Bernini’s Marble Puppet Theater

Not long after Michelangelo died the world’s second greatest sculptor was born. He was a child prodigy and had a sculptor father who guided him, just like Mozart and his violinist dad. In time Bernini developed an idea of sculpture that went beyond anything the ancients and even Michelangelo had ever imagined. Sculpture had traditionally been part of a building. It was displayed in a niche in the wall or up against a pillar. But can’t the building and the statue be complimentary? thought Bernini. Can’t the building be a theatre in which statuary drama is going on? Can’t the very walls and ceiling of the place take part—or seem to take part—in the “play”?

So wherever Bernini could, wherever the buildings allowed, he designed decoration around his marble statues to highlight them. He was a real showman. He realized that a beautiful figure, like a beautiful anything, might go unnoticed unless someone or something pointed it out. One of the most wonderful statues in the world—Michelangelo’s Moses—sat there pathetically in a marble niche (the final, silly, version of Pope Julius’ tomb) as if some third-rate artist and not the Master himself had been given the job of displaying it. “Had it been mine,” thought Bernini, “I’d have twisted the whole darn church to show it off. I’d have turned the sanctuary into Mt. Sinai and the side-altar into The Burning Bush. A statue that good is worth more than the whole building it’s in.”

And he would have too. He not only dramatized his marble figures with all kinds of theatralic highlights, such as golden rays radiating and flowers floating—he treated whole walls of a church as backdrops for his marble statues, making them part of a vast picture or setting to awe the spectator. For his unforgettable St. Teresa in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, he even opened a hole in the roof to let in light for his statue and bring heaven itself into the “show” And he put six or eight figures in fake balconies left and right in attitudes of surprise and awe at what was happening to the Saint.

Figures in the Cornaro Chapel witnessing St. Teresa’s Ecstacy




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2 Responses to Bernini’s Marble Puppet Theater

  1. Chl says:

    Hi! I am curious. How do we define who was the greatest sculptor? In this case, does the statement “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” apply? Cheers!

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