A Vision of the Church’s Essence

One of the hardest working architects, artists and sculptors of the Catholic Reformation, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), was also one of the fiercest and most devout. He was described by his 11th son, Domenico, as “Aspro di natura, fisso nell’operazione ardente nell’ira” (“Stern by nature, fixed in work, hot in anger”) and died having just completed a sketch of Christ that he was to use lovingly for a sculpture. Given the justified patronage of several popes, especially Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII, Bernini left behind a legacy of images and masterpieces that have secured one of the rarest honors imaginable — giving his name to an entire era in the Eternal City. 

Scholars have long used the term “Bernini’s Rome” to denote that glorious and artistically hyperactive period in Rome in the middle of the 17th century that was equally filled with Baroque vigor and unabashed love of the renewed Church in the wake of the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation.  

The list of Bernini’s achievements is a long one, but one piece, arguably, expresses both Bernini’s brilliance for magnificent excess and a powerful theological point: the Altar of the Chair, commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1656 to encase the ancient throne from the ninth century (long believed to be that of St. Peter) and placed in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica. The work took nine years, and at its end, Bernini presented to the pope a gigantic bronze cathedra seeming to hover in the air. In truth, it is supported by four statues of Doctors of the Church — St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom — and surmounted by clouds and angels and an alabaster window that honors the Holy Spirit and illuminates the basilica with a golden, heavenly light.  

But here is what makes this masterpiece even more extraordinary. For all of its stunning beauty, it still does not do justice to the spiritual power it was meant to embody. As D.D. Emmons discusses in this issue’s cover story (“The Throne of Truth”), it is a symbol representing the 2,000-year-old papacy and unity the Pope continues to bring to Catholics. Visit Rome, see the Altar of the Chair by Bernini, but don’t look for a chair, look for what Pope Benedict XVI taught in 2012 when he said: “What does this sculptural composition say to us, this product of Bernini’s genius? It represents a vision of the essence of the Church and the place within the Church of the Petrine Magisterium.” TCA

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., M.Div., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.