Bernini’s next job was to do something with St. Peter’s chair.
It wasn’t really St. Peter’s but it was a very old chair.
St. Peter’s Stool , Vatican (see a larger version)
By Bernini’s time it was taken as the symbol of the Pope’s primacy. Each bishop had a “chair” (cathedra in Latin), and a cathedral (chair-church). The Pope “held” the most important “chair” of them all.
Bernini looked at the old wooden relic and decided he would invent his own great show-chair and lock the real one away inside it.
What would a proper chair for Christ’s representative on earth be like? He made some clay models like this one:
Bernini’s terracotta model for the Cathedra; see a large version here
Then came up with this:
The Cathedra Petri (see a large version at the St. Peter’s Basilica page)
It is on the wall of the main apse, at the front of the basilica. Bernini wanted to give pilgrims some goal to walk towards once they had reached the great Baldachin in the center. He lined up the chair, raised it on the wall at just the right height, so that they could see it through the canopy.
They would stand on Peter’s grave, look up, and see a vision:
public domain photo
The Chair comes out of heaven, out of the clouds. It hovers. It appears with an almost frightening importance and immediacy, like a phantom or a genii. You might almost expect it to speak with a deep voice. Bernini always thought architecture should come more than half way. It ought to reach out and grab the viewer. It ought to rock him.
To make his chair look more like an airy vision, Bernini set it up in front of the general basilica decoration, partially blotting out the Corinthian columns and the wall, as though with clouds and vapor.
A vision is an event of light. In his best-known work, the Ecstacy of St. Teresa in the Santa Maria de la Vittoria Church in Rome, Bernini had drilled the wall to bring in what might seem divine light above his figure. Then he marked out the rays of light with shining strips of bronze.
Ecstasy of St Teresa, 1652, by Gianlorenzo Bernini. Cornaro chapel, Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome. (public domain photo)
Here in St. Peter’s the big window in the apse above the Cathedra blinded the eye. It was too big, too bright. Bernini decided to block it up and leave only a small oval. When that still seemed too bright, he gave it yellow glass and painted a dove on the pane. The little oval window would be the source of the light from heaven, and the dove would represent the Holy Spirit that guides the Church through the ages.
Saint Peter’s Basilica, the apse, showing the Catedra of St Peter supported by four Doctors of the Church, and the Glory, designed by Bernini (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Vitold Muratov)
The project took Bernini nine years. Though he delegated most of the work to collaborators, of which there were many, including his old father and brother, he always stayed in perfect control. That was part of his genius.
See Bernini in St. Peter’s and read about the Great Canopy.