In the Piazza della Minerva, Rome, you will find Bernini’s famous but curious elephant-obelisk. What is much less well-known however, is the symbolism behind the obelisk, which may answer the question as to why Bernini created such an unusual sculpture.
Bernini’s design for the base of the obelisk, a stone elephant, is very similar to an engraving that appeared in Hypnerotomachia Polophili [Poliphilo’s Dream of the Strife of Love], the extraordinary Renaissance roman-a-clef published in Venice in 1499 (portraying well-known real people disguised as fictional characters.) (A piece on this work will follow shortly).
While for Egyptians, the obelisk symbolised the “divine rays of the Sun”, the great mass of the elephant symbolised the Earth, With its trunk, it draws up water (the rain) which flows through the interior: the Earth is nourished, and with the help of the Sun (the obelisk) which traverses the Earth (the elephant), the grain is fertilised, so that it can be reborn and flourish.
In the text that inspired Bernini, the reader enters the elephant, inside of which a man and a woman are represented. The full force of the symbol is thus revealed: besides the grain which is reborn and fertilised, the elephant-obelisk symbolises the resurrection of the body, a belief transmitted by the Egyptians (notably in the Book of the Dead) to the Hebrews and Christians to become a central element of Christianity. At the Last Judgment (like the biblical Jonah who emerges from the belly of the whale), man will leave the Earth to rise again from the dead.
Pope Alexander Vii, who commissioned the monument from Bernini in 1667, to be erected on the site of a former Temple of Isis, possessed a copy (annotated in his own hand) of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and it was he who had the Latin phrase inscribed on the base recalling the immense wisdom passed down from ancient Egypt : Sapientis Egypti / insculptus obelisco figuras / ab elephanto / belluarum fortissima /gestari quisquis hic vides / documentum intellige / robustae mentis esse / solidam sapientiam sustinere [These symbols of the science of Egypt, which you see engraved on the obelisk borne by the elephant, the most powerful of all animals, take them as the precept that a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge].
Remember too, that in Christian doctrine, the resurrection of Christ foreshadows that of all men and women at the Last Judgment. Finally, the Bernini sculpture also bears an eight-pointed star and the figure 8 for Christians, is the symbol of resurrection.
So next time you see the elephant-obelisk in Rome, certainly admire it for it is a beautiful piece of sculpture but think on the symbolism… it gives a new depth of appreciation.