Bernini’s Bronze Sculpture of Four “Giants” of the Church

Today, May 2nd, is the “Memorial” day of St. Athanasius, a Doctor (profound theologian) of the Church.

There are four “giants” of the Nicene  and Post Nicene period, all are known as “Doctors” of the Church: St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. They are immortalized in bronze by  the Renaissance sculptor, Bernini, and are portrayed in his magnificent sculpture of the Throne of St. Peter found in the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom are saints of both the Latin and the Greek Rites of the Church. Both were bishops. Yet, Bernini does not put the Bishop’s mitre on their heads. Sadly, the sting of the Great Schism of 1054 between the Latin and Greek Rites still stung in the 17th century.

Thus, these two Greek Fathers of the Church were slighted, not because of anything that they did (they were profound shepherds and theologians), but because Bernini wanted the authority of and preeminence of St. Peter’s position of “first among many” and the importance of two of the Latin Rite Fathers, to be showcased in bronze and remembered in the centuries to come.

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The above photo is the “Chair of St. Peter” and is found in St. Peter’s Basilica (Chair created 1656 – 1665). It is an extraordinary masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) which he made for Pope Alexander VII (Chigi family, 1655/67). Bernini was a child prodigy and polymath. This Chair proved to be a wooden throne dating to the year 875. It was donated by Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII (served AD 872/882) on the occasion of his coronation to the papacy. Four humongous bronze statues of Doctors of the Church flank the chair: In front to the right “St. Augustine”, to the left “St. Ambrose” (Latin Rite). Behind to the left “St. Athanasius”, to the right “St. John Chrysostom” (Greek Rite). The entire bronze structure’s weight is 74 tonnes (81.5 tons). The height is 14.74 m (48.3 feet). The statues of the Doctors of the Church are 5.35 m (17.5 feet) high. Above the four saints is located a stained glass window: “Dove of the Holy Spirit,” dated 1911 by the German glassmaker Hagle from the original design of Giovanni Paolo Schor (1615/74). These facts are from https://romapedia.blogspot.com/2013/10/basilica-of-st-peter-second-part_3.html. That blog is edited by David Macch. This is an excellent website about all aspects of the art, architecture, and history of Rome.

There are five Councils of the Church that had major impact on the development of the Church’s sacred art: the Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Nicaea/Constantinople, the Council of Ephesus, the Council of Chalcedon, and the 2nd Council of Nicaea (2nd Nicaea met in AD 787 and is the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils). Besides these Councils all the Church Fathers through their scholarship, pastoral zeal, and extraordinary homilies, witnessed to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Holy Trinity.

The list below provides the names and birth/death dates of the Fathers of the Church within the “Post Nicene” (that is, the time after the Council of Nicaea, AD 325) period of Church history. A quick review of each of their contributions will prove to be beneficial to you if you decide to paint a sacred image of them. How can you truly benefit from painting a sacred image of a person that you don’t know! 🙂

I recommend that you refer to my bibliography (“Early Church Fathers”) provided in my post of February 8, 2019. There are a number of different books in that bibliography that will prove to be helpful to you.

The Post Nicene Church Fathers born within the Western (Latin) Rite are:

St. Ambrose (AD 340-397),

St. Jerome (AD 345 – 420),

St. Augustine (AD 345-430),

Pope St. Leo the Great (AD 400 – AD 461),

St. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480 – 547) and

Pope St. Gregory the Great (AD 540 – 604);

the Post Nicene Fathers born within the Eastern (Greek) Rite are:

St. Athanasius (AD 295 -373) – (he straddles the Nicene and Post Nicene Periods),

St. Basil the Great (AD 330 – 379),

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330 – 390),

St. Gregory of Nyssa (AD 330 – 395)

St. John Chrysostom (AD 345 – 407),

and St. John Damascene (Damascus) (AD 675 – 749) 

All of the saints listed, including those in the Greek Rite, are venerated within the Western Rite of the Catholic Church.

Ciao!

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

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