History of the structures in the crossing


Contents
1. Fourth century to sixteenth century
2. The problem of the new Saint Peter's Basilica
3. Dealing with the problem
Sources

Fourth to sixteenth century[1]


The first recorded mention of a structure placed above the tomb of the apostle Peter is that of the semi-open ciborium from the fourth century[2]. The structure then stood in the Old Saint Peter's Basilica built under the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century. The structure consisted of six twisting columns, known as Solomonic columns. Four of these were placed side by side to form a screen in front of the apse of the basilica, the other two were placed in front of the middle two columns, so that these four columns were placed over the tomb of the apostle. Two semi-circular ribs were placed on the four columns, intersecting above the tomb [3].

A detail from The Donation
of Constantine
.

In 600, the floor of the apse was raised, which meant that the high altar located above the tomb was now elevated above the rest of the church floor. Two stairs in were made leading up to the sides of the raised altar. The original ciborium was removed in favor of a more traditional one. The six original Solomonic columns were placed in front of the raised floor, forming two screens that screened off the stairs. By doing this, the only thing visible from the façade side of the church was the raised high altar in the middle, with the two screens either sides. A few years later, six new Solomonic columns were placed in front of the six original ones, forming a new set of screens.

This construction remained unchanged until the beginning of the sixteenth century. With the return of the papacy to Rome, many changes were made to basilica. Around 1500, Bramante slightly changed the setting by replacing the newer six columns with walls, thus closing off the area around the altar even more. An impression of the structure around the altar can be seen in the famous fresco The Donation of Rome, made by the famous painter Rafaël. A hundred years later, under pope Clement VIII, the floor of the apse was raised again and the original ciborium was replaced by one with a wooden cupola.


The problem of the new Saint Peter's Basilica[4]


The renovation of the basilica radically changed the lay-out of the church. The nave of the old basilica was stretched out and a transept was added. The most prominent place of the new basilica was in the crossing, the place where the transept and the nave intersected and where the tomb of the apostle was located. The high altar was placed above the tomb. However, this placement was problematic, as it clashed with the traditional lay-out of churched in those times. Traditionally, as was also the case in the old basilica, the high altar was placed in front of the apse, where the choir was located. During mass, the apse was also used by the priests to store necessary items or pieces of clothing for the mass. In the new basilica the apse was located too far in the back of the church, meaning that the connection between the choir and the altar was split. Four options were present:

  1. Move the altar towards the apse: the problem with this solution was that by doing so, the connection between the altar and the tomb of Saint Peter was lost.
  2. Move both the altar and the tomb towards the apse: this solution was impractical, as it forced the pope to find the tomb of the apostle. They did not want to run the risk of not finding the tomb of their predecessor.
  3. Move the choir towards the altar and the tomb: by doing this, the entire backside of the crossing would be obstructed by the choir. This would prove impractical, so it was not carried out.
  4. Leave the tomb, altar and choir where they were: this was the status-quo position, and it would relinquish the traditional connection between the choir and the altar.

Dealing with the problem[5]


Pope Paul V (1552 - 1621) chose the first of the four options[6]. He moved the high altar back towards the apse of the basilica. Over the new high altar, he commissioned a ciborium using some of the original Solomonic columns. At the location of the tomb, he commissioned two curved staircases that lead down to a small chapel. Over the now exposed tomb a new structure was built: a baldachin. Baldachins were originally used in processions, where they were held aloft relics or above the heads of bishops. Now that the tomb was no longer the place of the high altar, the tomb was considered a relic.

The main differences between a baldachin and a ciborium are the use of staves instead of columns, and the use of a cloth canopy for baldachins instead of a stone or wooden cupola placed on top of a drum for ciboria. Normally, a baldachin would be carried around, but due to the static nature of the tomb, Paul V's baldachin was very different from a regular processional baldachin. The structure was comprised of four bronze staves, held up by four bronze statues of angels. Around all four staves, decorations in the form of twisted vines were seen. On top of the four staves, a cloth canopy, adorned with tassels was held aloft.


Sources


  1. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, pp. 70 & 80- 82.
  2. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 263.
  3. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, p. 70
  4. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, p. 71.
  5. Torgil Magnuson, Rome In The Age Of Bernini: Volume I (Almqvist & Wiksell International), 1982, p. 259.
  6. Irving Lavin, Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Volume I (Pindar Press), 2007, p. 71