6 Extraordinary Examples of Gian Lorenzo Bernini Sculpture

January 5, 2019

A prominent Italian sculptor and architect of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, also known as Giovanni Lorenzo, is credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. One scholar described him as "the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful." Indeed, the Bernini sculpture is celebrated for its remarkable execution and dramatic and eloquent vocabulary.

Recognized as a prodigy already at the age of eight, Bernini's career began under his father Pietro Bernini, a Florentine sculptor of some talent who eventually moved to Rome. His art flourished under the patronage of its cardinals and popes, dominating the Roman art world of the time.

Bernini's Baroque works challenged contemporary artistic traditions in both art and architecture, revealing an innovative interpretation of subjects, use of forms, and the combination of media. He was praised for his remarkable ability to depict dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organize large-scale Baroque sculptural works that convey a magnificent grandeur. His technical skill of marble carving was also exquisite, which made him a worthy successor of Michelangelo. He is also notable for using light as an important theatrical and metaphorical device in his religious settings, relying on hidden light sources which could enhance the dramatic moment of a sculptural narrative. Among his most notable works are St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and the Fountain dei Quattro Fiumi in Rome.

Bernini's popularity was the greatest during the reigns of Urban VIII and Alexander VII and he was able to secure the most important commissions in the Rome of his day. Following his accession to the papacy, Urban VIII has supposedly said: "It is a great fortune for you, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini made pope, but our fortune is even greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate." Rome was Bernini's city. "You are made for Rome," said Pope Urban VIII to him, "and Rome for you."

By the end of Bernini's life, a decided reaction against his brand of flamboyant Baroque works began to emerge. The decline of his popularity only excelled after his death, remaining in effect until well into the twentieth century. However, Bernini's work has been enthusiastically restored to favor during the 21st century, only intensifying after the anniversary year of his birth in 1998.

Let's take a look at some of the works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Apollo and Daphne (detail), 1622-25. All images Wikimedia Commons.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52

The central sculptural group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is widely considered to be on of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It is a portrait of Teresa of Avila, a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun, author, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. Besides the sculpture, Bernini designed the inside architecture and setting of the church Chapel in marble, stucco and paint.

The work features figures of the swooning nun and the angel with a spear, referring to an episode from Teresa's autobiography The Life of Teresa of Jesus when she experienced a religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel. The cloud on which Teresa is lying on refers to a divine apparition we are witnessing. Around the sculpture, Bernini created life-size high-relief donor portraits of male members of the Cornaro family. As art historian Rudolf Wittkower noted, the sculptor "differentiated between various degrees of reality, the members of the Cornaro Chapel seem to be alive like ourselves," while "the supernatural event of Teresa's vision is raised to a sphere of its own."

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52. Marble Sculpture, life-size. Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Architas.

The Rape of Proserpina, 1621-22

A large sculptural group executed between 1621 and 1622, The Rape of Proserpina depicts the Abduction of Proserpina, where she is seized and taken by the god Pluto. Bernini created this remarkable piece when he was only 23 years old. Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, it was given to Cardinal Ludovisi by Scipione upon its completion, only to return to the Villa Borghese in 1908 when it was purchased by the Italian State. Due to the twisted contrapposto or the "figura serpentinata" pose of the group, the viewer can grasp the entirety of the scene from one point of view.

Bernini's own son and biographer Domenico described the sculpture as "an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty." Many other critics initially praised the sculpture, including Howard Hibbard who noted the realistic effects that Bernini had achieved in his chosen material. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many critics found fault in the piece. While some described Pluto figure as "extravagant, without character, nobleness of expression", others described him as "not a true divinity, but a decorative god."

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - The Rape of Proserpina, 1621-22. Carrara marble sculpture, 225cm (89 in). Galleria Borghese, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Alvesgaspar

Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25

Housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Apollo and Daphne was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese after he gave The Rape of Proserpina to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. It depicts the climax of the story of Daphne and Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

While Apollo was hit by Cupid's love-exciting arrow when he saw Daphne, the Nymph has been fated by love-repelling one and denies his love. Tired of Apollo's chasing, she prayed to her father Peneus, a river god, to destroy her beauty, who granted her wish and turned her into a tree. However, Apollo lost none of his passion for her. Although multiple angles provide further details, Bernini conceived the sculpture to be viewed side on, so the viewer can fully grasp the entire narrative of this captivating story.

While Bernini had help from a member of his workshop, Giuliano Finelli, many historians reject the importance of his contribution. The sculpture immediately garnered much critical acclaim and the praise continued even after the decline of Bernini's reputation. In the 19th century, one literary journal described it as the only Bernini work worthy of lasting praise. A contemporary art historian Robert Torsten Petersson described it as "an extraordinary masterpiece ... suffused with an energy that works out of the tips of the laurel leaves and Apollo's hand and drapery."

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25. Marble sculpture, 243cm (96 in). Gallerie Borghese, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Architas

David, 1623-24

A life-size marble sculpture, David is a portrait of the biblical David as he prepares to throw a stone that would defeat Goliath. Another piece commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, it still resides in the Galleria Borghese. Bernini depicted David dressed in typical shepherd's attire, with the armor of Israel's King, Saul, given to David for battle, and his harp, lying beneath.

The work is celebrated for breaking new ground in its implied movement and its psychological intensity, especially compared to previous depictions of the theme. A three-dimensional work of a changing nature, the sculpture is conceived to encourage the viewer to walk around it. David's anger and face expression refer to Goliath whom we cannot see, so the spectator can feel as caught in the middle of the conflict. This is further accentuated by the figure overstepping the boundaries between life and art, putting his toes over the edge of the plinth. Capturing a fraction of time in the course of a continuous movement, Bernini's David is in the process of releasing his energy.

Bernini might have been familiar with the writings of Leonardo da Vinci on how to depict a throwing figure:

If you represent him beginning the motion, then the inner side of the outstretched foot will be in line with the chest, and will bring the opposite shoulder over the foot on which his weight rests. That is: the right foot will be under his weight, and the left shoulder will be above the tip of the right foot.

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - David, 1623-24. Marble sculpture. Marble sculpture, 170cm (67 in). Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, 1618-19

Housed in the Galleria Borghese, Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius depicts a scene from the Aeneid, when the hero Aeneas leads his family from burning Troy.

Made when Bernini was only 20 years old, it is believed he was helped by his father Pietro, who was famous for his Mannerist sculptures which were even commissioned by the Pope. It was one of the sculptures which caught the attention of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who would later commission many pieces from him.

There are several earlier sculptures which influenced the work, including The figure of Christ by Michelangelo, John the Baptist by Pietro Bernini, as well as Raphaels Fire at the Borgo and Barocci’s own interpretation of the Flight of Aeneas.

There are three generations of the Aeneas family depicted. Aeneas himself, who is a semi-god, is depicted with the lion skin draped around his body, which commonly stands for power and is related to Hercules. In the sculpture, many saw the evolution from earlier Mannerist sculptures, as Bernini conceived it so the viewer can see the expression of the three characters from a single viewpoint.

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, 1618-19. Mable sculpture, 220 cm (87 in). Galleria Borghese, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Architas

Bust of Louis XIV, 1665

Described as the "grandest piece of portraiture of the baroque age", this marble bust of Louis XIV of France was created when Bernini visited Paris in 1665 as part of a larger diplomatic exchange between the Papacy and France. It is housed at the Versailles Palace, in the Salon de Diane in the King's Grand Apartment.

Although Bernini was initially invited to create new designs for the Louvre Palace, these were never acted upon, reflecting the general antagonism between the Italian Bernini and certain members within the French court. However, the bust was praised as a major success.

Taking only three months to carve, the bust was created during sittings with the King. Bernini's son and biographer, Domenico Bernini, noted the artistic arguments of his father as to why the King agreed to sit for such a length of time, explaining that the artist preferred to work from Truth than from sketches. Also through interactions with the King, the sculptor could capture all his characteristics.  Bernini once said that "mere resemblance is inadequate. One must express what goes on in the heads of heroes."

Bernini depicted Louis in armor, drawing on notions of heroic kings such as Alexander the Great. The King is depicted as a stately character, combining grandeur with a rich elegance of spirit.

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Bust of Louis XIV, 1665. Marble sculpture of Louis XIV of France, 80 cm (31 in). Palace of Versailles, Versailles. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Louis Le Grand.