Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Saint Andrew and Bernini

Duccio, Calling of Sts. Peter and Andrew
Italian, 1308-1311
Washington, National Gallery of Art
"As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."
At once they left their nets and followed him.
(Matthew 4:18-22)

Thus the New Testament describes the calling of the Bar Jonah brothers, Simon and Andrew. Simon, as we know, went on to acquire a new name, Peter, the leading Apostle and the “Rock” of the Church. Andrew is less well known, at least in the West. It appears from what evidence we have that Andrew’s mission, following the dispersal of the Apostles after Pentecost, was to the regions surrounding the Black Sea, including what is today northern Turkey, southern Russia , the Balkans and Greece. According to tradition, Andrew was martyred in 60 AD in Greece by being tied to a cross. Like his brother, Peter, who suffered his martyrdom in Rome a few years later, Andrew insisted on his own unworthiness to share the same method of execution as Jesus and, therefore, was crucified on a “cross” in the form of the letter X. 1

Jean Fouquet, Martyrdom of St. Andrew
French, ca. 1450
Chantilly, Musée Condé  

Andrew, as Apostle to the Black Sea area, is considered to be the founder of the Church in Byzantium, which later became the capital of the eastern Roman Empire after its refoundation in 325 by the Emperor Constantine, who renamed it after himself. Consequently, St. Andrew is the patron of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the modern period, since the pontificate of John Paul II, the Popes, as successors of St. Peter, and the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, as successors of St. Andrew, have exchanged high-level missions to celebrate their feast days of June 29 and November 30 in brotherly fashion.

Camillo Rusconi, St. Andrew
Italian, 1708-1709
Rome, St. John Lateran
St. Andrew’s unique crucifixion, on the X-shaped cross, set him apart and also became his most recognizable attribute. It appears in almost every representation of St. Andrew (with the exception, of course, of those that depict Jesus calling both brothers).

It is the work of one artist/architect in relation to St. Andrew that I would like to focus on today. The artist is Gianlorenzo Bernini. Bernini is probably best known as an architect and as the designer of the interior of St. Peter’s basilica.

Bernini, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale (exterior)
Italian, 1658-1670

In 1658 Bernini was commissioned by the Jesuits to design a new church, dedicated to St. Andrew, for their new novitiate on the Quirinal hill.2  Work continued on the building until 1670. Bernini had personal ties to the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, the religious order of men, founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola. Bernini attended Mass every day in the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits. One of his sons was, for a time, a Jesuit novice. 

Bernini, Floorplan
Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

In conception this building, like his work in the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is imagined on a cosmic scale, bringing together in one space both earth and heaven. The design of the church may be modeled on the Pantheon, that amazing survivor from the 2nd century, originally a temple to all the gods of Rome, but converted in 609 into the church dedicated to Our Lady and All Martyrs, knwn as Santa Maria Rotonda. Bernini, however, plays with the form and designed S. Andrea as an oval.  The fabric of the building is conceived in such a plastic, organic manner that it almost seems to breathe, as he manipulates its solids and voids,
scooping chapels from its substance.

The interior is sheathed in marble in greys and pinks, making it one of the prettiest churches in Rome. This, plus its small size, makes it a favorite venue for weddings.3

Bernini, Interior, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

The painted altarpiece shows St. Andrew in his final agony on the X-shaped cross.4  But, where most artists and designers would have stopped at that point, Bernini goes further. The altarpiece is lit by light from a hidden window and carried by gilded stucco angels.

Guillaume Courtois, il Borgognone, Martyrdom of St. Andrew
French, ca. 1660

The whole altar area is framed in a classically inspired aedicule with a broken pediment. Through the break we see St. Andrew again, bursting, as it were, through the divide between life and eternal glory in heaven.

Bernini, St. Andrew Ascending to Heaven
Italian, ca. 1660s
Rome, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale

Borne aloft on clouds, all his attention is bent on reaching toward heaven.

Bernini, Dome of St. Andrea al Quirinale

Heaven, is the dome, divided by rays of gold and filled with figures of angels, including a threshold at the top, from which more small angels peep down.

All leads to the golden dove symbol of the Holy Spirit, which is lit by a circle of windows.
Bernini, Holy Spirit at the top of the dome
Sant'Andrea al Quirinale
Through the work of Bernini we, the living who stand or sit on the ground level of the church, become witnesses to the martyrdom of St. Andrew and to the flight of his soul into the realm of heaven, events which are happening right before our eyes. "While praying in the oval space of the church, the congregation participates in the miracle of the Saint's salvation." 5 We also become time travelers, witnessing in our own time, events which took place in the 1st century, presented to us by a man of the 17th century. Cosmic indeed!
1.  MacRory, Joseph. "St. Andrew." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 30 Nov. 2011
2.  People are sometimes confused between the words "novitiate" and "novice".  The novitiate is the period of time in which an aspirant to membership in a religious order spends in "formation" (the study of the origin, charism and rule of life of the organization which he or she wishes to join).  A novice is the term used for the candidate him or her self.  Novitiate also refers to the building in which novices live, if it happens to be different from the building in which the "professed" or full members live.
3.  You can take a virtual tour of the church at
4.  The painting itself is the work of the French painter, Guillaume Courtois, known as "Il Borgonone" (the Burgundian).  The stucco work is by the specialist stucco worker, Antonio Raggi.  Bernini employed many assistants, especially those with specialties to assist in executing his conceptions.
5.   Wittkower, Rudolf.  Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second Edition, 1968, p. 27.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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