Saturday, February 23, 2008

Medieval Baldachinos in Rome

In counterpoint to Matt Alderman's post on Baldachinos that were not erected in the Roman basilicas, I thought it might be worth recalling what is currently in place and what those Baroque designs might have replaced.

The first is the baldachino in the Lateran basilica which was commissioned by Pope Urban V following a fire in 1360 and financed by Emperor Charles IV. This may account for the notable influence of the French Gothic style on this work. The baldachino itself is a hybrid form of canopy and reliquary for it has two tiers, the second level housing the relics of the heads of Ss Peter and Paul. It was designed and executed by Giovanni di Stefano.

St John Lateran

This baldachino is one of a rare few works from the 14th century in Rome due to the transfer of the papal court to Avignon at this time. As such, it is a structure of considerable historic value and rarity.

View of the Lateran Civory

However, the Lateran's baldachino follows a pattern established earlier in the 13th-century by Arnolfo di Cambrio whose scuplture we have seen in the post below. The earliest documented work by him in Rome is found at the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the-Walls and dates to c.1285. Happily, it survived the fire of 1823 that ravaged the basilica.

At the Tomb of St Paul

As one sees below, this kind of early Gothic baldachino makes the Altar area like a 'house' within God's House. Arnolfo di Cambrio had adapted the Roman custom of altar canopy being just a shelter supported by four columns by introducing the then-fashionable French Gothic style and "in a radical departure from tradition, laced the elaborate structure with sculptures" that transformed the baldachino from a piece of liturgical furnishing to an architectural structure in its own right. It is thought that his use of sculpture was inspired by the beautifully carved Christian sarcophagi in Rome which date to the 4th-century.

Liturgy at St Paul's

In 1293, Arnolfo di Cambrio, with funding from a French cardinal, created a similar but simpler and more restrained structure in the church of St Cecilia in Trastevere.

The confessio & altar of St Cecilia's

If one were to look even further back than Arnolfo di Cambrio's Gothic work, one might look to the surviving baldachinos in the other Roman basilicas. San Clemente is a beautiful and fascinating basilica. Although the interior is 12th-century, it is consciously looking for an even earlier Christian 'look'. As such, we see an 'archaeologizing' tendency even then! Under the patronage of Pope Paschal II, the San Clemente mosaics harkened to the period of late Antiquity and deliberately used an older style found in the Roman catacombs, using motifs and iconography from the 4th-6th century. The church itself and its famous altar and schola cantorum also looked to the early Church. As one source puts it, the 11th-12th-century popes "sought to create physical witnesses to their reforms by returning to early Christian sources for their building and artistic enterprises".

San Clemente interior

Another example is the 12th-century baldachino inserted in a 6th-century choir at San Lorenzo fuori la mura. Again, the baldachino, one of the finest in Rome, has been made to look far older than it is.

San Lorenzo interior

This tendency in the Church to look to her tradition, both doctrinally and culturally, and to link reform with the Church's antiquity should give us pause for thought. Now in the 21st century, to which age might we look in order to move forward? In the 12th-century, it seems that some popes looked to the early post-Constantinian church. But are we to dismiss this today as 'archaeologism' or is it legitimate 'ressourcement'?

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