Rising 95 feet in height from the floor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome is the masterpiece of baroque art that is the baldacchino or canopy over the principal altar in the massive church. Designed and built by Gianlorenzo Bernini over a nine-year span (1624-33), it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII. Born Maffeo Barberini, Urban VIII chose Bernini as the chief architect of the basilica to oversee the adornment of the recently-completed church. Liturgically and spiritually the baldacchino serves to point to Jesus present on the altar during the sacrifice of the Mass (the tent of meeting of the Exodus as fulfilled when – as John’s Gospel tells us – Jesus “pitched his tent among us”). Visually and artistically, the towering baldachinno serves to bring together the enormous scale of the church which surrounds it and the human scale of the persons beneath it, just as the true “tent of meeting” (Jesus) is the mediator between God and man. Historically, Bernini borrowed the design of the four towering pillars from the columns of the original Saint Peter’s basilica, constructed by the Emperor Constantine atop the tomb of Peter on the Vatican hill near the circus of Nero where Peter had been martyred. 20th-century excavations found a necropolis on that spot, and – about 30 feet directly beneath the altar of today’s basilica – bones identified by carbon dating and DNA analysis to be of a first-century Palestinian Jewish man. Scratched in the red paint of the crude ancient monument holding those bones was graffiti which read, in Greek – the language of First-Century Rome –“Peter is here.” Beyond the architecture and artistry of the churches and monuments in Christian Rome is a set of stories seldom heard. There are, for instance, eight nearly identical sculptures adorning the massive bases of the 4 pillars in Bernini’s baldacchino, two on each base, on the sides facing away from the altar. First to catch the eye are the 3 bees on each, from the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII’s family, the Barberini. However, look just above that and tucked in the folds of the papal crest is the image of a woman. It is the face of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sister. She was pregnant during the months that Bernini was sculpting these adornments. Her face is calm and her demeanor simple in seven of the eight visages. Long before digital cameras were on hand, however, on one of the eight crests Bernini captures for all time his sister’s face in the pangs of childbirth. Look and see. There are stories like this everywhere in Christian Rome.
Msgr. William J. King