The Architecture of St Peters

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The ruling Papacy in Rome during the 17th century was predominately concerned with spiritual its rule and an assertion of its authority, the approach of which had recently undergone a change in response to Protestantism and the Counter Reformation. The work on art and architecture at St Peters reflected the change in approaches towards religious representation, as it became more extravagant and acted as a physical embodiment of the church. The Papacy had often used visual representation as a form of religious communication; however this was a new style of display, in response to new objectives.

St Peters, as a symbol and centre of symbol of the Catholic Church and its power, was extremely significant in its establishment of a visual identity. It was modelled to ‘express greatness,’ and in so doing to buttress the Counter-Reformation . The Baldacchino in particular, was designed, like many aspects of St Peters at this time, by the sculptor and artist Bernini, and is extremely relevant to the discussion because of its role as a very visible symbol of the Papacy’s power. Bernini’s niches, and the design of St Peters square are also significant during this period as a visual expression of the church’s rule.

Artists in the service of the church needed to conform and apply their artworks and designs in such a way that it upheld the objective of the church in its Counter Reformation state. Artists concerned with religious imagery had to ‘comply with some of the obvious demands of counter-reformatory decorum.’ The Papacy changed its selection in its representation of the church (such as how images are presented, the modes of representation, and subject and iconography choice) as an embodiment of itself, its authority, its power, its ideals and majesty.

Bernini, as a significant contributor and designer of some of the more visually predominant aspects of the church, aimed to proclaim the unity of the Catholic Church by combining ‘all available artistic means, unifying architecture, sculpture and painting.’ The architecture within St Peters combined in a way to visually appeal and reach its audience in the most effective manner, and conveyed ideas of supreme authority and spiritual rule within the state. The visual impact of this combined effort reflected the authority and superiority of the church in a new but effective manner. The architecture is closely connected with ‘a message which is not merely artistic but which is also a theological edifice’ as the physical, and spiritual centre of the church. In the wake of the Counter-Reformation there are no problematic nudes of overt references to paganism, (which had been part of a visual tactic used by the church in the past) the visual display and religious iconography had changed. The art found within the basilica makes us was designed with the intent of making its audience ‘ponder the unfathomable mystery of Faith and the Mystical Body of Christ’ through its many allegorical figures, religious texts, and sacred symbolism and repeated expressions of holy relics, such as those displayed within the basilicas niches under the dome.

With this in mind, it is understood that St Peters functioned in more than one way. On the on hand, it acted as a meditative space, ‘a monument to invisible ideas about memory, sacrifice and power, peopled with emblematic representations of hidden relics and deceased pontiffs,’ and on the other a useful one capable of moving thousands of visitors.

There is clearly a focus in the works of St Peters to present ideas of luxury and extravagance within the church towards an ecclesiastical audience, however, it should be noted that the structural and aesthetic representation of the church was also aimed at a wider audience front, in particular, the Protestants, with whom the Catholic Church was in conflict with, and in general, those without faith. This can be viewed through the extensive use of marble decoration at St Peters, which...
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