complete the scheme, the importance of which may be measured by the fact that in April 1629 the pope made bold to appropriate a portion of one of the most important relics, the True Cross, from one of the most important churches in Rome, S. Croce in Gerusalemme, also a Constantinian foundation and one of the city's venerable patriarchal basilicas.

The unprecedented ideology of the crossing of St Peter's lay in its being conceived as a unified sacred place devoted to the Christian process of salvation achieved through the sacrifice of Christ and the establishment of his church through Saint Peter and his successors. The key to the visual realization of this program was the idea of personifying the relics by representations of their respective saints. There was nothing inherently new about this idea: Veronica had often been shown displaying her kerchief, Longinus his lance, Andrew his cross, Helen the cross. What was new was the combination of this mode of representation with the idea of a coherent theme, to be expressed by portraying the figures in such a way as to convey the significance of the relics, that is, the events that lent them their meaning and role in the process of salvation. Conceived in this way, the crossing of St Peter's became a sacred space in which the very foundation of church ideology - the perpetual reenactment of Christ's sacrifice - took place. The whole project may have been generated by the idea of surrounding the tomb of Saint Peter with a sort of Greek chorus of colossal statues of the relic saints who would themselves, through their poses and expressions, reenact the portentous events in which they had participated. Veronica rushes in desperation to display the miraculous imprint of Christ's face on the way to the Cross (Fig. 144); Andrew and Longinus exult in their imitations of the Crucifixion (Figs. 145, 146); and the empress Helen seems to convey to her subjects the precious relics she had retrieved of Christ's sacrifice (Fig. 147). The figures thus perform dual roles. They are isolated and independent images, embodiments of the attributes they hold; at the same time, they are actors in a narrative, participants in a sacred mystery play, at once historical and imagined, taking place in the crossing of St Peter's. The viewer who enters the crossing is inevitably caught up in the action that surrounds him - as never before on this scale and with this intensity - as if he himself, through the Eucharist, were the protagonist.

The drama is by no means "pure theater," however: it is modulated and controlled by an underlying principle that might best be called psycholiturgical, for in accordance with liturgical principle the figures are paired by their sexes and by their psychological states. In the traditional hierarchy of the Church, men precede women, and in the traditional psychology of the sexes, men are more intellectual and spiritually inclined, while women are more compassionate and earthbound. So the figures' locations were determined, and so their emotions were portrayed at St Peter's. Together they enact a four-part, contrapuntal dialogue with the spectator, who thus participates in the sacrifice of Christ and the process of salvation as in no other church in Christendom. The women lament the earthly sacrifice - Veronica frantically, Helen majestically; the men exult in its eternal triumph - Andrew worshipfully, Longinus electrically. The sculptures display the respective stylistic propensities of the artists who made them, but Bernini provided the basic designs and remained very much in charge. This fact in itself testifies to an extraordinary achievement, precisely because of the variety of psychological states the figures portray. Never before had such a range of human emotions been magnified to such heroic grandeur. The psychological states of the figures match their superhuman scale, yet in form, expression, and action they are carefully modulated and orchestrated so as to transform the mute relics of the past into a veritable chorus of eloquent witnesses to Christ's sacrifice in the present. Most important is that together the statues create an environment, a space charged with powerful emotions into which the spectator is ineluctably drawn. The traditional veil between real and fictive space has been removed, and the spectator's experience of this world is uplifted to the level of a participant in the process of salvation to the next.

Architecturally, the plan entailed repeating the structures used for the relics in Old St Peter's, free-standing reliquary tabernacles on three levels (Fig. 148): lowermost an altar, surmounted by an altarpiece with a representation related to the saint and/or the relic itself, and an uppermost compartment from which the relic was displayed on special occasions. In the new arrangement the lowermost level became fully developed chapels in the grotto beneath the piers, with depictions on the walls of the lives of the saints and altarpieces showing or referring to their martyrdoms. The wall frescoes introduce the equivalent of verb tenses in language; representing events from the past, portrayed in the technique and subterranean location of the first Christian paintings in the catacombs, they serve as preludes to the three-dimensional present represented by the sculptured figures in the church above.55 The past included the genesis of the crossing project itself, recorded in a scene in the Veronica chapel in which Bernini is shown presenting to the pope his initial design for the upper reliquary niche - a remarkable testimony to the importance and self-consciousness of the entire undertaking (Fig. 149). The scene includes prominently a portrait of Bernini's brilliant younger brother Luigi (1612-81), who served as his assistant (Fig. 150).56 The function of the uppermost level of the old tabernacles was transferred to the balconied niches in Michelangelo's piers above the statuary. Bernini also transformed the upper niches into miraculous locales, introducing tabernacles that echo those of the original reliquary structures. These architectural frames themselves became reliquaries by virtue of incorporating the spiral marble columns that Constantine had taken from the Temple of Jerusalem to adorn the original choir and altar of Old St Peter's. In their new location the antique supports give physical testimony to the idea of the fulfillment of the Old Dispensation of the Jews in the New Dispensation of Christ, the transferal from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem. The celestial nature of the "event" is conveyed by the treatment of the niche interiors, where angels and putti carry aloft relics - partly rendered in three dimensions, as if there were no surface behind - against a polychrome "space." In the conches of the niches stucco clouds and putti bearing banderoles inscribed with texts referring to the relics, merge into the unfathomable gilded space of heaven, as in the golden backgrounds of medieval religious art.57 In this way, the upper level also participates in and contributes to the perception through the crossing of a real, living space on high. The shift from painting in the subterranean chapels to sculpture in the church itself comprised not only a temporal shift from past to present, but also an existential shift from illusion to reality. Following a long tradition concerning the respective natures of the arts of representation, Bernini adhered to the view that painting, as false illusion, was indeed "inferior" to sculpture, which shares the three-dimensionality of God's own creation. Bernini here maintained the principle even in the celestial apparitions in the reliquary niches, since the space is defined "naturally" by veins in the carefully chosen colored marble; hence the surface is nowhere penetrated by "artificial" illusion.


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