Bernini and the Art of Dying

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 40

On November 28, 1680, Sir Gianlorenzo Bernini, the “sovereign of art,” died peacefully surrounded by his closest friends and family. Accompanying him in prayer was his son Monsignor Pietro Filippo, a canon of Santa Maria Maggiore, and his youngest son, Domenico, who authored an account of his father’s life and death. At the foot of Bernini’s bed stood an engraving, personally designed by the eighty-two-year-old artist, called the Blood of Christ, a crucifix floating above a turbulent red sea.

The celebrated sculptor and former head architect of Saint Peter’s basilica had it placed there to aid his prayer in his final hours. Domenico Bernini observed that “the great man died as he had lived, leaving it doubtful whether his life was more admirable in deeds or his death more commendable in devotion.” It was a textbook example of the Ars Moriendi, or the Art of Dying. It was also his masterpiece.

Stones Come Alive

Bernini’s spectacular career, spanning almost seven decades, was marked by his ability to “make stone come alive.” Statues such as Apollo and Daphne or Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, with their parted-lips, windswept hair, and climactic gestures, appear to breathe, if not gasp, in fear, shock, amazement, or desire. Bernini himself, with his meteoric successes and dramatic downfalls, seemed to embody the phrase “lust for life.” Yet within his prodigious body of work, several monuments reveal his gradual comprehension of mortality, leading up to his swan song, his own death.

Bernini burst on the Roman art scene in his twenties, sculpting mythological groups charged with passion and fury for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill in Rome. Some of the works drifted close to the shoals of post-Reformation decorum with their nudity, occasioning Cardinal Maffei Barberini to compose poetic diptychs in their defense.

In 1623, when the same Cardinal Barberini was elected pope Urban VIII, “scarcely having ascended the holy chair,” he summoned Bernini to his private quarters. According to Bernini’s official biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, the twenty-five-year-old artist was told: “Great is your fortune, Cavaliere, to see the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini as pope, but far greater is ours to have Bernini living in our pontificate.”

Commissions poured in—the baldachin over the tomb of Saint Peter and the colossal Longinus statue in Saint Peter’s Basilica, numerous papal portraits—and the furthest thing from Bernini’s mind was death.

But the seeds of his mortality were planted when Urban began the commission for his own tomb in 1627, four years into his pontificate. The site chosen was a large niche next to the apse of Saint Peter’s, across from the Michelangelo-inspired tomb of Pope Paul III.

The space was prepared by 1629, the year that Bernini’s father, who had unselfishly guided his hand throughout his rise to fame, died. The unsettling pain of bereavement is reflected in the sharp contrasts of materials, the first of Bernini’s forays in the use of different media. The dark bronze of the papal effigy and the curved sarcophagus convey a heaviness despite the luminous personification of the virtues flanking the work.

Tomb of Urban VIII, 1627-1647. Credit:

The Intruder Death

The composition reflects a rebellion towards Death, portrayed as an “intruder,” in the words of Thomas Howard in his book Christ the Tiger. This intruder interrupts the “more important things which people ought to be doing,” Howard noted, and “thrusts upon them the task of dying.”

Bernini’s sculpture, completed in 1631, shows an active ruler, blessing (or commanding) from his imposing throne. When the sunlight glints off his visage, however, a fleeting glimpse of crinkled eyes leaves an impression of kindliness.

Statues personifying the pope’s two principal virtues, Charity and Justice, are standing, unlike their reclining counterparts on Paul III’s tomb, highlighting a dynamic life, rather than the sleep of death. Charity, wrestling with one sleeping and one weeping infant, embodies motherly activity. On the other side, Justice appears to sink into a swoon, sword thrust upwards, even as putti mourn at her feet.

The copious use of bronze, juxtaposed with the white Carrara marble, recalls the giant baldachin a few feet away and the colossal statues surrounding it, all gifts of Urban VIII. The ubiquitous bees celebrate the Barberini family and its artistic legacy in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Death waits at the heart of the monument where the marble virtues, symbolic of eternal life, and bronze statues of the pope and his coffin, representing mortality, meet. Sitting up between the curves of the sarcophagus lid is a bronze skeleton, the first of many times Bernini would use this image to embody death. The skeleton, heavily gilt so as to catch the eye, unfurls a banner upon which it is inscribing the pope’s name.

In a brilliant yet barely visible bit of virtuosity, Bernini created the illusion of another parchment under the one inscribed by Death. The two discernable letters are C and A, the initials of Urban VIII’s predecessor Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini. Death may end the life of a pope, but it cannot stop the succession of Saint Peter.

Understanding Death

The years following the reign of Urban VIII saw Bernini meet with professional disappointment and personal scandal, but he also married and produced eleven children. Assured a legacy in both art and life, Bernini’s understanding of death began to mature.

He befriended the Jesuits, who had founded the Confraternity of the Bona Mors (the art of dying happily) at the church of the Gesù and he practiced the devotion for forty years, keeping “the idea of death always present before his mind,” according to Baldinucci.

He also frequently consulted his nephew, Father Francesco Marchesi, an Oratorian priest and prolific author of spiritual texts, asking him to take on the role of “faithful friend” and spiritual guide through his last days.

Between his abundant prayer and charitable works, Bernini mastered the art of detachment while also cultivating a longing for heaven.

Tomb of Alexander VII, 1672-1678. Credit:

Another Tomb

The election of Pope Alexander VII Chigi in 1655 was a perfect meeting of the minds between artist and pontiff. Not only were the two the same age, Alexander also shared Bernini’s commitment to spiritual preparation for death. One of his first commissions was a miniature coffin as a memento mori, a reminder of his mortality.

Shortly after his death in 1667, seventy-two-year-old Bernini was charged with the task of erecting his tomb in Saint Peter’s Basilica. This funerary monument would be strikingly different from Bernini’s earlier effort, and even more astounding.

In Chigi’s tomb, Bernini’s command of polychromy is arresting. The darkness of Urban’s tomb is replaced with an airiness created by the white stucco and gilding of the vault. The somber tones have been banished to the lower half of the monument and weighty shades are used to represent the distractions of this world.

Four virtues surround the tomb: Charity, Prudence, Justice, and Truth. The figures seem more passive than their earlier counterparts, each engaged in a different manner of contemplation.

The polished marble of their drapes and limbs leads the eye to the effigy of the bareheaded pope, humbly kneeling in prayer. The composition captures the moment of Alexander’s death, when, as described by Monsignor Fulvio Servantio, his Master of Ceremonies, the pope “disposed himself for his transit, with a marvelous undauntedness.”

Bernini illustrates the description of Monsignor Servantio that Alexander “quietly rendered his spirits to his creator,” in this monument displaying the peaceful transition from this life to the next. In this work earthly projects of the pope are forgotten, the family coat of arms present only at the top of the niche and in a few stars in the vault. Alexander’s white marble portrait visually unites him to his attendant virtues.

From the midst of this pyramid of sanctification, Death, ever the intruder, erupts from under a “curtain” of carved Sicilian jasper. Brandishing his hourglass, the skeleton tries to surprise the pope, hoping to catch him unprepared, but to no avail.

Though he had grown more spiritual over the years, Bernini’s love of drama had in no way diminished. The red curtain evokes the stage, representing a visual antithesis to Macbeth’s lament that man is “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

In the art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, human beings are the protagonists of their own epic stories, and it is how they act during their time on the stage that determines the most important part of the human drama, the after party in heaven.