Saint Peter’s (Bernini: Baldacchino, statues, Cathedra and the dome)

Bernini’s Baldacchino (66 feet high)      Large size     Youtube Khan Academy (4.13 minutes)
Saint Peter’s Baldacchino Bernini

picture: Reuters

Urban VIII  was elected pontiff on 6 August 1623. The following summer, he instructed the congregation of the Fabbrica de San Pietro to hold a design competition:

Architectural plans and designs for a baldacchino, to be submitted within 15 days.

The Fabbrica was then to select the best design. The competition was in all likelihood a mere formality, as the pope had already selected Bernini. Bernini drafted multiple designs, two of which we will take a closer look at with the help of an A3-sized drawing, and compare them to the executed design: the draft from 1626 and the eventual design (draft of the Baldacchino’s canopy). The helical bronze columns rest on marble plinths. They feature several notable marble papal coats of arms. The marble plinths are as tall as the length of the average person standing before the altar. The columns and the plinths feature bees, a rosary, a portrait on a coin and lizards, one of which is devouring a scorpion.

Baldacchino Bronze columns portrait
Baldacchino Bronzen zuil Portet Bernini detail


The Baldacchino and Bernini’s first draft
The Baldacchino and Bernini’s first draft


Eight coat of arms on the plinth of the Baldacchino 

Baldacchino and the Confessio

basements or bases with coats of arms and sequence of reading of the basements:

columns   plinth   coat of arms   faces   satyrs
Left front:
Left back:
Right back:
Right front:
  one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
  one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
  one and twee
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
  one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight

At first glance, the eight coats of arms seem identical. The three bees on the coats of arms leave no doubt that we are dealing with the Barberini family (Urban VIII Maffeo Barberini). Originally, the coat of arms depicted three horseflies. At the urging of Bernini, the pope changed the flies into bees. The modified coat of arms of the Barberini family was first seen in a stained glass window in the Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stained glass window
Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stained glass window Barbarini


Baldacchino Basement plinths coat of arms

In addition, it also shows Saint Peter’s keys and the papal crown: the tiara. The triple crown shows a Cherub with a bee above it. A woman’s head is depicted below the two keys. The bottom of the coat of arms repeatedly depicts a satyr’s head. The decorative laces also show up in all eight coats of arms.

Satyr seven front right

At a closer glance, you will see remarkable details that change as you pass by the four basements with the eight coats of arms. The coats of arms are not just a reference to the pope and the Barberini family, they also tell a story.

Baldacchino pedestal  coat of arms
  Baldacchino pedestal  coat of arms
Birth of baby
pedestal  Baldacchino coat of arms contractions Bernini St. Peter's   Baldacchino pedestal  coat of arms birth of baby Bernini St. Peter's

Walking past the eight coats of arms, starting at 1 (see layout 1), you will see significant changes, particularly at the faces of the woman and the satyr and the part with the belly that depicts the three bees. The belly is swelling, and this swelling decreases in the last two coats of arms.

As you walk inside the St. Peter, the scene begins on the coats of arms at the front left. Witkowski (referenced in the English Wikipedia footnote 7), wrote the following in 1908:

‘The scene begins on the face of the left-hand front plinth; the woman’s face begins to contract; on the second and following plinths the features pass through a series of increasingly violent convulsions. Simultaneously, the hair becomes increasingly dishevelled; the eyes, which at first express a bearable degree of suffering, take on a haggard look; the mouth, closed at first, opens, then screams with piercing realism. … Finally, comes the delivery: the belly subsides and the mother’s head disappears, to give way to a cherubic baby’s head with curly hair, smiling beneath the unchanging pontifical insignia.’

As a Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein took a profound interest in how Bernini showed this delivery. He compared it to editing the frames of a film. Similarly, filming each coat of arms and making a montage of them would result in a story. Between 1937-1940, Eisenstein collected a great deal of materials and sources about the coats of arms designed by Bernini for the pedestals of the Baldacchino. In his essay, titled ‘Montage and Architecture,’  (available here) he writes about the coats of arms of Bernini: ‘one of the most spectacular compositions of that great master Bernini.’  ‘with the coats of arms as “eight shots, eight montage sequences of a whole montage scenario.’ (cited from Wikipedia)

There is consensus on what Bernini attempted to show in his coats of arms, but its meaning has different interpretations. The English Wikipedia lists three interpretations One is symbolic, where the work of the Pope and the early-Christian church is revealed. A second, more popular meaning attributed to the works is that the niece of the Pope endured a hazardous and lengthy delivery. The Pope promised that if all would end well he would devote an altar in the St. Peter to it. The delivery ended positively for both mother and child. The last interpretation deals with Bernini’s sister who had just given birth. The ecstatic father, Taddeo Barberini, was one of Bernini’s assistants and a nephew of the Pope. Sadly, Urban VII refused to acknowledge the newborn and it thus became a bastard child. Read more about the Baldacchino in: Irving Lavin, Bernini at Saint Peter’s The Pilgrimage, The Pindar Press London 2012.

The columns were cast in three sections, with the bases and capitals cast separately. There was no alternative, this was really the only way that some of the details could still be cast. The finer details were applied later. The three sections were joined together by means of wedges hidden behind a decorative border.

Grapevines with their leaves climb up along the columns, with the leaves projecting quite strongly in some places. Small putti, winged children, are chasing after ‘butterflies’, in this case bees (Barberinis) or after each other. The bees are attracted by the sweetness of the wine (the blood of Christ) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The casting was done in ovens located near the barracks of the Swiss Guard north of the Piazza San Pietro. Bernini used the lost wax method: a core and outer casing strong enough to withstand the fire with a layer of wax in between.

The crown of the Baldacchino       Putti  with keys and tiara
Baldacchino Bernini Saint Peter’s

picture: mookiefl

Some people said that Bernini used real bees and a real lizard that were coated with an extra thick layer of wax. This was mockingly called ‘the lost lizard process’. In actual fact, this sort of addition would immediately be incinerated by the molten bronze. In short, it is an interesting story, but false. The moral of this myth was that Bernini’s art was excessively realistic.

Another point of criticism brought forward by contemporaries who weren’t overly fond of Gian Lorenzo, was that he relied on his casters too much. And yet we know for a fact that Bernini kept a close eye on the casting process, which took three years to complete: ‘night and day, in heat and in rain.’ Also some of the particulars of the process point to Bernini being in direct control, such as the hollow columns that were filled with cement. This not only made them heavier, but also much stronger.

A satirical lampoon about this way of obtaining bronze read: ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini’ in other words, what de Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberinis did.’ Urban VIII’s doctor, Giulio Mancini, is credited with coining this phrase. For quite some time, Bernini was believed to have used bronze from the portico of the Pantheon to cast the four colums of the Baldacchino. However, recent studies revealed that only 1.8 percent of the bronze designated for the columns came from the Pantheon’s portico. And even this quantity was returned to the Fabricca di San Pietro (public works Vatican). Bernini did not trust the alloy. The bronze from the Pantheon was primarily used for casting the cannons. (Franco Mormando, ‘Bernini His Life and his Rome,’ University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2011 pp.85-86; website Mormando).

We are going to take a closer look at the niches in the four piers surrounding the baldacchino, and more in particular the niche that Bernini carved his Longinus for. After the baldacchino was completed, Bernini also won the competition for carving the statues in the crossing’s niches.

Saint Peter’s

pictures: il Presbite

He proposed placing statues in the niches and carving reliefs on the balcony’s above. The balconies were already there, and were intended to display the relics of the saints enshrined there. Bernini wanted the niches and statues to match the baldacchino.

Balcony with holy cross  big size
Saint Peter’s balcony with holy cross relic

Photo: Lawrence OPO

The statue of St Andrew was the first to be carved. Sculptor Francesco Duquesnoy was granted the assignment, but was forced to work under Bernini’s watchful eye. Notable is how much the statue resembles the statue of the same name carved by Gian Lorenzo for the Church of Saint Andrew’s at the Quirinal.

Francesco Duquesnoy “St. Andrew”
Francesco Duquesnoy "St. Andrew"

In 1629 Urban VIII had donated a piece of the Cross to the basilica. A statue of St Helen (who had discovered the cross) would therefore be highly appropriate for the niche below this relic. Andrea Bolgi was commissioned to carve a sculpture of this saintly woman. Gian Lorenzo’s rival Franceso Mochi carved St Veronica. The final statue, St Longinus, was carved by Bernini himself.

Bernini “St Longinus” and  niche above St Longinus with relics
Bernini Longinus detail
Bernini Longinus detail
Preliminary model study Fogg Museum of Art
 Recess with the relic of the Cross
Longinus Bernini

pictures: karneyli and tuscanystudy

In comparing the four statues, Bernini’s immediately stands out. There is no arguing about taste, but there is no doubt that St Longinus in his niche can still be seen very clearly from a great distance, while the other three are absorbed by their backgrounds so to speak. When you are standing directly before and below the niche you can see how Bernini achieved this effect.

According to legend, the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Christ’s side with a lance. He was blind, but regained his sight when he touched his eyes with his hand that was wet with Christ’s blood. Longinus of course converted to the one true faith: Christianity.

The upper niches where the relics are enshrined feature columns that were taken from the old St Peter’s, the helical columns from King Solomon’s temple. They were considered relics in their own right because they originally formed part of that famous temple. The putti above the segmental and broken pediment are repeated in the Cornaro Chapel. And finally, we will briefly look at a work that Bernini created for Pope Alexander VII.

Bernini Tomb of Alexander VII
Bernini Tomb of Alexander VII

Just like Urban VIII before him, Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to build his tomb. However, Alexander did not live to see the start of the tomb’s construction. It wasn’t until 1672, under Pope Clemens X, that work finally commenced, and the tomb was consecrated in 1678 under Innocentius XI. Bernini’s assistants did most of the actual work, although the design was of course Gian Lorenzo’s, and he closely monitored the execution.

Alexander VII’s tomb is located in the southwest corner of the basilica, above the Porta Santa Marta, behind which the sacristy used to be. A cloth of coloured marble is draped over the door. Alexander VII, is depicted in a kneeling position wearing a pluvial, his tiara lies inconspicuously beside him. Below the plinth one can see four life-size marble figures. In the foreground: Charity (holding a child) and to the right Truth with one of her feet on top of the earth (truth rules the entire world) and the sun’s rays in her hand. Behind these two figures are two more personifications: Justice and Prudence.

Charity and Truth
Bernini Tomb of Alexander VII Charity and Truth

The pope initially wanted Modesty and Truth to meet and Justice and Peace to embrace each other. The Vatican eventually decided against the idea because of the late pope’s foreign policies; peace and modesty were not exactly the two qualities that this pope had excelled in. So the personifications of Modesty and Peace were replaced by Prudence and Charity. Directly above the doors, and partly shrouded by the draperies, is Death. The winged skeleton in gilded bronze holds an hourglass in his hand.

The combination of Death and his hourglass directly above the middle of the doors refers to an old and long-lasting tradition in which these images represent the door that you eventually have to pass through and definitively close behind you. In the Chigi Chapel for example, you can read the motto ‘Mors ad Caelos’: Death opens the road to heaven. The doors under the niche suggest they lead to his grave.

‘Mors ad Caelos’
Bernini Alexander VII tomb ‘Mors ad Caelos’

Surrounded by these four virtues, Alexander VII is praying that his soul may triumph over death. Pope Alexander VII was obsessed with death. It is known that Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to build a casket for him only three days after he was elected pontiff. He placed this casket in his bedroom as a memento mori. Alexander VII also ate all his meals from dishes decorated with human skulls.

In 1656 Alexander met Gian Lorenzo to discuss the design of his tomb and the necessary marble was ordered straight away. After Alexander VII’s death Cardinal Flavio Chigi ensured that the tomb was completed as agreed. In 1672 Bernini received final payment for the tomb: 1000 scudi; the tomb was completed in 1678. Archaeological research has shown that the cathedra, or seat, dates from a later period.

St Peter’s cathedra and the window with the Holy Ghost
St Peter’s cathedra and the window with the Holy Ghost

picture: Steven Zucker

Cathedra Petri window holy ghost    Youtube Khan Academy (3.29 minutes)
St. Peter's Cathedra Petri

pictures: Arun Vijay and (mouseover)  Susan Lee

We descend into the space below the church near one of the crossing’s piers. Here we pass the shrine holding the remains of St Peter. We will also walk past the tombs of many popes. Finally, we leave the church and arrive at a ticket window where we buy tickets to the church’s roof.

Inside and outside of the scale model of the dome
model dome St. Peter's Michelangelo

We will also climb the dome; between the double shells, that is. The dome is a design by Michelangelo, who based his dome on Brunelleschi’s famous dome of the Florence cathedral.

dome Duomo Brunelleschi

You will get to see the wooden scale model of St Peter’s dome on the day of your visit to the Vatican Museum.

Inside and outside of the St. Peter’s dome
St. Peter's dome

The next day