The Atheist and the Door of Death
The Porta della Morte (Door of Death, 1961-64), one of the five main doors of St Peter's Basilica, was created by Giacomo Manzù (1908-91) for Pope John XXIII (r. 1958-63). Also known as the Door of Dead, it was traditionally used as an exit for funeral processions.
The top two panels depict the deaths of the Virgin Mary and of Christ. The vine leaves and ears of wheat, in the centre of the door, are a reference to the eucharist.
The eight smaller panels depict deaths real and imaginary.
At the bottom of the door are six creatures: a blackbird, a dormouse, a hedgehog, an owl, a tortoise and a raven.
On the inside of the door is an imprint of Manzu's right hand and a portrayal of John XXIII receiving the bishops on the first day of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962.
The Door of Death is the only work of art in the basilica to have been created by a self-declared atheist.
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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