I hadn’t done an art post in a while, and I felt inspired. When most people think of Bernini, they think of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which featured the sculptures of Bernini as part of a Illuminati conspiracy. I first fell in love with Bernini sculptures in 2002, when I was doing a study-abroad to Italy during my junior year in university. The group I was touring with was spending 5 days in Rome, and I was getting up-close-and-personal with a lot of artwork that I had been studying in art history (my undergraduate degree) and the class I was taking on Italian Renaissance art, though we saw a lot of Baroque art as well. One of the first places we visited was the Galleria Borghese, the former home of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was a patron of Bernini. So it is fitting that four of Bernini’s sculptures are still there today. Before I get into talking about the sculptures, I should probably explain what exactly Baroque art is so you can better understand the artist’s works. Baroque, according to this page on Getty’s educational department website, is “the European artistic style of the 1600s, targeted the senses using virtuosity and realism, reaching the mind through emotion rather than reason. Baroque art has qualities of theatricality, movement, and exuberance.” After Renaissance art, Baroque art is my second favorite time period of European art.
Anyways, on to the sculptures. At the Villa Borghese, they have two amazing sculptures that I just fell in love with. First is Pluto and Proserpina, also known as The Rape of Proserpina. I find this piece so amazing because even though the subject matter has been done over and over by so many artists, Bernini seems to have done something new with it. The sculpture looks as if it has been frozen in time. Pluto grips the fleshy thighs of Proserpina (aka Persephone/Kore) even as she cries out to the heavens for help, and he is abducting her and taking her to the Underworld to be his bride. You can see the anguish on her face and her windblown hair. The three-headed dog Cerberus is at Pluto’s feet. In this piece, you can see a true Baroque work of art, with the movement and the way it is so full of life and emotion.
Pluto and Proserpina, 1621-22
The second is Apollo and Daphne. Another mythological tale, this one is about the god Apollo chasing after the chaste nymph Daphne, who turns into a laurel tree as she flees. To understand more of the story, I turn to Encyclopedia Mythica, which says that the whole story started after Apollo said that Eros’s (aka Cupid’s), arrows had no real effect on anyone. To prove him wrong, he shot two arrows “one tipped in gold, one blunted and tipped with lead. The arrow dipped in gold had the power to create insatiable lust in a person, while the other created absolute abhorrence towards all things romantic and passionate. The unfortunate soul who was struck with that arrow would have no desire to love anyone. The arrow dipped in gold struck Apollo, but the arrow dipped in lead struck fair Daphne. Daphne was the daughter of the river-god Peneus. Apollo chased down the maiden, desperate for her love, but she wanted nothing to do with him, and she ran from him endlessly. Soon, she grew weary in her running and that Apollo would ultimately catch her. Fearful, she called out to her father for help. As all gods of water posses the ability of transformation, Peneus transformed his daughter into a laurel tree.” The sculpture captures Daphne’s final moments, as Apollo reaches out to catch her and she is growing leaves and branches to transform into a tree. We see the theatricality of the piece in the way she is turning from the god, and the way his cloak billows in the wind. I thought it was interesting to learn, as I was researching for this post on the Galleria Borghese website, that in order for Cardinal Borghese to justify owning such a pagan piece of art, he got another cardinal to compose a moral couplet about it. It read “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands,” which basically translates into don’t go seeking earthly pleasures because things will end badly for you.
Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25
My next favorite piece is located in a small chapel off the church Santa Maria Della Vittoria. It is the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Now this piece can be interpreted many ways, depending on who is looking at it. The original idea for the piece came from St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, which explains how “an angel carrying a fire-tipped spear with which he pierces her heart repeatedly, an act that sends her into a state of spiritual rapture. ‘The pain,’ she writes, ‘was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.’ (The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself, Chapter 29)” Even though the saint is basically receiving a vision from God during this scene, and this is the way her body is reacting to the presence of God, the piece can also easily be analyzed in a sexual light, as the author of this post explains. “To a common eye, how can the boy not be perceived as part angel and part cupid? The arrow is pointing toward her center. He is above her at the moment of her altered emotional state. And regardless of the historical wishes of the patrons who commissioned this work, it appears Bernini was intent on portraying ecstasy – regardless if the ecstasy came from spiritual or sexual, Heavenly or Earthly, or tactile or cognitive sources or stimulations.The sculpture is a congress of the spiritual and the sexual. The sculpture may often confuse those who wish only to see the spiritual. And the sculpture may put a knowing expression on the faces of those who have experienced the sexual, the physical – the rush of tactile, emotional, and coital intoxication.” I see it as a beautiful work of art, with a mix of both religion and sensuality.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52
The final piece that I would like to discuss is Bernini’s Baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This work is really part sculpture/part architecture, but I think it is worthy of including just for the sheer size as well as the interesting back story. Baldacchino basically translates into large canopy. It is very impressive to see, being over 95 ft tall and done in the bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon. The base of the Baldacchino rest on four marble pedestals which feature the coat of arms of the Barbarini family, the family of the Pope (Urban VIII). The spiral columns are supposed to signify the column of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. According to this blog, “In the original fourth century church, the tomb and altar were surrounded by a ciborium of spiral columns called “Solomonic columns.” Some believe that these columns were the actual columns from Solomon’s Temple, later imported by Constantine. The four columns have also been said to represent the Four Evangelists. In Christian tradition, the Four Evangelists refer to authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” The top part of the columns are decorated with olive and bay leaves, symbols of the Barbarini family, instead of the traditional grape vines. The top of the Baldacchino has four bronze angels at each corner of the canopy. There’s more to the design, but I’m trying to keep this post relatively short.
The interesting thing that I found out from that blog post was the use of bees, another symbol of the Barbarini family but also a spiritual one. I had never heard of bees as a spiritual symbol, so I investigated. According to this website, “bees, like the clergy and religious men and women in the Church, work unceasingly for the common good of the hive and obey without question their superiors, and above all their queen. The bee is also a symbol of wisdom, for it collects nectar from many flowers and turns it into nourishing and pleasing honey, which is the ‘gold’ of bees. The symbolism of bees also signifies the way the Church generates her spiritual fruits because bees are virginal, they don’t have any sexual contact (1). As the Church gives grace through the purity of her divine Sacraments, so the bees give us honey and wax by the labor of their pure bodies. This is why their wax, considered the fruit of a virgin labor, is worthy to burn in the candles on the altar at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.” Very interesting.