We leave the Villa Borghese and walk through the park toward the west in the direction of the old city gate where all pilgrims travelling to the holy city would enter: the Porta del Popolo. We see the Piazza del Popolo and next enter the Santa Maria del Popolo.
You will also visit this church during programme 3, but today we focus on Bernini’s work.
If we look at the floor, we are immediately reminded of why this chapel was built in the first place. The original design probably called for a copper grid in this spot, creating ‘contact’ between the tombs in the crypt below the chapel floor and the voice of the priest celebrating mass at the altar. When Fabio Chigi, the future Pope Alexander VII, commissioned Bernini to complete the chapel, the idea arose to create a tondo in the floor.
The tondo features a winged human skeleton. The motto speaks volumes: ‘Mors aD CaeLos’, from death to the heavenly life. If you read only the capitals, you get MDCL or 1650. This is exactly the year this floor was laid and also a holy year. The Chigi family coat of arms is of course included in the tondo.
Alexander intended to have the statues of the two prophets carved by different sculptors. Bernini and Alessandro Algardi were commissioned to each carve a statue. The pope thought this was a good idea because this would create rivalry between the two sculptors, which Alexander believed would be conducive to a better result. However, Algardi died before he could even begin work on his commission, and Gian Lorenzo was commissioned to carve both statues. Fortunately, because he was to create something really special with these two statues.
Above the altar you see Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting of the birth of the Virgin Mary. In the corners of the chapel are four niches with statues of prophets. Two of them, Jonah and the Whale, and Elijah (Wikipedia) were carved by Lorenzetto based on a design by Raphael. If you paid close attention in the Villa Borghese, you may have noticed a classical statue of a young boy with a dolphin. Raphael’s Jonah was based on this statue.
We will primarily take a closer look at Bernini’s two prophets; Habacuc and Daniel. These statues belong to his later work. During this period, he developed a style completely his own, just like Rembrandt and Titian did. The unfinished statue, The Truth unveiled by time (Wikipedia), that we saw at the Villa Borghese also forms part of this period.
The apocryphal story of Daniel and Habacuc, Daniel 14: 31-36, was read on Palm Sunday. The story goes as follows:
“Who cast him into the lions’ den: where he was six days. And in the den there were seven lions, and they had given them every day two carcases, and two sheep: which then were not given to them, to the intent they might devour Daniel. Now there was in Jewry a prophet, called Habacuc, who had made pottage, and had broken bread in a bowl, and was going into the field, for to bring it to the reapers. But the angel of the Lord said unto Habacuc, Go, carry the dinner that thou hast into Babylon unto Daniel, who is in the lions’ den. And Habacuc said, Lord, I never saw Babylon; neither do I know where the den is. Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown, and bare him by the hair of his head, and through the vehemency of his spirit set him in Babylon over the den.
If you look closely at these statues, you will see that Gian Lorenzo closely adhered to the story, as he was wont to do. Of course, of the seven lions only one was carved, and it’s licking Daniel’s foot. The elongation of figures that is characteristic of Bernini in this period, as we have seen in his statue ‘The Truth unveiled by time’ at the Villa Borghese, was impossible here. The niches weren’t all that big, while the figures are bigger than life-size.
Lorenzetto’s statue of Jonah was taken from the niche at the door and moved to another, allowing Bernini to use the vacated niche for one of his statues. This made it possible to position his two statues diagonally opposite each other and create interaction. The angel flying toward Habacuc (the niche to the right of the altar) points his hand at the diagonally opposed Daniel. Habacuc’s finger points at the labourers on the land where he wants to deliver his basket of food. Daniel’s head looks up, to where God the Fathers is depicted in the lantern. Bernini also made a 58-centimetre high terracotta model of the angel and Habacuc (Vatican Museums).
Daniel’s body is in a very complicated pose. Gian Lorenzo was inspired by the famous classical group of statues called the Laocoön that you will see later at the Vatican Museums. When we’re there, I will show you the copies of the drawings that Bernini made of the Laocoön.
They will show you how he ingeniously made use of a classical sculpture without simply stealing the motif. This chapel provides a beautiful example of Gian Lorenzo’s further development after the David. What we see here is not just a suggested second figure (David and the bust of Scipione Borghese) but two statues that interact. Also, Daniel is looking at a mosaic of God. When we are there, I will show you copes of the drawings that Bernini made of the Laocoön.