The massive altar in St. Peter's Basilica, situated directly above
the tomb of St. Peter, holds enormous importance for Catholics
by Greg Burke
In any other church it would be a monstrosity, but in St. Peter's
Basilica, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's baldachino-four columns supporting a
bronze canopy over the main altar- makes a perfect fit.
And although the enormous columns around the altar are nearly 100
feet tall, in St. Peter's, the baldachino is almost small, given the
proportions of the church. If the baldachino, which weighs some 93
tons, were to be hoisted to the very top of the basilica, it could
fit not only in the cupola of St. Peters, but in the very tip of the
Such are the dimensions of St. Peter's Basilica, but it is not only
the size of the main altar that makes it impressive. The massive
bronze columns are distinguished by their spiral form and the ornate
golden-black decoration of the Baroque architect and sculptor
The bronze used to make the columns is believed to have come from the
Pantheon. Swarming all over the columns are the bees that are the
hallmark of the coat of arms of the Barberini family, for Pope Urban
VIII, who commissioned the work, was a Barberini.
It is the most famous baldachino in Christendom, and that is somehow
fitting for an altar that sits directly above the tomb of St. Peter,
Prince of the Apostles. For all of its lavish surroundings, the altar
itself is quite simple-a large block of white marble, virtually
without decoration. In its simplicity, the white altar complements
the Baroque baldachino perfectly. But given the altar's
location-directly over the tomb of St. Peter-it holds enormous
importance for Catholics, and the Pope is the only one normally
allowed to celebrate Mass at this altar, although there are
exceptions to that and quite often now other priests or bishops are
privileged enough to concelebrate with him. In order to give people
as far as 100 yards away the chance to see the celebrant, the altar
is seven steep steps above the main floor.
In front of the altar is a sunken area known as the "Confession of
St. Peter." The word "confession" in this sense refers to the
martyr's or apostle's "confession" of Our Lord by martyrdom. The
sunken area marks the closest you can get to the tomb of St. Peter
without going downstairs. Bernini's twisted columns were not entirely
new as an art form, and the earliest St. Peter's, known as the
Constantine Basilica and completed in the third century, also had
spiraled columns over the altar. In that sense he was remaining
faithful to tradition.
Under the dark, heavy columns, the Baroque master managed to show
that he had a lighter side. The bronze columns of the baldachino rest
on marble pedestals, and each of these is decorated with the coat of
arms of Pope Urban VIII. Bernini, it is said, having heard that one
of the Pope's nieces was pregnant, sculpted the face of a woman in
various stages of pregnancy and childbirth on the sides of the four
Historians friendly to the Church claim the woman was the Pope's
niece; critics claim this was actually his mistress. In any case, the
faces show surprise, discomfort, agony and utter joy. The final one
plays a pleasant trick on those who have made their way along nine
months of a mother to be; it is the face not of the women but of a
When the baldachino was completed in 1633, it triggered mixed
reactions. Some thought the massive, twisted columns absurd. Noting
that the truckloads of bronze used to make them came from the ancient
Roman Pantheon, critics tagged Pope Urban VIII-remember, he was a
Barberini -with the following: "" ("That which the barbarians didn't do, the Barberini
family did"). But others were quick to defend what they saw as a
startlingly beautiful and original work. And it remains the same
In Italian art historian Carlo Galassi Paluzzi's opinion-as rich and
exaggerated as Bernini's works themselves are- the origin of the
baldachino is virtually divine. "Only a miracle of art, a prodigious
intuition, could spiritualize and turn into lightness and gentleness
the enormous quantity of material in such a massive structure," the
art historian said. Bernini clearly wanted visitors to St. Peter's to
be left with a sense of awe.
It is also evident in a Bernini masterpiece, the statue of St. Teresa
in Ecstasy, found in the Church of St. Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
St. Teresa of Avila is reclining in thrall as a young, smiling angel
aims an arrow at her heart.
The smooth, white marble statue is tiny compared to the baldachino in
St. Peter's, and hints at the versatility of the Neapolitan Bernini,
who not only distinguished himself as an architect, sculptor and
painter, but also worked as a playwright and actor.
Bernini's altar also inspired the style for a later work in the
basilica, the Chair of St. Peter, an imposing piece that decorates
the apse of the basilica. Above the marble base, there are four
figures of the Greek and Latin Church: Anastasius, John Chrysostom,
Ambrose and Augustine.
Above those saints are two angels and a throne symbolizing the
authority of Peter. Three bas-reliefs tell the story of three key
encounters Peter had with Our Lord: the handing over of the keys of
authority in the Church, the washing of the feet, and Jesus, after
the Resurrection, asking Peter three times, "Do you love me?"
Greg Burke writes from Rome, Italy
This article was taken from the September/October 1995 issue of
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