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Dying and Dead: Masters of Extraordinary Sculptures

The beauty of Baroque Art is found in its expressive and theatrical representation. From the 14th century to the 17th century, Renaissance Art primarily represented naturalistic depictions of human bodies based on the artists’ close studies of anatomy. By contrast, art in the Baroque period, from the early 17th century to the 18th century, was far more distant from the real world. While it grew out of the naturalistic achievements of the Renaissance in the 17th century, Baroque Art further developed with heightened theatricality and dramatic effect. The idea of a heavenly world was more emphasized. The works of art in Baroque, therefore, required a great level of humanistic imagination, which had to bridge between the real world and the “other” world (Wittkower, 1999). Yet, this feat of imagination is what the beauty of Baroque creation is all about and is one of the most glorious celebrations of sculptures of all times. Bernini’s biographer, Filippo Baldinucci (1624-1696), has commented on Bernini’s Baldacchino (fig.1), a bronze canopy under the main altar of St.Peter's Basilica, which was built between 1623-1634:

What appears to the spectator is something completely new, something he had never dreamt of seeing… There is no one, no matter how judicious or expert he may be, whose spirit is sufficiently satisfied by the first sight of it to form any concept other than that of complete wonderment. (Boucher, 1999, p. 10)

These words indeed sum up how the Art of the Baroque appealed more to the inner eye of the humanistic imagination than to the stricter laws of rationality.

Figure 1: St. Peter's Baldacchino (Bernini, 1624-1633).

Before directly getting into Baroque sculptures, let's take a look at one of the contemporary paintings of an Italian artist, Fabrizio Clerici. His Sonno Romano (1955-1958) interestingly portrays several Baroque sculptures within the work (Figure 2). Just like a catalog, it represents fundamental Baroque sculptures of the 17th century including Maderno's Saint Cecilia (1559), Niccolò Menghini's Saint Martina (1635), Giuseppe Giorgetti's Saint Sebastian (1671), Bernini's Sleeping Hermaphrodite (1620), and Ludovica Albertoni (1667) (Moravia, 2002). All of the figures are very expressive and theatrical. Some figures are simply sleeping, while others are dying. Or some statues are already dead in marble. The state of sleeping, dying, and being in the afterlife are all different life stages of humanistic existence, and the representation of sleeping was already seen in Hellenistic Art such as Sleeping Barberini Faun in 3 BC and Sleeping Ariadne in 2 BC. Both sleeping statues are also included in Clerici’s Sonno Romano, as they became clear references to later Baroque sculptures. However, during the era of Baroque, the subject matter of ecstasy or death was more incorporated and developed. Unlike the emotional state of sleeping, that of dying or being in the afterlife requires one’s imagination and vision of glorious heaven. This article, therefore, examines how the Baroque sculptures effectively and sophisticatedly express such supra-natural experience of being in ecstasy and death out of the marble block, by closely analyzing two fundamental sculptures, Maderno’s Saint Cecilia and Bernini’s Ludovica Albertoni.

Figure 2: "Sonno Romano" (Clerici, 1955-1957)

Stefano Maderno: Masterpiece of “Dead” Sculpture in Early Baroque

Stefano Maderno from Bissone in Lombardy (1576-1636) achieved great glory after his first public order. In 1559, he was commissioned by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato for the marble statue of St. Cecilia (fig.3), one of the most famous virgin martyrs of the early church. At the end of the 16th century, Rome was the centre of the late mannerist orders for the Roman churches and palaces, offering many opportunities for young talents from all over Italy (Wittkower, 1999). Cardinal Sfondrato invested a large amount in the restoration of Saint Cecilia's church after he became the head in 1590 with the title of Cardinal from his uncle, Pope Gregory XIV (Bianco, 2002). Although Maderno was still at a very young age without any preceding public assignments, he was chosen as a sculptor for such an important work in 1559. The statue of St. Cecilia, which is found in St. Cecilia in Trastevere, commemorates the discovery of the youthful St. Cecilia, an early Christian martyr, on the 20th of October, 1599, under the main altar (Boucher, 1998). Baglione and Bosio reaffirmed that “in the church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere he (Maderno) made the Saint in marble, that under the High Altar was lying down in the pious posture as she was found” (Bianco, 2002, p.30). The statue of St. Cecilia was indeed a masterpiece of introspection and silence as if the Saint had wished not to be discovered at the fatal moment of martyrdom. This moment after martyrdom is beautifully rendered through Maderno's classical simplicity and directness. The statue with a truly moving simplicity was later followed by many statues of recumbent martyr Saints in the Baroque period.

Figure 3: Statue of St. Cecilia (Maderno, 1559).

The marble statue of St. Cecilia stands out in the center of this accentuated polychromy. To emphasize this dramatic effect, the sculpture is housed in a complete black marble niche. The exaggerated and deliberate contrast between the light of Cecilia’s body and the darkness of the niche is more likely to remind the viewers of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, which is the masterful use of strong contrasts between the light and dark. With the dark background, the light is seemingly coming from the body of Cecilia, enhancing its sacredness, divinity, and her miraculous discovery. The unique feature of Maderno’s invention is based on the posture that the Saint has been found, lying down on her right side, her head thrown backward, completely covered with a cloth draped over her that lets the observers catch a glimpse of her earlobe (Wittkower, 1999). Although her face is not visible, the pain of martyrdom is effectively presented. On her long neck, for instance, the three slashes of the wounds of martyrdom, from which drops of blood fall, are recognizable. The statue of St. Cecilia is not dramatic in its representation, however, the pain and suffering of the Saint are quietly presented and appeal to spectators' emotional weight. Just like Dead Perugian (Figure 4) dated 2 BC, which is believed to be a reference for Maderno’s St. Cecilia, Saint Cecilia is presented as already dead, yet the vision of death is beautifully depicted at an emotional level (Platt & Squire, 2017).

Figure 4: Dead Perugian (Unknown, 2 BC).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Masterpiece of "Dying" Sculpture in High Baroque

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, born in Naples on the 7th of December, 1598, was one of the greatest geniuses of Italian Baroque Art. Pietro Bernini, the father of Gian Lorenzo, had largely influenced young Bernini. Pietro was already a famous sculptor and moved to Rome in 1605 for Pope Paul V (1605-21) to work on the decorations of the Paolina Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was evident that the Pope’s and Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s attention were already drawn to the young Bernini, inviting him to the orbit of the most lavish patron of the period at the age of nineteen (Wittkower, 1999). In February 1629, after Maderno’s death, he was appointed “architect of St. Peter’s“ (Wittkower, 1999, p.96). Despite the commission of the Baldacchino (Figure 1) at St. Peter’s in 1624, the majority of his sculptural, decorative, and architectural contributions primarily lay between 1630 and 1680. Bernini was able to transform the mystery of religious ecstasy into material form in a way that has perhaps never been equalled by any artists before or since (Bianco, 2002). Ecstasy, the motif with which Bernini often applies, is the psycho-physical conditions that can accompany the culmination of mystical activity. Baroque artists especially attempted to represent not only these conditions themselves but also the visions experienced in that exalted state of perception (Wittkower, 1999). Yet, Bernini's representation of ecstasy was one of the extraordinary achievements of High Baroque Art, which stimulated the spectators' visions and emotional involvements.

Figure 5: The Rape of Proserpina (Bernini, 1622).

Among the uncountable masterpieces that Bernini executed, the statue of Ludovica Albertoni (fig. 6) is one of the most sensational sculptures, which represents the Saint in ecstasy. In 1674, Bernini was commissioned by Cardinal Albertoni to create the marble of Ludovica, an Italian Roman Catholic noblewoman in the chapel of San Francesco a Ripa. The scene is rather theatrical with the light entering from a hidden window above the left of her head. The illumination indeed plays a fundamental role in creating this imaginary moment of ecstasy as it guides the spectators to build the vision of heaven, opened with the Saint and disciples riding on clouds. On her face, the pain of the suffering and heavenly happiness are simultaneously present resulting in an extraordinary effect. Lying back on her deathbed, Ludovica’s head is thrown backward in a paroxysm of both agony and ecstasy with the eyes rolling wildly upward. Her hands clutching at her failing heart, lips, parted in a sigh that will take her to the afterlife. Not only her physical and facial expression, but also her drapery and even the sheet for the bed are seemingly agitated by the mysterious power of the unseen force. The lower body and drapery of Bernini’s Ludovica register a state of agonized convulsion while her face and upper torso express an ecstatic surrender to her vision (Bianco, 2002). All these sources of effects such as drama, light, expression, and gesture are the fundamental elements for this miraculous, wondrous, and supra-natural phenomenon of ecstasy, of which Bernini was such a great master.

Figure 6: Statue of Albertoni Ludovica (Bernini, 1674).

Conclusion: Glory of Baroque Sculptures

In the Baroque period, sculptures became expressive as it is evident in Maderno's St. Cecilia and Bernini's Ludovica. While the statue of St. Cecilia is more simple and silent, Bernini's Ludovica is much more theatrical and emotional. Unlike Maderno's naturalistic approach, Bernini indeed went far beyond to create the emotional weight by representing trapasso, the state between life and death with more dynamic expressions of both physical and non-physical objects, such as the draperies of the statue. For instance, when comparing Bernini's Ludovica with a Renaissance sculpture, such as Dying Slave by Michelangelo, which was realized in 1513 to 1516, the difference in emotional representation is easy to recognize. Dying Slave depicts the slave's last moment of final relaxation and release from the torture of the slave's life (Gombrich, 1995). The outlines of bodies remain firm, simple, and restful, which is more similar to Maderno's St. Cecilia. On the other hand, Bernini primarily focused on the theatrical effects. Instead of naturalism, he developed his dynamic approach, which was soon imitated all over Europe in the Baroque period. Not only the facial expressions of the Saint, but Bernini instead made the draperies writhe and whirl to add the effects of excitement and movement of the mystic events which make the viewers feel that they are also experiencing the same heavenly experience of the Saint. According to Ernst Gombrich (1901-2001), the Austrian-born art historian who published one of the most influential books of Art History, Bernini's technique of agitated draperies was, in fact, a completely new and revolutionary artistic invention in the 17th century (Gombrich, 1995).

Figure 7: Dying Slave (Michelangelo, 1513-1516).

In conclusion, to discuss the glory of Baroque sculptures, one cannot fail to notice how the work of Art in the Baroque era invited spectators to get more emotionally involved in the vision of an "alternative" world (Wittkower, 1999). According to Wittkower, from Early to High Baroque, the viewers became stimulated to participate actively in these supra-natural manifestations of the mystic act rather than to observe the work of Art from "outside" (Wittkower, 1999). As it is evident in Baroque sculptures such as Maderno's St. Cecilia and Bernini's Ludovica, the representations of dual vision in Baroque effectively appeal to the observers' emotional weight and its expressional language further developed particularly during the High Baroque. Baroque Art, therefore, arouses the illusion of glorious heaven and the feelings of fervid exultation and mystic transport at which the masters of Baroque artists were aiming (Gombrich, 1995). With an appropriate understanding of how Baroque artists were the masters of presenting the supra-natural condition of dying, and dead, one might start questioning the title of Clerici's painting, "Sonno" Romano, in Italian meaning Roman "Sleep", wondering if the term, "Sleep" is a suitable term to describe Maderno's dead St.Cecilia and Bernini's dying Ludovica. As discussed above, Baroque artists were capable of adding emotional effects on recumbent statues and representing the afterlife which required so much imagination than the sleeping statues. Thus, "extraordinary" is the most suitable word to present such a celebrated and glorious invention of Baroque Art, which left a great significance to the history of sculptures in a western world.

Bibliographical References

Boucher, B. (1998). Italian baroque sculpture. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Clerici, F. Pro-Menade, a cura di Archivio Clerici, E. Campaiola, C. Costantini, catalogo della mostra (Roma), Roma 2002, p. 38 (A. Moravia).

Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The story of art (Vol. 12, pp. 155-159). London: Phaidon.

Lo Bianco, A. (2001). Cecilia: la storia l'immagine il mito: la scultura di Stefano Maderno e il suo restauro. Rome: Campisano.

Platt, V., & Squire, M. (Eds.). (2017). The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History. Cambridge University Press. Chicago.

Riedmatten, H., Gaffo, F., & Jaccard, M. (Eds.). (2023). Restoration As Fabrication of Origins: A Material and Political History of Italian Renaissance Art. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Wittkower, R., Connors, J., & Montagu, J. (1999). Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750. Yale University Press.

Visual Sources


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Kotono Sakai

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