Bernini's fascination with death found expression in many of his sculptural work involving skeletons as well as imagery implying the inevitable passage of time. Here, a winged skeleton blows out the flame of life from a torch while preparing to drop the lid of a cylindrical sarcophagus in which a man lies — clearly a churchman, as evident from his coat of arms at the end of the coffin, surmounted by a cardinal hat with tassels. Drawn in his succinct and highly expressive style, the scene is enclosed by Bernini in a large circular medallion.
Penned below are the artist's own instructions about the execution of his design: ‘the present scene should be in white marble, in the form of a medal executed in very low relief, because it would be more eternal [e.g. last longer], and the figures will be life-size’. Charles Avery (see Literature) dates the drawing to ca. 1660 and recalls that the artist’s first commission from Pope Alexander VII (1665), was for a coffin and a white marble skull for the papal bedchamber, as a macabre reminder of his mortality. The neat and elegant handwriting, showing no signs of tremor in the strokes, has lead Ann Sutherland Harris to advance an earlier date: in ca. 1640 Bernini was commissioned the extraordinary memorial of Alessandro Valtrini (fig.) which shows similarities to the present drawing, where a skeleton carries an oval portrait medallion of the deceased. We are grateful to her for confirming the attribution to Bernini of the drawing based on a digital photograph.
Fig. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Funerary monument to Alessandro Valtrini, S. Lorenzo in Damaso, Rome