In our last episode on Christian Rome, we barely got a foot inside of St. Peter’s. The Portico or Narthex caught our attention, so we paused there to consider the long-lasting influence of the two political leaders honored at its opposite ends, Constantine and Charlemagne. Of course we also noted there the work of Bernini, and several important references to St. Peter as Christ’s chosen successor, which is the main theme of the Basilica as a whole.
What I’d like to do today is to find an organizing principle for the nave, aisles, and transept of the basilica. These parts of the church are filled with countless works of art and religious objects, far too many things to treat individually. So, as per usual, I’m looking for a way to bring some order to this chaotic collection of powerful stimuli.
A look down the nave of St. Peter’s (Blake Photo)
Before trying to face this challenge, let me describe it more fully by presenting a kind of inventory of what we find inside the church. This might also be a little help in making sense of the church’s vast interior: it will at least show why it is hard to organize.
By my unofficial count, the main floor of St. Peter’s features 12 chapels, 25 altars, 39 statues of sainted founders of religious orders, 28 statues of allegories, mostly of virtues, eight major “stand-alone” statues, and 26 monuments of distinguished Catholics, mostly popes. Many of these features are themselves divisible into many works of art: a single chapel, for example, might have ten or fifteen works of art in its ceiling and many more on its walls.
Basic plan of St. Peter’s Basilica. See Floorplan for details
There are also ten smaller domes to go along with Michelangelo’s huge central dome, and all of these are covered with mosaics and other decorative elements. Then there are medallions with portraits in relief of fifty-six popes, and there is beautiful work in colored marble over your head, under your feet, and on the walls all around you. Finally, though I might say “firstly” for a Christian of a thousand years ago, the basilica contains numerous relics or purported relics. These include bone fragments from St. Peter, the body of Pope Saint John Paul II, bits of the cross on which Christ was crucified, the chair from which Peter presided, and bones of such saints as Petronilla, John Chrysostom, Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, and many others.
Bernini had more to do with this plan of organization than any other single individual, and he contributed more than a few particular works to it, but even he would lead us to only a part of the whole. Instead of leaping from one of his works to the next, I’ll suggest the simple but important point that much of the art here has the goal of honoring the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll call this theme, “The Triumph of the Church.” It is not surprising that the main church of the papacy should have this goal, but consider that an alternative might be the Triumph of Christ Himself. Of course, the implicit message of every chapel and every altar in the vast basilica involves Christ, but he is not often the most visible subject of the greatest and largest of St. Peter’s works of art. So my first and main organizing principle, which is also a suggestion for you when you visit the basilica, is to distinguish between the works that honor Christ directly and those that put something specifically Catholic in the foreground. I think you will find that the latter group is far larger. Noting this leads us to remember the century and a half of European-wide religious wars which accompanied the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counterreformation. These were the main events of the 16th and 17th centuries when much of the Basilica was decorated.
To get us started, look again at those intricate and beautiful bronze doors that separate the Portico from the Nave, the Filarate doors. They are an exception to the rule I am proposing. The top two panels show Christ and Mary, enthroned in heaven, the central panels represent Saints Peter and Paul, and the lowest panels show scenes from the lives of these two saints. The doors thus teach a clear hierarchy, with the saints subordinate to Christ and Mary. This is surely the core of the message of the Church as a whole, but I’m suggesting that its visible emphasis is on the Triumph of the Church and its specific understanding of Christianity and that Christ is less prominently emphasized inside the basilica than he is on these doors.
The Bronze Filarete Doors with Saints Peter and Paul below Christ and Mary (Blake Photo)
Here is a second exception: when we enter the Basilica, the first chapel on the right houses Michelangelo’s stunning and justly celebrated Pietà. It calls attention to Christ’s sacrifice, and to that of his mother as well, and—if we allow it to do so—it rivets our attention on the central hope and promise of the Christian faith. It has nothing to say about St. Peter, the papacy, or the specific doctrines of the Catholic Church. It is a Christian monument, not a Catholic one.
So far, I’ve offered no evidence to support the rule, only two beautiful exceptions it. Let me add that both the Filarete Doors and the Pietà were previously housed in the old St. Peter’s and, thus, they were not specifically designed by Bernini or for the new church. They are products of the Renaissance, not of the Baroque period, which characterizes so much of St. Peter’s. To make the same point in different words, they were both sculpted before Martin Luther denounced the Catholic Church and before the Catholic Counterreformation responded to his charges. There was no quarreling between Catholics and Protestants because there were no Protestants. Most of the rest of St. Peter’s, however, was designed and built during the Catholic Counterreformation, which made a point of celebrating the ways the Roman Catholic Church was different from the Protestant alternative.
Noting these first two exceptions to the general rule helps call our attention to how energetically the interior of St. Peter’s uses art to express the sentiments, loyalties, and beliefs that celebrate the greatness of the Church and help the faithful to feel its superiority to its new Protestant rivals.
When it comes to beliefs and loyalties, the art of the Basilica calls attention to the importance of saints, martyrs, the religious orders, popes, relics, and the eucharist, all of which were denied or downgraded in the first two centuries of Protestantism, the 16th and 17th. Beyond this, it wants to overwhelm the senses with its richness and beauty, and hence it shares the goals of baroque art in general and puts the emotional experience summoned up by the Baroque at the service of the Church. On entering St. Peter’s, you are supposed to be moved, to feel your senses come alive, to experience the grandeur of the Catholic Church and of its promise. While the art and architecture of the Basilica were to do this directly, the long nave of St. Peter’s, which was a departure from the designs of Bramante and Michelangelo, was added to allow long processions that might also enhance the experience of religious services.
St. Teresa in Ecstasy in Santa Maria della Vittoria (Charlie Photo)
One of Bernini’s most admired and, for other reasons, most popular statues, is the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the little Baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, near Piazza Repubblica. The saint is represented while having an intense emotional and spiritual experience, an ecstasy, which she described in her writings as a vision accompanied by an encounter between her soul and God, while an angel plunged an arrow into her. We will visit this church later, but I mention her now to suggest that her ecstasy is an extreme version of the reaction Bernini would like visitors to experience when they enter St. Peter’s. The basilica does not wish to debate in academic fashion its disagreements with Protestantism; it seeks rather to overwhelm our senses, and if we do not drop to our knees on entering the church, at least our jaws should drop, and our eyes widen. The Church had theological differences with Protestantism, but first of all, Bernini and his patrons wanted to bring beauty on the side of the Church, the beauty of the Baroque in particular.
Remember, for the sake of contrast, that the Protestant Reformation spawned a widespread attack on religious art and opulence in churches. Although Calvin and Zwingli were more outspokenly opposed to religious images than Luther was, Luther’s adopted hometown of Wittenberg demanded the removal of images from churches, and when the work was not completed in three days, a riot ensued, and the devout took matters into their own hands. This was 1522, and other such riots spread through Protestant Europe, tearing down religious statues and taking art out of churches. Sometimes political authorities did the work first, but other times mobs took the lead. Their main justification was that in the second commandment, God prohibits his followers from making carved images of himself and from bowing down before these images. Thus the main targets were generally statues, paintings, and crucifixes. But many also thought the display of luxury and splendor was inappropriate in churches devoted to a faith that honors poverty and simplicity. So churches favored by the early Protestants tended to be whitewashed and devoid of ornamentation. By the time Bernini got to work in St. Peter’s, these judgments and tastes had been advancing in Protestant Europe for a century, but they found no place in the new basilica.
Two arches on the side of the nave, showing the grey pilasters with upper and lower niches of the founder saints. In the little triangles above the arch, called spandrels, are stucco statues of allegories representing the virtues as the Church understood them. A medallion of a pope is on the extreme left. (Charlie photo)
Along with its vast size, a chief characteristic of the interior of St. Peter’s is its opulence and splendor: it is impossible to miss. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all covered in rich and colorful materials—mostly precious marble, but there is also a lot of gold worked into the stuccos and reliefs that blanket the interior. The stately pilasters that rise up to support the arches and domes above remain a monochrome greyish white, but these help to frame and set off the brightly colored stone that surrounds them.
The art historians I admire do not speak of “busyness,” but I can’t think of a better way to convey the large number of artistic and architectural features that are crowded into the basilica. Everywhere we look, we see statues, reliefs, portraits, mosaics, coffers, rosettes, cornices, spandrels, or other features. If nature abhors a vacuum, St. Peter’s abhors a bare spot.
Far from smashing statues, Bernini put them everywhere. He began doing this out in the Piazza, which he surrounded by 140 statues of saints and martyrs, all of whom are ready to become heavenly allies of faithful Catholics, who are eager to reduce the pains of purgatory and earn a heavenly reward. Then the Portico is also filled with sculpture, including 32 popes in the lunettes that cut into vault. Now, inside the basilica, we find—by my very rough estimate—another hundred statues of significant size, not counting angels that pop up all over. The Catholic response was not to join the Protestant depreciation of graven images but to double down in using them to help the faithful see that the saints will intercede for us and help us reach communion with God.
The Catholic Church was for ages the spiritual force uniting Europe, and one way it retained vigor and fostered diversity was by welcoming various religious orders within it. Some of these groups were mendicants, who lived on alms, others chose a monastic life, and others were more active in doing charitable, religious, or educational work in secular communities. Examples include the Franciscans, Dominicans, Cistercians, Assumptionists, Silesians, and many others. To call attention to this internal diversity, St. Peter’s has statues of founders of 39 different religious orders. They line both the nave and the transept, some on the pilasters about halfway between the pavement and the arches above, with others higher above them. I count nine women among them; most of the saints are from what later become Italy, but some are from Spain and France. Slightly more than a quarter of the group founded orders during the time of the Catholic Counterreformation against the Protestants. The most influential of these was St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, for the Jesuits quickly became a major force in fighting back against the Protestant Reformation, both in Europe and around the globe. Links on my website can help you find him and others.
Like the emphasis on the saints, the religious orders distinguish the Catholic Church from its Protestant rivals; and both the saints and the orders help the individual Christian feel he has close and like-minded allies in his struggle to lead a holy life.
So, in the context of its huge size and baroque beauty, St. Peter’s honors those who have served the Church and contributed to its distinctness. Along with the saints, the founders of orders, and the four Doctors of the Church, who surround the Chair of St. Peter in the Apse, the popes are another honored category of no great concern to Protestants. We have already mentioned the 32 popes in the Portico. There are major monuments to another 22 in the interior, and 56 are represented in medallions, all visible from the aisles of the basilica. When you face the Pietà, for example, look left and right, up and down, and you will see four of these medallions. The others are in comparable locations lining the aisle on both sides of the basilica.
The medallions feature popes from long ago, whereas the 22 major monuments feature popes often from the 17th and 18th centuries, as the interior decoration of the Basilica was being finished. Thus the old guys get little disks, but the popes who were ruling when there were still prominent positions available often took them and employed great artists to build imposing monuments in their memory. This is not the whole story, since a couple of popes received monuments because of their sanctity, and four of these 26 monuments are not even of popes.
For a list of the founder saints and their locations, click Founders.
For a list of the monuments and their locations, click Monuments.
For a list of the medallions and their locations, click Medallions.
For a list of the allegories in the spandrels, and their locations, click Allegories.
The Funeral Monument of Alexander VII, one of Bernini’s main patrons. (Charlie photo)
Of course the usual approach when filtering through the works of art in the basilica is to select the ones that are the most beautiful and focus on them. Since my goal is to understand better the message of the Church and what it stood for, I’m using a different filter, but I’ll confess that when it comes to interest and attractiveness, I put Bernini’s monuments to Urban VIII and Alexander VII at the top of the list. I’d recommend the tomb of Pius VII next, partly for its monumentality, but also because—having been imprisoned by Napoleon—his life was so interesting. Canova’s monument to the Stuarts also deserves special attention, as I’ll note below.
The monument to Queen Christina of Sweden (Charlie Photo)
Since I’m thinking of the Reformation that split Europe instead of aesthetic criteria, I’ll note that there are monuments to Catholic rulers who stood up against the Protestantism. One is to Queen Christina of Sweden, a fascinating and complicated woman, who abdicated from her position as Queen of Protestant Sweden, converted to Catholicism, and came to live among the sophisticated aristocrats and church officials of Rome. As might be expected, Pope Alexander VII honored her defection from Protestantism by giving her a royal welcome, which is mentioned above the gates at the northern entrance to Rome, at Piazza del Popolo. Bernini designed the couch on which she entered Rome in 1655, with a retinue of 255 people, and he also became her good friend and designed some rooms for her in the Vatican. She is buried among the popes in the Crypt of St. Peter’s, one level below the main floor. As for her monument, it is just to the left as you look at the Pietà, and its sculpture in relief highlights the point most important to the Catholic Church, her abjuration of Protestantism, even at the price of giving up her throne, and her embrace of Roman Catholicism. The other details of her life are also fascinating, as I hope to show in a future minipod.
Another monument that should remind visitors of the long contest between Catholics and Protestants is the one to the Stuarts, the first funeral monument on the left aisle of the basilica. It remembers Catholic members of the Stuart Dynasty, a father and two sons, who thought they were entitled to rule England but were never able to do so. The father, James III, was the son of a legitimate king, James II, but James II was overthrown in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, partly because he was Roman Catholic. His Catholic son did not recognize the legitimacy of the revolution and so spent his life claiming to be king, and his claims were supported by France, Spain, and the Papacy, even to the point that he attempted to invade England to reestablish the rule of the Stuarts. The English, on the other hand, charged him with treason, and he lived is life in exile, sometimes in France and sometimes in papal territory, including Rome. His two sons claimed to succeed him as legitimate kings, first the elder and then the younger, but they had no powerful support, so the issue died out.
The monument to Christina honors a Queen who gave up her political power to become a Roman Catholic. The monument to the Stuarts honors would-be kings whose Catholicism blocked their path to sovereign authority. They honored the faith in turn by having embraced it when it would have been politically useful not to have done so.
Monument to the Stuarts by Canova (Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia)
The Monument to the Stuarts deserves a mention also on aesthetic grounds. It is by Antonio Canova, the greatest neo-classical sculptor who worked in Rome, and it is one of only a few works in the Basilica that share this style. Another is the Monument to Clement XIII, also by Canova. Since most everything else in the basilica is Baroque, the Monument to the Stuarts offers a good opportunity to contrast these two styles. The most obvious contrast is that it is all white marble, whereas Bernini’s baroque favors vivid and varied colors. Another is that the figures in it—two angels and portraits of the three Stuarts—are all motionless, whereas the baroque favors energetic movement, whether of animate subjects or even drapery, as his equestrian statue of Constantine demonstrates. But even so, as it seems to me, Canova’s work stirs the sentiments, especially because his angels are so lovely and so full of sorrow, with their downward gazes, furled wings, and the inverted torches they are about to extinguish. The shape of the monument joins its whiteness in marking it as neoclassical. It looks like a funeral stele of the ancient Greeks and so could be thought to be pagan, were it not for the angels and the inscription above the door to the tomb.
The size and splendor of St. Peter’s made it a very expensive project, which partially explains the abuses introduced to cover costs and which also provoked outrage and sparked the Protestant Reformation. But my main point today has been to show that the outbreak of the Reformation did not lead the Church to retreat from its goal of building an opulent basilica, and that its interior—often designed by Bernini—sought to keep and attract followers by showing the uniqueness and glory of the Roman Catholic Church.
While the Protestants were pushing austerity and saying “No!” to opulence and religious art, and “No!” also to saints, popes, and relics, St. Peter’s shouted a hearty “Yes!” to all of the above. Nor was this “Yes!” limited to St. Peter’s: the colorful and energetic baroque approach to beauty spilled out into other churches and sites of Rome and then helped to attract pilgrims to the city. Even now that tourists outnumber pilgrims, baroque art and architecture remain one of Rome’s great attractions, as we will see further in our next episode on Christian Rome.