St Peter's Baldachin, or Baldacchino di San Pietro, as called in Italian, is a remarkable work of art inside the St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
This large Baroque sculpture in bronze, which serves as a canopy over the altar of the basilica, was the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680 CE), a great Italian sculptor and architect.
The baldachin marks the tomb of St. Peter, situated inside the baslica. Pope Urban VIII, who wanted to mark the tomb in a grandiose way, commissioned Bernini for the task. Bernini started work in 1623 and completed what became one of the finest works of Renaissance sculptures, by 1634.
Bernini's Baldachin betrays the traditional Baroque style of architectural pavilion, which feature in several altars of other important churches across mediaeval Europe. In fact, this new baldachin at St. Peter's Baslica itself replaced an older ciborium. However, Bernini here makes a marked departure from existing patterns. He draws extensively from the funerary catafalque, making the baldachin very appropriate to Saint Peter. Bernini's exquisite combination of sculpture and architecture makes this work a significant landmark in the development of Baroque church interior design.
What makes St. Peter's Baldachin truly striking is the architectural features and symbolism adopted by Bernini. The canopy rests on four helical columns, each of which give way to a cornice that curves inward, at the top. These columns stands under representations of life-size angels, which in turn lead to another cornice, much smaller compared to the one below. An ornate gilded cross, at the top, is a symbolic representation of Christ redeeming the world.
The decorations adorning the baldachin are ornate and exquisite. A coat of arms, the symbol of the Barberini family, decorates the outer sides of all the plinths. Each shield in the coat of arms is adorned by the head of a women on the top and the head of a satyr at the bottom. But what is of greater interest is the subtle architectural play on offer. While all shields look identical at first glance, closer examination reveals marked differences in how the face expresses itself. Similarly, the coat of arms is apparently flat, but subtle examination reveals a progressive deformation.
The childbirth sequence has been a source of much discussion among critics. It is, for all purposes, an allegory, suggesting the labour of the papacy and the earthly church. The ornate architecture apart, what makes the Baldachin striking is its positioning. The baldachin is situated centrally, beneath the dome. Its ornate structure and sheer size makes it stands out and becomes the visual focus inside the basilica. The size of the baldachin, with each column 20 meters in height, offers an interesting focus of visual mediation, between the giant scale of the basilica structure and the humans.
Bernini was probably aided by his early days associate Francesco Borromini and several others in the designs and drawings of St. Peters Baldachin. His father Pietro Bernini, his brother Luigi Bernini, and other artists such as Giuliano Finelli, François Duquesnoy, Stefano Maderno, and Andrea Bolgi, all contributed significantly to the decoration of the sculpture.