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

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

Square & Area
Tourist Info

Vatican City
Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2




"FEED MY SHEEP" (1633-46)



The Plague
List of Angels on Ponte Sant'Angelo







Singularis in Singulis, in Omnibus Unicus

Irving Lavin


(Figs 171, 172, 173)

Contemporary and planned in concert with the piazza was the decision finally to resolve the problem of the choir of St Peter's - foreseen "providentially" by Annibale Carracci at the beginning of Bernini's career. The solution was found in an idea that would celebrate, liturgically and visually, the legitimacy and authority of the Church as a divinely ordained institution. This claim was vested in the form and concept of the cathedra, the chair or throne of office, from ancient times the symbol of legitimate supreme authority, conveyed to Peter by Christ along with the responsibility to "feed my sheep." Understanding the piazza colonnades and the Cathedra Petri as simultaneous and interrelated projects provides a fundamental insight into the overall planning for St Peter's under Alexander VII, most specifically the correspondence and reciprocity between the projected entrance pavilion, the Terzo Braccio, and the cathedra at opposite ends of the axis. Although never executed, the Terzo Braccio was a critical element in the design because it provided a sort of triumphal arch - an arcus quadrifrons in classical terms, since one passed through it in four directions - between the enfolding arms, both revealing and screening the space of the piazza. As Bernini's project evolved, he shifted the structure to the east, beyond the perimeter of the arc of the colonnades; here it provided a kind of vestibule, or viewing space from which the "teatro" (the contemporary term for the piazza, better translated in this case as "totality" than as "theater") could be grasped and contemplated. During his visit to Paris in 1665, while work on the piazza was in progress, Bernini recommended just such a viewing area in a critique of purely round buildings, where the visitor tends to move inward without perceiving the whole: "…it would be a good thing to create a small space projecting from the completely round church, for on entering one usually takes six or seven steps and so is prevented from appreciating the circular form." 77 This imperative sense of perceiving the whole had a truly numinous quality for Bernini, which he expressed in describing his own feeling about viewing the interior of his transverse oval church of S. Andrea al Quirinale, designed at precisely this period. His son recalled his response upon finding him withdrawn in a corner of the church and asking him what he was doing there, so alone and quiet: "Son, this is my only work in architecture that gives me some particular pleasure at the bottom of my heart, and I often come here to find consolation with my work." 78 In the context of St Peter's it is important to realize that the force of movement is inward from both extremities: the visitor entering from the city feels the piazza's embrace and is then drawn forward into the building to meet, in the frame of the high altar, the light of the Holy Spirit pouring toward him from the apsidal window above the throne of Christ's vicar.79

The relationship was articulated in the inscriptions on the medals (Figs 174, 175) issued by the pope to commemorate the twin projects, piazza and cathedra, both of which texts include the same metaphor relating Saint Peter the man to St Peter's the building, and to the church which Christ built on that rock. The 1657 foundation medal of the colonnade quoted Psalm 86:1, FUNDAMENTA EIUS IN MONTIBUS SANCTIS ("the foundations thereof are in the holy mountains"), anticipating the allusions that would appear in the portico inscriptions.80 A 1662 medal of the cathedra is inscribed PRIMA SEDES, FIDEI REGULA, ECCLESIAE FUNDAMENTUM ("first seat, the rule of faith, foundation of the Church"). The words epitomize the major headings under which the papacy laid claim to the leadership of the Christian world: as the successor to the person first designated by Christ himself in his charge to Peter; as the arbiter of Christian belief, to whom Christ conveyed the power to bind and to loosen; and as the foundation on which the institutional Church was based. Whereas the Corpus Domini was a relatively modern feast of the Church, that of the Cathedra Petri (22 February), known from the mid-fourth century, was one of the oldest. Originally celebrating the concession by the emperor to the pope of the power to rule, the feast had from the beginning the imprint of imperial - that is, universal - authority. The long neglected commemoration was revived in 1588 by Paul IV with a bull that specifically stated the motivation: to confute the heretical Protestants who, following the schismatic eastern church, challenged the authority of the papacy, even denying that Peter had ever visited Rome.81 The quasi-Trinitarian formulation of the medal was derived from the definition of the feast of St Peter's chair in the Golden Legend, the great, omnipresent compilation of church tradition concerning the liturgical calendar composed in the thirteenth century by Jacobus of Voragine. For the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, Jacobus gives a threefold significance: the chair of regal dignity, the chair of priestly dignity, and the chair of the teacher. These same domains are defined in the medallic inscription: Peter as the Prince of Apostles (prima sedes), to whom Christ conveyed the keys to heaven and power to loose and bind (fidei ragula) and on whom He would build his church (fundamentum ecclesiae). And the three functions are illustrated in the reliefs that decorate the front and sides of Bernini's Cathedra Petri: "Feed my Sheep," Christ's charge to Peter Prince of the Apostles, as his earthly vicar; "Christ Giving the Keys to Heaven to Peter" as arbiter of the faith by which the gates will be opened or closed; and "Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples," in the first instance Peter's, as Jesus' own example of the love and humility that would be expected of Peter in attending his flock.

The artifact symbol was preserved at St Peter's in the form of the very chair Peter was supposed to have used. Although on an unprecedented scale, the throne Bernini designed to contain the relic belongs in a long tradition of reliquaries that take the shape of the objects they contain. In the ninth century, the original plain oak chair had been decorated with antique ivory tablets, and by adding rings through which staves could be passed, it was altered into a sedia gestatoria on which the pope could be carried in procession.82 Honorific levitation, so to speak, was thus an integral part of the significance as well as the very fabric of the chair. Bernini substituted the Fathers of the Church for the traditional "sediari" who carried it in procession, and his colossal monument thus became an embodiment and perpetuation of the motivating power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from its punning reference to Peter's chair, Bernini's spectacular conception deliberately calls to mind one particular instance in which a reliquary-like, shaped container served as a monumental, sculptured altarpiece. This unmistakable precedent is the tabernacle of the Sacrament that forms the centerpiece of the mortuary chapel built by Sixtus V in S. Maria Maggiore at the end of the sixteenth century, to house and that of his predecessor, Pius V (see Fig 120). Here four over-life-size angels are shown carrying a domed, centrally planned structure symbolic of the Holy Sepulcher as the locus of the Eucharist. The angels bear their burden effortlessly, on a single, delicately raised hand - as if in response to Christ's own exhortation to the faithful to "Take up my yoke upon you …For my yoke is sweet and my burden light" (Matt. 11:29-30, "Tollite iugum meum super vos … iugum enim meum suave est et onus meum leve est"). Bernini's cathedra makes essentially the same point, transmitting Christ's mystical injunction to the faithful through his successor.

Bernini also imbued the ritual of the feast with new meaning by giving form to the words of Psalm 106:32, in which the church as an institution and the chair as an emblem of transfer of power were linked in a prophetic act of exaltation: "Let them exalt him in the church of the people and praise him in the chair of the ancients" ("Exaltent eum in ecclesia plebes: et in cathedra seniorum laudent eum"). Those who exalt the chair are the Fathers of the eastern and western churches, who thus express the all embracing ecumenism that underlies Bernini's works for Alexander at St Peter's. The importance of this verse may explain the pride of place given to Saint Augustine at the right side of the altar. Augustine's comment on the passage in his sermon on the feast of the Cathedra Petri is recited in the lessons of that day: "In this way the Lord names Peter as the foundation of the Church, and so the Church rightly celebrates this foundation on which the whole lofty structure rises up. And it is fitting that the Psalm verse read today says, 'Let them exalt him in the church of the people and praise him in the chair of the elders.' Blessed be God, who commanded St Peter the Apostle to be exalted in the Church; for it is right that in the Church this foundation should be honored by which she rises up to heaven."83 There could hardly be a more apt commentary on Bernini's monument, which embodies the dual import of Augustine's understanding of the relationship between the chair and the church. The Fathers are shown as if they were supporting the chair ("Let them exalt him…"), but in fact it is carried aloft by some higher power ("God who commanded St Peter … to be exalted …"), which animates them and their massive yet turbulent drapery through the intervening ribbons that seem to curl and writhe with the power they transmit.

The Cathedra Petri consists of four distinct yet interconnected elements: the altar proper; the "altarpiece" in the form of the chair; a concave platform on which stand four Doctors of the Church, two Latin in the front, Ambrose and Augustine; two Greek at the back, Athanasius and John Chrysostom; on the rear wall in gilded stucco a glory of the heavenly hierarchy that explodes into the space of the apse, clouds cascading down behind the chair; and, in the center, the window with the dove of the Holy Spirit, which was not originally stained glass but painted in oil on glass, surrounded by "molte teste di serafini." The curved platform, unprecedented for an altarpiece with free-standing sculptures, permitted Bernini to create an astonishingly subtle illusion that the two rear figures are some distance behind (as if the chair was square in plan), and that all four figures are complete and "in-the-round." In Bernini's vision the Holy Spirit passes through the rear wall and expands as it descends to fill the apse of the church, ultimately to include the high altar framed by the Baldacchino and the distant viewer in its exultant embrace (see Fig 110). The essential point of the ideology of the Cathedra Petri is the singularity and unity of the Church under the papacy; reflecting this ecumenical theme, the gospel reading of the papal mass for the Feast of the Chair is recited in both Latin and Greek.84 This is also the central point of Bernini's movement. The conceptual unity is conveyed by the Latin and Greek Doctors of the Church whose doctrines, under the divine aspiration of the Holy Spirit, are literally tied to Peter's throne. The unity is conveyed visually in the indissoluble fusion between two distinct apparitions, those of the miraculously suspended brazen chair to which its inspired acolytes are conjoined and the luminous infiltration of the Holy Spirit. The fusion is mediated by the implosion of the gilded stucco "Gloria" whose radiant beams shed the fiery light of the heavenly hierarchy from seraphs, to cherubs, to angels.85 The spiritual progression from the divine will to its earthly manifestation has its visual and physical analogue in an imperceptible progression from two-dimensional, translucent polychromy, representing the pure spirit, through progressively "lower" and increasingly three-dimensional orders of reality, to reach, ultimately, our own. The conversion of the preexistent window into the luminescent Holy Spirit was a perfect instance of Bernini's definition of architectural merit: to make obstacles seem deliberately invented.86

Viewed in this light, the Cathedra Petri repeats in its own way the expansive, outward reach and all-encompassing unity that was the primary conceit of the Piazza S. Pietro, where in Bernini's mind the dome became the head, the façade the chest and shoulders, and the colonnades the embracing arms of the mother church.

(Figs 176, 177, 178, 179)

Innocent X had planned in 1654 to include in a side aisle of the new building a monument to the emperor Constantine the Great, as a counterpart to that installed by Urban VIII for the church's great medieval benefactress, Matilda of Tuscany (see Fig 152). A completely new idea emerged when the project was taken up by Alexander VII as part of his ambitious plans for completing the new church inside and out. In this context Constantine would be commemorated for decreeing the recognition of the new faith as the state religion of the empire, and for building the original basilica dedicated to Christ's vicar. By these acts (and the fabled Donation of Constantine), the first Christian emperor established the Church's claim to terrestrial universality. It might be said, juridically speaking, that Constantine initiated the kingdom of God on earth. The intention from the outset was for an equestrian figure, in antiquity the imperial honorific portrait form par excellence, indeed the exclusive prerogative of the emperor. The intention must have been to crate at St Peter's a counterpart to the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that Michelangelo had erected at the secular center of the city atop the Capitoline hill. Throughout the Middle Ages the famous sculpture had stood at the Lateran, mistakenly identified as Constantine. Ancient honorific equestrian portraits, apart from tombs, were almost by definition independent, free-standing monuments. Only during the Middle Ages did there develop what might be called a specifically architectural equestrian tradition in Italy, mostly in relief, and notably for placement on the facades of palaces (where they were often thought to represent Constantine).87 By virtue of its design and location, the monument to Constantine comprises all these traditions. Alexander's and Bernini's new building scheme created a crucial juncture between the corridor from the north colonnade, the portico of the basilica extended by a vestibule, and a grandiose stairway built by Bernini, the Scala Regia, connecting with the Vatican palace. The location of the image here was not merely "strategic," to proffer an example to those passing between the church, the palace, and the city; the position at this topographical turning point also marked Constantine's historical role at the intersection between the public, the private, and the spiritual domains of Christianity.

The monument was equally unprecedented in the subject it represented. In the classical tradition, equestrian portraits depicted prototypical acts of imperial majesty, the emperor addressing his troops or spearing an enemy.88 To portray a specific historical event was unheard of. Bernini's monument, by contrast, embodies the very turning point of Constantine's life, an instant when the emperor was himself subjected to a superior power. The origin of Constantine's devotion to Christianity was a famous vision of the Cross that inspired his great victory over his rival Maxentius and led him to adopt the new religion. In the Golden Legend, for the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, Jacobus da Voragine frankly, but with some embarrassment, gives two radically different accounts of the event. In one version, the vision occurs at night, on the eve of a crucial battle with barbarians on the bank of the Danube.

At that time an innumerable horde of barbarians was massing on the bank of the Danube, making ready to cross the river, in order to subjugate the entire West. At these tidings, the Emperor Constantine marched forth with his army, and camped on the other bank of the Danube. But when the number of the barbarians continued to increase, and they began to make their way across the river, Constantine was filled with fear at the thought of the battle which he had to undertake. But in the night an angel woke him, and told him to lift up his head. And Constantine saw in the heavens the image of a cross described in shining light; and above the image was written in letters of gold the legend: "In this sign shalt thou conquer!" Taking heart at the heavenly vision, he had a wooden cross made, and commended that it be carried in the van of his army; and then, falling upon the enemy, he cut them to pieces or put them to flight.

In the second version, for which Jacobus cites Constantine's biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, the vision takes place on the day before the confrontation with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber near Rome.

The Ecclesiastical History [actually Eusebius's Life of Constantine] gives a different account of the victory of Constantine. It tells us that the battle took place near the Pontius Albinus, where Constantine encountered Maxentius, who was attempting to invade the Roman Empire. And when the care-laden emperor raised his eyes to Heaven to plead for succour, he saw in the eastern sky the gleaming sign of the cross, surrounded by angels who said to him: "Constantine, in this sign shalt thou conquer!" And as Constantine was wondering what this meant, Christ appeared to him during the night, with the same sign, and ordered him to have an image made of it, which would aid him in battle. The emperor now assured of victory, made the sign of the cross upon his forehead, and took a gold cross in his hand … And Maxentius, when he was about to cross the river, forgot that he had caused the bridges to be undermined in order to draw Constantine to destruction; and he started to pass over a bridge which had been sapped, and was drowned in the river. 89

Eusebius himself reports that the vision took place at noon and was repeated to Constantine in a dream that night, before the encounter with Maxentius:

[Constantine] said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.90

The common denominator among these accounts, the sign of the Cross and the words that appeared with it, became the talismans of Constantine's victory and conversion. The sources, however, elicited two different ways of illustrating the vision. It might be depicted as a solitary event, experienced at night, with the emperor in bed. More frequently, the vision was depicted taking place in daylight, with the emperor peering at the luminous apparition in the sky and sometimes standing and haranguing his troops to carry the sign of the Cross, the first official, public declaration of the new faith (Fig 180). Alternatively, Constantine might appear on horseback amid his army preparing to do battle in the first Christian military victory (Fig 181). When mounted, his steed was portrayed in the waling gait proper to the imperial adventus, or triumphal entry. Another mode of representing the event developed in Byzantium, especially in psalter illustration, which was of great importance for Bernini: there he found the miracle isolated and distilled into a sort of icon. The vision (a disk inscribed with the Cross) and the military encounter were conflated and reduced to a single, composite action, with the victory conceived as a personal triumph of the emperor in combat - although the essential point of the story according to Eusebius was that, confronted by the Cross displayed by Constantine, Maxentius was defeated by his own guile, and no battle took place. The emperor was shown charging forward on a rearing horse to dispatch the enemy with his spear, beneath the emblematic vision appearing in the sky (Fig 182, where, significantly, the vision is represented as a shield). The motive for this deliberately ahistorical presentation was clearly its use in the Psalter, where it invoked the divine auspicies for the military exploits of the Byzantine emperors, who considered themselves Constantine's successors. The subject illustrates a passage in Psalm 59:6-7, in which God's intervention is sought against the enemies of Israel: "Thou hast given a sign for those who fear thee, that they may flee from before the bow, Save me with thy right hand, and hear me" ("Dedisti metuentibus te significationem ut fugiant a facie arcus ut liberentur dilecti tui. Salvum fac dextera tua et exaudi me").91 Because the church established under Constantine, who founded the Greek Orthodox capital, was universal, reference at St Peter's and the Vatican to such an authentically Greek visualization of the critical event implicitly suggested the essential unity of Eastern and Western Christianity. It is symptomatic of Bernini's thought, I believe, that even closer to his concept are certain related illustrations in the Greek psalters, not of the emperor but of military saints, notably Eustathius and Procopius, in which a vision is itself the subject: they are shown, alone and similarly mounted on charging horses, leaping up and gesturing toward heavenly apparitions. These visions were not related to battles, and the saints are represented without weapons and without adversaries (Fig 183). The Byzantine formulations were readily available in a famous early Greek psalter in the Barberini collection at the Vatican.92 Moreover, Bernini could find impeccable historical precedent for transposing this isolated type into sculpture in one of the most venerable and uncannily affective works of early Christian art, which formed part of the prehistory of the Byzantine Psalter miniatures of Constantine. This is a leaf of an ivory diptych, the centerpiece of which is an armored imperial figure, mounted at the attack on a rearing horse, in the act of impaling with his lance an imaginary enemy below (Fig 184).93 Here, too, the group seems to thrust itself off the surface into the viewer's space. The artist manages to elde the distinction between front and side views, so that while the horseman is imbedded in the complex visual and thematic context provided by the "setting," he also takes a turn toward the spectator and his victory leaps out of the frame into the present. In Bernini's time the ivory was also part of the Barerini collection in Rome and was thought to represent Constantine himself, partly no doubt because the medallion image of Christ holding the Cross in the panel above suggested the emperor's vision. The subject mater would have been no less relevant to Bernini's enterprise than the virtuoso technique and subtle illusion. In fact, he seems to have had the Barberini plaque in mind, especially the movement of the horse, when he designed the unexecuted first version of the Constantine monument for Innocent X (Fig 185).

Although the event was often depicted with the mounted Constantine in the field of battle or dispatching enemies, there is nothing in the literary accounts to suggest a violent response to the vision. Indeed, never before Bernini had the emperor been shown alone, in no other act than absorbing the apparition and mounted on a rearing horse which, unlike any of its ancestors, seems to be no less astounded by the miracle than he. In this respect, Bernini's invention may be understood in part as a conflation of Constantine's vision with the one equally portentous instance of precisely the same phenomenon - that is, the conversion of Saint Paul, to which the Church devotes a feast in the liturgical calendar.94 A non-Christian, in this case Jewish, equestrian military leader is suddenly confronted by a miraculous intervention from on high on behalf of the new faith. Through the power of his preaching and writing Paul established the spiritual hegemony of the Church, as Constantine was to establish its earthly dominion through his military power. Paul's vision also included a light in the sky and a verbal message, not written but spoken by the invisible Christ. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus was a violent event: he was toppled from his horse and relinquished his military life to become the apostle Paul, "a true warrior for Christ," in Augustine's words.95 In the visual tradition of the conversion of Sant Paul, the man and animal might be shown alone, without accompanying figures. And, unlike the horse of the equestrian Constantine in the West, Paul's mount was often shown rearing up, as startled by the miracle as the rider. In one notable example, a medal of Pope Julius II, Paul is still on his rearing horse, reeling from the vision in the sky (Fig 186). 96 In assimilating Constantine's vision of Christianity to that of Paul's conversion, Bernini created a concerted response of both rider and animal - man and nature, as it were - to the heavenly apparition.

In one of the most famous and important portrayals of Paul's conversion, that by Raphael in the tapestry series for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Paul's reaction is particularly appropriate (Fig 187). The open-armed gesture, suggestive of both surprise and receptivity, which Bernini had attributed to Saint Longinus, was understood as a reference to the Crucifixion, and was the authentic mode of prayer among the early Christians. Eusebius specifically ascribed this gesture to the full-length portraits of himself that Constantine erected at the entrances to his palaces:

How deeply his soul was impressed by the power of divine faith may be understood from the circumstance that he directed his likeness to be stamped on the golden coins of the empire with the eyes uplifted as in the posture of prayer to God: and this money became current throughout the Roman world. His portrait also at full length was placed over the entrance gates of the palaces in some cities, the eyes upraised to heaven, and the hands outspread as if in prayer.97

Heinrich Valesius, who published what became the standard modern Latin translation of Eusebius in 1659, explained the history and symbolism of the gesture as follows:

Whoever was the Translatour[sic] of this Book, he has rendered this place with little attention, thus, Et precantes forma manus sursum tollens, and lifting up his hands in the form of one praying; whereas he ought to have rendered it, minibus expansis, ut precantes solent, with expanded hands a persons praying are wont to do. For the Christians were wont, when at prayers, to stretch forth their hands, that by this means they might represent the likeness of a Cross. Indeed, the Christians lifted up their hands, whilst they were praying. But this was not peculiar to the Christians, in this regard the Heathens did the same; as Virgil attests in these words,

-Et geminas tellens ad sidera palmas.

But, that was peculiar to the Christians, to expand their hands in the form of a Cross. Tertullian's words, in his Book de Oratione Chap. Ii, are these: Nos vero non attollimus tantum, Sed etiam expandimus, & dominica passione modulamur; We do not only lfe up [our hands,] but do spread them also, and we put our selves into a form agreeable to Our Lord's passion. He says the same in his Apologetick, chap. 30.98

The relationship between these two crucial divine interventions in the defense and dissemination of Christianity, one by the power of faith, the other by the power of empire, was not Bernini's invention. The comparison of Constantine to Paul was made explicitly by Rufinus of Aquileia, whose Latin translation of Eusebius's Greek was the source of all Western knowledge of this fundamental history of early Christianity. Rufinus's version, much criticized because of the many liberties it takes with the text, might better be understood as an interpretive commentary, and he made clear the sense in which he understood Constantine's vision by adding that Constantine's "heavenly invitation to faith" did not seem to him inferior to that of Paul, to whom heaven also spoke - except that "the invitation was no longer not to persecute, but to prosecute."99 Conflation of the two events produced an image of immediate, unadulterated, and devastating awareness not inherent in either of its precedents. The reference to Saint Paul and the idea of conversion was explicit in the liturgy for May third, the feast of the Invention of the Cross: the first three lessons were taken from Paul's perorations on the Crucifixion in the epistles, and the fourth began the story of the True Cross with Constantine's vision and victory.100 Constantine's rapturous expression and gesture epitomize a tradition, which included Bernini's St. Longinus in the crossing pier, specifically motivated by imitation of the Crucifixion and impassioned devotion to the Cross.

Allusion to the visionary conversion of Saint Paul was eloquent testimony to the history of divine intervention on behalf of the Church. However, the full import of Bernini's interpretation of Constantine's role cannot be comprehended without reference to a superficially quite different but profoundly related episode involving another pagan emperor - at least, as the story was interpreted by the one artist who above all others, as Bernini frequently acknowledged during his visit to Paris, struck him with admiration, even awe - Poussin.101 Bernini's fundamental innovation of depicting Constantine's vision with rider and steed reacting together in response to the apparition on high is an explicit, undisguised "quotation" of the image of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian and later also emperor, in Poussin's monumental Destruction of Jerusalem, which he painted for Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1638 (Fig 188).102 As must have been intended from the outset, on 1 January 1639, the cardinal presented the picture as a diplomatic gift to the ambassador to the Holy See from the Hapsburg ruler Ferdinand III, Constantine's successor as "Holy Roman Emperor." What Bernini admired in Poussin's art, apart from its sheer beauty and intelligence, was its narrative sagacity and power - grande favelleggiatore (great fabulator) was the phrase he repeated in response to Poussin. He certainly grasped the affective power of Poussin's majestic equestrian group, in the context of the heroic action performed on a stagelike piazza before a noble cityscape that is in itself a deliberate evocation of the tragic theater set, evolved since the early sixteenth century from Vitruvius's famous account of ancient scenography.103 However, it is essential to understand, as Bernini Certainly did, that Poussin's theme, and Titus's role in particular, were in themselves extraordinary, and charged with potent, immediate significance.

Poussin generally and in many details follows the primary description by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was a member of Titus's entourage, of the terrible mayhem wrought by the Roman army that fateful day in A.D. 70.104 Indeed, Poussin seems to have depicted a specific moment: the city is in ruins and burning, but the Temple is still intact, except for the fire that has erupted in the inner sanctum sanctorum, as the looters make off with the precious ritual vessels and furnishings. All this Josephus describes, while also emphasizing that Titus himself was opposed to the destruction of such a sacred and magnificent structure, and even tried, in vain, to restrain his impetuous followers. Poussin had illustrated this very theme in an earlier picture of the same subject, also painted for Francesco Barberini and presented to the representative of Louis XIII of France: Titus, on a walking horse, gestures toward his men to desist, while looking heavenward in an anguished appeal for clemency (Fig 189).105 In a second version, Titus and his rearing horse are shown as if awestruck by a sudden message from on high. Titus now acts as intercessor, with one hand lifted toward the vision he sees in the sky, the other lowered toward the carnage on the ground below. In this salient display of sudden awareness and compassion in the midst of fury, Poussin seems to reconcile Josephus's account with a diametrically opposed interpretation developed by the first writers to treat world history in Christian terms. In this view, the destruction of the Temple became a divinely providential act of vengeance upon the Jews - which Titus favored - for their martyrdom of Christ.106 Clearly, it is this supernal, proleptic intimation of the Christological import of the event and his own role in it that is being revealed to Titus in Poussin's dramatization. In effect, Titus was inspired by Divine Wisdom, whose intervention on behalf of the Church was the very leitmotif of Urban's reign. Poussin made this Christological meaning explicit through Titus's pose, calling on the Early Christian tradition in which the open-armed gesture patently evokes the Crucifixion.107 Sulpicius Severus reports that Titus favored the destruction in order to eradicate both the Jews and their Christian heirs, but calls the destruction of the Temple and subsequent dispersion of the Jews an act of God.

Titus is said, after calling a council, to have first deliberated whether he should destroy the temple, a structure of such extraordinary work. For it seemed good to some that a sacred edifice, distinguished above all human achievement, ought not to be destroyed, inasmuch as, if preserved, it would furnish an evidence of Roman moderation, but if destroyed, would serve for a perpetual proof of Roman cruelty. But on the opposite side, others and Titus himself thought that the temple ought especially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish. Thus, according to the divine will, the minds all being inflamed, the temple was destroyed ... 108

Two other texts must also have inspired Poussin's visualization of the tradition. Orosius, perhaps the most important early Christianizer of ancient historical texts, relates the destruction of the Temple to Titus's triumph in Rome (Poussin also alludes to the exhibition of the Temple spoils in the triumphal entry depicted on the Arch of Titus), to the decree of God, and to the avenging of Christ's blook and Passion:

After the capture and overthrow of Jerusalem … and after the total destruction of the Jewish nation, Titus, who had been appointed by the decree of God to avenge the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, celebrated with his father Vespasian his victory by a triumph and closed the temple of Janus … It was indeed right that the same honor should be paid to the avenging of the Lord's Passion as had been bestowed upon His Nativity.109

Perhaps the most explicit and lapidary formulation was that of Dante who, in the voice of his fellow poet Statius, speaks of the sudden, earthquake response to Divine Justice when it releases from Purgatory those pure spirits who lived "not yet with faith." Statius calls to witness "the good Titus," "In the time when the good Titus, with the help of the Highest King, avenged the wounds whence issued the blood sold by Judas, I was famous enough … but not yet with faith."110

The relevance of Poussin's painting to Francesco Barberini's mission to the Hapsburg emperor was above all in reference to the struggle with the Protestants, often likened to the Jews in their refusal to recognize the Church. Poussin was surely as familiar as Bernini with the equestrian Constantine tradition, and one might well suppose that Poussin's Christological interpretation of the destruction of the Jewish Temple already involved a proleptic reference to the revelation accorded to Titus's imperial successor, who adopted Christianity and protected the Church. The pose of Poussin's second Titus suggests that the "good" pagan is inspired by the same vision of Divine Wisdom acting through Christian charity and justice that informed the tomb of Urban VIII. For Bernini, the tradition was equally relevant at St Peter's, in a program specifically addressed to the same "political" problems. Titus and Constantine were links in a chain forged by Divine Wisdom that bound these early heroes to the current rulers of Europe and ordained the reigns of popes.

From a formal point of view, it might be said that Bernini abstracted Poussin's heroic group from its narrative context and infused it into the tradition of the independent equestrian monument. In this sense, Bernini alluded to a flourishing contemporary honorific mode: the equestrian monument with the rider mounted on a rearing horse, mostly cast in bronze, which in the course of the seventeenth century had become a veritable icon of sovereign display, both political and artistic (Fig 190). The ruler was portrayed as a triumphant hero demonstrating his military prowess by defeating an enemy, shown prostrate beneath the animal's hooves; or demonstrating his innate power of leadership through his consummate skill in the noble art of horsemanship, effortlessly commanding the huge beast, against its nature, to execute a veritable aerial levitation - the so-called levade of the high equestrian school then enormously in vogue.111 Bernini's Constantine is also an emblem of victory, but of an entirely different, spiritual order - neither a military victory nor a triumph of the will, but a moral conquest of the self, a revolution of the soul in response to the revelatory power of divine grace. This emphasis on the spiritual nature of Constantine's historical role is completed by the events illustrated in the stucco medallions in the vault above - not the defeat of Maxentius as in so many other narratives, but the emperor's baptism and his construction of St Peter's.

In the traditional equestrian monument the sculptor's victory, his virtu, consisted in immortalizing the hero's victory over superior physical strength in the permanent but inherently amorphous form of bronze. In the case of Bernini's Constantine, where there are no reins of stirrups, and the hero's tour de force was his response to an act of divine will, the artist's achievement lay in "dominating" the inherently rigid material of stone. In fact, an important aspect of the significance of the work lies in its technical qualities, first among these being its colossal scale. In his biography of his father, Domenico Bernini emphasized that the sheer size of the block, and by implication the skill required to carve such a large work from a single stone, were specifically intended to vie with antiquity itself: "a colossus … truly great for the subject it represents, for the place it was to be located, and for the material in which it was to be carved: in a thirty-wagon mass of stone (to use the proper terms) the likes of which had rarely been seen in Rome even in ancient times."112 This agonistic attitude toward the past was not simply a matter of personal satisfaction or aggrandizement but carried specific meaning related to the basic theme of the monument: Bernini's technical victory over the stone was an analogue of Constantine's moral victory over paganism. Domenico Bernini intimated this very point when he attributed the true greatness of the colossus to three factors: its subject, its location, and its material.113 The significance of the technique in these terms was expressed directly and profoundly by Bernini's great friend and admirer Giovanni Paolo Oliva, who was general of the Jesuit order and apostolic preacher. In a sermon he delivered before the pope in the Vatican palace as the Constantine was reaching completion, Oliva used the feat of carving it as a metaphor for moral action in the achievement of a noble end.114 The technique is also remarkable in that the work occupies a sort of intermediate realm of existence between the traditional domains of relief and freestanding sculpture. The equestrian is indeed carved from a single block of marble, which is, however, attached to the back wall of the niche. This device made it possible to create the rearing horse without artificial support, such as a defeated enemy underfoot, that would otherwise be required. Bernini was thus able to isolate the vision as a pure, unadulterated moment of revelation. At the same time, being carved virtually in the round, the sculpture appears completely independent, to all appearances a freestanding group. The figures seem to inhabit the spectator's space, and the horse's rear hooves actually do rest on the pedestal. A key to this effect is Bernini's virtuoso capacity, nurtured since his childhood training in his father's studio, for carving deeply undercut, perforated, and cantilevered forms.

The polyvalence of the subject and location of the Constantine monument has a counterpart in the design of the work. Bernini must have been well aware of the traditions in which equestrian sculptures were placed before palaces and churches, often in niches, parallel or perpendicular to the wall (Figs 191, 192).115 In its new location the Constantine might well have been intended to "reclaim" this hegemonic tradition for the papacy. The design certainly incorporates the seemingly incompatible alternatives of orientation, responding to the principal approaches in the Scala Regia. The horse, rider, and pedestal project sufficiently from the flat niche so that from the corridor in front the sculpture suggests the freestanding equestrian ruler portraits that confront the visitor, sometimes quite aggressively. The "regal" entrance behind Constantine is marked by the huge coat of arms of the pope carried by trumpeting angels placed on the arched opening to the Scala Regia, whose triumphal fastigium design repeats the Serlian cross section of the colonnades From the portico of the church the work appears as an equestrian monument placed laterally and framed by an arch, with the figures twisted outward by the force of the apparition above. Bernini fused the lateral and the frontal types in the way the figures are carved; at the rear, the animal's body, in high relief, is parallel to the spectator, while toward the front both horse and rider become fully three-dimensional, so the space into which they leap is to the side and forward. Some precedence for this sculptural ingenuity may be found in a rare if not unique instance of an equestrian, as a deeply carved relief, shown frontally in a niche, at a corner of Arnolfo di Cambio's fourteenth-century altar tabernacle in S. Cecilia in Rome, which Bernini certainly know (Fig 193).116 An analogous turn from the relief plane into space created the powerful thrust of the horseman of the Barberini plaque and its prototypes on Roman hunting and battle sarcophagi (Fig 184, 194). Psychologically, this "bent" movement also helps to create the spatial elision and explosive power of Constantine and his horse, whose forward movement Bernini augmented by skewing the perspective of the coffered arch and the sweeping flow of the billowing drapery behind.117

When the huge marble block was acquired the sculpture would have more than filled the niche in the basilica for which it was originally intended (Fig 185).118 The additional space available in the new location made it necessary - "possible" would be a more appropriate word, given Bernini's way of surmounting the challenges that confronted him - to provide the work with a context that would impart new meaning and expressive power. The horse and rider are now set up on a pedestal, so that the sculpture becomes a proper equestrian monument (Fig 177). The monument is set within a framing arch and given a background suggesting that the space continues behind to include accouterments in temporary materials as ephemeral as the fleeting moment represented by the sculpture itself: a circular baldachin over which is flung a huge, billowing cloth that sweeps forward behind the figures and loops down over the pedestal. At first glance, the setting suggests the military encampment where the emperor experienced the vision, including the commander's tent (Fig 180), or the outdoor draped audience chamber from which he made his ad locution to inspire his troops before the battle (Fig 195). In fact, these references are purely symbolic. The canopy, which recalls the baldachin suspended over the pope in Giulio Romano's Donation of Constantine (Fig 126), has no visible means of support, but hovers above like the heavenly umbralacum of Isaiah cited in the inscription of the colonnade. The drapery is here an analogue of the parapetasma, or cloth of honor, against which in ancient funerary monuments portraits of the deceased were placed to signify apotheosis. In Bernini's memorial of Suor Maria Raggi in S. Maria sopra Minerva, the drapery became a kind of "magic carpet," suspended from her vision of the Cross above, on which the image is transported heavenward by two flying putti (Fig 196).119 The drapery behind Bernini's Constantine seems to respond to the blaring trumpets of the angels above who carry the papal coat of arms, echoing the description in the Acts of the Apostles (2:2) of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, when "suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind," initiating the universal dominion of Christianity through the gift of tongues - the ad locutio - to the apostles.

It could well be argued that light is the true protagonist of the vision of Constantine as portrayed by Bernini. Taking advantage of the slope of the Vatican hill, he introduced a large window between the vault of the corridor from the colonnade and that of the landing. Light passes through the opening to illuminate the space, duplicating the radiance of the divine apparition described in the sources. A great effulgence descends mysteriously from the upper right, forming with the body of the horse one diagonal axis of a huge chiastic composition, of which the crossing diagonal is formed by the flowing drapery of the tent and the body of Constantine himself. The viewer is propelled forward in the direction of the light source by the displaced vanishing point of the perspectivized arch, and by the massive, billowing sweep of drapery. The view from the Scala Regia back toward the entrance corridor portrays the vision itself: the window provides the bright light, while the cross and the words appear immediately below, conjoined in what might be called a literally miraculous way. Instead of appearing simply as a text in the sky, the motto is inscribed on a sculptured, floating banderole before which the cross is suspended. The text thus serves not only as an immaterial vision, but also as a sort of label, a physically substantive, heaven-sent message for the viewer as well as for Constantine, defining the meaning of the event and the monument as a work of art. Bernini had developed many of these devices long before. In his depiction of a vision of Saint Francesca Romana, a halo of light above the figures serves its historical function as a heavenly apparition (Fig 197); and in his portrayal of the ecstasy of Saint Teresa light from a window above radiates down upon a sculptured relief that appears suspended in midair and is virtually carved in the round (Fig 164). In both works real light had become an integral, active agent of the subject represented, which in the case of Saint Teresa, is also "explained" by a message inscribed on a banderole fluttering at the apex of the entrance to the chapel (Fig 198).120 To re-present the "image" described by Eusebius, Bernini seems to have melded the cross-borne drapery inscription of the Maria Raggi monument with the heavenly inscribed banderole of the Teresa chapel. In the space of the Constantine memorial the spectator is not simply a witness but feels himself included in the event. The ultimate nature of this pervasive, mysterious illumination comes into focus when one faces in the opposite direction: from the top of the stairs leading up to the Sala Regia at the end of the long perspective of diminishing and receding ceremonial architecture that continues the colonnade, the light radiates exactly as it does in a splendid altar tabernacle in Bologna, which Bernini certainly knew, whose one-point perspective of the same design epitomized the Sacrament (Fig 199).121

Here, as in no previous work, at the threshold of St Peter's and the Vatican, real space and the space of the event re-created are one and the same. The crucial event of church history is isolated and distilled into a single, supreme moment of revelation. Constantine is at once the protagonist of a distant historical event and the subject of a commemoration in the present. And the viewer is inextricably conjoined with the architecture and the sculpture as participant in the visionary act taking place, then-now, there-here. The medium through which and in which this existential fusion transpires is the flood of light that accompanies the miraculous sign and message from on high. Having been embraced and urged forward by the arms of the colonnades, we enter a place charged with physical energy and optical radiance by a divine illumination revealed ultimately in the Sacrament, the ultimate goal of both patron and artist "at the end of the tunnel." Heaven and earth meet at the point where the spiritual pilgrim enters the sacred precinct.


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