Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo: Reimagining the Human Path to Salvation Through Architecture

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By Melissa Butz

Known for its appearance in “Angels and Demons,” Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo or Castle of the Holy Angel is a popular tourist spot. However, many overlook the bridge in front – a significant spot that takes us back to a critical moment in Christianity.

The Holy Angel bridge was originally built in 134 AD as a passageway to pagan Roman Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum. But in 590, after the fall of the Roman Empire, St. Michael the Archangel miraculously appeared to Pope Gregory the Great above the castle giving it a new religious meaning.

Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, says the castle became even more noteworthy as Christian pilgrims flocked to Rome in the 1300s. But it took another 300 years before the iconic angels were erected.  

“Clement IX starts thinking, ‘You know what? We need to jazz up this bridge,’” says Elizabeth. “In the 1670s, 1675 is going to be a Jubilee Year, so why not make it even more exciting for the pilgrims? They do it by adding these angels.”

The statues were designed by a 70-year-old Bernini, who, as a devout Catholic, was thinking about the end of his life. The angels represent the artist’s thoughts on the way to salvation, shown through Jesus’ passion.

“You start at the beginning of the road with St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Peter is telling you, ‘This is the road where the humble find forgiveness,’” says Elizabeth. “St. Paul is telling you, ‘This is the road where the proud find their comeuppance’ and you see these instruments.” 

They are displayed in each angels’ hands: ranging from the whips, to Jesus’ garments, to the cross and the sponge with vinegar that quenched Jesus’ thirst. 

“These angels were really designed,” says Elizabeth, “as you go to St. Peter’s, where you will receive your plenary indulgence… this is a way of reminding you what that salvation, what that forgiveness cost you.”

Elizabeth explains that today, tourists in the Eternal City often miss the importance of the bridge. Now, the pathway is crowded with vendors selling items on the ground, causing pilgrims to look down, instead of up at the angelic portrayal of the Way of the Cross.

Just as this pathway is a symbolic crossing over into salvation, pope’s also used it to save themselves. Escaping from the Holy See in a secret tunnel that led all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo. In fact, in 1527, Pope Clement VII was the very first one to use this escape route while fleeing the Sack of Rome.