The Baldachin of Saint Peter

  • Martijn Blikmans - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences
  • Laura van der Bijl - Faculty of Law
  • Jeroen Ubink - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

The Baldachin of Saint Peter

The Baldachin of Saint Peter is a Baroque structure located above the high altar in the crossing of Saint Peter's Basilica. It was commissioned by the Barberini pope Urban VIII (1568 - 1644) and designed by the famous Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680). Construction of the baldachin started in 1623, and it was finished eleven years later in 1634. The final design of the structure resembles a mixture between a more traditional altar ciborium and a processional baldachin. It is intended to mark the position of the tomb of Saint Peter, who was allegedly crucified and buried there under the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (54 - 68). As a typical Baroque structure, it has been criticized by many art critics over the ages as being too heavily ornamented and too extravagant[1]. The famous art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818 - 1897) said that Baldachin was a sign of Bernini's brashness, but he also mentions how Bernini's structure showed how individual static pieces can work together to create movement[2]. Others, such as art critic Robert Hughes, have focused on the purpose it served to glorify pope Urban VIII[3]. Still others have emphasized its chimeric artistic nature, due to the use of elements from both a baldachin and a ciborium, but also due to the fact that it was hard to define as either architecture or sculpture[4].

We think that these are all valid points, but argue further that the Baldachin played an important role in the efforts of the Catholic Church to fight back against the growing threat of Protestantism in the times of the Counter-reformation. Specifically, we will argue that the interplay between the Baldachin and the other elements of the crossing are working together to inspire a sense of awe in the onlooker. This appeal to the emotions of the onlookers would increase the credibility of both the pope, as successor of the apostle Peter, and the Catholic Church, and convince them to refute the ideas of Protestantism.

Contents
1. Pope Urban VIII and Bernini's original design
2. Bernini's second design
2.1 Changes and consistencies
2.2 Individual pieces and details
3. Other important pieces in the crossing
4. Bernini's concetto and the role of the Baldachin
4.1 How Bernini gave form to his concetto
4.2 The experiential sequence of the basilica: instilling awe in the onlookers
4.3 The importance of St. Peter and his connection to the pope : reiterating the founding narrative of Catholicism
Sources


Side Pages:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Baroque art

On this page, a brief overview of the life or the artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini is given, as well as an explanation of the Baroque art style that he used.


History of the structures in the crossing

On this page, an overview is presented of the various types of altar structures that were present in Saint Peter's Basilica, from its humble beginnings in the fourth century, to the beginning of the sixteenth century and Bernini's first design.


The Counter-reformation and the position of Catholicism in the seventeenth century

On this page, an overview is given of the position of the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century, with a focus on the important Council of Trent and the impact of Protestantism.


Pope Urban VIII and Bernini's original design[5]


Old Christian medallion giving
an impression of the 4th century
Baldachin[7].

Pope Urban came to power in 1623. He commissioned his favorite artist, the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to build a suitable replacement for Paul V's baldachin (see History of the Crossing). Urban chose to remove the high altar that was placed near the apse of the basilica, and return it to the position above the tomb of the apostle[6]. In doing so, Bernini was faced with finding a solution to the problem of whether to build a traditional altar ciborium or to keep in line with the thoughts of the previous pope and build another baldachin. In his search for a solution, he most likely used an idea thought up by Carlo Maderno, the chief architect of Saint Peter's Basilica at the time.

17th century medallion
showing the original design
for the Baldachin[7].

Maderno had considered mixing the elements of the static ciborium and the dynamic baldachin. In his plans, he considered using four columns that supported two ribs (much like the design of the original ciborium made in the fourth century ). Hanging from these ribs would be a cloth canopy. Bernini, while thinking of ways to impress people with the new altar structure (see below), most likely considered the mix of different elements from the two structures as a good solution to his problems[7].

In his original design , Bernini mixed many features from previous designs (as had been the case with many of the artists before him working on the crossing of Saint Peter's). Four Solomonic columns (twenty meters high) were made. On top of the columns four bronze angels statues were placed. Two semi-circular ribs would intersect above the altar, and hold aloft a tasselled canopy, that slightly hovered above the four columns. The canopy would be connected with ribbons to the four angel statues. On top of the intersection of the two ribs, a massive statue of the Risen Christ, holding a bannered cross was to be placed. Both on the canopy and the pillars, the Barberini papal coat of arms and other papal insignia would be found. However, due to problems, changes were made and the final product differs from the original design.


Bernini's second design


Changes and consistencies

The second design of the Baldachin was a mix of many different elements from all the previous designs used (see the History of the crossing). It differed from Bernini's original plan on a few points. Most notably, the superstructure of two semi-circular ribs holding aloft the bronze canopy, with a statue of the Risen Christ as centerpiece was dropped. This contested design was proven to be too intricate and heavy[8]. The semi-circular ribs were replaced with four sets of three s-shaped volutes, so that the twelve volutes met in the middle of the space above the canopy. The statue of the Risen Christ was dropped for a more traditional globe and cross, and the canopy was no longer hanging from the volutes, but instead was resting firmly on the four pillars[9]. The illusion of the four angels holding it aloft was kept however, by still having the statues holding unto four ribbons that were connected with the middle of the volutes. This still gave the idea of four individuals holding the canopy, as was traditionally the case with baldachins, and it refuted the idea of it being static, as in the case of a ciborium[10]. Overall, not many changes were made between the original plan and the final design, highlighting both that the comments made about the feasibility of the original superstructure were justified, and that Bernini was particularly stubborn with regards to his original design.

Closed-up view of the superstructure of the
Baldachin, showing an angel statue and an
S-shaped volute.

Perhaps the most remarkable consistency between the original and second design was the chimeric form of the structure: the mixture between a baldachin and a ciborium. As is briefly noted in the History of the crossing, baldachins were canopies used in processions. They were held above relics or a bishops head, and signify the importance of a religious person. Ciboria, on the other hand, were placed above altars and were used to signify the importance of a place. The decision to mix the different types of structures was heavily contested by Bernini's contemporaries, but it plays a very important role in the interpretation of the structure, as will be discussed below.

Individual pieces and details

The Baldachin was heavily decorated with reliefs and several statues, as was typical for Baroque art. Different details have different functions, with some referring specifically to pope Urban VIII, some referring to other important altars or elements of the previous design, and some helping to further consolidate the might of the Catholic Church. However, with regard to the last of these three, the main audience, the general, uneducated seventeenth century Christian, who needed to receive the message of the might of Catholicism would not be aware of the subtle references, and therefore we do not focus heavily on those in our interpretation below.

Most notable are the enormous bronze Solomonic pillars Bernini had created for the structure. The shape of pillars in itself is an allusion to the very first design made under Constantine (so to were most likely the two semi-circular ribs that were to be used before the changes described above)[11],[12]. However, going further back to the original altar where the old marble Solomonic pillars came from and where the name comes from, we can also infer a use to strengthen the claim of the Catholic Church as representing true Christianity. The original pillars came from the altar of king Solomon in Jerusalem, and like their function in many designs before Bernini's, the inclusion of them would imply an association between Jerusalem, the original Holy city, and Rome, the new Holy city[13].

The pillars are also notable for their decoration. Unlike the previous designs made under pope Paul V by Carlo Maderno[14], Bernini choose laurels instead of vines to decorate his pillars. The laurels could refer to martyrs[15], the Barberini family of pope Urban VIII[16], or more generally, to victory. With this change however, the traditional association between the vine and the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrament was lost. Bernini solved the loss of this allusion to the Holy Sacrament in two ways. First of all, the original statue of the Risen Christ was an allusion to the similar statues in the Santa Maria dei Monti, a church in which the Holy Sacrament played an important role. Secondly, the overall design of the pillars, with the top two-thirds decorated with laurels and the bottom third decorated with fluting, was an allusion to the similar pillars used in the Altar of the Sacrament made by pope Paul III[17]. This pattern was unusual, as normally, decorated sections were followed by fluting over the entire length of the pillar.

On top of the four pillars, four angels are standing looking outwards, each holding a ribbon (see picture). These four statues are most likely an allusion to the four angels holding the four staves of the first baldachins located in the crossing (see History). On top of the four concave sides of the canopy, groups of putti are located, holding several Christian and papal symbols. The group on the front, east side holds both a papal tiara, and the keys of St. Peter. The group on the west, backside hold the sword and book of St. Paul. The bottom of the canopy is decorated with a dove surrounded by rays of light. This is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Most likely, it is part of an interplay with the altar below it and the top of the cupola, where a depiction of God is seen. Together, these three vertical symbols represent the Holy Trinity[18].

With regard to the commissioner of the altar piece, several details can be found that represent the Barberini family of pope Urban VIII. Already mentioned is the use of laurels on the pillars, but there are others. On the base of the four pillars, the papal family's coat of arms is seen: the traditional crossed keys and the three bees of the Barberini. On some of the tassels, the three Barberini bees are seen, and on the top of the pillars, the unofficial symbol of the family, the Barberini sun is shown. With regards to the coats of arms and the sun, several intriguing stories exists. The suns "circling" the baldachin could be a potential reference to the Church's claim of the geocentric model[19], that was challenged by Galileo at the time of construction. The shield on the base can be seen to become more rounded as you walk around the baldachin, but ending in a flat shield. Besides the shield, every relief shows a face of a woman in labor, and the final relief shows the face of a child, indicating childbirth. This cycle could be a reference to the favorite niece of the pope, who was pregnant at the time of construction[20].


Other important pieces in the crossing


Besides the baldachin, Bernini also worked on other pieces in the basilica. Most notably, he made the statue of St. Longinus in one of the piers, and he designed the statue of St. Andrew . The design of the other two statues of St. Helen , the mother of emperor Constantine, and St. Veronica were also most likely influenced by Bernini[21]. Each statue stands next to the entrance of an altar where a relic of the saint was kept: the Holy Lance (St. Longinus), the Veil of Veronica/the Volto Santo (St. Veronica), the head of St. Andrew (St. Andrew) and a piece of the True Cross (St. Helen)[22]. These four statues were made after the baldachin was finished, and Bernini used them to further accentuate the Baldachin, and the message it was intended to send to the public (see below).

St. Longinus St. Andrew St. Helen St. Veronica

Later in his career, Bernini designed and made the Cathedra Petri, the massive gilded sculpture in the apse of the church that incorporated the supposed throne of St. Peter. Depicted in glass is the Holy Spirit as a dove, again surrounded by rays of light. This piece was built in such a way, that it could be seen fitting tightly between the pillars of the Baldachin[23] and this again helped him bring across the message he wanted the public to see. The final important part of the crossing is the cupola, designed by Michelangelo and finished by Giacomo Della Porta and Domenico Fontana in 1590. On the bottom of the circular drum, the following text can be read:

TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORUM.
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and to you I shall give the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The text comes from Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus speaks to Peter. The text was well known to the people of that time, and it was a primary piece of evidence used by the Catholic Church and the pope to defend their position and religious authority, as it posits Peter as the Vicar of Christ and the first pope. It can been seen as the founding narrative of the Catholic Church. On the curved dome itself, depictions of Christ, Mary and the Apostles can be seen. These elements of the dome are particularly important for the message that the Bernini wanted to send.


Bernini's concetto and the role of the Baldachin


Even though the building of the baldachin was commissioned by Urban VIII partly to leave a mark of his papacy and importance, it also had to serve different purposes. The Catholic Church was losing strength in the seventeenth century after their traditions and hierarchy had been challenged by the Protestants (see The Counter-Reformation), and it had to use many different tactics to keep the faithful by their side. Baroque art was considered especially useful (see also Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Baroque Art) for this purpose, as it was a style that was particularly potent in creating new impressions and forms of drama from a familiar repertoire of postures, gazes and symbols[24]. This falls in line with the remark made by Burckhardt and also with the criticisms that the style did not stay true to the materials it used: a sculpture was no longer a carved piece of stone, it seemed a petrified human model[25]. Furthermore, as a whole, Baroque art was very concerned with setting up a show for the onlooker. Art was used in a theatrical way, to act as a stage to help individuals impress onlookers and further strengthen the position of that person. The art piece would help strengthen the idea that in the entire "theatre of life", the important role the commissioner and user of the art piece played was given to him by a higher order power, most notably God. This was mostly done by appealing to the senses and emotions of the onlookers[26]. It is therefore no surprise that Bernini, the most skilled Baroque artist at the time, was the artist chosen to help defend the power and position of Catholicism. Important in this respect is the notion of the artist's concetto, or concept. Art and architecture had to follow the rules of rhetoric: it was functional and had to persuade people to take a certain position on a particular topic. Again, important in this was the appeal to emotions through provocative or alienating elements, in order to influence the stance onlookers would take on a certain matter. It was thus necessary for an artist to have a clear conceptual plan of what the art piece had to make the onlookers think and, more importantly in Baroque art, what it should make them feel. This concept would then become the starting point for the sculpture or painting the artist would create. This use of a concept or concetto as a guide for an artistic work was known as "concettismo"[27]. Bernini was given the task to let the ordinary public believe that Catholicism was the only true Christian way, and this helped him form a appropriate concetto for the altar piece. His stubborn clinging to some of his contested design choices - particularly the chimeric mixture of a baldachin and a ciborium - but also his attention to the interplay between all the elements of the crossing described above are evidence for his reliance on the architectural concetto he and pope Urban VIII had created together in the light of the growing Protestant threat.

How Bernini gave form to his concetto

We suggest that Bernini had to use sheer size and impressiveness of Saint Peter's Basilica and only a few basic metaphors to achieve the message on which his concetto was build: that Catholicism was the correct Christian way. We think that there are two goals Bernini that shaped his concetto of the Baldachin. Firstly, and most importantly, he had to create a sense of awe so large, that would directly influence the public's position in the ongoing religious debate. This follows from the overall usage of Baroque art to act upon the onlookers' emotions. The use of grandeur to overwhelm and awe the audience is a form of using the notion of the sublime. For more on the sublime in Baroque art, see the side page. Secondly, after this sense of awe was inspired, the public had to know more explicit reasons for why Saint Peter was the foremost of all the apostles and the cornerstone of Christianity, and that the pope was his true successor, and by extension the present cornerstone of Christianity. In other words, the Baldachins main goal was the traditional Baroque appeal to emotions, and its secondary goals was to provide the onlooker with evidence for more explicit reasons for Catholicism as the one true faith. Since most of the Baldachin's audience would consist of Catholics, Bernini had to reconfirm their faith and prevent them from considering Protestantism. As was the goal of the entire Counter-Reformation, the common folk had to be kept bound to the Catholic Church, and they would most likely not understand difficult or obscure allusions and metaphors. We think that the emotional appeal was created by guiding the senses of the onlooker as he walked into the church towards the altar, and the explicit explanations by simple, easy to understand metaphors. The Baldachin of Saint Peter plays an important role in both factors.

The experiential sequence of the basilica: instilling awe in the onlookers

When entering the basilica, the first thing seen when looking down the nave is the Baldachin. At the time of building, this would have been an impressive sight. Due to its massive size, it does not fall away against the sheer height of the basilica itself. When Bernini later created the Cathedra Petri, the sight would have been even more impressive because, as is described above, the proportions of the gilded structure and the baldachin were matched. The onlooker would clearly see the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the light from the window behind it through the sets of Solomonic pillars of the baldachin. If the pope were to stand underneath the Baldachin, it would be a very logical conclusion to state that he was a very important figure. Also, due to the size of the baldachin and the smart proportionate work, the theatrical aspect of Baroque art would be seen: the pope seems to be standing on the stage, ready to act, while the onlooker perceives himself as part of the audience. A sense of awe for the pope following this smart positioning would not be strange. Moving towards the Baldachin would shift the perspective, such that the height of the dome would become more clear. The gaze would automatically go upward. Bernini enhanced this in several ways. First of all, the size and twisting of the pillars invite the onlooker to shift his gaze upwards. The volutes of the superstructure all come together in the middle of the space above the baldachin, as a sort of arrow pointing upwards[28]. The statues of Saints Andrew and Longinus, standing respectively to the left and right of the onlooker would be an example for the audience, as both of them look up in awe towards the top of the baldachin and the dome. The statues of Saints Veronica and Helen look towards the onlooker, extending their hands. As noted[29],[30], St. Helen looks particularly stern, perhaps arousing feelings of guilt in the audience. She appears to ask the onlooker why he is not following the examples of the two saints next to him. Because the Baldachin and high altar are raised relative to the church floor, the onlooker would see the altar and the pope as his gaze goes upwards. He would then see the beginning and the end of the famous text. The text was placed on the drum, so that the onlooker could see the famous TU ES PETRUS part from the nave. Going further upward, he would see the figure of Christ in the dome, accompanied by his mother and his apostles, with Peter sitting close to him. Finally, in the apex of the dome, the onlooker would see the figure of God looking down at him. The shifting of the gaze upward would remind the onlooker of the most prominent figures of Christianity, and all those were looking down at him, instilling both awe and humbleness unto him. We think this feeling would be strong enough to convince the average seventeenth century citizen of Rome to follow the bishop who stands in front of him, on the grave of the first bishop of the city, St. Peter.

The importance of St. Peter and his connection to the pope : reiterating the founding narrative of Catholicism

Besides impressing through depictions of holy figures and the size of the basilica and thus increasing the credibility of the pope and Catholicism, Bernini also tried to give the people a more explicit reason for believing the Catholic faith. The first step in this was signifying the importance of St. Peter. This is done in two specific ways in the basilica, which in itself is already a monument to the greatness of the foremost Apostle. The first is the aforementioned text on the drum. This text represents Peter both as a person (PETRUS) and as a place (PETRAM, meaning rock). The same message, the founding narrative of the Catholic Church, that the text gives the reader, Bernini gave to the onlookers of his altar structure. As already mentioned, a baldachin signifies an important person (or piece of person in the case of a relic), and a ciborium signifies an important place. Pope Paul V already used this distinction when he choose to build a baldachin over the grave when he moved the high altar, as this made the grave into a relic for which a baldachin was appropriate. (See History). In combining the two structures, Bernini also gave the same message as the text gave the readers: St. Peter is both one of the most prominent figures in Christianity (The baldachin portion), and the cornerstone of Christ's Church (the ciborium portion). After establishing the importance of the saint, Bernini focused on showing the connection between the present day popes and the first pope Peter. This is done in multiple ways. First of all, the pope standing above the alleged grave of the first pope, and under the depiction of The Holy Spirit, as seen on the underside of the canopy, gives a spatial indication of where the pope stands as a successor of the first one. Again, this conforms with the theatrical view of Baroque art. Furthermore, the many papal decorations on the Baldachin in honor of the saint show his connectedness with the first pope. Lastly, and perhaps most evidently, are the two putti on the front of the baldachin, holding the papal tiara and the keys. The keys are St. Peters symbol, and the tiara is that of the popes. This pair of statues clearly show that Peter was the first pope, and that the current pope is his successor. By extension now, the message the text and baldachin gave about Peter is carried over to the pope, achieving the goal of Bernini: the onlooker was now aware that the pope and his faith are the cornerstone of Christianity, and all others are imposters and fakes.


Sources


  1. Robert Hughes, Rome (Orion Books Ltd), 2011, page 330.
  2. Jacob Burckhardt. 1855. Der Cicerone eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens. [e-book] Google Books. Available at: http://books.google.nl/books?id=pJifeHIY3YkC&pg=PR1&dq=der+cicerone+eine+anleitung+1855&hl=en&sa=X&ei=I3VzVM8bzO9o_Z-AwA4&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=der%20cicerone%20eine%20anleitung%201855&f=false [accessed November 24, 2014]
  3. Robert Hughes, Rome (Orion Books Ltd), 2011, page 339.
  4. Robert Hughes, Rome (Orion Books Ltd), 2011, page 339.
  5. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, pp. 93 - 99.
  6. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 259.
  7. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 263.
  8. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 96.
  9. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 109.
  10. William Chandler Kirwin, Power Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Peter Lang, Hermeneutics of Art Vol. 6), 1997, p. 180.
  11. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, pp. 93 - 99.
  12. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 260.
  13. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 261.
  14. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 257.
  15. William Chandler Kirwin, Power Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Peter Lang, Hermeneutics of Art Vol. 6), 1997, p. 120.
  16. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 102.
  17. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 102.
  18. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 103.
  19. William Chandler Kirwin, Power Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Peter Lang, Hermeneutics of Art Vol. 6), 1997, p. 192.
  20. Irving Lavin, Bernini at Saint Peter's: The Pilgrimage (Pindar Press), 2012, page 47.
  21. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 269.
  22. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, pages 70 and 120 - 130.
  23. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume II (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 187.
  24. Robert Hughes, Rome (Orion Books Ltd), 2011, page 338.
  25. Robert Hughes, Rome (Orion Books Ltd), 2011, page 335.
  26. Rolf Toman & Elke Doelman, De kunst van de Barok (Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH), 1997, page 7.
  27. Rolf Toman & Elke Doelman, De kunst van de Barok (Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH), 1997, pages 10-11.
  28. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 265.
  29. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, page 130.
  30. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 268.