Thursday, December 02, 2021

Bernini and St Bibiana

Walking along the south side of Rome’s aggressively non-descript central train station, one eventually comes to a church, as one always does in Rome: a relief to see, perhaps, after the station, but in and of itself, not particularly interesting either. (Until about 160 years ago, the area was mostly gardens, and the walk would have been much more pleasant.) The inelegant façade is little more than a square with a pediment sticking out of it; if it were in the center of the city, near the Trevi fountain or the Piazza Navona, it would likely attract no notice at all. And yet, the interior houses a sculpture of the church’s patron Saint, the virgin and martyr Bibiana, whose feast is today, made by one of the greatest artists to grace the Eternal City with his talents, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
An exterior view of the church as Bernini would have known it, in an engraving by Giovanni Battista Falda (1667-69). The façade of the church is in fact also by Bernini, and shows very well why he was better known as a sculptor than as an architect in his youth. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
This church is traditionally said to have been built by a Roman matron named Olympia, on the very site of the house where Bibiana was martyred in the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-63), together with her sister Demetria, preceded in the confession of the Faith by both of their parents. A more reliable source than the written passio of these martyrs, the Liber Pontificalis, states that it was built by Pope Simplicius in 467; Pope Honorius III restored it in 1224, but 400 years later, it was practically a ruin. The restoration of the church was undertaken by Pope Urban VIII, who held Bernini in the highest possible regard, and showered him with important commissions for both the Church and his family, despite the artist’s youth. In 1624, when the restoration of St Bibiana began, Bernini was only 26.
All sculptors in Rome in that era lived under the long shadow of Michelangelo, whose first work in the city, the Pietà, was completed when he was 24. St Bibiana was not Bernini’s first religious work by any means, but it was his first to be commissioned for a Roman church. He therefore devotes a great deal of attention to the folds of the Saint’s dress, since one of the things that had impressed people so much about the Pietà was the complicated folding of Mary’s robes.
At the same time, Bernini, supremely and justifiably confident of his talent, was not afraid to do things which Michelangelo did not. The latter was almost completely uninterested in any subject other than the human body: notice, therefore, how Bernini includes plants at the base of the sculpture, as well as the column to which Bibiana was tied when she was scourged during her martyrdom. In her hand, he places a palm branch made of gilded wood, the classic symbol of a martyr’s victory; Michelangelo, for whom the essence of sculpture was the liberation of a complete figure from the stone that imprisoned it, hated the very idea of this kind of composite.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0. (This was taken when the statue had been removed from the church for a museum show.)
The figure is extremely solid, representing the solidity and strength of the martyr in the midst of her torments. This is partly due to the fact that the statue had to stay within a niche. But from a technical point of view, it is far less daring than some of the things Bernini had previously done, such as the famous David now in the Borghese Gallery. The window above the niche represents heaven, towards which the Saint placidly looks in the midst of her sufferings, which are now irrelevant to her. In the following years, when Bernini was given much greater resources to work with, he was able to develop this concept into something far more dramatic, as in the church of Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale.
The interior of the church of St Bibiana. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
The interior of Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale, completed by Bernini in 1670, and, as recorded in the biography of him by his son Domenico, the work which he himself regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. Here, painting, sculpture and architecture are all brought together to represent the ascent of Saint Andrew through martyrdom to the glory of heaven. The darker, lower part represents earth, where the martyrdom, depicted in the painting over the altar by Guillaume Courtois, takes place; the white statue of the Apostle represents his soul, rising into the bright dome of heaven. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Rickcarmickle, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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