The Baldacchino of St. Peter is one of the most evocative works present inside the basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. It is a monumental baroque ciborium, 28.5 meters high, conceived in the 17th century to indicate where the saint’s tomb is. The Baldacchino fits perfectly into the semicircular space of the confession.
The ciborium is an architectural element that dominates the high altar in churches with particular characteristics. Generally, it rests on four vertical supports joined together with arches that support a small dome or a flat vault. Therefore, the latter is intended to house the pyx, the container of the consecrated hosts. Do you want to know more about the history and origins of the Baldacchino of Saint Peter? Then read on!
The story of the Baldacchino of Saint Peter
The Baldacchino of St. Peter’s Basilica is a majestic work created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1624 and 1633. Pope Urban VIII commissioned its construction in 1623. It is considered the most significant public commission obtained by the artist. The pope himself inaugurated the Baldacchino on June 28, 1633.
The Baldacchino represents a significant work for Bernini, encompassing his profound competence in sculptural and architectural fields. The work’s grandeur allowed the creation of a particular symbolic image—a processional bier of enormous size, much larger than usual. The Baldacchino replaced the traditional ciborium by inserting itself into the space in an innovative and scenographic way and opening new perspectives to Baroque architecture.
It was an actual undertaking that originated from a collective construction work that involved Francesco Borromini. His a faithful assistant for the architectural part. Who also participated in the design, and other well-known sculptors such as François Duquesnoy, Stefano Maderno, Giuliano Finelli, Andrea Bolger, and Luigi Bernini, brother of Gian Lorenzo. And a long line of founders and stonemasons.
Representation of the Baldacchino of Saint Peter
Myths and false beliefs about the Baldacchino of Saint Peter
The greatness of the work has given rise to numerous ideas. For a long time, the ancient bronzes of the Pantheon were thought to be old. Consisting of the massive beams of the pronaos, they were removed and cast to create the work. This decision inspired the famous saying: Barberini did not do what the barbarians did.
The art critic of L’Osservatore Romano, Sandro Barbagallo, has identified the author of the famous “pasquinade” as Monsignor Carlo Castelli, ambassador of the Duke of Mantua. To lead to the identification is the diary of Pope Urban VIII. They are kept in the Vatican Apostolic Library under Urbinate Code 1647.
On page 576, we find written: “From the cursed languages and detractors of contaminated fame the stripping of an ancient ornament was extolled, although this was true of having removed that Metal, but still esteemed well and placed, for having been adorned with the Church of ‘SS.
The description of the Baldacchino
According to other opinions, the bronzes of the Pantheon were cast to be reused to construct 80 cannons of Castel Saint Angelo. According to Louise Rice, an American art historian who teaches at New York University, things turned out differently from this version of events, which was instead built ad hoc by papal propaganda. So, beyond the scandals related to the creation of this beautiful work, we know that the Baldacchino of St. Peter is a significant symbol for the faithful. We remember that the point where it stands is precisely where the tomb of St. Peter is.
Let’s see together what it is made of. The most characteristic elements are the twisted columns, 11 meters high. Each column is composed of three drums, adding the decomposed capitals and other stone bases. Therefore, the columns depicted the stages of childbirth, made even more suggestive by the expressions on the female face. This scene is represented inside the papal coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII Barberini.
The columns of Saint Peter’s Baldacchino
The columns are joined to the entablature using four nuts of Brunelleschi origin, which make the monumental Baldacchino even more slender and inspire a sense of incredible lightness. Therefore, the pillars have a particular twisted shape, called a tortilla, and recall the pergola of the old basilica of St. Peter, inspired by the Temple of Solomon.
Each is crossed by natural bronze elements such as laurel branches that allude to the passion for the poetry of Pope Urban VIII. These lizards symbolize rebirth and the search for God, and finally, the bees that are part of the coat of arms of the papal Barberini family are also found in numerous marble bases. Indeed, a concave entablature connects the four pillars in the perfect Baroque style. The sculptural helix created from the twisted columns recalls an upward movement from the bottom toward Michelangelo’s dome.
As for the top, Bernini adopted a dolphin back structure to make the final look of the Baldacchino lighter. Statues were also added, designed by Borromini, depicting angels and cherubs holding festoons. So, the drapes under the entablature reproduce the natural movement of the wind.
The reference of Baldacchino to the Barberini family
To highlight the commission of a pope belonging to the Barberini family. Bernini is a putto who raises the enormous body of a bee upside down on one of the sides of the Baldacchino to the sky. On the top was placed the globe with the cross. On the other hand, the statues are animated in perfect Baroque style. And are embellished with particular chromatic effects created with gilding, as happens for the rest of the work.
Gabriele D’Annunzio defines this work as tremendous and majestic in this way: “Indeed, the four columns that twisted Bernini in coils in the pagan bronze rise sparkling in the shadows.” Therefore, the Baldacchino of Saint Peter is not the only one in Italy. We have said it is essential to work, so it is possible to admire extraordinary copies. Similar in style but much smaller in size. The Baldacchines are located at the Cathedral of Saint Vigilio in Trento and the Cathedral of Saint Feliciano in Foligno. And the Church of Saint Reparata in Atri.
You might also want to know.
1. Why is it called Baldacchino?
First, the term “Baldacchino” comes from the medieval Latin “Baldakinus” and was initially used to refer to a lovely cloth drape from what is now Baghdad, though it certainly worked in Italy.
2. What did Borromini do at St. Peter’s?
In St. Peter’s Basilica, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the artistic director of a large construction site, which included Francesco Borromini, who gave life to countless works of art, including the Baldachin.
3. What is under the altar of St. Peter’s?
It begins with the beautiful dome supported by four massive pillars facing the altar. Under the altar of St. Peter’s, you can see that each post has a small balcony and a niche containing a saint statue. Saint Veronica, Saint Andrew, Saint Helen, and Saint Longinus.
4. What do the columns of St. Peter’s look like?
The columns of St. Peter’s comprises 284 columns of Doric order, each sixteen meters high. The columns are arranged in four rows to create three aisles. The central lane is vehicular, while the two side lanes are walkable only.
For centuries, the Baldacchino of St. Peter’s has continued to generate a strong admiration for its beauty and, above all, for what it represents: devotion and holiness.
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