Sunday, January 07, 2007

St Peter`s Basilica: The Door of Death

"My good son Giacomo, you must promise me to finish the doors of St. Peter's as soon as possible."

Each time Pope John XXIII posed for a bust during the summer of 1961, he urged Italian Sculptor Giacomo Manzù (born December 22, 1908, Bergamo; died January 17, 1991, Ardea) to get on with a Vatican commission for new bronze doors for the left-hand side of St. Peter's façade.

Renaissance Sculptor Antonio Filarete completed the massive central doors of St. Peter's Basilica in the fifteenth century. His bronze doors were flanked, somewhat incongruously, by plain oak ones—and were for more than five hundred years.

In 1947, Pope Pius XII had set up an international competition for the design of new doors to replace the old oak doors. In 1950, Manzù was commissioned to provide the doors for the "Door of Death": the door at the far left of the facade and was only used for funerals. The commissions for the central doors were awarded to conservative and safe choices: Biagini and Crocetti.

It was clear that the choice of Manzù was not at all one which met with universal approval with the Vatican authorities. In 1947, the Holy Office had criticised Manzù for depicting a Christ crucified- without any clothes. He also had close contacts with the Italian Communist party. His design was modern rather than classical.

As regards his wining design, all the figures were this time fully clothed. The large left-hand panel of his door showed such great teacher-saints as John the Baptist, Augustine, Benedict, Ignatius and John Bosco. The right-hand panel included such confessor-and martyr-saints as Francis of Assisi, Dominic and Joan of Arc. As it turned out, the finished doors were completely different from the initial design.

But once he had won, Manzù admitted, the commission bored him. He cast, and then rejected, a scale model of the doors in 1954, and eventually discarded more than 300 sketches for the project.

In 1962, Manzù managed to complete a design to his satisfaction.

In 1963, after viewing a plaster cast of the doors, Vatican representatives objected to four of the panels as too profane: Cain and Abel, death by hanging, death of a mother, death in space. Manzù staged a studio sit-in, and finally got his own way by threatening not to finish the doors at all.

In June 1964 workmen hoisted the ten-ton bronze portals into place.

Two large panels picture the crucifixion of Christ and the death of the Virgin Mary, her body supported by two angels before its assumption into heaven. Below there are scenes of death from the sacred history of the church—Abel clubbed by his brother Cain, St. Joseph waiting calmly for the ebbing of life, the first Christian martyr St. Stephen being stoned by a Jerusalem mob, Gregory VII dying on his papal throne.

The agony of modern death is shown as well: a Bergamo partisan hanged upside down by the Fascists, Pope John praying in the Vatican Palace, the body of a mother watched by her weeping child, and an incontrollably tumbling human figure dying in space.

Manzù signed the work with the imprint of his right hand.

Door of Death at