After 120 years they finally completed St. Peter’s–the outside of it. But the inside was still not figured out.
St. Peter’s Basilica
There were good ideas for the decoration of the walls but what about the main altar? And how were the great relics going to be displayed?
Pope Urban VIII ordered Bernini to decorate it. Bernini was the best sculptor in Rome and a man known for his ingenious ideas.
His first job was to do the canopy above the grave of St. Peter, which lay right under the dome.
The Great Canopy or Baldachin
Those twisting, spiralling columns weren’t Bernini’s invention but no one after seeing them can ever remember any others. Bernini couldn’t keep still. Simple columns didn’t seem dynamic enough to him. First he gave them a twist, and then scribed lines in them to accentuate the wiggling.
Even that wasn’t enough. “I’m going to have laurel climb them as though they were great forest oaks,” he thought. Does laurel climb? This one does.
The columns support a colossal bronze imitation of what the Italians call a baldacchino. They used those to shade and highlight sacred objects and important people in processions.
Baldacchino in a procession
Bernini gave his bronze flaps at the top some of the movement of embroidered cloth. He wanted nothing just standing there motionless, nothing.
A canopy is flat but Bernini wanted to turn this one into a platform to hold the symbolic Orb and Cross. How could he do that? Put anything heavy on top of a stretch of canvas and it comes right down.
“I made people pretend those columns were tree trunks,” he told himself. “Now I’ll make them forget the canopy is a canopy. I’ll stick four big volutes on top of it, leaning together as a support for the orb and cross. They’ll swallow that one too.” And pretty angels capping the columns.
The whole contraption is made of bronze.
“I don’t have metal enough for it all,” Bernini told the Pope.
“Strip the old Roman Pantheon if you have to,” said Urban.
The Pantheon was the only surviving building from classical Roman times. Its portico still had the original bronze revetment. “Augustus had his day. Now it’s my turn.”
Scavenging and making use of ruins to erect new buildings was common practice. Spaniards call it “desvestir a un santo para vestir a otro” (undressing one saint to dress another). St. Peter’s itself was built with blocks from the Colosseum.
But Urban’s highhandedness shocked many people at the time. Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt barberini”, they said. (The Barberini [the Pope’s family name] went and did what not even the barbarians had done).
Look closely and you will see little bronze bees on the columns. Those are heraldic symbols of the Barberini family.
House of Barberini coat of arms (public domain photo by Flanker)
Under the canopy is the main altar of St. Peter’s. It all figures now.
The successor of St. Peter celebrates Mass on his tomb in the most important temple in Christendom under the Orb and Cross that stand for the Universal Church.
Read St. Peter’s Chair and see how he showed off the great Vatican relics: St. Peter’s Chair; the True Cross, St. Longinus’ Spear, and St. Veronica’s Veil.