S. Maria Della Vittoria: Revitalizing the Roman Catholic Church

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church was facing the erosion of its congregations stemming from the popularization of science, Protestant forces, civil unrest and economic warefare. (Kostof) If it was to remain one of the largest landholders in Europe, the papacy would have to find a way to draw people back into the church. Pope Sixtus V began the process of revitalization first by creating a network of straight avenues that connected many important churches across the vast expanse of Rome. (Trachtenberg) Not only did this allow these churches to be more visible and omnipresent, it allowed for a more theatrical approach and entrance that could build up anticipation and excitement around the church. Theatricality was the very essence of how the Roman Catholic Church would attract more congregates and create a renewed faith the lord. The name of this theatrical new style was Baroque.

S. Maria della Vittoria is the perfect example of how the Roman Catholic Church fought to maintain its power in Rome. Originally built by Protestants and named St.Paul, the church was converted to Catholicism after Protestant defeat in the Thirty Years War. The victorious Catholic army delivered an image of the Madonna that had belonged to a soldier/monk of the church of St. Paul while he fought against the Protestants. The church was renamed S. Maria della Vittoria in honor of this image as a symbol of Catholic victory. As a result, this small church was repeatedly remodeled and eventually became “one of the most complete examples of Baroque decoration in Rome.” (Riccardo) Most notable of these remodeling efforts was the work done by Bernini on the Cornaro Chapel.

Bernini was already renowned in Rome for architecture that was exuberant, expressive and even flamboyant. (Trachtenberg) By creating spaces that were alive with dramatic lighting, poignant sculpture and painting that fooled the eye, Bernini and architects like him gave the Church the answer to their prayers. They created a style that drew congregations into churches to behold the wonders held within. In the Cornaro Chapel, Bernini’s sculpture depicting the Ecstasy of St. Teresa is one such wonder. Dramatically lit by sunlight entering from a hidden source, the statue appears to writhe with life as her heart is pierced by a divine arrow. A window and an elaborately painted mural on the wall and ceiling above the exquisite, theatrical scene of St. Teresa creates the illusion of an angel-filled sky radiating beams heavenly light upon the “audience” of congregates below. On either side of the tableau, flawlessly carved figures of the Cornaro family gaze upon the scene from a theater style balcony that recedes into an imagined world created by sculpture, adding an even more surreal and mystical element to this chapel. (Trachtenberg)

With these three primary elements, Bernini and the Catholic Church created “one of the most dynamic multimedia complexes in Roman Baroque art.” By theatrically combining sculpture, painting and architecture together with dramatic lighting, the Catholic Church revived its ebbing ranks by exploiting the crowd-pleasing potential of this dramatic new style. luck were essential in this union between Baroque architects and the needs of the Church. Just as architects such as Bernini were beginning to experiment in combining Classical elements with new, more dynamic forms, the Catholic Church was beginning to look for a new architecture to revive its image in order to compete with Protestantism, science and a myriad of other threats. The new theatrical forms proposed by Bernini and others fit perfectly with how the Roman Catholic papacy wanted to breathe new life into its churches. Dramatic lighting, illusory murals, fantastic curvilinear forms, wildly realistic sculpture, and rich, colorful interiors gave architects reasons to build and the Catholic Church a solution to its declining numbers.

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