St. Peter's

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Enter; its grandeur overwhelms thee not;
And why? it is not lessen'd but thy mind,
Expanded by the genius of the spot,
Has grown colossal, and can only find
A fit abode wherein appear enshrined
Thy hopes of immortality; and thou
Shalt one day, if found worthy, so defined,
See thy God face to face, as thou dost now
His Holy of Holies, nor be blasted by his brow.;

Thou movest—but increasing with the advance,
Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,
Deceived by its gigantic elegance;
Vastness which grows—but grows to harmonize—
All musical in its immensities;
Rich marbles—richer painting—shrines where flame
The lamps of gold—and haughty dome which vies
In air with Earth's chief structures, though their frame
Sits on the firm-set ground—and this the clouds must claim.

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)

Turner employed transparent washes to capture the atmospheric effects of St. Peter’s. The flood of light descending from Michelangelo’s dome seems almost palpable as it casts into relief the spiral columns of Bernini’s baldachin in the distant crossing. Turner understood that the titanic architecture of St. Peter’s is not so much an exercise in the deployment of mass and surface as it is about the molding of space, which flows freely through the nave, aisles, and crossing. The artist introduces diminutive human figures to establish the colossal scale of the basilica, which was often criticized in the nineteenth century.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica, ca. 1819-20. The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection. Photography by Steven H. Crossot

Location photography by John Pinto