Redefining Papal Tombs: The Tomb of Alexander VII Chigi

Hannah Ridenour

Bernini, "Tomb of Alexander VII Chigi," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Fig. 2. Bernini, “Tomb of Alexander VIIChigi,” ca.1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

Bernini, "First Design for the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII," before 1667, Philadelphia Museum of Art (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 18. Bernini, “First Design for the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII,” before 1667, Philadelphia Museum of Art (source – artstor.org)

When it came time for a location to be chosen for the tomb of Pope Alexander VII

Bernini, "Second and Third Designs for the Tomb of Alexander VII Chigi," ca. 1667-1671, Windsor Castle and private collection (source - ?)

Fig. 19. Bernini, “Second and Third Designs for the Tomb of Alexander VII Chigi,” ca. 1667-1671, Windsor Castle and private collection (source – Louise Rice, The Altars and Altarpieces of New St. Peter’s, 1997.)

Chigi, available space in the basilica was already difficult to find.  The pope at first considered a space in Santa Maria Maggiore, but then selected a setting over a service door off the main transept of St. Peter’s Basilica.[1] The original intention of the spaces over the doors was likely for paintings.  By 1606, the chief architect of the building project at the time, Cigoli, labeled the spaces on a plan of the basilica as designated spaces for papal tombs.  Cigoli intended to remove the doors to allow for wall tombs, rather than work around the doors as Bernini later would.[2]

Bernini, "Tomb of Pope Urban VIII with open door," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - panoramio.com)

Fig. 20. Bernini, “Tomb of Pope Urban VIII with open door,” ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – panoramio.com)

But Bernini was not always pleased with facing the task of working around a door.[3]  So instead, he incorporated it into the composition.  It has come to represent the false door, a passageway to the afterlife or another realm, a symbol of such thoughts since

Bernini, "Cathedra Petri," ca. 1657-1666, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 21. Bernini, “Cathedra Petri,” ca. 1657-1666, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

antiquity.  Breaking from tomb design tradition, Bernini hides the sarcophagus from the monument.  The door functions as the sarcophagus, as the visible symbol of Alexander’s departure from this life.  To this day, the door is functional.  It is currently used as the entrance and exit door for diplomats and wheelchair-bound visitors to St. Peter’s (fig. 20).[iv]

The second version of the drawings for the tomb of Alexander VII is the last one approved by the pontiff before his death (fig. 19).  The position of the kneeling pope suggests that its location was originally intended for placement around a door closer to the apse, so that the figure can show reverence towards the Cathedra Petri in the basilica’s apse (fig. 21).[5]  In the existing monument, Alexander faces forward, not to the side.  It is also the earliest design where Bernini is comfortable with the door’s presence enough to recognize the opportunity it lends to show off his unmatched ability to turn stone into flowing drapery.

  The pope’s death before construction began led to a greater freedom in style for Bernini than he was permitted for Urban’s tomb.[6]

Bernini, "Truth from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 22. Bernini, “Truth from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII,” ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – www.flickr.com/photos/24364447@N05/6056938125/)

Perhaps in an effort to fill the entire space of the deep niche over the door, Gianlorenzo Bernini installed four marble figures to surround the pope.  In the back are Prudence and Justice, the tradition symbols of a fair monarch.  The monument’s lowest elements are above any viewer’s eye level, and as a result these figures are all but invisible, to the point that Hibbard calls them “uncomfortable afterthoughts.”[7]  It is one of the strangest composition choices of any project by Bernini, who usually achieved a composition with plenty of visible surprises but certainly not hidden elements.  They are

Bernini, "Charity from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 23. Bernini, “Charity from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII,” ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

incorporated into the design by the second sketch, but then disappear again in the third and final drawing.  It is possible that Alexander wanted them there but Bernini did not, and only included them in the final composition in honor of his patron, or to earn more money for the project.  Prudence is behind Charity, and Justice is behind Truth.  Justice is led by Truth, and Prudence is led by Charity.  The attributes of a ruler are secondary to Charity, emphasizing Alexander’s primary role as a spiritual leader.

Bernini had Giuseppe Mazzuoli, one of his assistants, create Charity off of his models (fig. 23).[8]  She is not in mourning over the death of the pope, but moves with delight towards his image, as if she wants to raise her child up to him.  Due to her expression, there is speculation that Charity is actually Hope.

Truth was begun be Lazzaro Morelli and completed by Giulio Cartari, “with little latitude for personal invention or idiosyncrasies” from Bernini’s designs (fig. 22).[9]  Originally nude, she was covered with a bronze garment painted white by order of Pope Innocent XI.  She is not a virtue comparable to her three companions, but rather the goal of a virtue.  Her inclusion was of significant important to the pope in the last years of his life.  The Chigi Pope nearly lost religious control of France to King Louis XIV, and had been unsuccessful in a venture to join European

Bernini, "Death, Justice, and Truth from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (souce - artstor.org)

Fig. 24. Bernini, “Death, Justice, and Truth from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII,” ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (souce – artstor.org)

countries in a fight against the Turks.  Such near failures brought humiliation onto Alexander VII’s final days as pope.[10]  Just as Bernini had felt defeated when his bell towers were stripped from the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica and used his personal work of Truth Unveiled by Time as an expression of his unjust shame, Alexander hoped Bernini could rectify his public image with Truth.  Her foot rests on a globe, specifically over England, in a reference to the

Bernini, "Terracotta Bozetto of Pope Alexander VII Chigi," ca. 1671 (source - Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art)

Fig. 25. Bernini, “Terracotta Bozetti of Pope Alexander VII Chigi,” ca. 1671 (source – Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art)

attempts of Alexander VII to rectify religious differences with the Protestant-ruled English.[11]  Justice, who is nearly completely hidden behind Truth, is unable to hold up the scales, and so looks to the frontal figure in hope (fig. 24).[12]  Furthermore, the skeletal Death in this composition, with the hourglass in hand and face hidden in the folds of Sicilian jasper, plays the part of Time defeated by Truth.[13]

Bernini, "Alexander VII Chigi from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII," ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 26. Bernini, “Alexander VII Chigi from the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII,” ca. 1671-1678, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

The hourglass also functions as juxtaposition to the figure of the genuflecting pontiff.  A symbol of an end to time, the pope counters the representation with one of prayer in the light of salvation and eternal life.  As Bernini was in the last years of his own life at the time, the balance must have been a personal comfort for the religious artist.[14]  Indeed, for anyone approaching the composition, Death jumps out from the niche as a bold momento mori.[15]

Just as he did in planning the Tomb of Urban VIII, Bernini made terracotta models, known as bozzetti, from his sketches before moving on to the final material of the marble (fig. 25).  As was common during the last years of Bernini’s career, the majority of his designs were delegated to his assistants.  Domenico Bernini, in his biography of his father, blames this only on Bernini’s advanced age, and not on any laziness or lack of willingness.[16]  Only the face of Alexander VII can be doubtlessly attributed to Bernini’s hand, while Michele Maglia completed the body (fig. 26).[17]  Bernini’s decision to sculpt Alexander with a bare head lacking his papal crown humbles the pope to a pilgrim’s appearance.  It relates him to antiquity, specifically the busts of Socrates and the Greek philosophers.  His bare head stands for wisdom and purity.[18] 



[1] Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 109.

[2] Rice, 120.

[3] Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 109.

[4] Robert Fischer, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: A Handout for Tours or for Independent Exploration of the Basilica (Regensburg: Schnell and Steiner, 2011), 38.

[5] Fehl, “Hermeticism and Art: Emblem and Allegory in the Work of Bernini,” 179.

[6] Howard Hibbard, Bernini (London, England: Penguin Books, 1965), 215.

[7] Hibbard, 215.

[8] Hibbard, 215.

[9] Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 110-114.

[10] Panosky, 95.

[11] Fehl, “Bernini’s ‘Triumph of Truth over England’”, The Art Bulletin, 48(1966), 405.

[12] Fehl, “Bernini’s ‘Triumph of Truth over England’”, 404.

[13] Panofsky, 95.

[14] Whittkower, 22.

[15] Philipp P. Fehl, “Bernini’s ‘Triumph of Truth over England’,” The Art Bulletin, 48(1966), 405.

[16] Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (University Park, Pennslvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 225.

[17] Hibbard, 215.

[18] Avigdor W.G. Posèq, “On Physiognomic Communication in Bernini” in Artibus et Historiae (27: 2006), 180.