Bernini and the Statues of Christian Feeling

1 January 2017

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.  In contrast with the previous Renaissance ideas, the Counter Reformation was led by the Catholic church to restore its own image.

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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 facade 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 meaning outwardly, beyond their extended arms, feet, wings, hair and tails of drapery”[10] thus allowing the viewer to read into it. This is the beginning of Bernini’s way f revealing “an inner state by external means.

The Saint Longinus 1631-1638 St. Peter’s Cathedral, Rome Also commissioned by Urban Pope VII, the connection between form and function in Saint Longinus is undeniable. As Hibbard suggests, “ the Longinus is the best possible example of his new concept of statuary. ”[12]. The figure is located under one of the niches in St. Peter’s. As seen in Saint Bibiana, Bernini’s depicts the most important moment in the life of the Saint, which in the case of Saint Longinus is the moment of conversion.

His arms are wide open, he is looking up at the Cross as if exclaiming: “Truly this was the son of God. ”[13] Bernini uses a natural source of light from a window above, to create a mystical feeling for the spectator. Another important element that helps to evoke a supernatural experience is the drapery: Bernini has intentionally left the entire surface of the statue with a ridged or striated finish while he used coarser and deeper carving for the drapery, achieving bulky folds and deep cavities thus creating a notable play of light and dark.

The viewer is given the impression of richness and as the folds are not obeying gravity, we are also being elevated and converted with him. The statue of Saint Longinus represents “a forward step in Bernini’s art and adapts this style to religious imagery appropiate to the Ecclesia Triumphans. ”[14] [pic] Figure 4 Ludovica Albertoni 1674 Chapel of S. Francisco A Ripa Blessed Ludovica Albertoni “died of a fever after a life of good work and Franciscan Piety”[15]. The sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Paluzzi degli Albertoni and can be considered to be the ideal manifestation of un bel composto and of Bernini’s concetto.

The Saints’ body and pose are expressions of what is happening in within her soul: her head is resting backwards, her mouth is open and her hands are pressing against her chest and abdomen. In her book Shelly K.. Perlove claims: “there can be no dispute that the beata as depicted by Bernini is undergoing an intense spiritual experience. ”[16]While in the St. Longinus the viewer was being converted with him, in Ludovica Albertoni the viewer “may conform in the art of Communion”[17]. One of the distinctions between this later work of Bernini and Sta.

Bibiana is the increased tendency toward horizontals and verticals to provide a stabilizing element in the composto, as Witkoweer asserts: “the increased geometry of the underlying system was the necessary complement in the late style to a more radical dissolution of mass. ”[18] [pic] Figure 5 The statue is surrounded by symbols: the roses in the vault may indicate “the marriage to Christ”[19] and the pomegranates depicted in the relief behind the saint’s feet represent both “the immortality of the soul”[20] and the “spiritual perfection and salvation.

The hallucinatory hidden illumination is provided by concealed windows at left and right above and together with the double arch that frames Ludovica which creates a “chapel within the chapel,”[22] it provides a theatre-like experience for the spectator. The waves of the drapery, in parallel with her body, and the deep undulations of carved stone help express her emotion thus pushing the viewer back and forward.

The drapery is also evocative of the waters of God’s love described by Francis de Sales, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, “according to these writers, the rivers of living water may be understood as the grace of God flowing through a soul united with the deity. ”[23] The floating cherubs act as witnesses and add a supernatural character in the chapel. It is a concetto of fire: Bernini represents in Ludovica the Incendium Amoris (“abnormal psychological phenomenon”) depicted in Spener’s[24] Pia Desideria[25] although the work is also an example of Carita Romana.

This is observable in her gesture which is both a reaction to an inner experience and of offering hence “affirms the beata as the embodiment of the theological virtue of Charity. ”[26] The purpose of this essay was to illustrate how Bernini achieved spectator involvement through the use and development of his concetto and un bel composto. Taking into account these three astonishing works, Bernini refines his composto first by means of balancing the underlying system of the figure with it surrounding; second, by proceeding a careful study of the contemporary devotional literature.

He succeeds in bringing all the arts together to include the viewer in the experience being portrayed and at the same time obeying the main criteria stated by the Counter Reformation. His concetto is now one of inner heat and divine love. He uses his own devotion to create a space of ambiguity in which “both mystical and real space breathe the same air”.

Bernini added theatricality, drama and ambiguity to his oeuvre through: portraying ecstasy and ardour in the pose and expressions of his figures; by concealing windows above his figures allowing natural sun light to reflect in the pure white marble and by carefully locating his compositions. He makes us aware how much location can affect the way a statue is made”[27] Peterson contends. Nevertheless, Bernini was conscious above all that “gestures and suddenness are nothing without an audience.

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