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 direct inspection.
Fig. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Funerary monument to Alessandro Valtrini, S. Lorenzo in Damaso, Rome