Sculpting Matilda: The Sculptural Legacy of Bernini’s Monument of Countess Matilda in St. Peter’s in Rome
Amy Cymbala, PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
Matilda of Canossa - familiar to scholars of medieval papal history as a champion of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy - is best known to seventeenth-century scholars through the controversy which erupted from the “holy robbery” of her body in 1633. Under the cloak of night and the pope’s command, Matilda of Canossa’s body was taken from its tomb at the Lombard monastery of San Benedetto Polirone, much to the public outcry of the local religious community who venerated the eleventh-century noblewoman’s remains as “holy relics.” Her body was brought to Rome, and placed within an elaborate tomb in a strategic spot on the second right pier on the right aisle of St. Peter’s – a location that situated her directly on route to the Porta Sancta, through which Juibilee pilgrims would have to pass to receive an Indulgence of the Holy Year.
Through text, painting, and sculpture commissions, the celebratory “cult” of the Guelph noblewoman and papal supporter was invigorated on a grand scale under the cultural patronage of Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). The tomb monument to Matilda of Canossa (1637) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, remains one of the master sculptor’s least appreciated works; art historians quick to characterize the work as “expressionless,” “disappointing,” and “lifeless,” have dubbed the statue “Chilly Matilda.” However, such a critical reception belies the influential role that the monument played in seventeenth-century monument design. Seventeen years after the monument’s unveiling, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to complete an equestrian monument of Emperor Constantine, asking that the monument be made in the likeness of the monument to Matilda. Equally, when Pope Innocent XII commissioned the funerary monument for Queen Christine of Sweden he requested the work be similar to that of the Countess Matilda (“a somoglianza della quello Contessa Matilda”).
Using the lens of agency, Cymbala’s paper investigates why Matilda’s sculpted image became so central to papal commissions in the later half of the seventeenth century. Examining the sculptural interplay between the monuments to Matilda, Constantine, and Christine of Sweden, Cymbala will highlight the papal goals and political messages that such sculptural relationships espoused in the age of Catholic Reform in Rome.