'Ideal and Eternal': Discussing Clark on Bernini

When discussing the nature of Baroque art in Civilisation (1969), Kenneth Clark stated that ‘the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal’[1]. Elements of the ‘ideal’ and ‘eternal’ nature can in turn be seen within Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII (Fig. 1). The tomb is clearly intended to serve as a lasting monument to Pope Alexander, and while Bernini presents elements of an eternal cycle within the Tomb of Alexander VII itself, it maintains an emphasis on demonstrating the briefness of life and the presence of mortality. Bernini’s presentation of the subject, particularly with the depiction of the four virtues around him, demonstrates Clark’s belief in the ‘ideal’ nature of Bernini’s work – the work of art historians such as Panofsky identifies the presence of a complex iconographic and symbolic narrative presented within the décor of the tomb.[2]

Via the presence of the four Virtues, there is a strong emphasis on Pope Alexander’s legacy within Catholicism, and Europe more broadly, moving beyond the presentation of the subject simply being greeted by the figure of Death. Importantly, however, despite being depicted within an ‘ideal’ environment, the subject himself is not ‘idealised’; Judith Bernstock, for example, convincingly comments on the idea that Pope Alexander is presented as being physically weary of his worldly burdens.[3] Thus, while The Tomb of Alexander VII fulfils Clark’s view of the work of Bernini as being ‘ideal and eternal’, it also demonstrates the particular ability of Bernini to convey, within a heightened sense of monumentality, piety, and scale, an intimate and rather personal representation of Pope Alexander VII’s Earthly life.

Despite only becoming Pope 1655, records first mention Pope Alexander VII’s desire to commission Bernini to create his tomb in 1656.[4] Pope Alexander’s focus on commissioning his own tomb duly reflects his intention to secure his legacy. Primarily, this is demonstrated via the presentation of the subject, who is depicted kneeling in prayer in rather simple robes, rather than sitting enthroned with an ornate vestment. This stands in contrast with traditional papal tombs, and even Bernini’s own Tomb of Urban VIII (Fig. 2).

While such a change arguably serves to convey his faith and piety, and reinforces his position and authority within the Catholic Church, it has a more important purpose with the context of the rest of the sculpture. Michael Koortbojian convincingly suggests that the presentation of the Virtues and Death represents ‘a lasting confrontation between an eternally pious image of life and the relentlessly voracious image of Death’.[5] The qualities of the four Virtues – Charity, Truth, Prudence, and Justice – are thus reinforced by the stark whiteness of the marble, symbolising their purity and lack of corruption, standing in contrast with the somewhat garish bronze of Death. By placing the subject within such an ‘eternal’ dynamic, Bernini emphasises the sudden nature of the transition from life to death, and from Earth to Heaven. This duly strengthens the sense of Pope Alexander’s piety, faith, and authority, further demonstrated by the height of subject within the overall composition, dominating both the viewer, and figures of the four Virtues and Death.

The sculpture presents Pope Alexander as having been deep in prayer, but being suddenly interrupted by the gilded bronze figure of Death, depicted emerging from a portal. In reality, the portal leads out from St Peter’s Basilica – Bernini’s usage of pre-existing architectural features within the design of the tomb demonstrates its ‘ideal’ nature, as the presence of a portal allows Bernini to heighten the presence of Death as a memento mori, and gives a functioning presence and reality to Pope Alexander VII’s transition from life to death.

Bernstock suggests that the monument itself ‘appears to flow out into the passage’, heightening the drama and monumentality within the sculpture.[6] This sense of movement and energy is further emphasised by the flowing drapery that surrounds the four Virtus and the lower section of the sculpture. The dark Sicilian jasper contrasts with the white marble of Pope Alexander and the four Virtues, whose robes are billowing in the wind caused by Death’s arrival, furthering the idea of Death’s sudden and unexpected arrival.

Whilst the arrival of Death within the scene serves to interrupt the life of Pope Alexander, his presence as a memento mori reflects Clark’s view of the ‘eternal’ elements of Bernini’s sculptural work. Beyond the fact that the tomb was intended to be a lasting monument to Pope Alexander, the inclusion of Death holding an hourglass demonstrates not only the briefness of life, but presents the idea of a cycle of life and death, adding to the sense of the ‘eternal’ nature of the Tomb of Alexander VII.

There is a sense that Pope Alexander is prepared for death, despite the sudden interruption of Death, and the emphasis on time – or lack thereof – via the inclusion of the hourglass. The depiction of Charity mirrors traditional depictions of the Madonna; given the contrast in the presentation of the subject with traditional papal tombs, this somewhat draws the sculpture closer to the tradition of pietàs, such as Michelangelo’s La Pietà (Fig. 3). This arguably causes Pope Alexander to be placed in a Christ-like context, furthering the idea of his readiness for death, whilst reinforcing his authority and piety.[7]

This develops the idea that Pope Alexander is prepared for his own death and is aware the limits of his own mortality, emphasising the ‘eternal’ cycle between life and death – Rudolf Wittkower duly suggests that Pope Alexander is presented as ‘praying for the whole of Christianity’.[8] Within the context of the Counter-Reformation, however, and Pope Alexander’s limited and rather unsuccessful attempts to develop relations with the Protestant and Orthodox Churches of Europe, this further demonstrates the ways in which Bernini presents an ‘ideal’ form of the subject, emphasising the perceived successes of Pope Alexander.

While the inclusion of the four Virtues serves to reflect Pope Alexander’s intellectual and moral qualities, the positioning of Truth, with her foot resting on a globe, is arguably of particular importance. Philipp Fehl suggests that it reflects the vision of ‘a Catholic Europe…and the rule of Christianity in Africa and the Americas’.[9] This reflects Pope Alexander’s focus on Catholic missions in Africa and America, his troubled relations with France, and his aims of developing relations with the English Church. For Panofsky, however, the inclusion of Truth as one of the Virtues is unconvincing, arguing that it is an ‘intrusion’ within the scene, and simply serves to rehabilitate the failures of Pope Alexander.[10] This furthers the sense that Bernini presents an ‘ideal’ representation of Pope Alexander within the sculpture, even if the subject himself is not physically idealised, in turn further demonstrating what Clark refers to as the ‘ideal’ nature of Bernini’s sculptures.

Bernini’s Tomb of Pope Alexander VII fulfils Clark’s view that ‘the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal’. As a tomb, the sculpture is clearly intended to serve as a lasting monument and memorial to Pope Alexander. There is, however, a deeper sense in which it is ‘eternal’; the presentation of the four Virtues around the figure of Pope Alexander, and the sudden arrival of the memento mori of Death, is reflective of the ‘eternal’ cycle of life and death. Through the use of iconography and symbolism, Bernini also presents an ‘ideal’ form of the subject, demonstrating the ‘ideal’ nature of the sculpture as a whole.

While the subject – depicted kneeling, without a mitre or ornate vestments – is not idealised, he is memorialised in an ‘ideal’ form. Eager to secure his legacy, in contrast with his diplomatic failings, Pope Alexander, with the four Virtues around him, is depicted in a Christ-like form, duly connecting him to ideas of being a saviour of the Catholic Church. This reflects the ‘ideal’ nature of Bernini’s sculpture, duly fulfilling Clark’s view. However, the sculpture should not simply be viewed as being ‘ideal and eternal’; such a focus arguably risks diminishing its contrast with traditional papal tombs, and Bernini’s earlier Tomb of Urban VIII. Beyond the ornate Baroque style, Bernini effectively memorialises Pope Alexander VII, emphasising his humanity, religious faith, and authority, duly fulfilling Clark’s view of the ‘ideal and eternal’ nature of Bernini’s sculptural work.


[1] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: John Murray Publishers Ltd, 1969), 182.

[2] Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1964), 94-95.

[3] Judith Bernstock, “Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII,” Saggi e Memorie Di Storia Dell’arte 16 (1988): 184.

[4] Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (London: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 199.

[5] Michael Koortbojian, “Disegni for the Tomb of Alexander VII,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 54 (1991): 268-273.

[6] Bernstock, “Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII,” 175.

[7] Bernstock, “Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII,” 181.

[8] Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (London: Phaidon, 1955), 26.

[9] Philipp Fehl, “Bernini’s ‘Triumph of Truth Over England’,” The Art Bulletin 48, no. 3/4 (1966): 404.

[10] Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture, 95.

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