BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo
(b. 1598, Napoli, d. 1680, Roma)

View of the crossing

Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican

Bernini, from 1629 architect to the fabric of St Peter's, was charged with systematizing the display of three Early Christian relics housed from 1606 in niches in the crossing piers flanking the apse: the head of the apostle Andrew; the lance of Longinus; and Veronica's veil. These relics, along with fragments of the True Cross brought to Rome by St Helena and transferred to St Peter's in 1629 by Urban VIII, were assembled by Bernini in the crossing. Each relic was honoured by the decoration of one of the giant piers. Bernini divided each pier into an upper and lower section. In the latter he created a large niche for a colossal marble statue of the saint, while the relic itself was commemorated in a tabernacle framed by a pair of spiral marble columns from the original Constantinian basilica, thus stressing the continuity of place.

The statues, some three times life-size, were designed by Bernini and carved by him and by sculptors working under his control: St Andrew by François Duquesnoy; St Longinus by Bernini; St Helena by Andrea Bolgi; and St Veronica by Francesco Mochi. In pairs and as a group they relate to the baldacchino. St Veronica and St Helena seem to direct their attention to and move towards the papal altar at which Christ's Passion is re-enacted during Mass. St Andrew and St Longinus, with arms outspread in wonder, look upward towards the top of the baldacchino. Bernini thus charged the space of the crossing with an unprecedented dramatic power, engaging spectators physically and psychologically and making them not merely witnesses but participants in the unfolding events.

The photo shows the crossing with St Veronica (left pier) and St Helena (right pier). The baldacchino is in the centre.