Bernini. Are the roots of heaven made of stone? The vision of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini…
Bernini appeared just at the moment when the papacy was going through its most intensive phase of art patronage. To commission great works and support famous artists was to enhance the personal luster of the pope’s reign. A funerary chapel of St. Peter’s was among the highest marks of status among the families that competed for the papacy, if not the highest. Great religious art also added to the temporal and spiritual glory of the church. Control over the best-known artists gave the popes the illusion of temporal power after their actual power had begun to decline. and at this critical period of church history artists became missionaries, propagators of the faith at the service of Counter Reformation ideals.
The Council of Trent, ending in 1563, had taken eighteen years to establish a bold front of resistance to the Protestant heresy. Church dogma was redefined and church administration reformed. The ardor of the clergy and the faithful was rekindled by encouraging a sort of siege mentality. There was the church triumphant, the only true church, and on the other side of the moat the heretics who sought to destroy it. This mentality was at the same time militant and defensive.
It trumpeted church doctrine while guarding against impurities that would dilute it. Art was placed at the service of dogma. The Council of Trent rules that all religious art had to be approved by bishops. It had to be pure, both in style and in subject matter. Nudes were proscribed from religious art. Specialists in fig leaves came to be much in demand. Paul IV at first wanted to cover Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel but finally settled for having Daniele da Volterra paint in a minimum of modesty. Pope Innocent X and XI had the Christ child swaddled. Caravaggio was criticized because his Saint matthew was barefoot.
By the time Bernini began to accept papal commissions, the Counter Reformation was over its initial puritan phase and had entered a period of artistic exultation, of which he became the most important exponent. He was a truly pious man. He took communion twice a week, went on an annual retreat, and attended mass every morning, like a priest. His favorite book was the Imitation of Christ, and a close friend was the General of the Jesuits. Imbued with the spirit of the Counter Reformation, he was naturally drawn to themes that defended what the protestants attacked: angels. All those aspects of the church that repelled Protestant sensibilities became his favorite subjects.