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Lent, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and the liberating lightness of truth 

As the Church enters Lent 2022, it is well to reflect on and pray over this Catholic understanding that doctrine is light, powerful, and liberating, which some parts of the world Church seem to have forgotten.

Detail of the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, with statues of Saint Ambrose, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius ,and Saint Augustine of Hippo. (Image: Dnalor 01/Wikipedia)

If you’ve not been in the Vatican basilica on February 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, by all means put that on your bucket list. Not only is February 22 the day when the statue of the Prince of the Apostles, with its famously worn-down bronze foot, is clothed in a splendid cope and crowned with a papal tiara, it’s also the only day on which the Altar of the Chair, the massive sculptural composition in the basilica’s apse, is ablaze with the light of over a hundred tapers.

Better still is to get into the basilica as early as possible and watch the acrobatic Sanpietrini, the basilica’s maintenance staff, swinging from ropes and clambering about as they place and then light those six-foot tall candles, which remain lit all day.

It took 124 years, from 1506-1626, to build “New St. Peter’s,” which replaced the fourth-century basilica with which the emperor Constantine enshrined the tomb of the first Bishop of Rome. When finished, “New St. Peter’s” was 730 feet long and 490 feet wide, its great dome soaring 448 feet above the floor. Taming this vast space with a coherent decorative scheme was one of the greatest challenges in the history of interior design.

Happily, the man capable of executing such a daunting task was at hand. It took Gianlorenzo Bernini 57 years to finish the job, and his extraordinary skill in doing so continues to delight the eye and lift the spirit three and a half centuries later. And no more so than on February 22, when the always-stunning Altar of the Chair is candlelit.

With her incomparable skill at explaining all things aesthetic, my friend Elizabeth Lev beautifully captured Bernini’s idea for the decoration of St. Peter’s apse in our book, Roman Pilgrimage – The Station Churches:

Bernini’s art aims to reveal the physical world and the divine milieu in collision: thus in the basilica’s apse, he created an experience of Pentecost. The oval window puncturing the masonry is filled with yellow glass, and as the sun sets, golden light pours in, just as the Holy Spirit penetrated the upper room. Its rays play off the gilt angels that cascade from the opening and billow into clouds around Peter’s throne: this enormous bronze chair, which … contains the shards of Peter’s Roman cathedra. Standing alongside the bronze throne, their robes seemingly rustled by the winds of the Holy Spirit, are Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom, who set the early Church ablaze with [their] zeal.

The positioning of these four great Doctors of the Church, two from the West and two from the East, makes an important theological statement. Each supports the colossal bronze reliquary that evokes the Chair of Peter and the doctrinal authority invested in the Church and its head — but that support is only the tip of a finger.

Bernini’s point: while it may seem heavy and burdensome to an untutored eye or insufficiently converted soul, the truth of Catholic faith, of which Peter is the guardian, is actually quite light. Nor is that truth burdensome, for it liberates us in the deepest meaning of human freedom: doctrine deepens our encounter with the incarnate Son of God, in whom we meet both the truth about the Father of mercies and the truth about our humanity and its noble destiny.

Gianlorenzo Bernini’s convictions about the liberating character of truth were recapitulated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on Religious Freedom. There, the bishops wrote that truth, including the truth about God and the truth about us, “can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the kind with both gentleness and power.” As the Church enters Lent 2022, it is well to reflect on and pray over this Catholic understanding that doctrine is light, powerful, and liberating, which some parts of the world Church seem to have forgotten — just as these confused brethren imagine that what the world thinks is true is superior to what the Church knows to be true on the basis of both revelation and reason.

Examining conscience on how well each of us has been the missionary disciple we were baptized to be over the past year, and then considering how we might be more fully conformed to that vocation in the future, are the two reflections to which Lent calls us annually. Like the Altar of the Chair, that reflection should lead to a new appreciation of the liberating lightness of doctrine.

(Image: Dnalor 01/WIkipedia)

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About George Weigel 393 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

3 Comments

  1. Peace in Jesus! I thought the four statues represented only Western Fathers: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. Has there been a renaming? Pilgrim George

    • “Surrounding the chair, at each of the four legs, are four saints that contribute to the spectacular Baroque setting. In the foreground are giant statues of St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, their robes appearing to be blown in the wind, representing the Latin branch of the Catholic Church. Situated at the background are statues of St. Athanasius and St. Chrysostom, signifying the Greek branch of the Catholic Church. The four saints in the background and foreground have their fingertips linked to the Chair by loops of drapery and are interpreted as being in communion with the chair, as opposed to supporting the chair itself. This is a crucial distinction, as the chair supports itself, significant when taking into consideration the attitude of the Church as being self-sustaining” (depts.Wash.edu.).

  2. As a footnote, Bernini also designed the piazza and colonnade fronting St. Peter’s Basilica: the enormous 650-foot-long oval reaching like “the motherly arms of the church,” as Bernini said.

    Taking the two together—the Altar of the Chair plus the arms of the colonnade—we might wonder whether they prefigure the two governing preoccupations of the Second Vatican Council: Ressourcement as the return to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers (e.g., Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Athanasius), plus Aggiornamento as the Church’s engagement and motherly outreach to the modern world…

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