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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri (Chair of St. Peter)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri (Chair of St. Peter), gilded bronze, gold, wood, stained glass, 1647–53 (apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, Rome), A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We're in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in Rome. We've just walked down the long hall that is the nave of the church and around the "Baldacchino", in order to be able to walk up to the backmost part of the church, to the apse. - [Dr. Beth Harris] We see almost an explosion of gold that seems to break through the very walls of the church. This is a sculpture by Bernini called the "Cathedra Petri", the "Chair of St. Peter". Now, I said sculpture, but that word doesn't really do justice to the amalgamation of color and sculpture and forms that we're seeing in front of us. - [Steven] Well, Bernini was an architect, and Bernini was a sculptor. And this is an installation extravaganza on a scale that is hard to describe. This is the largest church in Christendom and the "Cathedra Petri" takes up an enormous amount of it. - [Beth] And marking a second altar, the first altar being the site marked by the "Baldacchino", which in turn marks beneath it the site of the burial of St. Peter. And then behind the "Baldacchino" we see another altar decorated with the "Cathedra Petri". - [Steven] The "Cathedra Petri" is a reminder of the authority of the Catholic Church. - [Beth] And it's interesting to think about that authority symbolized by a throne. That is what the "Cathedra Petri" is, is what is believed to be the ancient throne of St. Peter, made of oak, but here encased in bronze and gold, very much the way that historically relics, remnants of saints and other sacred people, were encased in jewels and gold. - [Steven] And when you look at the "Cathedra Petri", you know immediately that this is the Baroque. - [Beth] When we think about the Baroque and we think about the 17th century, we think about this period after the Protestant Reformation when the Church has emerged even more powerful, one could say, than before, and certainly very interested in proclaiming its power through art. And I feel not so much like we're looking at a reliquary as much as we're looking at a miracle that's unfolding before our eyes, the angels bathed in golden light bursting through these stone walls of this enormous church. - [Steven] One of the things that Bernini has done so successfully is blending gilded bronze, gilded stucco, and glass, so that it seems as if the fabric of the church itself, the stone that holds it up, has dissolved under the power of the spirituality that is entering into our space. - [Beth] Well, literally the Holy Spirit is breaking through the walls of the church, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in that glass and taking the form of light and then these golden rays that shoot up and down to the sides, the clouds. There's a feeling of weightlessness as the throne is elevated and the angels fly around this light in the center. - [Steven] And look at those four massive Church Fathers. They're not so much elevating or holding up the throne as holding it down. They seem to be tethering it to the earth. - [Beth] And all here in the service of reminding us of St. Peter, who becomes such an important focus during the Counter-Reformation, during this period of fighting back against what the Catholic Church saw as the heresy of the Protestants, who challenged the authority of the Pope. And it's Peter himself who gives legitimacy to the Catholic Church. He's given the job of leading the Church, founding the Church, by Christ himself and all of the Popes who come after him have that authority because of St. Peter, who got it from Christ. - [Steven] And that sense of lineage is expressed physically in this space. When we first approach St. Peter's, we walk through Bernini's great colonnade and there's great symmetry and centrality to that. We walk in a direct line up the great staircase and we enter into the nave and we look through the "Baldacchino", which is perfectly aligned with the "Cathedra Petri", which becomes this summation of the power and the inevitability of the Catholic Church. (upbeat piano music)