St Peter's Basilica

St Peter's BasilicaSt Peter's Basilica
The most famous church in Christendom is St Peter's, dedicated to the Apostle who is believed to have been the first Bishop of Rome, and whose successor each Pope, as supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church, feels himself to be.
The history of St Peter's reflects the history of the Papacy. The original church of St Peter was dedicated by Pope Sylvester I in A.D. 326, thanks to the patronage of the Emperor Constantine. It must have been evident at that time that the site, on the slopes of the Vatican hill, was a difficult one to build on, involving considerable differences of level which had to be allowed for in the foundations; and in addition it was well outside the city. That this inconvenient site was nevertheless selected for the building of St Peter's suggests - with some archeological evidence in support - that it was honored in the long memory of Rome as the position of the Apostle's tomb; for Peter was traditionally believed to have been martyred in 64 or 67 in the Imperial gardens on the Vatican hill. Old St Peter's, a five-aisled basilica of the classical type which we know from medieval descriptions, was frequently restored and richly embellished, but after the Pope's return from exile in Avignon and the western schism (when there were a number of Popes at the same time) it was in an advanced stage of dilapidation. Pope Nicholas V accordingly resolved in 1452 to build an entirely new church and to seek the help of all Christendom in building it. (One source of income for this purpose was the sale of indulgences, which provoked Martin Luther to his protest.)
Construction began in 1506 and was pushed ahead with all speed, but the completion and embellishment of the church involved every Pope from Julius II (1503-13) to Pius VI (1775-99). A number of architects took part in the work. The first plan was prepared by Bramante, who was accused of embezzlement of funds and the use of poor materials; then followed Raphael, Fra Giocondo, Giuliano da Sangallo, Baldassare Peruzzi, Antonio da Sangallo and finally Michelangelo, who took over in 1547 at the age of 72. He was responsible in particular for the design of the dome, the drum of which was completed by the time he died in 1564. Other architects were Vignola Ligorio, della Porta, Fontana and Maderna (who at Paul V's request, extended the original centralized building towards the square by the addition of a nave).
Address: Piazza San Pietro, I-00186 Rome, Italy

St Peter's Basilica Highlights


In addition to calling for the lengthening of the church towards the square Paul V desired that St Peter's should be linked with the Palazzo Apostolico (Vatican Palace), and for the sake of symmetry this involved a corresponding extension on the other side, giving the facade a total length of 114.7m/376ft. The height (45.5m/149ft) could not be increased, however, since this would have hidden still more of Michelangelo's dome. Maderna sought to palliate these unfortunate proportions by an elaborately articulated pattern of columns and pillars, doorways, balconies and windows.
From the central balcony on the facade the senior member of the college of cardinals proclaims the name of a new Pope elected by the conclave, and from this balcony, too, the Pope pronounces his blessing "urbi et orbi" on certain festivals, and beatifications and canonization's are announced. On top of the facade are statues of Christ flanked by Apostles, 5.7m/19ft high. The two clocks at the ends of the facade were added by Giuseppe Valadier in the 19th century.


The portico of St Peter's Church (71m/233ft long, 13.5m/44ft deep and 20m/66ft high) is entered through five doorways with bronze grilles. On the outer side are two equestrian statues - Charlemagne to the left, Constantine (by Bernini) to the right. Above the main doorway are fragments of a mosaic by Giotto from Old St Peter's, the "Navicella" (the Apostles' ship in the storm). The double bronze doors, also from Old St Peter's, were the work of the Florentine sculptor Filarete (1433-45); they depict Christ and the Virgin, the Apostles Peter and Paul and their martyrdom, and historical scenes. To the left is the "Door of Death", a modern work by Giacomo Manzù. To the right is the Porta Santa which is kept closed except in Holy Years.


The huge dimensions of the interior of St Peter's Church are of overwhelming effect. The church is 185m/610ft long, rises to a height of 46m/150ft in the nave and 119m/390ft in the dome, covers an area of 15,000 sqm/18,000 sqyd and can accommodate a congregation of over 60,000. In the pavement of the nave, for purposes of comparison, are marked the lengths (measured from the apse) of other great churches. In spite of its enormous size, however, the simple architectural plan (in the form of a Latin cross, with the nave longer than the transepts) and the great dome which crowns it allow the church to be seen and appreciated as a whole.
A few yards from the main doorway is a red porphyry disc in the floor marking the spot on which Charlemagne was crowned in Old St Peter's by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800.

Right-hand Aisle / Pieta

In the Capella della Pietà (on the right of the north aisle of St Peter's) is Michelangelo's famous "Pietà" (1498-1500), since 1972 protected by a reinforced glass panel. It depicts a youthful Virgin holding in her arms the body of Christ just taken down from the cross. A ribbon on her breast is inscribed with the sculptor's name. The facial expressions and the consummate skill of the carving reveal Michelangelo as a great artist even at the early age (24) at which he created this work.
On the adjoining pier is a monument commemorating Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated as queen and became a Roman Catholic. Just beyond this is St Sebastian's Chapel, with a fine mosaic above the altar (after a painting by Domenichino) depicting the saint's martyrdom. Most of the paintings in the church have been replaced by mosaics; the originals are in the Musei Vaticani. By the near pier is the mausoleum (designed by Bernini) of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who played a prominent part in the conflict between the Emperor and the Pope in the 11th century. Next comes the richly decorated Chapel of the Sacrament, to which both Bernini (the tabernacle) and Borromini (the bronze grille) contributed. The chapel was built for Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family: hence the bees from the Barberini coat-of-arms which feature in the decoration. Just beyond this chapel is the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII, reformer of the calendar (1572-85), with the heraldic dragon of the Buoncompagni family to which he belonged. The right transept was the meeting-place of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), in which 650 bishops took part. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when the number of bishops had risen to over 3,000, was held in the nave. In the passage beyond the transept is the monument of Clement XIII, a youthful work by Canova (1788-92).

Crossing and Dome

Four massive pentagonal piers with a diameter of 24m/79ft and a circumference of 71m/233ft bear the dome of St Peter's, designed by Michelangelo as the culminating point of the church, over the tomb of St Peter. The dome, set over a drum with 16 windows, has a diameter of 42.34m/139ft (slightly less than the dome of the Pantheon, 43m/142ft). It consists of an inner dome and an outer protective shell, with enough space between the two for a man to stand upright. Above the dome is the lantern, giving a total interior height of 119m/390ft. In niches in the piers are figures of St Veronica with her napkin, St Helen with the True Cross, St Longinus with his lance and St Andrew with his saltire cross, and in the loggias above are displayed on special festivals relics of the Passion. Around the dome is a frieze with the Latin text (in letters 2m/6ft high) of the text from St Matthew's Gospel on which the Pope's claim to the headship of the Church is based: "Tu es Petrus ..." ("Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. .. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.")
The roof of St Peter's can be reached on foot via a gallery in the inside of the dome and then a flight of very narrow, steep steps (330) to the crown of the lantern. The visitor has a choice between the staircase ascent (entrance on the right near the Baptistery; 142 steps) and a lift (entrance outside near the Gregorian Chapel; fee). From the roof of the Basilica and from the lantern there is a wonderful view across St Peter's Square to the city. At the same time Michelangelo's cupular and the details of his architectural construction can be seen at close quarters.
Under the dome, immediately above Peter's tomb, is the Papal altar, with a bronze baldacchino (canopy) created by Bernini when he was just 25 years old (1624-33) for Pope Urban VIII, using bronze from the portico of the Pantheon. With its twisted columns and fantastic superstructure this is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture. In front of the altar, on a lower level, is the Confessio, lit by 95 gilded oil lamps, beyond which is the tomb of St Peter; in it is a marble figure of Pope Pius VI (1775-99) kneeling, by Canova. Against the pier with the figure of Longinus is a bronze statue of St Peter enthroned (created by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century, modeled on an ancient sculpture of a philosopher which can be seen in the Sacre Grotte Vaticane), the right foot of which has been worn smooth by the kisses of the faithful.


In the apse of St Peter's is Bernini's Cathedra Petri, a bronze throne which shows the same Baroque sense of movement as the baldacchino. It is supported by figures of the four Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius and John Chrysostom). Above the throne is an alabaster window with the symbolic dove of the Holy Ghost. Flanking the Cathedra Petri are the tombs of Popes Urban VIII Barberini (on right; by Bernini, 1642-47) and Paul III Farnese (on left; by Giacomo della Porta, 1551-75).

Left-hand aisle

In the left-hand aisle of St Peter's are the tombs of famous Popes by leading artists of their day: In the passage behind the pier, the monument of Alexander VII (carved under the direction of Bernini, 1672-78). Diagonally across from the huge sacristy built in 1776-84 in the reign of Pius VI, the monument of Pius VII (by Thorvaldsen, 1823). This is the only work in the church by a Protestant sculptor, and it gave rise to protests at the time it was commissioned. In front of the Choir Chapel (opposite the Chapel of the Sacrament), a mosaic copy of Raphael's "Transfiguration".
In front of the Cappella della Presentazione, the tomb of Innocent VIII (by Pollaiolo, 1498), on which the Pope is represented twice (enthroned and recumbent). This is the only monument from Old St Peter's which was transferred to the new church. Opposite it is a statue of Pius X.
In the Cappella della Presentazione are a bronze relief commemorating Pope John XXIII (1958-63; on right) and a statue of Benedict XV (1914-22; on left). Beyond the Cappella della Presentazione are two monuments commemorating the last of the Stuarts: on the right Maria Clementina Sobieska, wife of James the Old Pretender; on the left the Old Pretender, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" and Cardinal Henry of York.


Adjoining the Stuart monuments near the Baptistery of St Peter's are the stairs (142 steps) and lift leading to the roof of the church, from which visitors can climb to the lantern by way of a gallery inside the drum and further staircases (in places extremely steep). From the roof and the lantern there are magnificent views over St Peter's Square and the city; and from here, too, it is possible to see Michelangelo's dome at close quarters and observe the details of its structure.

Sacre Grotte Vaticane

The entrance to the "Vatican Grottoes" (Crypt) is at the pillar with the figure of St Andrew. This spacious undercroft was created when Antonio da Sangallo raised the floor level of the church by 3.20m/10.5ft to protect it from damp. The tombs of earlier Popes were transferred here from Old St Peter's, and many later Popes have also been buried here, including the last four (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I). A walk around the tombs of the Popes is one of the most impressive experiences of a visit to Rome. It is also possible, with special permission, to see the excavations (scavi) under St Peter's. Here the archaeologists have brought to light the old cemetery on the Vatican hill, including what is believed to be the tomb of St Peter himself, and the foundations of the original Constantinian basilica.
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