Bernini’s revenge? Art, gynaecology and theology at St Peter’s, Rome

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Abstract

By the early twentieth century the representation of a woman giving birth identified on the marble base piers of Bernini’s Baldacchino in St Peter’s basilica were, for some, emblematic of the Roman Catholic Church as a corrupt, greedy and libidinous institution that had for too long stood in the way of modernity and national sovereignty from South America to Europe. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that when the altar canopy was first revealed in 1634 it was in any way problematic. The birth metaphor is a biblical trope for joy following pain, and an established cultural reference to both divine and artistic creative impulses. Nevertheless, Bernini visual language that has become increasingly hard to read. This essay considers the gap in understanding between the Baldacchino’s original audience and more recent viewers. In doing so it elucidates Bernini’s inventions with reference to early modern spirituality and identifies the historical and political baggage that obstructs current comprehension.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)68-93
JournalArt History
Volume43
Issue number1
Early online date24 Oct 2019
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020

Keywords

  • Bernini
  • Baldacchino
  • St Peter's basilica
  • Rome
  • woman in labour
  • birth
  • medical humanities
  • gynaecology

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