Bernini in St. Peter’s

After 120 years they finally completed St. Peter’s–the outside of it. But the inside was still not figured out.


St. Peter’s Basilica

There were good ideas for the decoration of the walls but what about the main altar?  And how were the great relics going to be displayed?

Pope Urban VIII ordered  Bernini to decorate it.  Bernini was the best sculptor in Rome and a man known for his ingenious ideas.

His first job was to do the canopy above the grave of St. Peter, which lay right under the dome.


The Great Canopy or Baldachin

Those twisting, spiralling columns weren’t Bernini’s invention but no one after seeing them can ever remember any others.  Bernini couldn’t keep still. Simple columns didn’t seem  dynamic enough to him. First he gave them a twist, and then scribed lines in them to accentuate the wiggling.

baldacchino close-up

Even that wasn’t enough. “I’m going to have laurel climb them as though they were great forest oaks,” he thought. Does laurel climb? This one does.


The columns support a colossal bronze imitation of what the Italians call a baldacchino.  They used those to shade and highlight sacred objects and important people in processions.

procession canopy

Baldacchino in a procession

Bernini gave his bronze flaps at the top some of the movement of embroidered cloth. He wanted nothing just standing there motionless, nothing.

A canopy is flat but Bernini wanted to turn this one into a platform to hold the symbolic Orb and Cross. How could he do that?  Put anything heavy on top of a stretch of canvas and it comes right down.

volutes and orb

“I made people pretend those columns were tree trunks,” he told himself. “Now I’ll make them forget the canopy is a canopy.  I’ll stick four big volutes on top of it, leaning together as a support for the orb and cross.  They’ll swallow that one too.”  And pretty angels capping the columns.

The whole contraption is made of bronze.
“I don’t have metal enough for it all,” Bernini told the Pope.
“Strip the old Roman Pantheon if you have to,” said Urban.


The Pantheon was the only surviving building from classical Roman times. Its portico still had the original bronze revetment. “Augustus had his day. Now it’s my turn.”
Scavenging and making use of ruins to erect new buildings was common practice.  Spaniards call it “desvestir a un santo para vestir a otro” (undressing one saint to dress another). St. Peter’s itself was built with blocks from the Colosseum.
But Urban’s highhandedness shocked many people at the time. Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt barberini”, they said. (The Barberini [the Pope’s family name] went and did what not even the barbarians had done).

Look closely and you will see little bronze bees on the columns. Those are heraldic symbols of the Barberini family.

420px-Coat_of_arms_of_the_House_of_Barberini.svgHouse of Barberini coat of arms (public domain photo by Flanker)

Under the canopy is the main altar of St. Peter’s.  It all figures now.

Pope at Mass

The successor of St. Peter celebrates Mass on his tomb in the most important temple in Christendom under the Orb and Cross that stand for the Universal Church.

Read St. Peter’s Chair and see how he showed off the great Vatican relics: St. Peter’s Chair; the True Cross, St. Longinus’  Spear,  and St. Veronica’s Veil.


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20 Responses to Bernini in St. Peter’s

  1. Ken Januski says:

    The Pantheon and the Baldachin. What a contrast!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: It’s true the Baldachin has little to do with the Pantheon but St. Peter’s itself was originally a Renaissance take-off on the Pantheon. Bramante, the first architect, made a sort of snowflake design for Pope Julius, with a dome just like the Pantheon’s. Michelangelo liked his design, too.

  2. Rich says:

    True, Ken! The Baldachin looks somewhat “rococo” in comparison. By the way, Baldacchino in German is also a Baldachin.
    Today I visited a park and saw a giant blossoming tulip tree. It was simply magnificent and its spiralling twisting trunk reminded me of Berninis columns here.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: The trunk of that giant tulip tree must be something to see. I wrote that Bernini’s spiralling columns were like twisted oak trees but now you made me think of old grape vines.

    • Ken Januski says:

      Hi Rich,

      I’ve been meaning to get back to this for awhile but keep forgetting. I wonder what type of ‘tulip tree’ you saw? Here in Philadelphia a ‘tulip tree’ is actually ‘Liriodendron tulipifera,’ an incredibly straight and tall tree. They are actually the tallest and straightest trees in the park where I often go walking. They also go by the name ‘Tulip Poplar’ here and their wood is often sold as ‘yellow poplar’ for woodworking. They don’t have the beautiful grain of some hardwoods but they are very easy to work. I have a bookcase I made of ‘yellow poplar’ that’s still one of my favorite wooodworking projects. It’s amazing how beautiful wood can be. I imagine Michelangelo, Bernini et al. looked at marble in the same way.

      I notice that there is an African tree called ‘Tulip tree.’ I wonder if that is what you saw? Then again local names of plants and animals are always hard to track down. There are probably many ‘tulip trees’ around the world.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    Those swirly columns are unique and unforgettable. Bernini never fails to amaze me. His imagination had no limits, but that he actually followed up on those bold and crazy ideas, and made them a success, is unparalleled in his time, maybe even in art history, but I’m more cautious now about such extravagant statements. :)

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: Hibbard’s book on Bernini says this about the twisted columns: “The decision to make giant bronze versions of the twisted Early Christian columns that had served Old St. Peter’s [the one the Pope tore down] was not Bernini’s, so some of the credit for the brilliant conception must be taken away from him.”

  4. erikatakacs says:

    Are there any photos of those Christian columns?

  5. wrjones says:

    I don’t know how they look in the stone/bronze so too speak, but from photos they seem a daring shift from what one would expect in a column.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill and Erika: I have never seen a column snake just like these but spiralling and twisting columns had always been around. There are many in Romanesque Spanish cloisters, for instance. How widespread or typical of early Christian art they were I don’t know. Maybe the ones in Old St. Peter’s (fifth century?) were an imitation or take-off on Byzantine models. And I don’t think there are any pictures of them, so we can’t compare and see just what Bernini invented.

  6. Pingback: St. Peter’s Chair « The Best Artists

  7. Rich says:

    The great Rubens must have liked them too. For instance,those columns are on his portrait of Alathea Talbot, Countess of Shresbury – very similar to Bernini’s.,%20Countess%20in%20Shrewsbury%20by%20Rubens.jpg

    And you find a pair in the interior design of his Antwerp studio.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Thanks for looking up those Rubens pictures with the snaking columns. There’s a problem with the dates. Rubens seems to have painted the Countess’ portrait in 1620 and Hibbard puts Bernini’s Baldachin between 1624 and 1633.

  8. You filched my graphic pointing to the bees, are using my bandwidth, and didn’t even refer people to my post. Nice.

    • 100swallows says:

      My apologies. “Filched” I wouldn’t call it though, as I did link it to your URL. I don’t know what “using my bandwidth” means. I myself forgot to follow the picture to your blog. I’ve just had a look and find it very interesting. Sorry for that oversight too. I will immediately refer people to your blog or, if you prefer, I will delete the picture.

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