In 1623 when Cardinal Matteo Barberini was elected pope (Urban VIII) the new St. Peter's was finished from a structural viewpoint. The immense building however was almost
entirely empty: of his predecessors only Paul III and Gregory XIII had arranged to be buried in the new basilica in a monumental fashion.
The four gigantic pillars supporting the dome and the naves between them formed an octagonal shape at the center of which (but slightly closer to the apse) Pope Clement VIII had erected a marble altar above the tomb of St. Peter. In a niche of one of the pillars stood the monument to Paul III by Giacomo della Porta and in another niche was placed a fragment of the column against which Jesus Christ leaned when speaking with the doctors in the Temple (Colonna Santa).
It was evident to everybody that something had to be done to "fill" this almost empty space and Urban VIII did not lose any time. In 1624 he assigned to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (then 26 years old) the task of designing and co-ordinating the erection of a ciborium (a canopy) above the main altar. In 1627 the four gigantic spiral columns (a reminder of the Colonna Santa) of what is today called Bernini's Baldacchino (after the name given to a silk cloth baldacco manufactured in Baghdad) were unveiled. Ignoring the criticism due to the cost of this enterprise, Urban VIII asked Bernini to think of an appropriate decoration for the four pillars.
In 1628 the monument to Paul III was relocated in a niche in the apse, where opposite it, Urban VIII wanted Bernini to build his own monument.
There was a general consensus on the idea of building an altar in each of the pillars, but after the unveiling of the baldacchino columns this option was abandoned because these altars would have taken away the attention of the viewer from the main altar.
Each altar should have been dedicated to one of the relics kept in St. Peter's: Bernini suggested building the altars in the so called Vatican Grottoes, the space between the pavement of the new basilica and that of the old one, and to place a gigantic statue related to the relic in the niche above the altar.
Urban VIII endorsed Bernini's suggestion and in that same year the four relics were selected: because the Colonna Santa was already represented by the baldacchino, it was excluded
from the list: the four relics chosen were:
a) parts of the True Cross and the nails brought to Rome by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great in the IVth century: statue commissioned to Andrea Bolgi, a close and very young friend of Bernini.
b) part of the pole of the lance by which St. Longinus pierced the side of Christ on the Cross, presented in 1492 to Pope Innocent VIII by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezit II: Bernini personally took care of the statue;
c) the cloth of St. Veronica with the image of the Saviour, the existence of which in St. Peter's is first mentioned in the VIIIth century: statue commissioned to Francesco Mochi, a highly reputed sculptor who had mainly worked for the Farnese, dukes of Parma and Piacenza;
d) the head of St. Andrew, presented in 1462 to Pius II by Thomas Palaiologus, Byzantine despot of Mistrà: statue commissioned to François Duquesnoy, called Francesco Fiammingo, a Flemish sculptor who had settled in Rome and had already worked with Bernini on the decoration of the baldacchino.
In the following years the four sculptors prepared full scale size stucco models of the statues which were placed in the niches and they started working on the final marble versions which were all made of at least two blocks of marble.
Andrea Bolgi from Carrara, the town in Tuscany known for its marble quarries, designed a very classical St. Helena where only the controlled movement of the dress tells the viewer that he is looking at a XVIIth century sculpture. But Andrea Bolgi was not departing from the path set for him by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Bernini too in the 1630s was having a sort of "classical period" and his statue of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (completed in 1637 and located in the right nave of St. Peter's) is very similar to St. Helena, which was completed in 1639.
Bernini designed this statue 22 times discussing the various alternatives with the Pope himself. The full scale stucco model was finally endorsed by the Pope in 1632. The marble statue was completed
by Bernini in May 1638, the first of the four statues to be completed.
By using several blocks of marble Bernini portrayed St. Longinus with his left hand fully stretched in the moment
he recovers his sight. The left leg is stretched too and the foot is right on the edge of the pedestal.
The Spirit of God in the form of a strong wing animates the cloak of the centurion, ruffles his hair and the feathers of his elaborate helmet.
François Duquesnoy, with the painters Claude Poussin and Andrea Sacchi and the sculptor Alessandro Algardi, was a supporter of a neat style aimed at reaching the composed majesty of the ancient statues. Gian Lorenzo Bernini did not lean towards theoretical discussions: he had a very pragmatic approach: he continuously tested through sketches and models the final effect of his works until he was fully satisfied with the result. Having tested the skills of Duquesnoy in some details of the baldacchino, Bernini included the Flemish sculptor in the quartet in charge of the statues. Duquesnoy designed a statue which in a way is a summary of both Baroque and classical tendencies. The lower part of the statue is very classical and it is based on ancient statues portraying Jupiter and the cloak of the saint falls according to gravity laws. The upper part instead is very theatrical with the head and the arms arranged in the same way Bernini arranged those of St. Longinus.
St. Veronica by Francesco Mochi (see the coat of arms by Bernini above the statue)
Francesco Mochi spent many years on his statue: he was aware that because of its location in St. Peter's
his fame depended on it. No doubt it tells us about the skills of Mochi: the softness of the napkin, the whirling movement of the dress and the
leg shown below the dress all became benchmarks for the sculptors who followed.
But one fails to understand why the saint is portrayed in such a dramatic way. When a torero holds the red cloth with both hands and shakes it before the bull, this movement is called veronica - thus named after the statue in St. Peter's.
Planned (red) and actual (green) location of the four statues
When Gian Lorenzo Bernini was about to complete his statue an ecclesiastical commission advised the pope that the positioning of the four statues established in 1628 was not the most appropriate and that rather than positioning St. Andrew to the right of the baldacchino it was preferable to position there St. Helena which, besides representing the most cherished relic, was also a metaphor of religion itself. The change involved also St. Longinus. The plan above summarizes the changes. This explains why St. Andrew now looks towards the right transept rather than towards the baldacchino as planned by Duquesnoy.
Plan of the Vatican Grottoes and a painting showing an episode related to St. Helena in the corridor leading to the chapel of St. Longinus
In the ten years between the initial and the final decision many activities had already been completed in the Vatican Grottoes to prepare the four altars below the statues. The corridors leading to the altars had been painted with episodes related to the relic celebrated in the altar: this explains why the corridor leading to the Lance of St. Longinus is painted with episodes showing St. Helena retrieving the True Cross (read an account of this event by Mark Twain).
Inscriptions of St. Helena and of St. Longinus
The fine pedestals designed by Bernini and decorated with the heraldic bees of the Pope most likely were already in place in 1638: the pedestal of St. Helena is decorated with palm leaves which are a symbol of martyrdom, but the mother of Constantine died in her bed at the age of 83 (by the way when she made her journey to the Holy Land to search for the True Cross she was 80 years old and not the rather young woman portrayed by sculptors and painters), while the pedestal of St. Longinus, a martyr, is decorated with a sceptre, a sign of authority and a likely attribute of St. Helena.
Following a sun ray
On the 17th November 1644: The statue of St. Andrew, the work of Fiamingo, admirable above all the other. (..) It is said that this excellent sculptor died mad to see his statue placed in a disadvantageous light by Bernini, the chief architect, who found himself outdone by this artist.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence
François Duquesnoy did not believe that the change decided in 1638 was truly due to religious reasons. He suspected that Bernini had promoted the change to place his St. Longinus in a location having a better light. The four niches have very different lighting conditions with the niche of St. Helena getting a lot of reflected light from the marble pavement of the main nave and direct light in the morning from the windows of the dome. St. Longinus gets less light from the main nave but in the afternoon it is directly lit by the windows of the dome. St. Andrew and St. Veronica get direct light only in the period close to the summer solstice.
Duquesnoy was almost obsessed by the change affecting the statue upon which he relied for his posterity. He died in 1643 with this grief.
Every morning a ray of light moves through the apse attracting the attention of the viewer to a specific work of art (in the image above left to right: the angels of the Confession, St. Ambrose, the coat of arms of Urban VIII - all by Bernini - , the hand of St. Elia by Agostino Cornacchini) and finally it is the turn of St. Helena. When this occurs St. Andrew has an even more desperate look. And in the afternoon it is the turn of St. Longinus!!
Following a sun ray - ii
The head of St. Andrew and the fragment of the Lance shed some light on the relationships between the popes and the Turkish sultans after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The head of St. Andrew was kept in the cathedral of Patrasso where the saint was put to death in 60 AD.
At the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Byzantine Empire consisted of the city and its immediate surroundings and of the despotate of Mistra which included Patrasso. In 1460 the Turks invaded this last Byzantine possession and the relic was moved away from Patrasso to prevent its falling into Turkish hands.
The heirs of the Byzantine Empire in the attempt to foster a crusade against the Turks decided to bequeath the relic to Pope Pius II. The head of St. Andrew arrived in Rome from Ancona in 1462 and it was met by Cardinal Bessarione at Ponte Milvio. Pope Pius II managed to join Venice and Hungary in an agreement against the Ottomans with the final goal of returning Constantinople and its environs to the surviving members of the Byzantine ruling house.
Actual hostilities began in September 1463 when the Venetians seized a number of Aegean Islands as well as much of Morea. The Pope moved to Ancona where he tried to assemble a sort of crusader army but he died there in 1464. The war went on until 1479 with Venice eventually forced to reach a settlement. In March 1848 the relic was stolen and it was found outside Porta S. Pancrazio after a few days.
Thirty years later, in 1492, a fragment of the Lance was presented to Pope Innocent VIII by the Sultan's envoy Koca Mustafa Pacha and it arrived in Rome following the same itinerary as that of the previous relic. By this present Sultan Bayezit II was trying to influence the Pope
and ensure he did not support his junior brother and rival Cem Sultan, who, after a failed attempt to dethrone Bayezit, had sought refuge in Rhodes and later in Rome, where he had been treated as a possible Christian Sultan.
Because the authenticity of the relic and in general of the events related to St. Longinus were rather dubious, the episodes painted in the Grottoes are mainly related to the procession accompanying the relic on its journey to Rome, rather than to St. Longinus.
The modern church of St. Andrew's in Patrasso
Other pages dealing with Baroque sculpture:
Statues in the act of praying
Monuments showing the dead in a medallion
Three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Representation of Death in Baroque sculptures
Three busts by Alessandro Algardi
Baroque Monuments to the Popes
Bernini's Exiled Statue
Baroque High Reliefs
Statues Close to Heaven
Playing with Colours