Saturday, January 30, 2010

Vatican City: Pope Joan?

The client asks the tour guide: "Is that a woman pope?"

No, She is a symbol of Mother Church (wearing an early version of the tiara).


  1. But, in fact, Bernini, when working at the Confession of St. Peter's Basilica, wanted to make a joke to Pope Urban VIII by representing the tradition of Pope Joan on the Barberini's coats of arms in the pedestals of the Baldacchino. He used the mascarons to represent the sequences of a woman's childbirth. You have to start by the first pedestal at the Gospel side and go in the sense of the clock hands around the Baldacchino to see it. As you may know, accroding to the tradition, Pope Joan gave birth to a child in the middle of a cavalcade between the Colosseum and St. John of Lateran. This is at least curious...

  2. *chuckle*

    I was in Salzburg with a friend one day, walking towards a building with a statue of Justitia on the facade, and overheard an American tourist talking about wanting to get a photo of "the lady with the sword". My friend nearly doubled up laughing at her ignorance.

    Where exactly in Vatican City is that Mother Church figure? I don't think I spotted her when I was there...

  3. A similar fresco from the Vatican Museums:

  4. Curiosus, I'd always heard that the 'childbirth' details carved into the decoration of the bases of the columns of the baldacchino were put in as a thank-offering. Evidently, the Pope wished
    to mark his gratitude for the safety of a favorite niece and her newborn child after a very difficult delivery.

    I've wondered what visitors only used to stark, modern parishes
    make of some allegorical artworks. Do they think they represent
    actual persons? A sculpture of a woman nursing several children
    could seem odd in a church until it's explained that it represents Charity... Such an allegory would have been readily understood
    years ago, but the 'language' seems largely lost now.

  5. A Jesuit historian (worked in Jesuit archives for many years, a good Jesuit) showed me the reliefs your talking about Curiosus. He pointed out that Pope Urban upon hearing his favorite niece was with child but the doctors did not expect both the mother and child to survive childbirth, Urban promised God that if both would live he would give to God out of his family's wealth a massive and beautiful baldiccino in the new St. Peters. The depiction of childbirth is in recognition of the miracle of life the caused Urban to commission the baldiccino.

  6. The story about the Pope's niece is right, but Bernini used this also for making the joke. The artist was so inclined to humor as it is seen also in Piazza Navona, where he was in rivalry with Borromini. If you see attentively at the pedestals in St. Peter, the mascarons are just under the tiaras of the coats of arms, like if the heads were crowned by them. This was a very sophisticated and subtle irony, that was very innocent by that time. The story about Pope Joan did not scandalized anybody during centuries. The Ecclesiastical historians started to refute it only in the late XVI century (Onuphrio Panvinio) because the story was used by the Protestants for attacking the Church. But Italians never cared about its true or falsity. As they say: Se non è vero ben trovato, and the whole subject is amusing, as Bernini and probably Urban VIII considered it.