Bernini’s “Fonseca Chapel” (circa 1660) at San Lorenzo in Lucina
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, September 2018
Recently I was in Rome and dropped in again on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque bel composto (beautiful assemblage) mixed-media niche at the Fonseca Chapel that he designed around 1660. It is an excellent example of where art forms are drawn peripherally outside of themselves, both in terms of form and content.
The chapel, which is about pregnancy, was named after Gabriele Fonseca, the doctor Pope Innocent X, and is located within the San Lorenzo in Lucina church. Standing before it I found myself fascinated once again by the upper third portion of this assemblage composition: the segment concerning the inter-relationships between the angelic baby bodies and their position in (and relationship to) space, weight, and light.
My attention was specifically drawn to the way in which the floating winged babies and infants - first depicted in the top third of the painting - are extended conceptually beyond the limits of the painted canvas up into the relief sculpted garland of putti that haunt the vault of the dome. This dome’s shape itself circles a central oculus opening that allows light into the composition from the sky above, and whose small white roof is decorated with peering bird-baby faces. This progression of visual events presents an interesting expansion of the frame and invites issues of bodily, mental and spiritual expansion to be considered.
But in order to first understand what Bernini was trying to say with this rippling undulation of floating bodies, linked together in a fluid ensemble of painting-sculpture-architecture-light designed to create the experience of an overall expanding frame of reference, I needed to research the metaphysical underpinnings that drove this artistic expression. Specifically, the metaphysical ideology behind conceptions and representations of angels of the time. For far from being the quibblings of cloistered theologians baring no relationship to life, during the baroque period, angelic concerns were at the bedrock of the Catholic Church’s theological, cosmological, and philosophical teachings that Bernini’s spectacular art was meant to communicate. Indeed, considerations of the angel’s efficacy set down an influential model for human potentiality writ large back then.
The term angel is derived from the Greek word angelos which means courier. In that the messages delivered are airborne and move, angels fly and are winged. In the 13th century, Franciscan philosopher Bonaventure had successfully argued against the Aristotelian Dominicans that no pure form existed in creation and so angels were composed of matter bound up with the principles of light, otherness and mutability. Following this Bonaventurian mutable model, the angels portrayed in Bernini’s Fonseca Chapel seem to have bodies constructed of flighty hyper-materiality. The main point of Bonaventurian angelology was the idealization of angel flesh as containing a semi-light component, and their location and existence in space as being semi-material in a way that is virtually interchangeable with immaterial spatiality.
This semi-solid/semi-light quality of the flying bird-baby bodies is represented, I take it, by the leaking aspect of the art techniques used here. Where one technique flows into the other. The painted flying figures conceptually spill over into the painting’s impure black marble-veined oval frame and, once crossed, are picked up in the architecturally-domed space where angelic musical figures play in the play of natural light which constantly shifts and so re-defines their visual clarity. From the painted portion of the composto, “Annunciation” (1664) that was executed by Giacinto Gimignani in 1664 based on the arched-shaped painting “Annunciation” (1612) by Guido Reni, the garland of transmogrifying angels is conceptually transposed into the bas-relief sculptural section of the composto, overflowing the painting’s frame and expanding into the space of architecture on route to, or from, the circular domed light-source, which both physically clarifies and luminescently dissolves the angelic forms. Curiously, the relief figures on the lip of outer gold dome seem to be looking down from above at the painted annunciation image, as if this prenatal secene was floating on the surface of a pool of still water.
That shift in perspective implies that the viewer herself might be floating in air - sharing that above point-of-view. The up-twist in the composition implies an uplifted, out-of-body experience for the attentive viewer that can provide a wonderful feeling of buoyancy.
The oval format Bernini chose for the “Annunciation” painting suggests to me that it was meant to insinuate in abstaina the female sexual cavity and its potential dialating and reproductive capacities. Certainly on entering the sombre San Lorenzo in Lucina on a sunny bright day and approaching the dim chapel, various dilations of the eye’s pupil occur in reaction the oculus’s luminous offerings, something that harmonizes with the dilation process of the female sexual aperture which proceeds and precludes reproductive sex and natural birth.
Up high in the composto, bird-baby figures appear to emerge out of this luminous oculus and float around, their tiny winged nude bodies appearing light as a feather, as if made up of semi-radient matter. These individual wispy forms that construct the cone of cherubs leading to and from the oculus in the dome grow progressively smaller the closer they are placed to the light-emmiting source, creating the impression that their bodies are so much as light as to penetrate the stucco material that forms the dome like the oculus does. This imagry implies that the architecture itself has no more physical density than a cloud, and it is precisely here where bird-baby flesh seems to go outside of itself, breath-like.
Through this baroque art of mixed-media, Bernini’s angelic cortege is privileged to escape the rules of containment which matter imposes upon flesh. In the Fonseca Chapel his art seems to make factual flesh expand into ecstasy, into ex-stasis, which literally means to go outside of that which is standing still. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author