The Bridge of Angels
Posted on July 12, 2019
“What we have is given by God, and to teach it to others is to return it to Him.” – Bernini
Since the early beginnings of the Church, Rome has been at the center of the Christian world, and for centuries pilgrims have traveled to the city to visit its holiest sites. This tradition began in the Middle Ages, when pilgrims would travel across Europe along the Via Francigena to see the tombs of St. Paul and St. Peter in Rome. From there, many would head east to the Holy Land.
The tradition of visiting Rome’s pilgrimage churches, dedicated to the saints and martyrs, began in the mid-15th century. Philip Neri led groups of pilgrims on a day-long walk that began at St. Peter’s and ended at the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore. Along the way, known as the Via delle Sette Chiese, there was music, picnicking, and visits to other five churches – San Paolo fuori le Mura, San Giovanni in Laterano, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and San Sebastiano fuori le Mura.
Just decades before Neri began these pilgrimage walks at the turn of the 15th century, efforts to rebuild the 4th-century Basilica of St. Peter, built to mark the traditional location of the tomb of St. Peter, were begun.
The original church was replaced by a more ornate building, and some of the greatest architects of the Renaissance—Bramante, Sangallo, Raphael, Peruzzi, and most importantly, Michelangelo–contributed to the project in the first half of the 16th century. They transformed the site from a modest and traditional basilica church into the building we know today—the seat of the Bishop of Rome and the center of the Catholic faith.
As Neri’s walks became more popular, guidebooks detailing the pilgrimage sites became common. Thousands visited the city not just to see the churches and relics, but to complete a spiritual journey, reflecting on their faith and meditating on the saints and martyrs for which the churches are named.
Bernini’s statues along the Bridge of the Angels provide a moment for just this kind of meditation. The bridge was originally created in the second century A.D. by Hadrian to link his mausoleum, now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo, to the center of ancient Rome. That bridge became the traditional route for pilgrims traveling through Rome to reach St. Peter’s Basilica.
Atop Castel Sant’Angelo and terminating the view across the bridge is a statue of Saint Michael, the archangel, armed with a sword to guard the city and its residents as a patron of God’s divine judgement and protection. Mentioned only a few times throughout the Gospels, Michael embodies Christ’s mercy to mankind as he guides their souls towards Heaven at the hour of their death and protects them against the temptations of Satan.
It is said that Saint Michael appeared atop Hadrian’s mausoleum to mark the end of the plague in the 500s, and the popes named the building for him and crowned it with his likeness when it became a castle in the 1300s. Historically, criminals traveled along the bridge toward Castel Sant’Angelo and the statue of the archangel before they met the death penalty.
Commissioned to create sculptures for this bridge by Pope Clement IX, Bernini drew upon the bridge’s ancient origins, its relationship to St. Peter’s, and the myth of St. Michael to design a place for pilgrims to meditate on the Passion of Christ. Each of the angels, who stand atop pedestals, supported by the arches below, carries one of the instruments of the Passion. Unfortunately, Bernini was commissioned for the project late in his life and was only able to complete two of the 10 angels.
Gianlorenzo Bernini practiced what would later be called the bel composto-the beautiful blend between sculpture, painting, and architecture. In Rome, this idea translates beyond the arts and architecture into the fabric of the city itself. Bernini’s work at the Pont Sant’Angelo is an example of just this—its sculptures are not just an isolated moment of beauty seen while crossing the Tiber, they contribute both to the larger plan of Rome and to the long history of the city and the Church itself.