St. Peter’s Chair

Bernini’s next job was to do something with St. Peter’s chair.
It wasn’t really St. Peter’s but it was a very old chair.

St. Peter’s Stool , Vatican (see a larger version)

By Bernini’s time it was taken as the symbol of the Pope’s primacy. Each bishop had a “chair” (cathedra in Latin), and a cathedral (chair-church). The Pope “held” the most important “chair” of them all.

Bernini looked at the  old wooden relic and decided  he would invent his own  great show-chair and lock the real one away inside it.

What would a proper chair for Christ’s representative on earth be like?  He made some clay models like this one:

Bernini’s terracotta model for the Cathedra; see a large version here

Then came up with this:

The Cathedra Petri (see a large version at  the St. Peter’s Basilica page)

It is on the wall of the main apse, at the front of the basilica.  Bernini wanted to give pilgrims some goal to walk towards once they had reached the great Baldachin in the center. He lined up the chair, raised it on the wall at just the right height, so that they could see it through the canopy.

bernini sketh baldachin2

Bernini’s sketch

They would stand on Peter’s grave, look up, and see a vision:

public domain photo

The Chair comes out of heaven, out of the clouds. It hovers. It appears with an almost frightening importance and immediacy, like a phantom or a genii. You might almost expect it to speak with a deep voice. Bernini always thought architecture should come more than half way. It ought to reach out and grab the viewer.  It ought to rock him.

To make his chair look more like an airy vision, Bernini set it up in front of  the general basilica decoration, partially blotting  out the Corinthian columns and the wall, as though with clouds and vapor.


A vision is an event of light. In his best-known work, the Ecstacy of St. Teresa in the Santa Maria de la Vittoria Church in Rome, Bernini had drilled the wall to bring in what might seem divine light above his figure. Then he  marked out the rays of light with shining strips of bronze.

Ecstasy of St Teresa, 1652, by Gianlorenzo Bernini. Cornaro chapel, Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome. (public domain photo)

Here in St. Peter’s the big window in the apse above the Cathedra blinded the eye. It was too big, too bright.  Bernini decided to block it up and leave only a small oval. When that still seemed too bright, he gave it yellow glass and painted a dove on the pane. The little oval window would be the source of the light from heaven, and the dove would represent the Holy Spirit that guides the Church through the ages.

Saint Peter’s Basilica, the apse, showing the Catedra of St Peter supported by four Doctors of the Church, and the Glory, designed by Bernini  (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Vitold Muratov)

The project took Bernini nine years. Though he delegated most of the work to collaborators, of which there were many, including his old father and brother, he always stayed in perfect control. That was part of his genius.

See Bernini in St. Peter’s and read about the Great Canopy.


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15 Responses to St. Peter’s Chair

  1. Pingback: Bernini in St. Peter’s « The Best Artists

  2. Ken Januski says:

    It ought to reach out and grab the viewer. It ought to rock him.

    I’m afraid I’m still settling down from the rrrrrrrrrrocking……..

    Actually it’s hard to know what to say. This reminds me of a certain mystery novelist I once read. She made me want to scream. Other people loved her. She was so EXCESSIVE! There is something, and maybe a whole lot of that, in Bernini.

    I don’t want to say it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. You can’t deny the skill. But do I enjoy it? No, I’m afraid not. Standing inside the Pantheon, now that’s another story. Unfortunately my memories of it are 30 years old or so. But I was amazed at how something so simple could seem so striking. I doubt Bernini would have agreed.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I know what you mean, it’s all too much. He decorates the decoration. Who in our time (maybe a scary movie director) could really take these works of Bernini’s as models to imitate? Today he would have made use of spotlights and maybe some kinetics, the chair swaying slightly, and sound (a voice or thunder or dramatic music).
      The Pantheon is still impressive these thirty years later :) As you know, the original design for St. Peter’s by Bramante was based on the Pantheon and even Michelangelo couldn’t put up with its simplicity. He had to decorate everywhere and spruce up the original design with moldings and sham columns with their capitals and dozens of windows with their pediments, and so on. And Bernini obviously thought Michelangelo’s ideas were too sober.

  3. wrjones says:

    Awesome work – you tell it well. So interesting.

  4. Rich says:

    How it still remains a simple chair goes on puzzling me. Within that grand setting the least one might expect would be a throne.

  5. One mustn’t forget the era: during the 1600’s and 1700’s simplicity was just not “in”. It was a time of extravagance and conspicuous display of wealth and power. No pope or ruler would have settled for the simplicity of Pantheon (or Parthenon) at the time.
    It’s interesting, but it seems to me the closer to democracy a system is, the more simple the style adopted. Monarchies seem always to produce extravagant styles. It seems to me it has something to do with the distribution of wealth – the more one amasses, the more inclined they are to show it off. But that’s just my idea. It’d be interesting to see a study on the matter.

    • 100swallows says:

      Aristotle: Check out Tocqueville on democracy and wealth. Also Max Weber. But of course there are democracies and democracies. It’s very hard to see much similarity between what we have now and what you Greeks had in the golden days. The simplicity in democracy is a sign of the reigning honesty and trust (in the money, for instance). Democracy creates wealth but then wealth leads to extravagance and degeneracy. (This sounds like after-dinner talk while finishing off the bottle of wine. I’m no good at these big generalities.)

      Funny that precisely in Augustan Rome, when the state propaganda machine was working tirelessly, they should have practiced such restraint in the Pantheon.

  6. About the Pantheon, I think its restraint is due to that very propaganda machine you mentioned and that Augustus was working hard to prove that having an emperor wasn’t such a radical departure from the grand old days of the republic.
    Didn’t know about Tocqueville. Thanks for the heads up.

    • 100swallows says:

      Aristotle: That’s good about the restraint in the Pantheon. Of course, come to think of it, there was always something very straightforward about Rome’s monumental works–no bluff. They impressed not with complex decoration but with their solid engineering achievement.
      That old Augustus, a frank absolute ruler, had a lot of guts to invoke the good old days of the Republic, when the one thing those old Romans would not tolerate was a king and the loss of their say in policy. All the poets and historians went along for the ride. No wonder Augustus had agreed to have poor Cicero eliminated.

      If you do look into Tocqueville, get the unabridged version, with appendices and notes, which are as good as the rest. There’s no one like him. American politicians are forever quoting the praise for their country but the book has some negative criticism too, and many caveats. There are chapters on the future of the American Indians and also on slavery.

  7. Augustus knew he could do whatever he wanted: he had absolute power and there was nothing to fear from a toothless senate and an uneducated mob. Evoking the republic was propaganda, pure and simple – part of the profile he wanted to project.
    Don’t know why, but I have this nagging feeling of deja vu when I think of world affairs today…

    • 100swallows says:

      Aristotle: Right. Sorry. I didn’t mean Augustus had a lot of “guts”, i.e. courage, but that he had a lot of “cheek” or “gall”, as we say at home.
      Those are great photos of Athens at your blog. I had no idea the sea was so visible from there. The plants and flowers are mostly the same ones I see around here (Madrid). Are the hills filled with blossoming almond trees too?

  8. “Cheek,” “gall” – you must be American.
    Thanks. Sure, the sea is very near; that’s why Piraeus, the port, was (and is) so important for Athens. Before high-rise construction, you could see it from almost every part of the city.
    As for the hills, they’re mostly covered with blocks of flats now, but yes, there are almond trees among them and they blossomed in the beginning of February. Most are already sprouting leaves.

  9. zeladoniac says:

    In St. Peter’s basilica, even the stones make your head swim with all those natural patterns and colors. I’m sure I saw malachite, and certainly marble, but after that I was lost. Has anyone ever catalogued the geology of St. Peters? Thanks for your wonderful post.

    • 100swallows says:

      Zeladoniac: Thanks, Debby. Here in Europe marble is still considered a luxury item. Not so in America, I think. I once took back to Ohio a wonderful (I thought) marble ashtray that I had sculpted as a gift and it was quickly and not very discreetly put away. I soon saw its disadvantages, such as the weight and scratching of the tabletops, and so on. Here in Madrid most of the banks and hotels and apartment buildings are clothed (revetment–revestimiento?)in marble of all colors. Must be the same in Italy. Funny about the geology of the “rock” (Petrus) of the Church.

  10. geloruma says:

    Bernini I prefer to Micahelangelo – Michaelangelo’s figures are heavy and earthbound hulks- like slow giants. One of Bernini’s “gifts” is to make everything seem like it defys gravity – floats in air – it has an “uplifted-ness” to it. He was going for transcendence, and splendour , though to the modern eye its hard to take it all in. Perhaps he was showing off just a bit… Perhaps he was doing the best he could for God…? (Despite the peccadillos of his private life…!)

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