The Baldacchino and the Pier Sculptures
The Baldacchino over the High Altar and the Tomb of St. Peter beneath the dome of Michelangelo
The most sacred spot in the basilica is the location of the tomb of St. Peter beneath Michelangelo's dome. Bernini was commissioned to design an architectural shelter for the high altar standing in this location. The problem was both architectural and symbolic. Architecturally, the structure needed to mediate between the scale of the human being and the overwhelmingly large size of the building. Bernini accomplished this goal by creating a structure much like one found in the old basilica: four columns and connections between them--all cast in bronze--form a tabernacle over the altar.
The four bronze columns are twisted, a form that derives from descriptions of Solomon's Temple in the Old Testament. (In fact, such columns are generally termed "solomonic" columns.) Four scroll brackets connect together to form an open skeletal framework above the columns. Spanning between the entablature blocks atop the columns are series of bronze "hangings," meant to imitate embroidered silk cloth. This is the origin of the name baldacchino. Silk came from Baghdad, which is Baldacco in Italian. The baldacchino is thus construed as a permanent silken "cloth of honor" designating the sanctified space of the high altar and the tomb of Peter.
From drawings that Bernini executed during the design process, we know that he treated the baldacchino as a visual pun that would not only have architectural significance but symbolic value as well.
Bernini realized that the cathedra petri above the western papal altar would be seen by anyone entering the basilica and moving along the processional axis. In fact, it would be seen through the baldacchino and enframed by its bronze columns and its bronze "silk" hangings. While this may not immediately strike the casual, especially non-catholic, observer today as meaningful, it is a direct allusion to the fact that whenever the Pope enters St. Peter's basilica for mass, he is carried in a sedan chair covered by a canopy. Not only does the arrangement of the baldacchino and cathedra petri allude to that relationship: it also alludes to the fact that the ancient Roman emperors were always enthroned beneath a canopy above which or upon which the eagle of Jupiter was displayed. In this final statement, Bernini assures the faithful that the Pope is the inheritor of the Christian legacy of St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, and the imperial legacy of Rome, now redeemed and converted to Christianity. Certainly this fulfills the hopes of Julius II and the promise of the Bramante design for the new St. Peter's.
The Pier Sculptures
Each of the piers in the crossing of St. Peter's contains an important relic. These relics are actually housed in the piers but identified by statues designed by Bernini and displayed in niches facing the high altar. The four relics are the sudarium of St. Veronica (the cloth used by St. Veronica to wipe the face of Christ during his journey through Jerusalem to the crucifixion), a relic of the true cross (lengendarily discovered by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine), a relic of St. Andrew (who was martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross0, and the spear of St. Longinus (the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion). Of these four, Bernini himself executed only the statue of St. Longinus; he designed all four, but his shop executed the other three under his guidance.
This single view of Bernini's statue of St. Longinus indicates the powerful conception of the statue as part of a larger environment. The strong outstretching arms seem to have activated the drapery as they embrace the outer edge of the spatial rotunda defined by the four piers and Michelangelo's dome. Caught in the midst of movement, St. Longinus seems to gesture upward as though following a swirling vortex into the heavens.