Thursday, October 31, 2013



This is a skeleton hanging over the door to the south transept in the central nave of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It's part of the tomb of Pope Alexander VII, and it's just creepy.

Papal tombs were horrifyingly ostentatious displays of power in the Dark Ages and Renaissance. Better to spend millions on marble for the dead than on food for the poor, eh? Alexander was born Fabio Chigi, a member of the ultra-rich Chigi banking family. He was a great-nephew of Pope Paul V. Because of his great wealth, Chigi bought himself some high office in the Roman Catholic Church. He was named vice-papal legate at Ferrara in 1627, and Inquisitor of Malta in 1634. As he'd not even been ordained yet, this created complications -- so he was made a priest in December 1634 and appointed Bishop of Nardo a few weeks later. (So much for faith having a role!) He loathed Protestants, and would have burned them all at the stake. He was made papal nuncio (ambassador) to Germany in 1639, but was so virulently anti-Protestant and wished to kill all heretics that he was recalled to Rome and made Secretary of State in 1651. He was made a cardinal a year later, and pope in 1655. The Barberini family, which had controlled the papacy for a century, was disunited and backed both a French and Spanish candidate -- which cancelled one another out. Chigi promised to end nepotism in Rome, which had deeply compromised the administration of the church and excluded many young cardinals from eating at the trough. Olimpia Maidalchini was the sister-in-law of the pope who'd just died, Innocent X, and this woman of strong will controlled Innocent X absolutely -- and was particularly interested in the awarding of patronage posts. Older cardinals, worried about the trouble-making younger ones, asked Maidalchini if she was opposed to Chigi. She was not, and the papal conclave voted to make Chigi Pope. He immediately broke his anti-nepotism promise and installed most of his family as administrators of the Vatican.

A year after his elect, Alexander VII selected the most famous sculptor of the day, the 73-year-old Gian Lorenzi Bernini, to sculpt his tomb. Alexander wanted his tomb placed in one of the empty niches along the left-hand side of the nave in St. Peter's. It would be close to the chancel (the space around the altar). Light would fall onto it from the left, and Bernini's early plans show Alexander kneeling and facing right. But Alexander's nephew, Cardinal Flavio Chigi, realized that the Baldacchino (the massive bronze canopy over the high alter in the center of the transept) blocked the view of the tomb.

So the tomb was moved to the south aisle just west of the south transept. If one stands in front of the Baldacchino and looks diagonally to the left, the tomb is directly in the line of sight. (Gee, how'd that happen?) Light now hits the statue from the right. So Bernini altered the composition of his work to bring the statue far forward (so the light would hit it), and inclined Alexander's head so that it seems to look down and left onto the crowds in front of the Baldacchino.

The new problem here was there's a door! This door leads to a sacristy (a room for vestments) in the thick western wall of the transept. It was not uncommon for doors to be incorporated into tombs (they were symbols of the passage from life to death), but it had never been done in a papal tomb...

From the beginning, Bernini wanted to show the pope kneeling in prayer on a pedestal. Below would be a flowing "pall" (funeral drapery) of marble, beside which would be statues of Truth and Love. Statues (upper portions only) of Prudence and Justice would stand behind the pall. Hidden behind the pall and below the plinth on which the statue stood would be the simple sacrophagus for the body. The statue was designed to stand in a round-headed apse, flanked by two columns which held up a triangular pediment. Bernini wanted to place the papal coat of arms in this pediment.

In one early design from November 1660, Bernini had a skeletal figure of Death flying upward, apparently caught beneath the pall -- an arm thrust out, holding an hourglass (showing that "time was up" for the dead pope). The coat of arms would be supported by a flying cherub representing Fame, assisted by another figure of Death. The whole thing was designed to be freestanding in the niche (not resting on the walls).

Bernini abandoned this scheme in favor of a much simpler one that eliminated both figures of death as well as the cherub of Fame. Again, the statue was intended to be freestanding.

Bernini also played with his figures of the "Four Virtues". He toyed with their postures, their placement, and just how intensely foregrounded Truth and Love must be. The figure of Truth, to the right of the tomb, is showing standing on a globe. Her foot stands on England, where Alexander VII tried to stamp out Anglicanism.

In Bernini's final design, dated to early 1667, the skeletal figure of Death returns beneath the pall, its head concealed. Wings were added to ensure that viewers understood this to be a figure of winged Death, not just a skeleton. Death's bony feet rest to the right on the jamb of the door. (This is a change from earlier studies, in which his feet dangled like a sick joke in front of the doorway.) Is Death fleeing out the door, disappearing beneath the drapery? Or is Death coming in through the door, about to pop up out of the drapery and frighten everyone? It's not clear, and it's that ambiguity which makes this a great work of art. The falling pall also helps to conceal the upper part of the door, allowing for a more disguised and gradual change in the perception of level and depth.

Construction on the statue began in 1671, four years after Alexander's death. The delay is because Bernini was hired by Alexander to design and decorate the Piazza San Pietro and colonnade in front of St. Peter's and design the interior decoration of the Basilica -- including the Scala Regia (the monumental grand stairway entrance to the Vatican Palace) and the Cathedra Petri (the "Chair of Saint Peter" in the apse of St. Peter's). Alexander also briefly flirted with asking Bernini to relocate the tomb to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. There were preliminary designs for a full-sized tomb here, but these were swiftly abanonded in favor of the St. Peter's site.

Bernini designed and did models for the statue. But the aged sculptor was not longer capable of chiseling marble. Four assistants did most of the work, and Antonio Raggi did the statue of Alexander. The most carving Bernini did was on the face of Alexander (whom he'd modeled and carved before, although never authoritatively).

Originally both Truth and Love were naked, but Pope Innocent XI complained (in 1677) that this was too erotic. So Bernini had to fashion bronze drapery, mold it to the statues, and paint it white to look like marble.

The statue was unveiled in 1678. Bernini died two years later. The tomb was his last masterwork.





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