Saturday, March 9, 2013

Chair of Peter

ViewMaster and reels, c. 1950-1960

When I was a child, around the age of 7 or 8, my parents bought me what was then a popular gadget. It was a stereoscopic slide viewer, called a ViewMaster. The pre-loaded slides came on paper reels that were rotated in the viewer by pulling on a lever mechanism. Being good Irish Catholic folk they included in the gift two reels with scenes of Ireland, especially of the area around Killarney, near my mother’s home, and a reel of scenes from the Vatican. Both of these subjects were fascinating to me, the Irish scenes because of my memories of the trip I had made as a 3-year old and the Vatican scenes because it was the center of the Catholic Church.

One of the most fascinating slides on the Vatican reel was a scene of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica, showing the full extent of the nave. And one of the things that most fascinated me and caused me to wonder was the glimpse it gave, far away, of a glowing, golden something on that distant end wall. What was it, I used to wonder. Unfortunately, no other photo on the wheel provided any further information.

View of the interior of St. Peter's similar to the one on the ViewMaster slide

It wasn’t till many years later, as a graduate student, that I found the amazing answer. It is one of the most audacious, amazing, astonishing and monumental pieces of conceptual art ever attempted and the work of that genius of the Baroque, Gianlorenzo Bernini. It is also one of the most meaning-filled masterpieces of the art of sculpture ever executed.   Further, it is the place where the history of art, the history of the Church and the mystery of the Holy Spirit intersect.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica
Photo: Ondra Havala

It is the great Cathedra Petri, the Chair of Peter, completed in 1666. For it, Bernini used every talent and trick that he possessed, illuminated by his solid Catholic faith, and the effect is mind boggling. Indeed, when I went to Rome for the first time in 1988 I was terrified of the effect that seeing it might have on me. I longed for someone to accompany me, since I was afraid that I might faint or start shouting for joy or perhaps even levitate. In the event, I did go alone and I survived, earthbound, partly due to the impact of being surrounded by strangers. Nonetheless my heart sang and it remains a memorable event. But, exactly what is it about this work of art that caused this fear of being overwhelmed with emotion?

Simply put, the Cathedra Petri is a giant reliquary. It is not as big or as grand as the Sainte Chapelle, built by St. Louis (Louis IX) of France to house the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross.  However, that beautiful building, while indeed grand and emotionally intense , though somewhat aloof, still does not elicit such a strong reaction. It does not truly overwhelm. Perhaps this comes from the fact that the onlooker stands within it and not outside of it, it surrounds us and we become a part of it. Not so with the Cathedra. We stand outside of it and can, therefore, be overwhelmed by it.

Ninth Century Chair Encased in the Cathedra Petri
Given by Charles the Bald to the Vatican in 875

The relic which the Cathedra preserves and protects is a chair. We now know that it is a ninth-century wooden chair, given to the Vatican by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald (grandson of the Emperor Charlemagne) in 875 and later covered in Byzantine ivory plaques. However, by the mid-seventeenth century, almost nine hundred years later, when Bernini was commissioned to execute the reliquary for it, the true date of the chair had been lost and it was sincerely believed to be the actual first-century chair from which St. Peter had taught when in Rome. Peter's chair is known to have existed, but may have been destroyed sometime before the gift of this chair by the Emperor, probably during the multiple disturbances that followed the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West.  It was, therefore, seen as an actual, physical link with the Apostle and first Pope.

Simply stated, in fact grossly oversimplified, Bernini’s concept for the monument presents the bronze reliquary, in the form of the object it contains, that is, a chair, borne on gilded stucco clouds. It is connected to bronze figures of four of the Fathers of the Church, two from the Latin Church (Saints Augustine and Ambrose) and two from the Greek Church (Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom). The two Latin Fathers wear the miter, the insignia of bishops in the Latin Rite. Above and around the chair are swarms of golden stucco angels and above it is a stained glass window in which the figure of the Holy Spirit as a dove appears, surrounded by beams of golden light.

Another view of the Cathedra Petri

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Chair Reliquary
From the Cathedra Petri
Italian, c, 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Model for the Cathedra Petri
Included in the exhibition
Bernini:  Sculpting in Clay
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, October 3, 2012 - January 6, 2013

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Ambrose and St. Athanasius
From the Cathedra Petri
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine
From the Cathedra Petri
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

In actuality, as viewed from the ground, the monument seems to exist in a reality located somewhere between solid materiality and amazing apparition. It appears to burst through the cold neutral marble of the walls of the apse in which it stands, with a brilliance and warmth and immediacy that is stunning. Its size is almost beyond imagining. Still photographs that lack a human presence can be misleading. It is only when the monument is seen with humans in the foreground that its true scale becomes clear. It is titanic.

Reuters photo taken during the procession from St. Peter's at the installation ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI on April 24, 2005.  The Cathedra Petri can clearly be seen in this photograph, taken part way along the nave of the basilica.  Its size can be judged pretty accurately from this.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to photograph it properly because of the scale. Pictures taken from a distance to capture its entirety cannot catch its details and vice versa. It is actually more of an experience than a “work of art”. Construction on it took ten years.

Some sense of the size of the work can be seen in this footage from Vatican TV (you can skip ahead a bit to eliminate some of the "talking heads" at the beginning).

Beyond the sheer scale of the piece is its intensity. Nothing about it is placid, every part is exultant, every detail sings a hymn of praise and joy.

The whole seems to burst forcefully through the wall, as it materializes before our eyes. The four bronze Fathers appear to be in states of ecstasy as they hold ribbons of bronze that descend to them from the chair. They do not support it, instead it energizes and enraptures them.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Augustine
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Even the relief on the chair itself, the scene of the Risen Christ’s command to Peter to “Feed My Sheep” is ecstatic.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Feed My Sheep
Bas Relief from the back of the chair reliquary
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Cherubs triumphantly display the papal triple tiara above it.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cherubs support the triple tiara
Italian, c. 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Other angels tumble over each other as they respond ecstatically to the appearance of the dove symbol of the Holy Spirit.

As Rudolf Wittkower, the famous historian of Roman monuments, said of it “It is evident that a narrow and biased approach can never do justice to the Cathedra; it is precisely the union of traditionally separate and even contradictory categories that contributes to its evocative quality. Whatever his immediate reaction, close to the Cathedra the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful emotional experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than on one of rational interpretation.”1

Glimpsed initially from the far off entrance to the basilica, seen framed by the gigantic bronze structure of Bernini’s immense baldacchino above the high altar, the Cathedra is the visual culmination of the entire basilica. Although intended by Michelangelo to be one of several equally important chapels in the original, Greek cross, plan for St. Peter’s, the status of this chapel changed when the opposite “arm” was extended into the current vast nave by Carlo Maderno at the beginning of the seventeenth century (1605-1612). From that point on, this location took on greater importance, assuming the more traditional role of apse in the now longitudinally oriented building. Bernini’s grand conception fulfilled this new purpose and became the focal point for the entire building.

It is traditional to read this work from the bottom up, that is, as we ourselves experience it, from the Fathers to the chair reliquary, to the apparition of the Holy Spirit. However, the art historian extraordinaire for the work of Bernini, Irving Lavin, who opened my own eyes to the imaginative universe that undergirded the work of Bernini and of the entire Baroque, read it differently: “In Bernini's vision the Holy Spirit passes through the rear wall and expands as it descends to fill the apse of the church, ultimately to include the high altar framed by the Baldacchino and the distant viewer in its exultant embrace. The essential point of the ideology of the Cathedra Petri is the singularity and unity of the Church under the papacy …. The spiritual progression from the divine will to its earthly manifestation has its visual and physical analogue in an imperceptible progression from two-dimensional, translucent polychromy, representing the pure spirit, through progressively "lower" and increasingly three-dimensional orders of reality, to reach, ultimately, our own.”2

Watching as the Cardinals gathered in front of the Cathedra to pray for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit upon their deliberations in preparing for the Conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, I began to think that this is only part of the proper reading of Bernini’s intentions. He is telling us something very important in this work.

What I think he was trying to say is this: that it is the office, the Chair, and not the man who sits in it that counts. It is the office that receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is the office that is upheld by the Spirit and the angels and the Fathers. The person on the chair is a passing thing, he comes and he goes through death or resignation, but the office endures and is upheld. It is the office that will never fail the Church, even though the individual sitting in it for the time may do so. 

As each man in the long succession of popes sits in this Chair, this office, he participates in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and is the visible guide for and defender of the earthly Church, its earthly Shepherd.  But the true guide and protector is the Holy Spirit. This understanding of the papal office lies at the basis for the liturgical celebration of the feast of the Chair of Peter each year on February 22nd, established as early as the mid-fourth century.3 This is also the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibility. It is when speaking formally ex cathedra, literally “from the chair” (i.e., from the office of pontiff) on matters of faith and morals that any pope is infallible. It is thus an office of immense responsibility and great seriousness.4 
1. Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, Phaidon Press, 1966, p.20.

2. Lavin, Irving. “Bernini at St. Peter’s: Singularis In Singulis, In Omnibus Unicus”, from St. Peter’s in the Vatican, ed. William Tronzo, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 155-159.

3. “Chair of Peter”, in Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) cited from  Readings for the liturgy on the feast of the Chair of Peter can be found at

4.  Cathechism  of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 4, Number 891 (online at

© M. Duffy, 2013

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