Bernini and the Statues of Christian Feeling

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  • Topic: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baroque, Rome
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  • Published : May 5, 2012
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HISTORY OF ART

FOLLOWING THE COUNCIL OF TRENT (1543 - 63), THE COUNTER REFORMATION CHURCH REQUIRED THAT ART SHOULD PROVIDE AN EMOTIONAL STIMULUS TO PIETY AND INVOLVE THE SPECTATOR. WITH THIS IN MIND, HOW DID GIANLORENZO BERNINI (1598-1680) FIND NEW WAYS OF REINVENTING STATUES OF CHRISTIAN FEELING?

Quod non fecerunt barbari
Fecerunt Barberini
Anonimous[1]

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is considered to be “the artist who most profoundly shaped the public appearance of the Roman Papacy.”[2] He was an artist in every sense: painter, architect, actor and theatre director, but above all, a sculptor: the sculptor that reinvented Rome as we know it today. To fully understand Bernini’s work, it is crucial to view it in the context of the religious revolution that took place in the seventeenth century, that is the Counter Reformation. In Hibbard’s words: “Bernini was the great exponent of triumphant Catholicism in the period following the Catholic Counter reformation.”[3] In contrast with the previous Renaissance ideas, the Counter Reformation was led by the Catholic church to restore its own image.[4] By using propaganda, it demanded that art should be easily read by all, stimulate piety and to involve the spectator. Bernini achieved spectator involvement through the use and development of un bel composto, in particular two elements: architecture and sculpture; and his innovative concetto. To understand these two ideas, their definitions must be clarified: Un bel composto is seen as the unification of visual arts or “the challenge to create integrated environments” in order “to heighten religious experience”[5]; while Concetto refers to an artistic concept or “the poetic invention”[6] of the

artist. In this way, Concetto is more than an original idea or thought. In describing Michelangelo’s poetry, Alma Alitzer describes it as a term that brings together “imagination and reality, subject and object.”[7] To illustrate how Bernini used these elements to provoke the viewer’s response, this essay will analyze three of his major works: Saint Bibiana, Saint Longinus and Ludovica Albertoni. Since “as time went on, he further intensified mystical and devotional quality,”[8] the works will be presented chronologically. |[pic] |

Figure 1 Sta. Bibiana 1624-1626

The figure of Santa Bibiana “was the first official religious commission and his first draped figure”[9] After the remains of Sta. Bibiana and her family were found in 1624, Bernini was instructed by Pope Urban VIII, to renovate both the façade and the interior of the church. The aim of this work was clearly to inspire piety through the memories of Sta. Bibiana and her family, persecuted by the Emperor Julian the Apostate thus becoming martyrs. As a result, the way in which he presented the image of the Saint and its place within the church will be a determinant factor in Bernini’s work, as it would be in future religious works by him. In the treatment of the body, one can see a clear influence from classical times, although used in a different manner and to express a different message. The pose of the saint is one of piety and compassion, and she is looking towards the altar where a window is concealed and an image of Christ is painted in the vault with opening arms. (fig. 2) [pic]

Figure 2 Church of Sta. Bibiana, Rome

Saint Bibiana is portrayed with a branch of a palm tree in her arm symbolizing ‘her martyrdom’ and half-opened mouth in an expression of ‘ecstasy’. The architectural and painted space that surround Saint Bibiana merge into one, hence bringing her devotion to life. It is the beholder who must link those elements together; the viewer becomes directly involved, becoming a ‘witness’ to the divine event taking place. In contrast to Renaissance works, the silhouette of the figure is open creating ambiguity, as Peterson observes: “ his figures project their...
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