Bernini's Baldachino

Author: Greg Burke


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 cupola.

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 Bernini.

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 pedestals.

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 smiling child.

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 today.

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 "Catholic Heritage". To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published bimonthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.