The monumental bronze canopy which towers above the high altar in St Peter's Basilica is known as a baldachin. The baldachinno, as it is called in Italian, was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) for Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44).
A baldachin (or baldaquin) is a canopy of state, which is typically placed above an altar or throne. The canopy was originally made of cloth and hung above the seat of a personage of standing, as a symbol of authority.
Bernini's baldachin (1624-35) is sited under the dome, directly above what purports to be the tomb of St Peter. Made of bronze, and standing almost 29 metres (95 ft) high, it is crowned with an orb and a cross.
At the top of the canopy four pairs of putti support, alternately, the papal tiara and keys of St Peter, and the book and sword of St Paul. The baldachin is also embellished with numerous images of bees, the heraldic emblem of the Barberini family to which the pope belonged. Images of a radiant sun, the personal device of Urban VIII, are also on display.
The marble pedestals on which the columns stand are decorated with the papal coat of arms; they appear twice on each of the four pedestals. In addition to the crossed keys, the papal tiara and the three Barberini bees, the shields depict a small female head. Look closely at her face and you will see that her expression changes quite dramatically on each shield until she is finally replaced by the head of a baby! In other words, the sequence represents a woman in the various stages of labour. (The sequence starts at the south-east pedestal and, proceeding clockwise, ends at the north-east pedestal).
According to a popular tradition, the series of heads describe a complicated pregnancy of a niece of Urban VIII's and the pope's vow to dedicate an altar in St. Peter's, if the delivery proved successful. This is, of course, nonsense!
The woman in labour is no ordinary woman and this is no ordinary childbirth. She is, in fact, the personification of Mother Church. References to the trials, tribulations and joys of childbirth were understood as the labour and sufferings of Mother Church in bringing about salvation through a healing of the souls by virtue of Christ's sacrifice at the crucifixion, reenacted in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the mass.
The Original Sin over which the Church triumphs, and from which the repentant sinner is redeemed, is symbolised by the devilish masks which appear at the bases of the shields.
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 walking tours of Rome.
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