The Power of Absolution: A Question of Balance

Lara Belfield

Figure 11: Bernini, "St. Mary Magdalen," 1661-1663, Chigi Chapel, Siena Cathedral, Siena.  Photo Credit: Tales of a Travel Photographer

Figure 11: Bernini, “St. Mary Magdalen,” 1661-1663, Chigi Chapel, Siena Cathedral, Siena.
Photo Credit: Tales of a Travel Photographer

One of the remarkable aspects of Bernini’s execution of the St. Mary Magdalen and St. Jerome figures is how he was able to balance the figures in their niches while still maintaining the idea of complex movement.  Some scholars have theorized that these techniques were influenced both by painting and possibly by Galileo’s contemporary theories of gravity.  Like paintings, Bernini’s sculptures were often “pictorial” in nature, and intended to be seen from certain vantage points.[1]  This is especially true for niche sculptures, which could by definition only be seen from the front or slightly from the sides.  In particular, the paintings that influenced Bernini were dynamic in their compositions.  Chamberlain notes that Bernini utilized “elements such as the diagonal thrust and sense of physical confrontation with the viewer” that could be found in Baroque paintings by artists such as Caravaggio.[2]  Both the St. Mary Magdalen and St. Jerome sculptures extend beyond the confines of their respective niches, thus interacting more with the viewer.  Traditionally, niche sculptures resided peacefully within their architectural confines and were usually either sitting or standing.  Bernini’s decision to abandon this convention speaks both to his innovative creativity and remarkable skill.

Choosing to extend the figures beyond their respective niches presented Bernini with a technical challenge.  In order to translate two dimensional design elements into tangible, three dimensional figures, he would have to find a way to correctly balance the figures within the niche without compromising their symbolic integrity.  Upon first glance, the compositions of the St. Mary Magdalen and St. Jerome appear unbalanced and almost unrealistic.  The sculptures convey a great sense of movement, which is encouraged by the fact that they each seem to be falling to one side.  For example, the St. Mary Magdalen’s hips are leaning toward her right, while her shoulders and feet are oriented more towards her left (fig. 11).  Were a real woman standing in this position, she would likely fall to her right and need to lean against the niche for support.  Research on the weight distribution of the sculpture shows that Mary Magdalen’s bent right leg is bearing the majority of the weight.[3]  In reality, someone could only hold that position for a few seconds before collapsing under the strain.  The heaviness of the drapery is contrasted with the narrowness of Mary Magdalen’s bare right leg, which means that the majority of the weight is resting on a fairly narrow section of marble.  Also, a portion of Mary Magdalen’s drapery is trapped between her right foot and the wide vase, which would further inhibit her movement and make it hard for her to stand upright.

St. Jerome's robe can be seen extending beyond the confines of the niche. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Figure 12: Bernini, “St. Jerome,” 1661-1663, Chigi Chapel, Siena Cathedral, Siena. 
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The St. Jerome sculpture mirrors the posture and composition of the St. Mary Magdalen.  Both figures’ torsos are twisted in the same direction, although the St. Jerome’s left leg is bent rather than his right leg (fig. 12).  Jerome’s left foot rests casually on a sleeping lion, which is disproportionately small for the overall size of the sculpture.  The weight is mainly distributed on Jerome’s right leg, while his torso turns toward the left.  Additionally, some of Jerome’s drapery extends to his left, extending beyond the niche.  This section of Jerome’s clothing appears to be blowing out into midair, indicating that Jerome is in the process of moving to his right.  This drapery accounts for nearly one-fifth of the total width of the figure, thus creating a great challenge of balance for Bernini to attempt to rectify. Neither sculpture is centered in its niche, which enhances their unbalanced appearances.  Bernini’s subtle solution to this problem was to make sure that the actual centers of balance for each figure aligned with the center points of each niche.[4]

Bernini's David, 1623. Photo Credit: luxomedia

Figure 13: Bernini, “David,” 1623, Galleria Borghese, Rome.
Photo Credit: luxomedia

Past works by Bernini proved that he had some applicable knowledge in maintaining balance without disrupting his intended composition.  For example, the David from 1623 is remarkably top heavy, although the bulk of this mass is positioned to one side and not centered (fig. 13).  Despite a narrow base, the sculpture is still able to stand on its own.[5]  It is possible that the artist used contemporary scientific principals, most notably those of Galileo, to aid his work.  Galileo was born in 1564, 34 years before Gianlorenzo Bernini.  By the time of Bernini’s birth, Galileo had already been studying the principals behind the center of gravity in solid objects, and the idea would have been widely spread.

[1] Harriet Feigenbaum Chamberlain, “The Influence of Galileo on Bernini’s Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Jerome,” The Art Bulletin 59, no. 1 (March 1977): 71.

[2] Chamberlain, 71.

[3] Chamberlain, 71.

[4] Chamberlain, 72.

[5] Chamberlain, 72.