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.

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"FEED MY SHEEP" (1633-46)



The Plague
List of Angels on Ponte Sant'Angelo







Singularis in Singulis, in Omnibus Unicus

Irving Lavin


The Plague

A major impetus for refurbishing the entrance to the Holy City must have come from a recurrence of the plague, which, having devastated Naples, wracked Rome from May 1656 through the summer of 1657.163 Alexander VII took drastic measures to confine the disease, and his efforts were credited with limiting the number of victims to some fifteen thousand, far fewer than usual in such outbreaks. To commemorate the event and pay tribute to the pope's succor, no fewer than three medals were struck, two in 1657, the third in 1659. In one, which seems to adumbrate the eschatological imagery of the bridge, an angel stands beside a cross holding the gentle yoke (Matt. 11:29-30) and a book (doubtless the Gospels), treading underfoot a skeletal figure of Death; the legend reads POPVLVM RELIGIONE TVETVR (the people are protected by religion) (Fig 230).164 The intervention and ministrations of the pope were also celebrated in the second medal, designed by Bernini, who had lost one of his brothers in the plague while another, having fallen ill, "miraculously" recovered.165 Issued in 1657 upon the cessation of the disease, the medal shows Saint Peter himself in the sky holding the keys and gesturing toward St Peter's as the source and goal of healing faith (Fig 231).166 Dead, dying, and recovering figures are depicted below, partially immersed in the flowing river, while to the side a winged figure strides away carrying a skull and a flamboyant sword. The scene seems to be taking place in the area between St Peter's and Castel Sant'Angelo, and the legend of the medal, VT VMBRA ILLIVS LIBERARENTVR, which derives from a passage in Acts that refers to Saint Peter as healer, also served to express in Petrine terms the continuity between the colonnade and the Castello: "5:15 (Douay Version) Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that, when Peter came, his shadow at the least might overshadow any of them and they might be delivered from their infirmities."167 The legend clearly anticipates the 1661 inscription of Isaiah 4:6 at the northeast entrance to the colonnade, the approach to St Peter's and the Vatican from the bridge and Castello, where the portico is described as an umbraculum, a refuge from storm and rain. In effect, Peter and the pope are identified with the portico, as the angel is with the Castello and bridge. In fact, the plague was often conceived of as a rain of arrows cast down by an irate God upon sinners, who huddle beneath the ample, tentlike mantle of the Madonna della Misericordia, wherein the Virgin is seen as the sheltering church.168

In recognition of his actions, the Senate in 1658 decreed that a statue of the pope be erected on the Capitol; he refused the honor and an inscription recording the city's gratitude was installed instead.169 In 1659 a splendid third medal, again designed by Bernini, was issued by an official of the city (Fig 232). The medal casts Alexander in the role of Androcles, the runaway Roman slave who healed a wounded lion. Recaptured and condemned to die in the amphitheater, Androcles was confronted by the same beast, which, instead of attacking fawned upon him, whereupon both were set free and Androcles became known as the Healer. Bernini shows Androcles, before whom the lion bows down in devotion, not as a slave but as a military hero wielding his sword as if he were the archangel Michael. The long inscription on the medal details many of the pope's benefactions to the city, but first and foremost its liberation from the plague.170

The pope's beneficent role in this horrendous event inevitably evoked the circumstances of the original vision of Gregory the Great, which had, in effect, converted the mausoleum of Hadrian into a Christian fortress under the aegis of Saint Michael, successor to the avenging angel of the Old Testament. Now, however, the stimulus of the past echoing in the present led to a comprehensive new program in which the bridge and the Castello would synthesize the traditions associated with the entrance to the Holy City.171

Preconception Alexander VII died on 2 May 1667, Clement IX was elected on 20 June, and the first payments for work on the refurbishing of the bridge leading to the Vatican were made on 22 September. It is evident that at least the basic elements of the project, if not the actual plans, must have been conceived sometime during Alexander's papacy.172 Indeed, thought must have been given from the outset to incorporating the entrance to the Holy City into the grand schemes the pope adopted and carried out in the basilica and the palace. The idea to create a major thoroughfare from the river to the basilica, carried out for the Jubilee of 1450, had been repeatedly broached since the thirteenth century, and we have seen that the line of approach from Castel Sant'Angelo had been an important consideration in the design of the Piazza San Pietro and the Scala Regia with the equestrian statue of Constantine. A specific indication that Alexander was thinking about the relation between the Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican is an inscription of 1656 - that is, while the piazza in front of the basilica was first being planned - recording that the pope had installed the uppermost crown of the fortress so that for the dignity of the papacy the final décor would not be wanting.173

A hint as to the nature of Bernini's vision for the project emerges from a remarkable document of April 1659 concerning Montelupo's sculpture of the archangel Michael. A workman is paid for various repairs to the angel and for having disjoined the clamps that held it, "because Bernini wanted to raise it higher." 174 The point of the operation was surely to increase the visibility of the figure, obviously not from the city at large - the figure was already plain to see from a distance - but from below, so that it would continue to loom above as the visitor approached from the other side of the river. This concern indicates that Bernini had already invented a new conceptual and formal role for the angel bridge and for the entire complex; perhaps he was already thinking of the Archangel as the commander of a celestial honor guard.175

One senses the germination of another aspect of Bernini's concept in two of the artist's apparent whimsies during his stay in Paris in the summer of 1665, recounted by Chantelou. On 31 July, Bernini made a point of visiting the Pont-Rouge, also known as the Pont Saint-Landry, which linked the Ile Saint-Louis to the Ild de al Cite behind Notre-Dame: "Our evening drive was rather short; he wanted to go to the Pont-Rouge and stopped the coach on it for a good quarter of an hour looking first from one side of the bridge and then the other. After a while he turned to me and said, 'It is a beautiful view; I am a great love of water, it calms my spirits.' Then we returned home." And the next day: "After we had gone towards the Cours-la-Reine he asked to go to the Pont-Rouge where we had been the night before; he remained there a good quarter of an hour; we came back by the Pont-Neuf and through the streets."176 The bridge where Bernini lingered was carefully chosen and his interest far more than casual (Figs 233, 234). Constructed in 1627, demolished in 1710, and now replaced by the Pont Saint-Louis, the Pont-Rouge was a narrow, fragile, wooden structure (painted red), often damaged and in need of repair; passage, only on foot, must have seemed perilous indeed, and the open railings provided a full view of the water below.177 In a famous accident during a procession in 1634, the bridge gave way and many persons were killed or wounded; a similar and even more notorious disaster, accompanied by an outbreak of the plague, had befallen the pilgrims crossing the Ponte Sant'Angelo during the Jubilee of 1450.178


Bernini's project involved two fundamental innovations with respect to the prior history of the Ponte Sant'Angelo and of bridge design generally. The new features are defined explicitly in the accounts given by Baldinucci and Domenico Bernini, doubtless echoing Bernini's own formulation of his concept: while taking great care to provide for the visibility of the river below, he incorporated the traditional Christian name of the bridge in a cohort of angels displaying the instruments of Christ's Passion.

During the pontificate of Clement IX, Bernini finished the right wing of the portico of St Peter's by the Holy Office and the ramp or, as we would say, the pavilion in front of the basilica of St Peter's. He embellished the bridge of Sant'Angelo with statues of angels carrying instruments of Christ's Passion and designed the balustrades. Bernini made with his own hand two of the angels that were to be placed with the others on the bridge. But it did not seem right to Pope Clement that such beautiful works should remain there exposed to damage from the weather. Therefore, he had copies of them made. The originals were placed elsewhere at the disposition of the cardinal-nephew. Nevertheless, Bernini carved another angel secretly, the one with the superscription, so that a work by a pope to whom he knew he owed so much would not be without some creation by his hand. When the pope learned of it, although he was very pleased, he said, 'In short, Cavalier, you wish to compel me to have yet another copy made.' And let my reader now consider that Bernini, though well on in years, carved three entire marble statues, larger than life-size, in the space of two years: a thing that to those most competent in art seemed to be an impossibility.

Baldinucci makes the following observation discussing Bernini's fountains:

Another of his precepts should be brought forth since we are speaking of fountains. It is that as fountains are made for the enjoyment of water, then the water should always be made to fall so that it can be seen. It was with such a precept in mind, I believe, that in his restoration of the bridge of Sant'Angelo by order of Clement IX, he had the side walls lowered so that the water could better be enjoyed. The eye may see with double pleasure from the banks of the river the flow of water as well as the bridge above, ornamented with angels that allude to its ancient name.179

Domenico Bernini introduces the idea while speaking of the bridge:

But Clement, desirous as his predecessors to increase the magnificence of the Temple of St Peter's, the adornment of Rome, and the glory of his pontificate, ordered Bernini to adorn in the best way with some noble invention the bridge that takes its name from the nearby Castello, Ponte Sant'Angelo, deemed worthy of notable embellishment both for the grandeur of the Mausoleum of Hadrian which presents itself to those who enter it, and because it is the most frequented way to the great Basilica of St Peter. The idea that occurred to Bernini was most appropriate to the site and as majestic in appearance as can be said. He often observed that 'With respect to fountains or works involving water, the good architect will make sure that it will easily be seen, either in falling or in passing. Since the sight of water gives great pleasure, to impede or block it removes from such works their most delightful value.' Toward this end, when ornamenting the bridge, the Cavaliere wished that the parapets, which are normally solid wall constructions, would include regular openings, protected by wrought-iron screens, so that the passerby might easily admire the flow of the water above which he happily moves.180

Open balustrades had never before been seen on the monumental stone bridges of Rome.181 Bernini opened the parapets along the flanking banks of the Tiber as well, so that the river was visible even as one approached the crossing itself (Fig 235; the flanking parapets were closed when the bridge was renovated after 1890). The biographers were justified in relating the innovation to Bernini's appreciation of the effect of moving water. In contrast to the thin, geometrically controlled jets of Mannerist tradition, he engineered for his fountain and theater designs spectacular aquatic displays, veritable cascades, abundant and potentially overwhelming. The innovation was exactly analogous to Bernini's transferal of other formal devices from the realm of the informal, rustic, and ephemeral to the context of urban "high art" - awesomely craggy rustication in palace architecture, aggressively crude draftsmanship in caricatures, menacingly failed scenic illusions in the theater.182 These transformations of tradition were not merely formal but conveyed distinct and often disturbing meaning in their respective contexts. In one of his comedies, the river Tiber threatened to flood off the stage and inundate the audience!183 At the Ponte Sant'Angelo, as at the Pont-Rouge in Paris, the effect of the natural flow is quite different, inspiring, in Bernini's terms, a mood of meditative contemplation and tranquility. His meaning in this case becomes evident only with an understanding of the Ponte Sant'Angelo project as a whole.

Beginning in May 1667, obstructive buildings at the entrance to the bridge (including the infamous executions precinct) were demolished to create the Piazza San Celso, and the open-grilled parapets were introduced flanking the bridge and along the river on either side.184 The effect was to enlarge the vista from the Piazza San Celso and include the flood running under the bridge in the overall prospect. The bridge, the river, and the Castel Sant'Angelo behind it could now be comprehended as one vast, emblematic marker of the perilous transition from the secular to the sacred city, from this world to the next. The panorama is a "real"-world prolepsis of the otherworldly vision that awaits the faithful who, approaching the end of the pilgrimage inside the church, perceive the Cathedra Petri looming gloriously behind the angel-borne baldachin. On the other side of the bridge, the last remaining obstructions to the Borgo Nuovo were removed and the road was widened. The junction, formerly a focus of military defense, now provided an unobstructed view and passage to the hallowed precincts of the Vatican and St Peter's.185 This ultimate demilitarization and sacralization of the entrance to the Holy City might be thought of as the political counterpart of the spiritual embrace embodied in the open arms of the St Peter's colonnades. With its thought-provoking view of the abyss, the Ponte Sant'Angelo evokes the perilously narrow, unguarded Bridge of Trial, now become a broad avenue protectively screened on either side by the perforated balustrades and guarded by troops of angels. In the horizontal axis the bridge becomes the intermediary between the secular and the holy city; in the vertical axis, it becomes the intermediary between the deep, dark river winding its way to the globe-encircling sea, and the infinite, angel-filled empyrean above. Bernini's transformation may be said to have given Ponte Sant'Angelo a cosmic expanse, fulfilling the destiny of Rome, center and capital of the world - umbilicus mundi in classical terms, in papal terms, urbis et orbi.

The Via Salvationis and the Arma Christi
Bernini's solution for transforming the ancient Pons Aelius into the modern Ponte Sant'Angelo consisted partly in assimilating to the classical tradition of triumph and apotheosis the vast accumulation of medieval eschatological associations. His essential contribution in doing so consisted in distinguishing, isolating, and integrating into this cumulative heritage the ultimate, salvific component that had been only implicit before: Christ's sacrifice. This innovation was perhaps inevitable, given the special emphasis upon and devotion to the Eucharist that had characterized church doctrine since the Council of Trent; we have seen that the Eucharist was the central theme of Alexander's pontificate from the outset, motivating in fundamental ways the unprecedented tasks her entrusted to Bernini at St Peter's. Similarly, flanking the bridge with parallel sequences of monumental statues refurbished the idea of a triumphal honor guard inherent in the ancient, imperial heritage of the bridge, which had been revived in prophetic terms in the Old Testament-New Testament succession for the entry of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. But representing the Eucharistic sacrifice as a sort of dramatization enacted by a procession of sculpted angels bearing the instruments of the Passion was a radically new conception that conflated two previously distinct but profoundly related traditions. The fusion of antecedents transformed the role of the bridge from that of an introductory "walk-on" to that of the prime protagonist in Bernini's Roman production of the divine mystery play of salvation. This reference to the mystery play tradition is by no means factitious.

The Passion of Christ was of course the original and ultimate Christian triumphal procession, toward victory over death through humility and self-sacrifice. Since the later Middle Ages, this eschatological dynamic of the Passion had been ritualized in an independent, penitential journey in the stages of which single episodes of Christ's immolation became the subjects of particular devotions; the faithful followed in Christ's footsteps, receiving at each step of the way indulgences of time released from Purgatory. The Stations or Way of the Cross was a penitential devotion developed originally by the Franciscans in the Holy Land, in which the worshiper retraced Christ's path to Golgotha, imitating his sufferings on behalf of humankind. Especially in the sixteenth century, the exercise became increasingly popular in the form of depictions of the events of the Passion distributed in chronological order along the nave of a church, or as sculpted tableaus placed along the ascending path of a "Holy Mountain." By re-creating the Passion in this way, the Stations of the Cross were permanent versions of the contemporaneous, ephemeral mystery plays produced in cathedral squares, where the sacred events were performed, not on a singe stage as in the classical tradition, but on the platforms of individual, temporary "mansiones," with the populace following from one to the next.186 Bernini's bridge combined both representational modes, in that the angels are arranged in succession yet are also perceived and meant to be understood as a unified whole.

A link between the Via Salvationis, as an expiatory meditation on the Passion and the Last Judgment was grounded in the famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35-9) that was crucial to the Church's response to the Protestants' principle of justification by faith alone. Here Christ himself defined the Last Judgment and stipulated the good works - the acts of mercy - requisite to redemption.187 Before reciting the six merciful obligations, Jesus says:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

And, after reciting the failed opportunities for charity, he concludes:

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

The seventh work, Burial of the Dead, which integrated the series into the eschatological scheme, was added by the Church specifically in response to the ravages of the plague. In an elaborately illustrated treatise by Giulio Roscio on the acts of mercy published in Rome in 1586, the basic theme is illustrated in the frontispiece, where the seven are distributed in a frame surrounding the Last Judgment (Fig 236).188 And the physical good works named by Christ were supplemented by seven complementary spiritual acts of mercy. Meditation on the Passion conceived in the narrative sense of the Via Crucis was seen as an act of charity toward others, and therefore efficacious in the individual's search for salvation. Roscio included meditation on the Passion, as well as corresponding episodes from the Old Testament, as the fifth of these spiritual acts, that of bearing injury with patience, ferre patienter iniurias (Fig 237)

Another theme in which episodes of Christ's sacrifice were singled out for inclusion in a comprehensive evocation of the Passion concerned not the sequence but the instruments used in his humiliation and martyrdom. The objects of torture and ridicule were isolated from their narrative contexts and reassembled as the "Arma Christi," an ironically ambivalent term referring to the instruments used to torment Christ both as weapons that served in the divine plan to conquer the Devil, and as the coat of arms of mankind's royal Champion in that struggle.189 In this context, the instruments are gathered together as disjecta membra, often in geometric rather than chronological order, and are displayed either in isolation or as accoutrements of an image of the suffering Christ, the Imago Pietatis (Fig 238). The instruments of the Passion were displayed in one context that might be described as quasi-narrative- that is, the Last Judgment. The Arma Christi are here idenfified with the signum Filii hominis in caelo to which Matthew refers in his vision of the Second Coming (24:30): "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty."190 The relics of the sacrifice appear in the heavens, not in chronological order, but as trophies of Christ's victory over death. As a heavenly vision the instruments are often carried by cloud-borne angels who serve as eschatological vexillaries displaying them as insignia of the Son's God-given authority to administer divine justice to humanity on the day of reckoning (cf. Fig 115). In the context of the Last Judgment, moreover, there is an inherent link between the arms-bearing troops of angels and the Archangel Michael as the Lord's adjutant.

These essentially late-medieval forms of devotional piety were revived and brought together in the perfervid spiritual atmosphere of Rome around 1600. Inspired by and in collaboration with leaders of the newly founded Counter-Reformatory religious orders, some of the great papal and cardinalate families undertook to restore the neglected and decrepit early churches to a semblance of their pristine doctrinal purity. In tow closely related instances, S. Prassede and S. Prisca, angels carrying the instruments of the Passion were aligned on the parallel walls of the nave, alternating with figures of saints in one case, flanking large scenes of the Passion in the other (Figs 239, 240, 241, 242).191 The cycle at S. Prassede is particularly noteworthy because the Passion scenes are accompanied by episodes from the history of Joseph the Patriarch, a prototype of Christ.192 The sequence of angelic standard-bearers create a kind of heavenly honor guard for the Via Salvationis through which the worshiper passes recollecting Christ's progress, prefigured in the Old Testament, toward the salvation of mankind in the Eucharistic sacrifice at the altar. Standing on pedestals or surmounting the nave supports, the angels also emulate the ancient honorary mode of displaying statues on high pedestals or columns.

The Angels on the Bridge
Combining the Arma Christi with the Via Dolorosa traditions, these ecclesiastical mural decorations impart a sequential animation to the structures they occupy, anticipating Bernini's sacrificial activation of the Ponte Sant'Angelo. His figures stand alone, however, and he found precedence elsewhere for a series of angels isolated from any represented narrative context but bearing the instruments of the Passion in chronological order. The idea was prefigured in a suite of ten half-length angels, numbered consecutively, engraved in 1631 by Crispijn de Passe, Senior and Junior (Figs 243, 244, 245).193 Poetic invocations of Christ's sufferings are inscribed below the figures, whose dolorous expressions show their compassionate endurance of the same tribulations. The series also anticipates the theme of triumph that Bernini retained from the tradition of the bridge: the title page shows Christ "enthroned" as the Ecce Homo and wearing the Crown of Thorns, and in the final image an angel displays the banner carried by Christ at the resurrection, inscribed Victoria Christi. A similar suite was issued by Aegidius and Johan Sadeler, both separatism and as vignettes surrounding a central image of the Pieta. (Fig 246).194 Bernini's angels are not arranged in a straight line, as would normally be the case with the Stations of the Cross in a church; instead, the sequence zigzags back and forth across the bridge as it proceeds from the secular to the Holy City (Fig 247).195 To be sure, this is the only bilateral arrangement that moves consistently forward, but it was also a reflection of the similar disposition of the papal portraits along the walls of the Sistine Chapel, and a prelude to Bernini's own distribution of the successors to Peter in the nave of the basilica. By this concatenation of associations the visitor is bound in the chain of spiritual teleology. At the same time, arranged at regular intervals in facing pairs along the bridge, the angels' rhythmic alignment creates a perspective focus on the Castello surmounted by the Archangel Michael, in his dual role as protector and avenger. In this sense, the bridge thus anticipates the perspective effects Bernini built into the colonnades in relation to the façade of the church and exploited in the nave of the basilica in relation to the high altar and the Cathedra Petri. Following the lead of the Peter and Paul monuments at the entrance to the bridge, as well as the Flemish engravings, the pedestals bear titulary inscriptions. The brief phrases, which are all quotations, offer a key to understanding the meaning of the images themselves and the significance of the bridge in the overall program for St Peter's and the Vatican. The texts are taken not from the gospel accounts of the Passion, as might be expected, but from liturgical and Old Testament sources that emphasize the eschatological destiny of Christ's sacrifice as the preordained fulfillment of Divine Providence.196 In this view the inscribed words announce that the angels alighted on the bridge to complete the promise of the voices from the past.

Unlike their frescoed predecessors in the Roman basilicas, the angels of Bernini's bridge do not stand directly on their architectural supports but upon clouds.197 The figures seem to have descended from the celestial realm of the Archangel Michael at the Last Judgment to escort those who undertake to follow in Christ's footsteps. Moreover, the frescoed angels are emblematic in spirit as well as in function: they convey their symbolic and celebratory status by their relative uniformity of type and action; and they "display" the relics by holding them aloft like trophies won in battle. The bridge angels, in contrast, have individual personalities, in their appearance, their actions, and their relationships to the attributes they hold (Figs 210-215). This chorus of angelic differentiation is due to the large measure of freedom accorded, I believe knowingly, as in the crossing of St Peter's, to the sculptors who carried out the designs Bernini provided.198 The gamut of expressions thus achieved was part of Bernini's intention, not simply to lend variety to the sequence, but also to suggest the singularity of each episode of the Passion and the meaning it held for the artists themselves. The artists become devotees, and through them the sculptures exemplify the individual souls of all for whom Christ suffered.

The Regal Couple
Within a few months after the projects began, Bernini made an important structural change at the north end of the bridge; he added buttresses to the piers footed at the river bank to strengthen them against the current and accumulation of silt and debris during high water.199 The extension entailed adding two more angels, bringing the total number of statues on the bridge to twelve - perhaps not coincidentally equivalent to the number of apostles and the number of gates to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Bernini reserved two of the angels to execute himself; the angel with the Crown of Thorns and that bearing the Title of the Cross (Figs 214, 215). Why two, and why these two?

Among the Arma Christi the Title and the Crown were royal insignia par excellence. They represented above all the Maiestas Domini, recalling the quintessential crime for which Christ was condemned by the Jews. These emblems encapsulate the paradox of the supreme lese majeste: salvation attained through the immolation of the Savior, whose humiliating path to death became humanity's glorious route to salvation. This theme is expressed verbally in the inscriptions on the pedestals. The angel with the Crown of Thorns is accompanied by a passage from one of the penitential psalms (Ps. 31:4): "[I am turned in my anguish] whilst the thorn is fastened."200 The use of the lament in the liturgy, as an antiphon in the feast celebrating the crowning of thorns, transforms Christ's ignominious, painful, mock-crown into a regal vestment.201 The text for the angel with the Superscription, "regnavit a lingo deus," is a particular interest, as it is also taken from a psalm (95:10),202 "Say ye among the Gentiles, the Lord hath reigned," but in a version different from the Vulgate. The citation comes from a hymn written by the sixth-century poet Venantius Fortunatus, where it is quoted in a passage identifying the Cross as the fulfillment of David's prophecy: 203

Impleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
Dicendo nationibus:
Regnavit a lingo Deus.

(The words of David's true prophetic song were fulfilled, in which he announced to the nations: "God has reigned from a tree.")

The famous poem celebrating the Cross, used in the liturgy for the Good Friday mass, begins: "The standards of the king appear …" The phrase vexilla Regis prodeunt specifies the regal nature of the insignia. Bernini's figures thus identify the angels as standard-bearers in a royal company. They bear the insignia that testify to the descent of Christ from King David and the majestic victory of his sacrifice. In this way, too, the angels reiterate the theme of the sculptures erected on the bridge to greet the emperor Charles V at his triumphal entry of 1536, except that here the progressive, zigzag dynamic of the arrangement serves to correlate the spiritual integration of the Old and New Testaments, inherent in the ideology of the Church, with the physical integration of the two sides of the bridge, as both move toward the goal of salvation.


Antonio Giogetti
(Ps. LXVIII, 22)

Domenico Guidi
(Song of Solomon IV, 9)
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
("Vexilla Regis prodeunt"; a
Hymn celebrating the Cross as the
instrument of salvation)

Ercole Ferrata
(Is. IX,6)

Paolo Naldini
(Ps. XXI,19)

Girolamo Lucenti
(Zach. XII, 10)
Paolo Naldini
(Ps. XXXI,4)

Cosimo Fancelli
(Ps. LXXXIII,10)

Lazzaro Morelli
(Ps. XXXVII,18)

Antonio Raggi
(Eccl. XXIV, 7)

Lorenzetto, ca 1534
Paolo Romano, 1464


Given the chronological sequence of the Passion and the zigzag placement of the instruments, Bernini's two figures cannot now be seen, and cannot have been intended to be seen, together on the bridge. Yet, everything about their design and the inordinately large series of preparatory studies made for the two figures indicates that they were conceived and meant to be comprehended as a complementary pair. Contemporary reports reveal that the pope thought of keeping them for himself, to be sent to his native Pistoia, where Bernini was then designing his family villa and a new high altar for the church of the Jesuits.204 The first notice of the idea is recorded only after the sculptures had been begun, but the choice of themes, which precluded their being seen together on the bridge, and their contrapuntal, bilaterally symmetrical design, suggest that Bernini must have had something of the kind in mind from the outset, and their exquisitely nuanced surface finish was obviously meant for indoors.205 The prospect of such a disposition would have been a powerful incentive for Bernini to have substitutes installed on the bridge, one by his own hand.206 I suspect that Bernini intended his original pair for what they are, complementary pendants and supreme testimonials to the perfection, in the sense of consummate fulfillment, of his own witness to Christ's sacrificial triumph. These considerations may help to explain the otherwise mysterious fact that although Clement IX gave the sculptures to his nephew, Cardinal Giacomo, in December 1669, they remained in the possession of Bernini and his heirs until 1729, when the artist's grandson donated them to the church facing his house on the Via della Mercede, S. Andrea delle Fratte, where they were installed, appropriately, flanking the high altar.207

While the bridge angels display a greater variety of expression and action than their predecessors, they maintain a celebratory, essentially conventional mood. Bernini's figures (both on and off the bridge), on the contrary, have a special character quite apart from the intricate, profoundly musical counterpoint of their poses and the movements of their draperies. The intensity and depth of their responses reach far beyond the expressive range of their siblings, and even of their Flemish prototypes, to convey the objects they embrace not just as symbols but as actual relics of Christ's sacrifice. Bernini seems to have taken his cue for the poses and gestures of his two angels from the corresponding pair at S. Prassede (Fig 242), but he imbued the figures with a wholly new, sinuous dynamic. Their lithe bodies and flamboyant movements seem to writhe in a crescendo to the open-lipped effusions of anguish on their faces. At the same time, Bernini makes a notable distinction between the two angels, who display distinct, gently gendered, characters.208 The Angel with the Superscription, with its delicate features, curly locks, and downcast, watery eyes, stands passively and unfurls the scroll hesitantly, almost with reluctance: a distinctly interior, feminine sensibility. The Angel with the Crown, physique more robust, broad-faced with flowing locks, furrowed brow, and a distant, visionary stare, holds the precious emblem gingerly but thrusts it forward with heroic, masculine aggressiveness.

These qualities were inherent in Bernini's conception of the pair. He initially studied both angels as male nudes, and the proportions of both figures became taller and slimmer as they evolved. But from the outset the angel with the Crown was more robust and assertive while the angel with the Superscription was more delicate, hesitant, and withdrawn. The inordinate number of such preparatory studies for the angels testify that these effects of profound, unselfconscious, spontaneous feeling were the products of an equally feverish labor of experimentation and calculation.209 The astonishing fact is that Bernini's creative process was no less innovative than the works themselves: on the one hand, no previous sculptor's preparatory studies are so numerous or show a comparable degree of rapidity and spontaneity in execution; on the other hand, the first known sculptural study marked for scaled enlargement is a model for the angel with the Crown (Fig 248).210 These twin innovations may seem paradoxical, but they are in fact mutually interdependent and offer an essential insight into the nature of Bernini's art. Bernini's choice of themes for his two angels and the complementary contrast he worked out for them were motivated by the significance of their respective instruments. Although both represent the pathetic irony of the mocked majesty of Christ, the degradation-exaltation of the Crown of Thorns was physical, that of the Superscription purely spiritual.

In sum, the features, expressions, coiffures, actions, and very physiques of Bernini's angels offer a profound psychophysical disquisition on participation in the Passion. Considered in this light the "individualization" of the figures serves a dual purpose. The differences seem to reflect the gendered nature of humankind and the basic distinctions between male and female spirituality long recognized by the Church. At the same time, the devotional passion that animates both figures recalls the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (22:30) in which Christ himself relates human gender to the divine status of angels: "For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven (22:30, Douay)" (in resurrectione enim neque unbent neque nubentur sed sunt sicut angeli Dei in caelo). Christ's words absorb gender into the communal state of angelic purity and, equally important, into the androgynous nature of divinity itself. 211

Bernini's figures offer a preview of this state of angelic purity to which humankind aspires. Viewed from below against the blue Roman sky, the angels are epiphanic creatures, apparitions heaven-sent to convey to the present their bittersweet relics of the past. Delicately poised on white puffs, with graceful lilting movements, they appear like momentarily congealed visions of the events they represent. Their wind-filled drapery floats, flutters, billows, and curls, and they hover weightlessly over the piers of the bridge. These are the angels of wind and clouds described by the Pseudo-Dionysius in the Celestial Hierarchies, the most famous of all Christian accounts of the angels, who are the motion and the light of the divine spirit.212 With reference to John 3:8, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit," the wind signifies the movement of life whose source is hidden, invisible, unknowable. Clouds evoke the mighty angel of the Apocalypse, 10:1, "come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head, and his face was as the sun, and his fet as pillars of fire." But especially, the clouds signify light and the hidden, transcendent luminosity with which those divinely intelligent beings are filled.213

For Bernini these references were much more than metaphors. His figures complement each other not only in form but also in their very essence - they are wind, they are clouds, they are light. He said as much when he remarked that the greatest achievement of his chisel was to have rendered marble "malleable as wax," and to have had the heart to render stones obedient to his hand, "as if they were made of pasta."214 In this quasi-material sense the angels may be said to evoke the transubstantial, sacramental nature of the majestic triumph they represent - the Corpus Domini, for the celebration of which Alexander had earlier built the colonnades, and for which Clement X, who completed the bridge decoration, would soon commission the Sacrament altar, where Bernini's pair of angels would fulfill their ultimate mission of perpetual adoration.

Blood and Water
The twin features of the Ponte Sant'Angelo noted by Baldinucci and Domenico Bernini, the view of the water and the parade of instrument-bearing angels, are related in a way that imparts to the bridge and its urban mission a specific sacramentary role. A devotional tradition closely linked to the Instruments of the Passion focused on the Crucifixion itself: the Five Wounds of Christ, of which the side wound opened by Longinus's lance was of central importance.215 Water and Christ's sacrifice are conjoined in this crucial event, in which it has been said "the entire history of salvation is concentrated."216 Bernini had long before celebrated the lance relic preserved at St Peter's with his statue portraying Longinus's illumination in the crossing at the high altar of the basilica. On the bridge, the Way of the Cross ends with the lance, the instrument that signaled not only the ultimate desecration of the Son of Man, but also, and by the very same token, as it were, the salvation of mankind achieved by his sacrifice. This paradoxical, dual import of the lance wound was conveyed by the account of it given uniquely, in the fourth Gospel (19:34-5), where John reports:

28 After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.

30 When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

34 But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water.
35 And he that saw it, hath given testimony, and his testimony is true. And he knoweth that he saith true; that you also may believe.
36 For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled. 217

In John's account, Christ had already given up the ghost; Christ was dead, and the lance wound was thus quite distinct from those inflicted by the Crucifixion. For such effusions to issue from a corpse was miraculous, and John reported his presence at the Crucifixion as his own eyewitness testimony of Jesus' true nature and proof of the realization of the divine plan.

The wound was also doubly miraculous, however, in that the effusion was of water as well as of blood, and from the earliest Christian times the lance wound became the prototype for the mixture of water and wine in the Eucharist. The dual constituents were also taken to signify the beginning and the end of the sacraments, the water being identified with baptism and the Church, the blood with the Eucharist and Christ. "Sts. Cyril and Chrysostom say that the water signifies baptism, which is the first beginning of the Church and the other sacraments, and the blood represents the Eucharist, which they all refer as to their beginning and their end." Particularly important was the idea that, with the lance wound, the Old Law was succeeded by the New and God's entire plan for salvation was accomplished. According to John, just before giving up the ghost Christ knew that "all things were now accomplished that the Scripture might be fulfilled," and John himself reported them to show that they were accomplished in order that Scripture be fulfilled. And for the Fathers of the Church the effusion of blood and water signified that "from the death and side of Christ as a second Adam sleeping on the cross, the Church was formed as Eve the spouse of Christ."218 A very suggestive association in relation to Bernini's eschatological conception of the Ponte Sant'Angelo is Rupert of Deutz's punning comparison of the mixture of blood and water in the Eucharist to the opening and closing of the Red Sea in the salvation of the Elect from their diabolic pursuer.219

The theme of sacramental and ecclesiological fulfillment in the lance wound at the end of the bridge is made explicit by the Old Testament text chosen for the inscription on the pedestal. Borrowed from the Song of Songs (4:9), the text invokes the theme in a special way: VULNERASTI COR MEUM (soror mea sponsa vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum) (Thou hast ravished [wounded] my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes). The Song of Songs was the pivotal text in the definition of Christ and his Church as the fulfillment of the messianic promise of the Old Testament synagogue; the Hebrew understanding of the passionate love lyric as an expression of God's love for his chosen people was converted, as it were, into a celebration of marriage, consummated in the Passion, of Christ to the Virgin and through her to the universal community of the faithful. 220 The verse also announces the lance wound in its capacity to convert those who, like Longinus, are able to "see the light."221 The Ponte Sant'Angelo thus offers safe passage over the Bridge of Trial. The Passion of Christ transforms the river Tiber into the river Jordan, conjoining the salutary water of baptism to the redeeming blood of the Sacrifice. We shall see presently that, in a contemporary image of the Crucifixion, Bernini actually commingled the blood and water into a veritable Eucharistic ocean. So, while Bernini's entrance to the Holy City promises the Last Judgment, it also offers the protection of the Church. The lance wound becomes the Wound of Love, and the Bridge of Trial becomes the road to redemption through the ministrations of Saint Peter and his successors.

We have seen that the idea of refurbishing and, as it were, reconverting the ancient bridge as a Christian triumphal entryway must have been converging in the minds of Alexander VII and Bernini well before the project came to fruition. Alexander's heroic actions during the plague and his prior planning of the bridge may explain the reluctance of his successor, Clement IX, under whom the project was actually carried out, to attach his name to it when it was finished. Clement IX's contribution was commemorated in an inscription added later by his successor, Clement X, who soon also brought to completion the daunting task and Bernini's lifework of furnishing and thereby giving voice to the new church.


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