St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica (Italian: San Pietro in Vaticano) is a major basilica in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. St. Peter’s was until recently the largest church ever built and it remains one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Contrary to what one might reasonably assume, St. Peter’s is not a cathedral – that honor in Rome goes to St. John Lateran.

St. Peter’s Basilica stands on the traditional site where Peter – the apostle who is considered the first pope – was crucified and buried. St. Peter’s tomb is under the main altar and many other popes are buried in the basilica as well. Originally founded by Constantine in 324, St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in the 16th century by Renaissance masters including Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini.

History

In the 1st century AD, the site of St. Peter’s Basilica hosted the Circus of Nero and a cemetery. According to ancient tradition, St. Peter was martyred in the Circus and buried nearby. His simple grave was remembered and visited by the faithful, and in 324, Emperor Constantine began construction on a great basilica over the tomb. The shrine of St. Peter is still the central focus of the church today.

In the mid-15th century it was decided that the old basilica should be rebuilt. Pope Nicholas V asked architect Bernardo Rossellino to start adding to the old church. This was abandoned after a short while, but in the late 15th century Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel started nearby.

Construction on the current building began under Pope Julius II in 1506 and was completed in 1615 under Pope Paul V. Donato Bramante was to be the first chief architect. Many famous artists worked on the “Fabbrica di San Pietro” (as the complex of building operations were officially called). Michelangelo, who served as main architect for a while, designed the dome, and Bernini designed the great St. Peter’s Square.

St. Peter’s Square

Providing a fitting approach to the great church is the huge, elliptical St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro), designed by Bernini and built between 1656 and 1667. There are two beautiful fountains in the square, the south/left one by Carlo Maderno (1613) and the northern/right one by Bernini (1675).

In the center of the square is a 25.5-meter-tall obelisk, which dates from 13th-century BC Egypt and was brought to Rome in the 1st century to stand in Nero’s Circus some 275 yards away. It was moved to its present location in 1585 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The task took four months and is said to have been done in complete silence on pain of death. If you include the cross on top and the base, the obelisk reaches 40m.

The square is outlined by a monumental colonnade by Bernini, its open arms symbolically welcoming the world into the Catholic Church. Between the obelisk and each fountain is a circular stone that marks the focal points of an ellipse. If you stand on one of these points, the two rows columns of the colonnade line up perfectly and appear to be just a single row.

On top of the colonnade are 140 statues of saints, crafted by a number of sculptors between 1662 and 1703. To the right of the southern gate of the colonnade is St. Macrina, grandmother of the Cappadocian fathers, followed by some founders of religious orders: St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Bernard, St. Benedict, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Some of the apostles are at the far end of the colonnade, outside the square and down the street: look for Paul and John on the south side (on the left as you walk to the square).

Near the stairs to the basilica at the front of the square are colossal statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. These were ordered by Pope Pius IX on Easter 1847, who wanted to replace the existing smaller ones. The new statues had been commissioned by the previous pope for St. Paul Outside the Walls. Peter was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris in 1838-40 and stands 5.55m in height, on a pedestal 4.91m high. Paul was sculpted in 1838 by Adamo Tadolini, and is also 5.55m in height, on a pedestal 4.91m high.

Exterior

The dome of St. Peter’s was designed by Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546. At the time of his death (1564), the dome was finished as far as the drum, the base on which domes sit. The dome was vaulted between 1585 and 1590 by the architect Giacomo della Porta with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day. Fontana built the lantern the following year, and the ball was placed in 1593.

The great double dome is made of brick and is 42.3 metres in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), rising to 120 metres above the floor. In the early 18th century cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it. The four piers of the crossing that support the dome are each 60 feet (18 meters) across.

Uniquely, Michelangelo’s dome is not a hemisphere, but a parabola: it has a vertical thrust, which is made more emphatic by the bold ribbing that springs from the paired Corinthian columns, which appear to be part of the drum, but which stand away from it like buttresses, to absorb the outward thrust of the dome’s weight. Above, the vaulted dome rises to Fontana’s two-stage lantern, capped with a spire.

The grand façade is 116 m wide and 53 m high. Built from 1608 to 1614, it was designed by Carlo Modeno. The central balcony is called the Loggia of the Blessings, and is used for the announcement of the new pope with “Habemus Papum” and his Urbi et Orbi blessing. The relief under the balcony, by Buonvicino, represents Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

The facade is topped by 13 statues in travertine. From left, the statues represent: Thaddeus, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, James the Elder, John the Baptist, Christ the Redeemer (in the center), Andrew, John the Evangelist, James the Younger, Bartholomew, Simon and Matthias. St. Peter’s statue in this set is inside.

Two clocks are on either side; the one on the left is electrically operated since 1931, with its oldest bell dating to 1288. Stretching across the facade is the dedicatory inscription: IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII (In honor of the prince of apostles; Paul V Borghese, pope, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate)

Between the façade and the interior is the portico. Mainly designed by Maderno, it contains an 18th century statue of Charlemagne by Cornacchini to the south, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini (1670) to the north.

The northernmost door is the Holy Door, in bronze by Vico Consorti (1950), which is by tradition only opened for great celebrations such as Jubilee years. Above it are inscriptions. The top reads PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, the one just above the door reads GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. In between are white slabs commemorating the most recent openings. Pope John Paul II opened the holy door in the jubilee years of 1983-84 and 2000-01.

The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455), and was preserved from the old basilica. It was too small for its new space, so panels were added at the top and bottom. Known as the Filarete Door after the artist’s nickname, it has six panels that depict: Jesus and Mary enthroned; St. Paul with the sword; St. Peter giving the keys to the kneeling Pope Eugene IV; St. Paul sentenced by Nero; martyrdom of St. Paul; martyrdom of St. Peter on Vatican Hill; St. Paul appearing to Plautilla, to give her back the veil she had lent him to blindfold his eyes. The bas-reliefs between the framed panels show scenes from the pontificate of Eugene IV, and representatives at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, summoned in 1438 to reunite the Churches of the East and of the West.

The Door of Death is the far left door into the basilica. Its name derives from its traditional use as the exit for funeral processions as well as its subject matter. In preparation for the Holy Year of 1950, Pope Pius XII held a competition for three new bronze doors. This one was sculpted by Giacomo Manzù in 1961-64. Large relief panels depict the death of Jesus (top right), death of Mary (top left); violent death of Abel, serene death of Joseph, death of first pope, death of Pope John XXIII, death of first martyr Stephen, death of Gregory VII (in exile defending the Church), death improvised in space and death of a mother at home.

Interior

“The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome; is a sensation never to be forgotten.” – Charles Dickens, 1846

To say the interior of St. Peter’s is impressive would be an obvious understatement, given that it is perhaps the largest church in the world (the new Basilica of Yamoussoukro may have surpassed it) — it covers an area of 23,000 m² (5.7 acres) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people.

And every bit of space is used to display the finest Renaissance monuments and decoration money could buy, employing the talents of such greats as Michelangelo and Bernini.

The following “tour” follows the rough plan of looking at the nave, walking up the right aisle, looking at the central dome and baldacchino, walking to the end for the cathedra of Peter, then heading back down the left aisle.

Nave

Immediately inside the central doors, a large round porphyry slab is set into the floor. Here Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Emperors knelt for their coronation in front of the high altar of the old basilica.

Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance. Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of various saints.

The insides of the pilasters that separate the nave from the side aisles have niches filled with statues of saints who founded religious orders. There are 39 of these in total throughout the church, spaced evenly in the nave and two transepts. Just to your right as you enter the basilica is St. Teresa of Avila, a beloved Spanish saint who founded the Order of Discalced Carmelites.

In the northwestern (right front) corner of the nave is the bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned, now attributed to late 13th-century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (some still date it back to the 5th century). It is robed and crowned on high festivals, and its outstretched foot is smoothed down due to centuries of pilgrims’ caresses.

Right Aisle and Right Transept

In the right aisle, the first major sight is Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, located immediately to the right of the entrance. The sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus in her lap after the crucifixion, and was completed when Michelangelo was just 24. After it was vandalized with an axe in 1972, the sculpture was placed behind protective glass.

Up the aisle is the monument of Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated in 1654 in order to convert to Catholicism. Further up are the monuments of popes Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as the altar of St Sebastian.

Halfway to the transept is the large Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, entered through a Baroque wrought-iron grill designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Here the Blessed Sacrament (consecrated bread and wine) is exposed for the continuous adoration of the faithful. A notice reads: “Only those who wish to pray may enter.” It is a rare place of silence and stillness in the tourist-filled basilica, and for many Catholics it is their favorite space.

Inside the chapel, the sacrament is enshrined in a tabernacle of gilded bronze designed by Bernini (1674) and based on a more famous work by Bramante. It has statuettes of the twelve Apostles on the cornice and one of Jesus on the miniature dome. It is encrusted with deep blue lapis lazuli and is flanked by two angels in gilded bronze (added later), kneeling in reverent prayer. Behind the altar is an oil painting by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) of the Trinity, the only canvas painting in the whole basilica.

Further down the right aisle are the monuments of Pope Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Carlo Rusconi) and Gregory XIV. The right transept contains three altars, of St Wenceslas, St. Processo and St. Martiniano, and St. Erasmus.

Where the right aisle runs into the Pier of St. Longinus is the body of Pope John XXIII (d. 1963), displayed in a glass case beneath the Altar of St. Jerome. The pope was beatified (a step towards sainthood) in 2000. When the tomb was opened in order to move his body to the basilica in 2001, it was found to be incorrupt and was therefore placed in a glass case. This location was chosen because the pope was a specialist in the church fathers and a devotee of St. Jerome in particular.

Bernini’s Baldacchino

At the crossing of the transepts is the central focus of the interior, the baldacchino. This monumental canopy shelters the papal altar and the holy relics of St. Peter. Artistically, it also serves to fill the vertical space under Michelangelo’s great dome.

Made of 927 tons of dark bronze (removed from the Pantheon’s roof in 1633) accented with gold vine leaves, the baldacchino stands 90 feet (30 meters) tall. The baldacchino was created by Lorenzo Bernini from 1624 to 1633 under the direction of Barberini pope Urban VIII, who added Baroque embellishment to much of Rome.

The spiral columns derive their shapes from the columns of the baldacchino in the original St. Peter’s Basilica built by Constantine, which legend has it came from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Cherubs are repeated throughout the monument, giving an overall effect of the Ark of the Covenant.

Symbols of the Barberini family can be seen throughout, including a golden sun and bees. Thus, in addition to being a beautiful work of art, the baldacchinio symbolizes the union of the Old Testament wisdom of Solomon, the Christian tradition of Constantine, and the rebirth of a triumphal church under the guidance of the Barberini family.

This great building is the center of christianity. The opulence of the building’s interior bears testimony to the wealth of the catholic church in the 16th century.

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~ by ferry1984 on July 1, 2011.

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