Bernini's Cathedra Petri

Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Cathedra Petri is one of the most visually astonishing  and fascinating pieces to emerge from the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As a sculptor, Bernini was a ‘weapon in the armoury of the Catholic Church’ against its Protestant critics. In 1657, he was commissioned to enclose St Peter’s chair in a sculpture. What he created would exemplify the doctrines of Catholicism and Baroque art in general. 
Bernini's Cathedra Petri (1657-66), St Peter's Basillica 

Detail of the putti and tiara 

As a backlash to Protestant views of the Eucharist -which rejected the notion that The Gifts actually transubstantiated- the Counter-Reformation aimed to increase the significance of this ritual. The use of theatrical stage-like settings were an important change in the Catholic service, particularly in the case of the quarant’ore, or Devotion of the Forty Hours, where the Sacrament was left on the altar for forty hours. The service involved masses of candles in front of elaborate altars. It is in this context that Warwick has posed that the Cathedra was hugely significant, not only in responding to the Church’s needs but in fact changing the art used for this service. Prior to Bernini, elevated candelabra were used to symbolise a burst of light from the host.However, Bernini’s designs involved a system of two thousand hidden lamps which created a miraculous vision of the illuminated Eucharist floating.Additionally, in the Cathedra Petri, huge gilt sunrays shine through clouds, as if emanating from the Holy Spirit itself which is represented by the dove in the centre of the amber stained glass window. So, even without using any candles, there is the sense of divine light The window is also a powerful tool, because rather than using a painted backdrop, this utilises natural light sent from the sky by God. Thus, Bernini’s Cathedra was the perfect backdrop for a magnificent service which became central in the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Reformation.
Detail of the sun rays 
Services in the Catholic Churches were multi-sensory performances which combined music and incense. The art created for this aimed to create strong, illusionary visual effects in order to elicit an awed, contemplative response. Bernini’s multi-media Cathedra Petri exemplifies the Catholic Baroque style. The stucco clouds impede onto the viewer’s space, floating ‘into’ the Church interior. The pilasters act as the ‘picture frame’ from which these elements appear to escape. Standing in front of the Cathedra, it seems as if these figures are coming through the window into our world, ‘transgressing’ the boundaries of space.Bernini’s Cathedra instilled a sense of wonder as well as acting as a didactic tool for the experiences Catholicism wanted to convey.
Detail of the window and the dove
 Surprisingly, the majority of historians explored in this essay have not gone into detail about the colours selected for both the Cathedra and the Baldacchino. The structures and their materials are analysed in depth but I would suggest the colours Bernini chose are just as relevant and telling. In contrast with the white marble pilasters, Bernini’s golden stucco sun rays and clouds are hugely powerful. No white is used in the Cathedra, juxtaposing with the rest of the Basilica. It is as if the entire structure is taken from a different space entirely, which promotes the idea that the laity has found a gateway into Heaven. In the cavernous white, light space that is the Basilica, the Baldacchino stands out with its dark, bold bronze. Linking with the Cathedra’s same colour scheme, they create a space with each other. It is in this way that Bernini excels in ‘bel composto,’ utilising entire compositions and colours with his two structures. Furthermore, I would draw attention to the way the gold is used to highlight the mitres of the four fathers. Whilst their bodies are dark and ‘earthly’, their mitres (and thus the symbols of their Saintly authority) are of the same colour as the other divine elements of the Cathedra: the clouds, Putti and sun rays. Here, Bernini was showing that the Holy Spirit had granted these Saints the divine right to act as intermediaries with the laity.
Detail of St Augustine's mitre 
Protestantism had questioned the legitimacy of Papal power, and with the Counter-Reformation, Catholic art aimed to reassert the supremacy of the Popes. The throne was a hugely important symbol of the succession of Roman bishops from Peter to the present. Hibbard has stated that ‘nothing symbolizes the new Ecclesia Triumphans [triumph of the Church] more clearly than Bernini’s Cathedra.  Supporting the structure are the four fathers of the Church: Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Athanasius and saint John Chrysostom. Rendered twice-life size, these hugely dominating figures represent the sanctity of the Cult of Saints and their continuity with present-day bishops. Furthermore, a tiara- the highest symbol of Papal authority- is held aloft by two winged putti. With their other hands they hold keys (attributes of Saint Peter), thus symbolising the connection between the great Saint and the Papal Church. Vernon Minor has stated a fundamental role of Baroque artists working under Catholic patronage was to promote ‘right thinking’ which encouraged the view that Catholic leadership was ‘natural and inevitable.’ I would argue this could not be more clearly exemplified than with Bernini’s seamless representation of St Peter’s relics and attributes alongside symbols of the Papal Church.
Baldacchino in the Basillica 

It is clear that every element of the Cathedra –the symbolism, composition and colour- contributed to be a powerful tool in the Counter-Reformation period. Many in the 1600s would not see imagery such as this on a daily basis and it would have contrasted starkly with Protestant churches.  Interestingly, the historiography surrounding the Cathedra discusses it as an example of Baroque architecture, sculpture, altarpiece, and a theatrical setting. Thus, it is clear how Bernini’s multi-media work transcends artistic description and accomplished its goal of creating an all-encompassing spiritual and didactic experience.

Based on an essay in which I got a first!


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