Tag Archive: sculpture

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 sexualHeavenly 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.

Baldacchino, 1624-33

I’m sorry for not writing this week. Things have been rather crazy at home and work this week, and I’ve not had the time to post. I’m hoping to make things up a bit with this post, as it is on two of my favorite subjects, art and history. This week, I started watching the 2011 TV series Borgia, about the Italian Renaissance Spanish family, the Borgias. I knew something of the family before watching the series, but I must say that this show has seriously peaked my interest again in the Italian Renaissance. I will admit that normally I lean toward the Northern Renaissance in art (this will be a future post), but I also understand the importance of the Italian one, which is the one most people remember because of great artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, da Vinci and others. I have had the good fortune to live in Italy for a few months when I was an undergraduate, and it was amazing. Not only because of the food (which cannot compare at all to American Italian, trust me), but because of the art, architecture and history of this great country. I stayed in Siena for 3 weeks and Florence for 3 months, and traveled around the country as I was able. Although I love Firenze, Rome I think is my favorite city in Italy (although I will admit, I like the food better in Florence).  The history and artwork in the Eternal City is just so amazing. You have Roman ruins right next to Baroque palaces, and those are right next to modern buildings. It sounds crazy, but it works. I have been to Vatican City, so seeing it in the show made me think of Michelangelo and all the work he did in St. Peter’s. Granted the show is about 40 or so years before he worked on the basilica himself, but he did do a lot of church commissions, so I figured it would be a good link for this week. Well that and I’m reading a book about his most famous sculpture David, as seen through the eyes of the model he used.

Because I was based in Florence, I was able to see a lot of the work Michelangelo completed for the city, as well as Casa Buonarrotti, where the artist lived and worked during his lifetime. The first time I saw a Michelangelo was in Paris, not Italy. I had gone to the Louvre as part of a summer abroad program in high school called People to People Student Ambassadors. In the Louvre, I saw his Bound Slave and Dying Slave sculptures. I was fascinated by these works of art. I discovered later, as it is explained on this website, that these pieces “were conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the stone, as in his Third Captive piece. By removing the excess stone, the form was released.” The next Michelangelo piece that I saw was in Bruges, Belgium in the Church of Our Lady. This piece was the only one to reside in the northwest of Europe during the lifetime of the artist. According to this website, “The man who would later become pope Pius III (who only ruled 26 days in late 1503) commissioned Michelangelo in 1501 to create a set of 15 sculptures for the Siena cathedral. Michelangelo accepted but never finished the assignment. This finished sculpture was acquired in 1504 by a Bruges merchant, whose family gave it to the city in 1516.” It is a gorgeous sculpture, and as the webpage mentions, the model for this work and the Virgin in the Pieta, must be the same.

Madonna with Child, 1501

When Michelangelo was 13, he caught the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, aka Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was invited to join the household of the family and studied in their sculpture gardens. It must’ve been an amazing place to work and grow up, as Lorenzo’s household was a center for learning and famous humanists and poets of the day congregated at his house. When he was 16, he created the marble relief sculpture of The Battle of the Centaurs. The piece is so full of energy and movement, with the Lapiths and the Centaurs fighting each other, and it seems to come alive when you look at it. This story was taken from a Greek myth, which was told by one of the poets living in the de’Medici palace. For a more detailed description of the piece, please check out this page.

Battaglia dei Centauri (The Battle of the Centaurs), 1490-92

One of my favorite pieces of Michelangelo’s is Moses, from Julius II’s tomb in San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). I have seen it and it is quite impressive, much in the same way that his most famous statue David is impressive (though David is taller, at over 14 ft, the statue itself being 9 ft). It was one of a series of six sculptures completed for Pope Julius II’s tomb, though the original plan was to do over 40 sculptures. Julius II was the pope after the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Moses is depicted as the great Lawgiver with the Ten Commandments in hand. He has horns coming out of the top of his head, which comes from a misinterpretation from the Bible during the Renaissance. The translation came across as Moses had “horns of light” instead of “rays of light”, in reference to the way Moses glowed after he came down from Mount Sinai, after being given the Ten Commandments by God.

Moses from the Tomb of Julius II, c. 1515

The final work I would like to discuss is another of Michelangelo’s most famous pieces, The Last Judgement. Although the entire Sistine Chapel is gorgeous, this painting was what I had come to see when I visited the Vatican. I had written a paper on the the work for the Italian Renaissance art class I was taking, so I was excited to see it in person. It is enormous, covering an entire wall, and according to this webpage “was the largest ever painted in that century.” The painting, which depicts Judgement Day, also known as the Second Coming of Christ, was proposed by Pope Clement VII and after his death the commission was extended by his predeccesor, Paul III Farnese. It is interesting to note that the artwork was proposed after the French sacked Rome, which was seen as a sort of Judgement Day in and of itself. The painting caused a great scandal when it was revealed due to Michelangelo’s propensity for painting nude figures. I am especially amused by the following quote from Biago de Cesena, the Vatican Master of Ceremonies, who had this to say about the work (as quoted from the previous webpage) “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Michelangelo had his revenge by depicting Biago as a demon in the painting itself, in the extreme bottom right corner. The nudity, however did not bother the pope until the Council of Trent, who had condemned nudity in religious art,  met 24 years after the fresco was completed that and the nudity was covered up by artist Daniele da Volterra (who was later nicknamed Braghettone, or “The Breeches Maker”).

The painting shows Christ the Judge in the center of the painting, deciding which souls will go to heaven and which to hell. Below him, according to this webpage are “angels blowing trumpets and the Archangel Michael reads from the book of souls to be saved. The larger book on the right contains a list of the damned destined for hell.” Michelangelo snuck himself into the painting as the flayed skin held by Saint Bartholomew (how he was martyred) directly belowed Christ. To the immediate right of Jesus is St Peter holding the keys to heaven, and is a portrait of Michelangelo’s patron Pope Paul III. Further down on the right (in the green dress) is Saint Catherine of Alexandria holding the instrument of her intended martyrdom, what is called the breaking wheel or later the Catherine wheel. The bottom right of the painting shows the boatman Charon, who ferried the dead over the River Styx in Greek mythology, is now taking them to hell. The bottom left shows the dead rising again so they can ascend into heaven.

The Last Judgement, 1534-41

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