Interior design of St Peter’s Concathedral Church

The architect, designer and design theoretician Bernardo Bernardi (1921-1985) created a multidimensional architectural and design oeuvre including theoretical publications between 1951 and 1985. After his graduation from the Architecture Department at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Zagreb in 1948 he started his recognizable and dynamic professional career as a free lance architect and designer. His prolific career encompassed not only architectural design but also a wide range of professional activities including interior design of public, business and private premises, furniture industrial design, and exhibition layout. Moreover, he was involved in the most significant events in the history of Croatian design.

With the aim to offer a revealing insight and a critical evaluation of Bernardi’s outstanding and prolific work, this research has pointed up the unknown and unresearched segments of the author’s liturgical interior design of which his relevant bibliography does not provide sufficient information. This paper presents a research on this segment of the author’s work exemplified by the St Peter’s Concathedral Church in Split. The paper deals also with the context and circumstances of the construction stages with the aim to provide a better insight into the given theme.

The paper looks into the chronological period of the church construction, or in other words, the characteristics of the architectural scene of Split in the 1970s with the aim to illustrate the extent to which the design of St Peter’s Concathedral Church was conditioned by various circumstances. This might contribute to a proper understanding of the architectural expression which was strictly conditioned by a compromising urban planning solution as far as the selection of the site was concerned. Deeply enclosed and introverted design of the church is embodied in a dominant form of a truncated pyramid, quite hermetic in relation to the surrounding area.

In 1984 Bernardo Bernardi was commissioned to work out a conceptual design of the church interior with his collaborators F. Barisc and V. Freund. Its scope encompassed the design of the main part of the church, the presbytery, the choir above the front entrance, the confessional, two sacristies, the front and two side entrances with the wind screens and a spiral staircase to the choir. The contract also stipulated the conceptual design of the altar, the pulpit, the tabernacle, the baptistery, the font, the pews, the seats for the clergy, and wardrobes and counters in the sacristies. Such a task necessarily presupposed a certain gesamtkunstwerk considering the fact that its realization implied a mutual permeation of the inner theological and the artistic hermeneutic paradigms. Bernardi accomplished this task in his own way; his professional career started with the group “Exat 51” as the synthesis of all arts. His treatment of the existing concrete beam structure is architecturally appropriate and is realized by means of an expressive plasticity of the coffered ceiling without an attempt to impose his ideas on the given centrality of space.

It seems appropriate here to consider the issue of a longitudinal and central organization of liturgical space since these layout concepts conditioned certain standards of Christian architecture both in its theological and semantic aspects as well as regarding architectural and technical solutions. As most experts believe, this actually raised the issue of a functional typology.

A specific feature of the interior design is certainly the established symbolic and design link of the new St Peter’s Concathedral Church with the St Duje’s Cathedral in Split by means of a conceptual transposition of an octogonal plan of the former emperor’s mausoleum as a unique expression of the temporal and spatial continuity. Pursuing this concept, Bernardi designed the pedestal of the altar precisely on the basis of an octogonal plan and the corresponding ceiling coffer which reflects the form of the pedestal. Spatial position of the altar is emphasized by intensive artificial light. Symbolism of an archetypal vertical dimension between the altar and the dome where the transcendental is achieved by means of light dematerialization can be clearly recognized in this relationship. Light accentuates the required theological principle of the centrality of space as well as the powerful meaning of a special place. The entire sanctuary is articulated by means of the immersion of the octogonal altar into the space for the congregation and leaving just some kind of a “bridge” as a communication link with the other narrow part of the presbytery whose symmetrically designed ends house the tabernacle on the right and the font on the left side, within two shallowly fluted corner chapels. Owing to the fact that the proposed spatial organization seemed untenable from the liturgical perspective, a set of theologically expert recommendations were given regarding the design of the pulpit, tabernacle and baptistery. This in turn raised further questions of the extension or redesign of the entire church for functional and theological reasons.

St. Peter’s Basilica

A dynamic interrelationship of the presented methods stresses the need for an interdisciplinary dialogue in which various forms of knowledge and sensitivities might be coordinated in order to communicate the same reality. The aim of this paper is to develop a proper understanding of the theological guidelines which could be then viewed as a source of creative inspiration and not creative barriers. Moreover, the idea is to highlight the complexity of an approach to liturgical space understood as a place of cross-fertilization of various forms of arts. Bernardo Bernardi tried to respond to this challenge in an integral way both from an architectural as well as a design perspective. His background in the Exat group helped to develop his sensitivity for the synthesis of plastic arts. The insight gained into this unresearched segment of Bernardi’s work completes his image as a prolific artist but also opens up new dimensions in the research of his work.