Bernini Started It

Charlotte Matthai
Ryan Clement

Mark Jarzombek

Yolande Daniels
Timothy Hyde
Deborah Garcia

Bernini’s altar at St. Peter’s Basilica is a sacred focal point and manifestation of divine power and glory - the Church at the height of its power and an authoritative flaunting of papal infallibility.

The altar rests upon the tomb of St. Peter from which the Pope traces his legitimacy.  At this place of sacrifice, wine is transubstantiated to blood and bread to flesh.  Yet beneath the sacrificial locus - at the foot of the Pope - are lurking flesh and fluids not-so-divine.  Sculpted into the Barberini crest on the piers of the Baldacchino are the face and genitals of a woman in labor.  Viewed in a circumambulatory procession, the rhythms of contractions are depicted through her facial contortions and vaginal transmutation. Her genitals are thinly disguised as the face of a satyr that emerges in the final scene, no longer a virgin and hungry for more.  This is not the vagina of Mary; this was not an immaculate conception.

Bernini has inserted an other, a queer, an abject form of the revered sacrifices upon the altar.  They’re all fluids; they’re all flesh.  Yet the ones above hold a godly and masculine power, whereas the feminine fluids below are execrated and feared within the western Catholic heteronormative tradition.

The altar provokes fantasies of queer desire and expression, yet it is stunted and entangled in a tradition of Western sexual monolingualism.   What would it look like to unleash the altar from these constraints, to reorient “straightness” by centering the queer? How can we tap into this papal-sacrificial-dogmatic-lineage of legitimacy?  How can we seize ecclesiastical power and appropriate TRANSubstantiation to affirm earthly human bodies, to legitimate bodies beyond the binary, and to acknowledge the sacrifice of bodies beyond human?