Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Papst Alexander VII. mit Berninis Totenkopf, 1655/56
© Sovereign Order of Malta - Grand Magistry

Bernini, the Pope and Death

With his buildings and fountains, the great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) has had an enduring influence on the physical appearance of the city of Rome. His famous sculptures have come to epitomise the Baroque style. In the course of his life, Bernini served under eight popes, but his relationship with Alexander VII Chigi was particularly close. During his pontificate, the artist not only designed the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square and the pope’s monumental tomb, but also created very intimate works of art for him. One of these, previously considered lost, has now been rediscovered in the Skulpturensammlung – an exciting find with a fascinating history.


  • DATES 28/05/2021—21/11/2021

[Translate to English:] Bei dem Meisterwerk

This unusual masterpiece is an extremely impressive, life-size death’s head made of white Carrara marble. It is so realistically sculpted that it could almost be mistaken for a genuine human skull. This death’s head was commissioned from Bernini by Alexander VII immediately after his election as Pope in 1655, and thenceforth it lay on his desk as a reminder of the fragility of human existence. After the demise of Alexander VII, the death’s head became the property of his nephew, an eminent collector of antiquities. In 1728, his collection, which had remained in the possession of the Chigi family, was acquired for Augustus the Strong. As a result, 164 antique sculptures and four contemporary works came to Dresden. 

© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Totenkopf, 1655

[Translate to English:] Dank sorgfältiger Recherchen

One of these “modern” works was referred to in the correspondence preceding the purchase as “Una celebre testa di Morto, opera del Cav[alie]r Bernini” (“A famous skull, work of the Knight Bernini”). Careful research has now proven that it was this “famous skull” that came to Dresden in 1728, and that it is indeed a work by Bernini.

© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Totenkopf, 1655

[Translate to English:] Diese Objekte waren

In the seventeenth century, sudden and often violent death was omnipresent, which is why people were intensely preoccupied with mortality. A constant threat was posed not only by wars and assaults, but above all by diseases. In 1656 there was an outbreak of plague in Rome, and it is remarkable how closely the measures Alexander VII used to fight the epidemic (quarantine, masks, and the extensive shutting down of public life) resemble those that determine our everyday life in the face of the coronavirus today. Death, too, is again more prominent in people’s consciousness due to the current situation, and Bernini’s death’s head thus proves to be a memento mori of extraordinary topical relevance.

[Translate to English:] Impressionen

Tour through the online exhibition

We invite you to get to know the exhibition in a virtual live tour (45 minutes) with our guide via video conference. Free of charge! Technical requirements: internet-enabled device (computer, tablet, smartphone), broadband internet connection, compatible browser: Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Firefox. Simply follow the link to the conference in the dates, registration is not required. English dates available!

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© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Oliver Killig


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publication accompanying the exhibition

Bernini, the Pope and Death

editor: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Stephan Koja; Claudia Kryza-Gersch, 144 pages, 134 images, 25 x 20 cm, publication date 28.5.2021, ISBN 978-3-95498-615-6, 19,80 €

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Papst Alexander VII. mit Berninis Totenkopf, 1655/56
© Kunstsammlung des Souveränen Malteser-Ritter-Ordens, Rom (Sovereign Order of Malta - Grand Magistry), Foto: Nicusor Floroaica
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Balthasar Permoser, Weinendes Kind, um 1725
© Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Jürgen Karpinski

[Translate to English:] weitere

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