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Door of Death
by Manz¨, 1961-64

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The Door of Death is so called because it used to be the exit for funeral processions.

In preparation for the Holy Year of 1950, Pius XII held a competition for three new bronze doors to lead from the portico to the basilica. Of the winners, the most distinguished artist was Giacomo Manz¨. His door has large modeled panels of the Crucifixion and Annunciation, and lesser panels of prophets, apostles and saints.


From: Seminarians Guide
The Door of Death is on the far left. It used to be the exit for funeral processions. Images: Death of Jesus (top right) and Death of Mary (top left); violent death of Abel, serene death of Joseph, death of first pope, death of Pope John XXIII, death of first martyr Stephen, death of Gregory VII (died in exile defending the Church against the Emperor), death improvised in space and death of mother at home.

From: 'St. Peter's - Guide to the Square and Basilica'
Five doors, corresponding to the five naves of the ancient and new buildings, give access to the basilica. Four of them are the work of contemporary artists, as a witness of the perennial vitality of the Church and her capacity to awaken artistic inspiration in all ages. The scenes portrayed on the doors invite the visitor to reflect on the significance of the building he is about to enter, and on the meaning of his visit to the basilica.

The first door on the left is called the Door of Death because at one time it was the exit for funeral processions. The scenes sculpted between 1961 and 1964 by Giacomo Manz¨ (1908-1991) in accordance with the wishes of John XXIII (1958-1963), express the Christian meaning of death in ten episodes. Above right: the Death of Jesus; the death of the Just who redeems and saves us; above left: the Death of Mary who is immediately borne to heaven, a sign of the sure hope of resurrection for all humankind. In the center, a vine branch (left) and some ears of wheat (right). From the ground grains of wheat and the pressed grapes are made the bread and wine which in the Eucharist become the bread of life and the drink of salvation. Below left: the Violent death of the innocent Abel, for whom God asks his brother Cain to account, and the Serene death of St. Joseph, patron of all who desire a holy death; the Death of the first Pope, St. Peter, hanging on a cross, but upside down, since he felt unworthy to die like his Lord, and the Death of Pope John XXIII, the good parish priest of the world whose death deeply affected people of all religions and nationalities; below right: the Death of the Protomartyr, St. Stephen, killed by those who had killed Jesus and, who like Jesus, prayed for and forgave his executioners; and the Death of Pope Gregory VII, who died in exile because he "loved justice and hated irreverence", defending the Church against the emperor's claims. Finally, Death improvised in space and the Death of the mother at home in front of the child she abandons. Under the panels are six creatures: a blackbird, a dormouse, a hedgehog, an owl, a tortoise and a raven. On the inside of the door can be seen the impression of Manzu's hand and a portrayal of John XXIII receiving the bishops on the first day of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962.

From: 'St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour' by Our Sunday Visitor
The last door on the left of the Atrium, the Door of Death by Giacomo Manzu' is perhaps the most authoritative contemporary work of St. Peter's Basilica. Consecrated on June 28, 1964, by Paul VI, the door had been commissioned by John XXIII, who died on June 3, 1963. Manzu', born in the same region as the Pope, dedicated the door to him.

In fact, Pope John appears in the work, like the scene in which he embraces bishop Rugambwe on the papal throne, with incisive physionomical features. It is also easy to recognize his friend and adviser Don De Luca, who died in 1962 and to whom Manzu' officially dedicated the door in the inscription with the Pope's consent.

The episodes of death, including violent events, express painful suffering, since they are represented after they have occurred, and thus extol through the catharsis of repentance. Manzu' is able to express his view of humanity quite spontaneously, focusing on its culminating moment, thanks to the simple freshness of the images and their sculptured transposition in delicate and light projection, with a constructive luminism that pervades the forms.

Six zoo-morphical symbols that allude to Death are inserted at the bottom; in the center, the two essential symbols of Christianity, a vine shoot and a bundle of wheat spikes, act as handles. The soft and suffuse plastic-luministic effect of the bas-reliefs is the result of "the quality of the bronze alloy, specially studied and developed by the artist together with his founder," as Orienti said.

From: 'The Companion Guide to Rome' by Georgina Masson
Filarete's bronze doors are flanked by three other modern ones, of which the first pair on the left are the most striking. They are the work of Giacomo Manz˙, one of the winners of a competition held in 1947. The main subjects of his composition are the Death of Christ and the Death of the Virgin, but n the back the sculptor has included a relief of the Vatican Second Ecumenical Council and of Pope John XXIII conversing with Cardinal Rugambwa of Tanganyika; obvious parallels to Filarete's reliefs of the Council of Florence and the Ethiopian monks, who came to Rome on 10 October 1441.

From: Giacomo Manz¨ and his portal for St Peter's by Peter Selz, Sculpture, December 2001
Giacomo Manz¨, who in the 1960s produced the large, bas-relief bronze doors for St Peter's Basilica in Rome, has just about vanished from critical attention, especially in the U.S. He was widely respected for his ability to bring the Italian Humanist tradition to Modernist concerns of sculptural form in space. An atheist, a man close to the Communist Party of Italy, he was chosen to carry out this major work on the fašade of the supreme church of Christendom, originally designed by Bramante and Michelangelo.

Although a master of bronze, Manz¨ did not allow the medium to dictate the message. Not a formalist, he recognized the social purpose of art and considered it to be more than a form of self-referential expression. He was well aware that art, especially public sculpture, has the potential for shaping ideas and beliefs. But he had no desire to present his message as propaganda, the style so popular with the Fascists who had terrorized Italy during his youth. He knew that art that is implicit in connotation is art that is most memorable, functioning on a deeper level. In this sense, he is indeed our contemporary.

Produced during the years following the death and destruction of World War II and the total terror of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the Door of Death on the west fašade of St Peter's is a metaphor for human suffering and dying. The door also marks the artist's rejection of the reification of modern life that puts the human being in danger of becoming nothing more than another material object. In creating the Door of Death, Manz¨ showed his contemplation of man's ultimate predicament. The great portal can be seen as a dialectical play between the sacred and profane, performed in bronze.
The two large reliefs in the upper register depict the Death of Mary and the Death of Christ. The former is placed high on the door so that the viewer must look up at the fluttering folds of drapery which signify angels in flight, descending with their arms reaching out toward the Virgin, suggesting - but by no means illustrating - the tenet of her Assumption. The curve of flight of the lower angel is echoed by the posture of the attendant to the Crucifixion. It establishes a circular link between the angels, the body of Mary, the attendant, and the figure on the Cross. Christ is depicted without the stigmata, as a young man hung by a rope from the crossbar. Standing at the right of the Cross, in the place usually given to Mary, we see Eve weeping, her head nestled on her arm. The long rope extends to the bottom of the Cross, where its end appears like the head of a serpent, symbolically relating the Crucifixion to the Fall of Man. Close to the viewer's eye, the lower reliefs, almost square in shape, deal with further themes of death. The upper four panels depict death coming to sacred personages, while the ones below show common mortals seen in contemporary terms. There is Death by Violence, with the naked victim hanging upside down. This relief recalls Manz¨'s earlier work Death of a Partisan, and it may also refer to the display of the corpse of Mussolini in Milan's Piazza Loreto in 1945. The image is all the more effective for remaining ambiguous and allusive, rather than directly tendentious. Next to this scene of horror is the solemn presentation of the aged Pope John XXIII, alone and bent in silent prayer. The "Papa buono" was the artist's patron, compatriot, and eventually his friend.

Perhaps the most intensely moving relief is Death on Earth on the bottom right - the final work in this narrative on the theme of mortality. An exhausted and anonymous woman leaning on a falling chair meets her end under the eyes of a child, frightened and crying in pain as he witnesses the death of his mother. The gentle delicacy of the modeling by the master's hand infuses the experience of death with a compelling gravity. A void separates the child in his rectangular window frame from his mother whose figure sweeps diagonally across the lower area. We are reminded of the cogent statement by the Italian-American artist Rico Lebrun that "pain has a geometry of its own."

The Door of Death is far from being a depiction of violence. It is, rather, a work that stands out for its gentle tenderness in the face of death, evoking sorrow. Manz¨'s friend, the anti-Fascist writer Carlo Levi wrote of the portal: "Deprived of sin and therefore redemption, Death appears in that unique moment, that fixed instant in which the violence of nature turns to harmony: a unity of expression which embraces the dead and the living, the victims, the witnesses, and the killers."

After 16 years of work on the doors, Manz¨ signed the work with the imprint of his right hand. When Pope John XXIII died in 1962, Manz¨ cast the death mask of the pontiff's face, as well as the hand that had signed the great encyclical Pace in Terris.

-Peter Selz (reprinted in part)