Crossing Sculptures           Bernini’s Rome .com

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  Bernini as Sculptor:

        St. Longinus 

  Reception and


  St. Andrew

  St. Helen

  St. Veronica



    The Crossing is the enormous alter at the center of St. Peter’s basilica and, as a whole, represents the spiritual and physical journey for the pilgrims who make their way through the epicenter of St. Peter’s. Bernini’s Baldacchino covers the tomb of Saint Peter himself, crafted from bronze, and is further embellished by the elaborate piers that hold up the basilica’s dome. The original piers were designed and started by Bramante and later finished by Michelangelo for the structural purpose of supporting the massive dome at the center of St. Peter’s basilica. The entire crossing incorporates the piers and their embellishments, the colossi located in the lower niches, the reliquary balconies, Michelangelo’s cupola, and the hidden spiral staircases in the center of each pier.

    Gianlorenzo Bernini was promoted to Principal Architect of St. Peter’s under the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII. Prior to such an esteemed promotion, Bernini had sculpted religious objects, albeit of pagan origin. In his youth, Bernini’s primary patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese who commissioned several sculptures from Roman mythos -
Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Persephone for example. Bernini also sculpted his famous David sculpture, his first large-scale foray into Christian religious art; it can be seen as a transition piece from his patronage under Borghese to that of Principal Architect under Urban VIII.

    In 1624, while Bernini tirelessly worked on his
Baldacchino, Pope Urban VIII ordered that the existing reliquary niches for the Holy Face and the Lance be completely remade.1 There was some concern regarding the upkeep of these relics and a desire by the Pope to improve the security of the sacred relics stored in each pier. Bernini was commissioned to design the piers, having gained the favor of the Congregation of the Fabbrica, a committee of 60 clerical experts in charge of building and administrating the basilica and its construction.2, 3 In 1628, all four piers were ordered for reconstruction and Bernini conceived and executed his idea in collaboration with some of the most eminent sculptors of the period.4

  Even before Bernini’s renovations, each pier already had a large niche at floor level and a smaller niche with a balcony directly above.5 Prior to Bernini’s contributions, the relics were on display as follows: the interior contained the tomb of Paul III in the southeast pier, the Colonna Santa, a piece of the True Cross, in the northeast pier, Veronica’s veil and Longinus’s piece of lance in the southwest pier, and St. Andrew’s head in the northwest pier, all surrounding the Confessio di San Pietro. Paul III’s tomb was moved to the left of the Cathedra Petri in the apse of the basilica to make way for the statue of St. Andrew. In keeping with his predecessor’s original plans, Bernini concluded that the upper niches were “reserved for no other purpose than to render them worthy receptacles of some eminent relic” while the lower niches could do the same or contain some other “embellishment.”6 These embellishments would ultimately be the colossi that stand today: in the northwest pier stands St. Helen (True Cross), in the northeast is St. Longinus (Lance), in the southeast is St. Andrew (Head), and in the southwest stands St. Veronica (Veil).

    Each pier also contained a shaft intended for the installation of a spiral staircase that would allow access to the upper niche; prior to Bernini’s addition the only completed staircase was the stairs to the Holy Veil. Bernini calculated this into his design, completing his predecessors’ staircase design with minimal adjustment in regard to the prototype.
7 In addition to the staircases, he made the niches more “shallow and further reinforced their surface area by means of a substantial revetment.”
8 These staircases allowed access to the relics stored in the reliquaries so that they may be presented to the pilgrims on various holy days or feast days.

    The upper reliquary niches were decorated with marble
putti, or cherubs, that carry inscriptions, embellished by stucco clouds. They are further decorated with colored marble that incorporates and compliments the Baldacchino in the center. Bernini’s objective was to reference the Temple in Jerusalem, much like the spiral columns of the Baldacchino – the cornices are concave, much like in baldachin, in reference to “the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple.”9 Both the upper reliquary niches and the columns on the Baldacchino are designed to complement one another in design and color.


    As principal architect of St. Peter’s, and therefore very busy with multiple projects, Bernini did not sculpt all four statues present in the piers. Sources affirm that Bernini kept a “watchful eye” over the other sculptors and would occasionally add his own personal touches to every colossus, yet the aesthetic differences between the four are notable.10 Collaboration was necessary; in fact, Bernini only executed the statue of St. Longinus. Francesco Mochi executed his St. Veronica statue in 1629, Andrea Bolgi was commissioned for St. Helen in 1635 and, in 1635, and Francois Dusquesnoy sculpted the statue of St. Andrew.11

        Belgian born, Dusquenoy was at the top of the elite sculptors of Rome, and an obvious choice for a collaborator.12 Bolgi was occasionally employed under Bernini and was ultimately chosen over Giuliano Finelli as “the only man of consequence” in Bernini’s studio; the creation of St. Helen was the cornerstone of his career.13 Mochi, one of the most innovative sculptors contemporary to Bernini, was known for challenging the principles of Mannerist works.14 Ultimately, the group of sculptures as a whole interacts with one another, to “draw the whole space of the crossing into a dialogue charged by gesture, symbol, and metaphor.”15

Bernini as Sculptor: St. Longinus

    Though he designed the plans for the space and details of the piers, Bernini actually only carved the
St. Longinus. Longinus was the venerated centurion who reportedly stabbed Christ with a lance during the crucifixion, then proclaimed “indeed this was the son of God” (Mark 15:39). In the wake of spiritual rapture, Longinus left the army, converted to Christianity, became a monk, and was martyred in Cappadocia.16 The fabled lance that pierced Christ’s side is the relic that dwells in the pillar now guarded by Bernini’s formidable Longinus.

    While Bernini conceived of the overall design of the crossing, the individual handling of the sculptures meant that each presiding artist’s style is present. In the St. Longinus, Bernini’s sculptural prowess is evident and the virtuosity with which it is handled specifically for this context elevates it above its companions. Bernini is constantly mindful of the scale of the sculpture and his intention that it be distinctly readable from a distance. To this end, the figure’s gesture and features have been boldly and expressively carved; light and shadow play an integral role in creating contrast and suggesting spatial boundaries; and the surface of the statue was left ridged and unpolished to better catch the light for distance-viewing and to allow Bernini to maintain textural contrast by varying the fineness or coarseness of the grooves.17 Bernini’s St. Longinus stands firmly with legs set wide apart, anchoring himself with a straight-armed grip on his spear and demonstrating his acceptance of the revelation that so animates his drapery and hair by his upturned face and open gesture. The niche becomes his stage as he enacts the fabled scene for all those to behold; he commands a reverent triumph symbolic of the Catholic Church and the Baldacchino in of itself.

     Like its counterparts, the sculpture is situated within its niche and is meant to be seen from a single emphasized viewpoint, in contrast to the Mannerist tradition and techniques that Bernini had explored in previous works. Compositionally, however, St. Longinus stands out among the crossing sculptures. The placement of the figure in the space preoccupied Bernini extensively, and he executed over twenty models in preparation for the finished piece.18 Arranged geometrically, the straight lance and saint’s outstretched arm suggest a triangular frame into which the figure fits. Thus solidly anchored, the sculpture is free to expand sweepingly beyond its base, defying the viewer to imagine it as the remains of a humble marble slab.19 This treatment of space marks Bernini’s work as a break from the sculptural approaches, still largely derived from Renaissance principles of heightened naturalism and an adherence to the original form of the cut marble, that had dominated works up until that point. The three other sculptures still fit very much within the framework of figure-freed-from-stone, and therefore retain suggestions of their original raw marble form,20 while Bernini skillfully joined pieces of marble together to create the expansive and dynamic gesture of the St. Longinus.21

Reception and Controversy

      In contrast to the current veneration of this work by Bernini scholars, these very piers sparked a controversy that threatened Bernini’s immortal reputation. No more than fifty years after the piers’ completion, Michelangelo’s immense dome reportedly shifted on its foundation causing cracks to appear. Rumors began to circulate throughout Italy naming Bernini’s niches as the cause of the cracks – these rumors began as “slander, soon flared into such a conflagration that clamor went up in all of Europe.”22

   In his father’s biography, Domenico Bernini sought to expunge some of the blame: “This splendid work of the Cavaliere’s was to be blamed fifty years later by certain persons, either out of malice or ignorance, for causing some sort of movement within the same cupola. This movement had in fact occurred as the result of the settling of the cupola already twenty years before Bernini’s birth.”23 Also defending the artist’s innocence was Filippo Baldinucci, author of Bernini’s first artistic biography, according to whom Bernini set about making the necessary repairs on the dome himself at the Pope’s order. Despite his advanced age at the time, Bernini applied himself, “investigating as much as and no less than the work and his own reputation required, and he wished to do duty to both even at the cost of his life.”24 Throughout it all, Bernini “understood the game well” and “did not permit himself to grieve over it,”25 and eventually the crossing piers would be regarded as a triumphant addition to the church. In Domenico’s words, “...not only are these interventions of the Cavaliere’s not to be subject to blame, ... but they also represented an exceptional adornment of this great temple, for which he received great applause from men of culture and admiration on the part of all.”26


    Despite such controversy, Bernini’s contribution to the spiritual experience of the Roman Catholic was undeniable. These sculptures, in tandem with his other additions, shaped how the faithful would experience the church, and how they would feel as they did so. The embellishments to Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s designs utilized their elements, and adjusted them to glorify and exemplify the triumph of the Catholic Church. By installing these elaborate visual tributes to the relics, Urban VIII ensured that visitors to the church would be inspired to worship the evidence of divine events in this world. At the same time, reliquaries and their corresponding spaces were a way of attesting to the historical presence of Catholicism and asserting the legitimacy of a religion that increasingly faced Protestant dissent and attack. In an effort to make Catholicism relatable and tangible to 17th century Romans, Bernini’s St. Longinus translated the revelation experienced by a Roman Centurion soldier to a visible expression of wonder and awe that could be experienced by all members of the faithful community. Furthermore, in considering Saint Longinus, a viewer could situate him or herself on a similar conceptual level as this sinner-turned-saint, with the same potential for reverence of and communion with God.

  Though each figure makes a unique contribution, the crossing is most comprehensively understood for the interaction between the sculptures, as “parts of an indivisible whole”—not only between the crossing sculptures but most importantly in relation to the entire interior of the church. Bernini’s great accomplishment in St. Peter’s was “the total subordination of architecture, sculpture, and decoration to an overriding spiritual conception.” Wittkower describes a pilgrim’s experience of the church:


The Crossing of St.Peter’s


1 Lavin, 94.

2 Marder, 3.

3 Fabbrica di San Pietro

4 Wittkower, 120.

5 Marder, 43.

6 Bernini, 125.

7 Bernini, 126.

8 Bernini, 126.

9 Lavin, 19.

10 Marder, 43.

11 Hibbard, 84.

12 Hibbard, 85.

13 Wittkower.

14 Hibbard, 84.

15 Marder, 43.

16 Alchin.

17 Hibbard, 84.

18 Boucher, 48.

19 Hibbard, 83-87.

20 Hibbard, 85-87.

21 Wallace, 164.

22 Baldinucci, 67.

23 Baldinucci, 124-125.

24 Baldinucci, 68.

25 Baldinucci, 67.

26 Baldinucci, 126.

27 Wittkower, 121.

28 Wittkower, 16.

29 Marder, 43.

30 Marder, 43.

31 Marder, 44.

32 Hibbard, 84.

33 Marder, 43-44.

The first of the crossing sculptures to be carved was St. Andrew, executed by the sculptor Francois Duquesnoy. Bernini’s direction is apparent particularly in the similarities between this figure and Bernini’s images of St. Andrew in the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinal.29 The relic, the head of St. Peter’s brother St. Andrew, recalls St. Andrew’s crucifixion and Christ-like martyrdom. The sculpture of the saint is placed in front of an X-shaped cross; this placement and his outstretched arms serve as a reference to the glory of his martyrdom, and by extension, to the martyrdom of Christ.

In the northwest pier was Franco Bolgi’s St. Helen, commemorating Emperor Constantine’s mother, who brought the cross and nails of Christ’s crucifixion to Rome. Depicted holding the cross, the figure of St. Helen is the most self-possessed, sedate, and, in the view of many critics, prosaic of the group. Still, her arm is outstretched in response and in interaction with the Baldacchino.33 Like Bernini’s St. Longinus, the figure and cross break out of the confines of the pedestal, and in this way, appear less like marble sculptures and more like truly active and interactive scenes. Likewise, the statue interacts with the twisted columns of the Baldacchino through the twisted gesture of the folds in her drapery.

The figure of St. Veronica in the southwest corner was carved by Francesco Mochi, a rival of Bernini’s.30 The relic housed here is the Sudarium, the veil with which Veronica wiped the sweat from Christ’s brow, which later showed a miraculous image of Christ’s face. The statue is conventional and polished, and unlike the other three statues, Veronica is noted as being more “visceral rather than contemplative.” She is posed in a running motion, seeming to confront the pilgrim audience rather than invite them into an experience.31 Her clothes also are more stylized than Bernini’s technique, as they “become mere hairlines” when seen from a distance.32

  Through the interplay of all of its elements, Bernini succeeds in transforming spirituality into something visceral and tangible, giving shape to a mystery whose understanding depends on emotional participation instead of rational interpretation.27 In this way, the work embodies the ideal of a Resurgent Catholic church; its contribution to the art world and to Bernini’s reputation is immeasurable. As said by Baldinucci in his biography of the artist, “What appears to the viewer is something completely new, something he had never dreamed of seeing. ... There is no one...whose spirit is sufficiently satisfied by the first sight to form any concept other that that of complete wonderment.”28

As he stands under the portico of St. Peter’s, the equestrian statue of Constantine, testimony of Christ’s conquest of the worldly empire, appears to his right like an apparition and, entering the church through the central door, he views a mirage between the dark-bronze columns over St. Peter’s tomb, at the farthest end of the apse—the throne in which is vested the passing on of the spiritual power to St. Peter and his successors. And walking along the name towards this apogee of Catholic dogma, he finds himself surrounded by those early popes who bear witness to the age, struggle, and victory of the Church. ... Whatever his immediate reaction, close to the Cathedra the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful emotional experience.