Today we visit the Portico of St. Peter’s Basilica, and find there–again!–the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rome’s greatest and most prolific Baroque sculptor and architect. We also encounter the emperors Constantine and Charlemagne, who did so much to create Christian Europe.

Show Notes

In our last episode on St. Peter’s, Episode 15, we raced first to the religious center of the Basilica, which is also its physical center, where the two axes—the nave and transept—cross one another, and a soaring altar canopy rises up toward the dome that covers the crossing. Here is where we find the papal high altar, with the Tomb of St. Peter directly below it. Since St. Peter was an Apostle and Martyr, and since he remains the foundation of the pope’s claim to be the highest authority in the Christian Church, he is quite naturally the focus of the central part of the world’s most important Catholic Basilica. Hence also the huge inscription around the base of the dome reminding that Christ called Peter the Rock on whom he was building his Church.

We also visited what might be called the Basilica’s “second center,” by which I mean the apse. The apse is generally the holiest place in a Roman church, and hence in the first basilica dedicated to St. Peter, his tomb was located under the apse. But Michelangelo’s majestic dome of the new basilica was such an attraction that the Confessio and the High Altar were placed beneath it. This allowed Bernini to reserve the apse for a huge sculpture in gilded bronze, the sculpture of a chair. . .  one which also contains within it the relics of another chair, which a traditions says was the throne of Saint Peter, and all this wishes to reaffirm the authority of the later occupants of this same throne, the popes.

Let’s now shift our emphasis from the saint to the artist and stand in awe at Bernini’s remarkable productivity. To limit ourselves to what we have seen so far, he designed the vast piazza in front of the basilica, including its colonnade and its welcoming committee of 140 statues of saints, and he sculpted one of the piazza’s two fountains. He designed the crossing inside the church, including the baldacchino, the large niches in the four piers around the crossing and the large statues that fill them, and he carved one of these marble statues. He designed the apse of the church, including the positioning of the tombs of Popes Urban VIII and Paul III; and he sculpted the former of these two bronze monuments. He also designed and sculpted the gilded bronze Chair of St. Peter, the four saints that support or are elevated by the Chair, and the elaborate window above it. Amazingly, this is but a modest fraction of Bernini’s total body of work. When it came to the execution of these projects, he had the support of a large workshop, but while admiring his skills as an artist and architect, I also admire the energy and devotion with which he practiced his crafts. It is not only the art of men like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini that is inspiring, it is also the dedication and passion that animated their lives.

Having begun with Bernini at the religious center of the basilica, let’s follow him back to the entrance, where we will find two more of his works, located in a room called the Narthex, Portico, or Vestibule. It is understood to be a transitional space that prepares churchgoers to move from the outside world to the more holy space inside the basilica proper. It has doors on both its exterior and its interior sides, which emphasize that it both separates and connects two different worlds. It conveys the church’s first message to those entering the Basilica, and the last reminder to those leaving it.

Carlo Maderno, who also designed the Confessio and the façade of St. Peter’s, was responsible for the overall architecture of the Portico. You may remember that the Colosseum had barrel vaults running both toward the centers of the arena, like radii, and around it, like rings. If you need a reminder of what a barrel vault is, look up: Maderno put a great example of one high above you. Perhaps the decorative treatment of this vault will also help you keep in mind that the bare brick vaults in the Colosseum were also once elaborately decorated with painted stucco. Here, there are statues of thirty-two popes in the triangles that cut into vault, called lunettes; the sculptures at the Colosseum would have been heroes like Hercules or emperors, not religious leaders, and they would have honored very different human qualities. The popes honored here in the lunettes are also all saints, so there is a high and transpolitical standard for inclusion. Inside the basilica, I count twenty-two large monuments to popes, of which only two are saints. It looks as though the ability and readiness of a papal family to pay for a monument was often an important requirement for getting one.

Bernini designed the pavement of the Portico and helped to organize the space by sculpting and placing an equestrian statue at its right end. The left end remained statue-less for half a century, but it then got its own equestrian statue to balance that of Bernini. Since equestrian statues usually honor powerful political rulers, not saints, it seems appropriate that Bernini positioned his statue outside of the holier interior of the basilica. A few monuments to political leaders made it inside the church, but they were not emperors, and they did not bring their horses with them. Consequently, their monuments are not so imposing as the ones in the Portico, where large statues of the Emperors Constantine and Charlemagne mark its two ends. There is also a statue of Constantine at St. John Lateran, and he is again positioned in the Portico, not in the main body of the church. The Church acknowledges its political debts, but it also shows that it ranks saints and popes higher than even the most supportive of emperors.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of either of these two emperors, and their presence in the Portico represents a great learning opportunity for all modern visitors. Constantine reunited a Roman Empire divided by civil war, and ended the Great Persecution of Christians, first by making it legally possible to be a Christian, and then by making it politically advantageous to be a Christian. He or perhaps his son built the first basilica dedicated to St. Peter, which is thus often called the Constantinian Basilica, and he also moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, thus laying the foundations of the Byzantine Empire, which endured for another thousand years. He is the main subject of the largest of the four great Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum, and I’ll have more to say about him when we visit them. We will meet him also at the fortified monastery and Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati and when we visit one of the three surviving triumphal arches near the Roman Forum. In short, he was the political figure most responsible for having Christianized the Roman Empire. Had Constantine not come along, there would be no St. Peter’s and, quite possibly, not even a Western World characterized by Christianity.

Charlemagne, that is, Charles the Great, arrived about four and a half centuries after Constantine, when most of the old Roman Empire—and more—had already been converted to Christianity. But if Christians were now numerous in Europe, political order was limited in this western part of the old empire, and this left the weak—including the Roman Catholic Church—vulnerable to attack. In particular, a Germanic tribe called the Lombards was threatening much of Italy; but continuing his father’s policies, Charles defeated them, expanded the empire of his nation, the Franks, and supported the Roman Catholic Church. He was so successful in battle that from being the king of a particular people he became the Emperor of the entire Latin-speaking West and, as historians say, he thus became the Father of Europe or, in other words, the founder of the first European Union.

So, three centuries or so after the Western Roman Empire had fallen, Charlemagne instituted a new and different empire that shared the same name as the old one, the Roman Empire. Its capital was first in Aachen and later in other Germany cities, including Cologne, Trier, and Nuremberg, but never in Rome; and it came to be called the Holy Roman Empire, which helps to distinguish it from the old empire of Augustus and Trajan. Although Voltaire later quipped that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it remained politically significant for a millennium, until 1806, when Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz made it possible for him to dissolve it and rearrange Europe.

The European Union has a “Charlemagne Youth Prize” that honors Charlemagne because he brought a degree of unity to a fragmented Europe, just as the EU wants to do. But he is honored here in St. Peter’s Basilica for a different reason: he did not impose just any old unity, he gave Europe a Christian character under the Roman Catholic Church. As Charlemagne himself put it in a letter to Pope Leo III, “It is our duty to defend the Church externally with weapons against pagan aggression and the devastation of infidels, and to strengthen it internally by imposing the Catholic faith.” Indeed, both Charlemagne and his father used their army to defend the popes. The Portico of St. Peter’s contains still other evidence of this commitment, though it is too high and too much Latin to catch the attention of many visitors. It is a black marble slab with an epitaph composed to honor Pope Hadrian (or Adrian, without the “H”), which Charlemagne had sent to Rome when the pope died in 795. It’s high and to the right of the central door.

There is still another reminder of the important ties between Charlemagne and the Church just beyond the Portico, in the center of the rear of the basilica. It is a disk of purple stone set in the floor, and this porphyry disk had previously been in the floor of the old St. Peter’s. On it, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned a kneeling Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and later popes repeated the procedure with subsequent emperors of this Germanic Holy Roman Empire. The disk thus conveys the message that the popes were an even higher authority than the emperors, since it was they who were conferring the imperial authority. Neither Charlemagne nor his successors quite saw it this way, however. After all, Charles appointed bishops, monitored their conduct, convened and presided over church councils, and performed other such functions as we associate with the pope. Neither he nor anyone else thought that Church and State should or could be separate; the question was rather how authority should be divided. Charles explicitly referred to himself as “the most serene Augustus, crowned by God,” –not by the pope, he implied—and he took it to be his responsibility to govern the Church along with his empire.

In fact, on the occasion on which he was crowned, Charlemagne had actually come to Rome to sit in judgment of Leo, who had been the target of an uprising and some very nasty accusations of misconduct. Charles had come to judge, not to receive the pope’s blessing, though the porphyry disk emphasizes the latter event. Unsurprisingly, there would be quarrels for centuries as to whom was higher, the pope or the emperor.

If the disk does not establish that the pope will always get his way, it at least reminds that the popes had found a powerful protector in Charlemagne. The emphasis on Charlemagne should also remind us that he did not come out of the blue. His father, Pepin the Short, was the founder of the Carolingian dynasty of rulers of the Franks; and it was he who in 756 made it legally and politically possible for the popes to exercise temporal or political power over a particular territory, which came to be called the Papal States. As we have seen, the New Italy ended this temporal power of the popes 1100 years later, on September 20, 1870.

So, when you enter the Portico of St. Peter’s, look left and right, and see the balanced statues of two powerful emperors, neither a saint in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but both held to have advanced the cause of heaven on earth by protecting the true faith and its Church. I suppose the Church wanted both to acknowledge its political debts and to encourage other powerful leaders to offer such support in the future.

I will seize other opportunities to add to the biographies of these two influential rulers, but I don’t want to forget Bernini’s statue of Constantine, which is remarkable in several ways. As we saw in Episode 12, Bernini had Michelangelo’s work constantly before his eyes, and Michelangelo had placed an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the piazza on the Capitoline Hill, and in fact this statue had long been misidentified as being a statue of Constantine.  Like many such statues, including the modern equestrian statues of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II, it emphasizes the authority of the man on horseback. But Bernini chooses to represent Constantine not in the attitude of a military leader, but as experiencing a sudden and unexpected encounter with the divine. Even Constantine’s clothing, his horse, and the carved drapery behind the statue are all aflutter as if they too are subject to emotion.

Such drama and evident emotion are characteristic of Baroque art, but the reason in this case is that a cross has just appeared in the sky, and on it is written, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” “Under this sign, you will conquer.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to see the cross, partly because the statue group is cleverly positioned so as to be seen also from Bernini’s Royal Staircase, the Scala Regia, which is roughly perpendicular to the Portico and generally closed to visitors. But the cross and inscription are there, and Constantine is looking directly at them. So Bernini has chosen to represent Constantine not as a great general in the act of leading his troops but as an awestruck recipient of a miraculous message and promise from God Himself. In keeping with this emphasis, and in contrast with statue of Constantine at the Lateran Basilica, Bernini’s Constantine is not dressed as a general ready for battle: he lacks both a breastplate and a sword. It’s as if he had decided to pursue victory by putting his faith in God.

The basis for Bernini’s statue is the story that while preparing to invade and seize control of Rome, Constantine saw a vision in the sky commanding him to fight under the sign of the cross, that he did as commanded, that he promptly converted to Christianity, and that he won the battle for Rome because of God’s support. This would also explain why he promoted Christianity throughout the Empire and built the first St. Peter’s and several other large churches in Rome and elsewhere. Since this was an extremely popular story, it’s not at all surprising, that Bernini shows Constantine receiving God’s message rather than leading his troops.

The most thorough and authoritative version of the story derives from an author named Eusebius of Caesarea, who swore he heard of these miraculous events from Constantine himself. We will soon see the main elements of this story painted in the frescos of Raphael’s “Room of Constantine,” in the Vatican Museums, and we will at this point look more closely at the career of this first Christian Emperor. To say it is “controversial” is an understatement.

There are five sets of doors that connect the Portico to the main body of the Church. All are essentially sculptures as well as doors, and none is either by Bernini or is from the period of art that dominates St. Peter’s, the Baroque. Surprisingly, four of the five are real newcomers, dating from after World War II. The central door, on the other hand, was sculpted in the Renaissance by Filarete and was brought over from the Constantinian Basilica. It’s this old one that I hope to return to for an independent podcast: it stands out for its several subjects and rich decoration. To get a preliminary sense of the detail on the door, take a good look at the borders and script on the halos, and Google “Pseudo-Kufic [k, u, f, i, c]” if you want to learn more. I’ll leave the details regarding the others to the guidebooks, but since four of the five doors are distinctly modern, they offer a good opportunity to note sharp changes in artistic taste and, as it seems to me, competence. It is also a sign of modern times that the Door of Death, the one on the far left, was executed by an avowed atheist. The closest thing inside the basilica to such a scandal, or to such modern open-mindedness, is that the monument to Pius VII was sculpted by a Protestant, Bertel Thorvaldsen. He worked about three centuries after the intense outbreak of Protestantism, and I guess we are getting close to three centuries since atheism came out of the closet and spread more widely, though it was slower to penetrate Rome than other parts of the West.

We find another of Bernini’s works in the Portico, just above Filarete’s central bronze doors leading into the nave. It is a sculpture in relief representing a Biblical event that occurred soon after Christ had risen from the dead. Upon encountering his disciples, he addressed Peter and told him three times, “Feed my sheep.” The story is told in the 21st chapter of the Book of John.

The relief is so high up, I can’t vouch for its artistic qualities, but it conveys an important message, for it gives us a second Biblical passage in which the Church defends Peter’s authority. The first is from Matthew 16, when Christ announces that Peter is the Rock on whom he is building his Church, and this message adorns the base of the dome. Here in the Portico, we encounter the “Feed my sheep” passage for the same purpose. One of the boldest papal claims to authority is expressed in a document called Unam Sanctam by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, and it strictly subordinates the authority of political rulers to that of the pope. It rests its argument on the “Feed my sheep” passage, and Pope Leo X had reissued Boniface’s document in 1516, as the Reformation began to break out and the New St. Peter’s began to be built. Then Cardinal Bellarmine used it to the same effect during the Counterreformation.

Thus the Church used not one but two passages from the Bible to defend “the Primacy of Peter,” the Primatus Petri, which suggests that no church built on the authority of any other Apostle could rival Rome’s claim to supreme authority. Thus “the rock passage” from Matthew and “the sheep passage” from John join in making this point, so it is natural that the artwork in the great basilica illustrate it. Even if Venice has the body of St. Mark, for example, Rome can claim an unbroken line of bishops who followed the lead of the Prince of the Apostles, whose tomb is honored in Rome. And the new Protestant Churches had no relics and no connection to the Apostles at all.

Directly across from Bernini’s relief is a work with a similar function. It is a heavily damaged and restored version of a once-famous mosaic by Giotto, widely held to be one of the very best artists of the proto-Renaissance, from the late 13th into the 14th centuries. It is called the Navicella, or little boat, and it represents Christ walking on stormy waters and Peter doing the same, at least until he begins to worry about the dangers he sees all around him. In falling short of complete faith, he then starts to sink, but Christ is there to save him. Like the Bernini relief, it is too high up to be fully appreciated from the floor of the Portico, but the message matters.

A common interpretation has it that the boat belongs to Peter and represents the Roman Church, but it must perform its function in spite of stormy seas, that is, because of enemies of all kinds. When Giotto first made the mosaic, the King of France was the chief threat, and the papacy even moved out of Rome to Avignon, partly under French influence. But by the time the mosaic was moved to its current location in a wholly new basilica, it was the Protestant Reformation that was whipping the waters into a fearful turbulence.

Bernini’s “Feed my Sheep” and Giotto’s “Navicella” both fit the main theme of the Basilica as a whole, that Christ transmitted his authority to Peter, and that Peter handed it down to the popes. Other works of art in the Portico, including Filarete’s central bronze doors reinforce this theme.

But the Portico also includes a theme that distinguishes it from the basilica proper. It is that honor is due to those political rulers, even if not saints, who advance the cause of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Thus the emphasis on Constantine and Charlemagne, two men who contributed mightily to making the West Christian and keeping it that way for well over a thousand years. Constantine came first, and he began the Christianization of the entire Roman Empire. Though the Western part of this empire would fall apart, three centuries later Charlemagne would reassemble a more northern and Germanic version of it and would prop up the threatened influence of the popes in Rome.

This Europe is now mostly gone, and the Catholic Church has no reason to want to add new statues of political leaders of the modern West, most of whom have been more determined to spread religious toleration and weaken religious passions than to fortify the Catholic Church or Christianity in general. Or so I understand the policies of Napoleon, Bismarck, Garibaldi and Cavour, and Thomas Jefferson, for example. The Spanish leader Francisco Franco did promote Catholicism; but he was a Fascist, not a modern liberal, and far from being a Charlemagne, he failed. He is the exception that proves the rule—the rule that the most powerful modern rulers did not put themselves in the service of the Church as Constantine and Charlemagne did.

We’ll take another look at one of these modern leaders in our next episode, when we return to the monument of Garibaldi on the summit of the Janiculum Hill and discuss for the first time his most remarkable achievement, the Expedition of the Thousand, in which he conquered all of southern Italy, in spite of being seriously outgunned.

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