Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian church in the world. Although it is not the cathedral of Rome, it is arguably more famous than the church that does have the honour of the being the cathedral: the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. Together with the San Giovanni, the San Paolo fuori le Mura and the Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of four major basilicas in the Eternal City. According to tradition, the church was built over the tomb of Saint Peter by the Christian emperor Constantine the Great. Peter had not just been the first among Christ’s disciples and the foremost of his apostles, he is also considered the first bishop of Rome and, as a consequence, the first pope in history. The tradition is rather problematic, however, and Constantine’s basilica is long gone: between 1506 and 1626 Saint Peter’s Basilica was completely rebuilt. In this post I will focus on new Saint Peter’s Basilica, but it is not possible to do so without taking stock of the old basilica. I will furthermore dedicate a few paragraphs to Saint Peter the Apostle himself. Visitors who just want information about new Saint Peter’s Basilica may go straight to the section titled ‘Towards a new church’.
Saint Peter the Apostle
According to the Gospel of John, Saint Peter was from the town of Bethsaida on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. His real name was Simon or Simeon, son of John. It was a name that was both Greek and Hebrew, and it is not inconceivable that Peter was somewhat proficient in both languages. His first language, however, was Aramaic, and it was this language which he spoke with Jesus. The Messiah had made Peter and his brother Andrew his disciples after he had found them fishing by the lake. For that was their profession: the two brothers were fishermen. According to the Gospel of Luke, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were their associates, and these men also became disciples of Christ. Peter had good reason to be grateful to Jesus: the Messiah had healed his mother-in-law when she had been struck down with fever. This story, which is mentioned in all three synoptic Gospels, is very important because it demonstrates that Peter was a married man. So the man who was recorded in the annals of history as the first pope had a wife, although it should be noted that she does not have a prominent role in the story, and we do not read anything about children.
Now about the origins of the name ‘Peter’. ‘Peter’, or rather: ‘Petrus’, is the Latin form of the Greek word Πέτρος, which means ‘rock’. That Greek word is, in its turn, a translation of the Aramaic nickname that Jesus gave to Simon, i.e. Cephas. This nickname became the base for the most famous pun to be found in the Bible, which has Jesus saying to Peter “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV). Whatever Jesus meant by this, it is rather implausible that he wanted the first among his disciples to travel to Rome, capital of the vast Roman Empire, and become the first bishop there. That would have been quite a challenge for a lowly, uneducated fisherman from Galilee. However, that is exactly what Catholics have later made of the biblical passage. I concede that it is not impossible that Peter did travel to Rome. After all, after Christ’s death on the cross, his apostles began spreading the new faith, first of all among the Jews. Rome had a fairly large Jewish community at the time, which numbered about 30-40.000 souls. It was a community that had been founded some 200 years before.
As was already mentioned above, Peter’s first language was Aramaic, and he spoke it with a Galilean accent that made him stand out in Jerusalem. Aramaic would have been next to useless in Rome, but it is possible that – perhaps with the help of an interpreter – he was sufficiently proficient in Hebrew and Greek to get along. It is, however, rather improbable that he was really capable of writing the kind of elegant Greek that is found in the two letters in the Bible that are attributed to him. It has therefore been doubted that Peter really wrote the First and Second Epistle of Peter. We can furthermore be fairly certain that Peter spoke no Latin at all, as Latin was a language that had never really taken root in the Greek-speaking East of the Roman Empire outside the field of administration and law. At first sight, this may have posed a problem for Peter if he wanted to reach out to the close to one million Gentiles (non-Jews) living in Rome. Although he is often called the ‘Apostle of the Jews’ and his colleague Saint Paul the ‘Apostle of the Gentiles’, there is plenty of evidence that Peter did not exclusively preach to Jews and that he also did not always respect Jewish food taboos. Early non-Jewish Christians in Rome made use of the Greek language to practice their religion, so knowledge of Latin was not indispensable. A much bigger problem is that, however strong traditions may be, there is very little direct evidence that Peter ever travelled to Rome.
To be honest, the Bible provides us with no evidence at all. In about 42 or 44, King Herod Agrippa had Peter’s former associate James executed, while Peter himself was arrested. After having miraculously been liberated by an angel, Peter “departed and went to another place”. So say the Acts of the Apostles and we do not know anything about this “other place”. According to the Acts, Peter later participated in a meeting of the apostles in Jerusalem in about 46-49, and after that he appeared in Antiochia (according to the Epistle to the Galatians). The silence that follows is deafening. We then have the First Epistle of Peter, which was addressed to some Christian communities in the East. Here we read that the elected in Babylon send their greetings. There is little doubt that ‘Babylon’ was a codename for Rome, but unfortunately that does not constitute evidence that Peter wrote this epistle in Rome, if he wrote it at all and if he ever travelled to Rome at all. The tradition that Peter did go to the Eternal City is somewhat supported by a passage in a letter by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who suggests that Peter and Paul were at the head of the church of Rome. Ignatius’ letter can be considered authentic, but it dates from about 110 and was therefore written several decades after Peter’s death. And then we have the apocryphal Acts of Peter, which do state explicitly that Peter took a ship to Italy, but which were written even later, presumably in the mid-second century. The tradition about Peter’s coming to Rome is therefore primarily based on very strong convictions, and it is quite possible that these had become entrenched in the minds of many Christians as early as the start of the second century.
The Ager Vaticanus and Constantine’s basilica
All sorts of stories are told regarding Peter’s stay in Rome. He was said to have caused an evil sorcerer to fall out of the sky by just praying and was later arrested during the persecution of Christians orchestrated by the emperor Nero (54-68). Peter managed to escape, and at the spot where he lost the bandage that had been draped around his wounded ankle a church would later be founded. After leaving Rome, the apostle met Christ himself on the Via Appia. When he asked him where he was going to (Domine, quo vadis?), the Messiah responded: Eo Romam iterum crucifigi, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”. From this remarkable conversation we may obviously not conclude that Peter knew Latin after all: the story was clearly made up later. Nero’s persecution of Christians, on the other hand, was not, for it was documented by the Roman historian Tacitus. The persecution was launched after the Great Fire of 18 and 19 July 64, which reduced much of Rome to ashes. The emperor blamed the Christians, but it was widely rumoured that Nero had caused the fire himself so that he could build his Domus Aurea or Golden House. The persecution must have been ended in the year 67, when Nero left for Greece to cheat during the Olympics.
It is likely that the victims of Nero’s persecutions were primarily Jewish Christians, as Christianity at the time was still very much a Jewish sect. If Peter was indeed in Rome, he may certainly have been among these victims. However, he cannot have been a bishop or a ‘pope’: the early church of Rome was led by multiple administrators and a bishop in the modern sense of the word was not set up until the second half of the second century. The Acts of Peter claim that the apostle was crucified upside down at his own request, because he did not consider himself worthy to die the same way as Christ had done. So where did this crucifixion take place? There is a rather persistent tradition that Peter was crucified next to the present church of San Pietro in Montorio, but there is no evidence whatsoever that backs up this claim. At an unspecified moment during the Middle Ages the theory became popular that the crucifixion took place inter duas metas, between the two metae. The first to write down this story was the Italian humanist Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), but the story itself must be older. Of course the question is what metae are. One meaning of the word meta is ‘pyramid’, and that is how the great Florentine painter Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) immortalised Peter’s crucifixion on his Stefaneschi Triptych, which was painted in about 1320: as an execution carried out between two pyramids (see the image on the right). This triptych once stood on an altar in old Saint Peter’s Basilica and can nowadays be admired in the Vatican Museums.
However, the word meta has a second meaning, which may in fact be a lot more logical in this context. A meta happens to be the name of a turning point in a Roman circus. We know that Nero had a private circus in his park outside Rome, which was situated on the Ager Vaticanus, against the Vatican hill. According to Tacitus, that was where he had the Christians executed. If Peter was in Rome at the time and became a victim of the persecution launched by this mad emperor, then the crucifixion may very well have taken place between the two turning points of the circus of Nero. It was a circus that had been built by the emperor Caligula (37-41) and that was abandoned soon after Nero’s death in 68. Due to a lack of maintenance, it quickly fell into disrepair, but the large obelisk which possibly stood on the spina of the circus remained in place until 1586. Along the road north of the circus and on the Vatican hill, the famous Vatican necropolis began to develop in three separate phases, and one of the tombs here was said to be Saint Peter’s. This elucidating video discusses how the necropolis came into existence. It almost goes without saying that most of the tombs of the necropolis were non-Christian. Christians were still a very small minority at the time.
The three phases were separated by mudslides, which covered the tombs and the remains of the circus and raised the ground level. Around the year 150, during the third phase, a small monument was erected on the spot where Saint Peter had supposedly been buried. It is known as the aedicula and is composed of three niches, one above the other. It is almost certain that this aedicula is the tropaion that the priest Gaius mentioned in a letter written in about 200. This Gaius wrote about monuments (tropaia) on the Ager Vaticanus and along the road to Ostia for the men who had founded the Church, i.e. for Saints Peter and Paul. A reconstruction of the aedicula can be seen in this video. It is possible that the edifice was no more than a cenotaph, but if it also contained relics (regardless of whose relics these were), then it is plausible that these were moved, along with those of Saint Paul, during the emperor Valerianus’ persecution of Christians in 258. In those days, a complex arose along the Via Appia intended for venerating the two apostles. Nowadays we find the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura here.
The relics were probably returned several decades later by the emperor Constantine (306-337). Although he did not formally convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed, he favoured the Christians in his Empire for most of his reign. Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius at the Milvian bridge on 28 October 312 and subsequently took Rome, a city he would last visit in 326. In the years between 312 and 326, the emperor commissioned the Basilica of the Saviour (i.e. the cathedral of Saint John Lateran or San Giovanni in Laterano) and donated valuable objects for its adjacent baptistery. He also had monumental basilicas erected above the presumed tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, which means the emperor commissioned old Saint Peter’s Basilica and the predecessor of Saint Paul’s outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura). It is no longer possible to determine exactly when Constantine gave the order for construction of old Saint Peter’s. The Atlas of Ancient Rome suggests it was between 319 and 324, another source claims it may have been in 317-320, in 324 or as late as 326. A third source mentions preparatory work between 318 and 322 and actual construction starting in 324. So to sum up, it is impossible to give an exact date, but we do know approximately when construction of the basilica commenced.
There are furthermore two things that we can be fairly certain about. In the first place, it can safely be ruled out that Constantine lived to see old Saint Peter’s Basilica completed. The emperor last visited Rome in 326 and subsequently moved to Constantinople, a city he had founded himself and which he inaugurated on 11 May 330. The basilica can never have been finished by 326; many sources mention 349 as its year of completion. In the second place, construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica was a daunting task, which required the utmost from the imperial architects. The terrain was not particularly suitable for a basilica. It was covered by an extensive necropolis, which also happened to be largely built against the slope of the Vatican hill. Radical measures were necessary to build the basilica anyway. In the north, the Vatican hill was levelled and the tombs were destroyed. In the south, the ground level had to be raised, so there the tombs were literally decapitated and filled with earth. In this way, the architects created a gigantic even platform measuring about 240 by 90 metres. The platform served as a firm base on which old Saint Peter’s Basilica could subsequently be built.
Old Saint Peter’s Basilica
The transformation of the Circus of Caligula and the Vatican necropolis is explained very well by this video and this video. Constantine’s basilica was truly immense, with the Atlas of Ancient Rome giving a maximum length of 112.5 metres and a maximum width of 63.5. The building had a nave and four aisles, the nave being more than 90 metres deep, 23.5 metres wide and 32.5 metres high. The inner aisles were 18 metres high and the outer ones 14.89 metres. The basilica had a transept at the end of the building, giving it the shape of a Tau cross rather than a Latin cross and invoking comparisons with later Franciscan churches. The building ended in a single apse, in front of which the architects had constructed a marble case around the aedicula. The marble construction had a set of doors and was itself surrounded by a baldachin or ciborium composed of a balustrade (pluteus), twisted columns and presumably an open roof. The architraves probably supported a construction of intersecting metal ribs, from which a chandelier was suspended. The whole construction can be seen on the so-called Capsella di Samagher from the middle of the fifth century. The presumed grave of Saint Peter had now become the religious centre of the building.
If the basilica had an altar for reading mass, it must have been installed under the baldachin or directly in front of it. There is, however, debate whether old Saint Peter’s Basilica was perhaps conceived as a funerary basilica rather than a church. Funerary basilicas were not primarily intended for celebrating mass, but rather for performing certain rites, such as solemn processions around the tombs of saints buried there and perhaps also funerary meals. Sometimes funerary basilicas were later converted into proper churches, the prime example being the aforementioned San Sebastiano fuori le Mura. Other funerary basilicas were eventually abandoned and fell into disrepair, being replaced by new churches which were built in the vicinity. Examples are the churches of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and Santi Marcellino e Pietro. Unlike the new cathedral, old Saint Peter’s Basilica stood outside the city, which made it a little harder to reach for Christians. This made the Vatican area a bit less convenient as a place for celebrating masses. However this may be, we know that, in any case, old Saint Peter’s had an altar since the pontificate of Pope Saint Gregorius the Great (590-604). Gregorius raised the floor of the apse and the transept by more than a metre and had a new baldachin and altar set up.
The environs of old Saint Peter’s Basilica need to be discussed in this post as well. Behind the basilica, i.e. west of it, there stood the so-called Mausoleum Aniciorum, which may have been linked to a noble Roman family known as the gens Anicia. According to tradition, Saint Benedictus (ca. 480-547) had lived with this family for a couple of years (see Rome: San Benedetto in Piscinula). The mausoleum was spared when the original basilica was built, but it was demolished in the sixteenth century to make way for new Saint Peter’s. South of the basilica stood two more mausoleums, both of them circular in shape. The mausoleum on the left had a diameter of about 30 metres and was built after old Saint Peter’s Basilica had been completed. It was a Christian mausoleum that served as the final resting place of the emperor Honorius (395-423), his first wife Maria and his second wife Aemilia Materna Thermantia. Pope Stephanus III (752-757) had the mausoleum converted into the round church of Santa Petronilla, which for a long time was considered the national church of France (see Rome: San Luigi dei Francesi). The church was demolished shortly after 1506 because space was needed for new Saint Peter’s. The body of the empress Maria was discovered in 1544, reportedly covered in a golden shroud. Many burial gifts were found, but virtually none of these have been preserved, as all the gold was simply melted down.
The mausoleum on the right predated old Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was constructed at an unspecified moment in the third century and it is not clear whose tomb this was, but he or she may have been a member of the imperial family. Pope Symmachus (498-514) dedicated the building to Saint Andrew the Apostle, Saint Peter’s brother. In the fourteenth century it was renamed the church of Santa Maria della Febbre, Our Lady of Fever (i.e. fever caused by malaria). Pope Pius II (1458-1464) turned the building into a sacristy, which was demolished by Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) to make way for a new sacristy. For this project, the national church of the Hungarians was destroyed as well (see Rome: Santo Stefano Rotondo). Next to the Santa Maria della Febbre stood the obelisk from the Circus of Caligula and Nero, until Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) moved it to its present location, the large square in front of New Saint Peter’s Basilica, in 1586.
Old Saint Peter’s did not have an open square, but rather an enclosed atrium which could be reached by a flight of stairs. This atrium was likely added after the basilica had already been completed. It was in any case there during the pontificate of Pope Symmachus, who provided the atrium with a fountain. This fountain was actually the bronze fir-cone which can now be found in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Vatican Museums. The exact provenance of the fir-cone is a bit shady, but the object certainly dates from Antiquity. One source claims it was taken from Hadrian’s mausoleum, another that it once stood close to the Pantheon, next to the Temple of Isis and Serapis. The atrium was paved during the pontificate of Pope Donus (676-678), which indicates that it had originally been conceived as a garden, which in its turn explains its nickname Paradisum, after the Garden of Eden. Pope Gregorius IV (827-844) largely rebuilt the atrium and added a gatehouse with three portals. In the fourteenth century, the gatehouse was provided with the so-called Navicella mosaic by the great Florentine artist Giotto (1266-1337). The mosaic was later heavily restored and we now find it in the loggia of new Saint Peter’s. The old basilica had a campanile, which was probably built in the eleventh century. It was erected in a corner of the atrium.
Old Saint Peter’s Basilica must have featured magnificent decorations. Pope Leo the Great (440-461) commissioned mosaics for the apse and façade, which were replaced by new mosaics under Popes Innocentius III (1198-1216) and Gregorius IX (1227-1241) respectively. The church must have had many more mosaics and frescoes, but virtually none of these have survived. An exception is a small fragment of a mosaic which is now in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It was made at the start of the eighth century, possibly during the pontificate of Pope John VII (705-707).
As was already mentioned, Saint Peter’s Basilica was – and is – outside the city walls. Its isolation was somewhat lessened by the creation of the Borgo that surrounds the church. Several monasteries were built, and at the beginning of the eighth century the Germanic peoples of the Frisians, Franks, Saxons and Longobards all founded their scholae for accommodating pilgrims. Of these scholae, only the well-known church of the Frisians or Santi Michele e Magno has survived intact. In spite of the Borgo, Saint Peter’s Basilica remained very vulnerable. In 846, Islamic pirates from Northern Africa sailed up the Tiber and pillaged the church. The San Paolo fuori le Mura was a victim of this raid as well. In response, Pope Leo IV (847-855) had the Borgo surrounded by defensive walls, which can still be seen. The attack by African Muslims on two of the most important churches of Latin Christendom was outrageous, but the massacre of 1167, for which the devoutly Christian emperor Frederick Barbarossa was responsible, was much worse. This emperor had a serious dispute with Pope Alexander III (1159-1181). His army burned down the atrium of old Saint Peter’s Basilica, battered the doors of the church, forced its way in and caused a bloodbath in the nave.
Towards a new church
Rome at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century was a flourishing city. Then disaster struck. In May 1308 both the cathedral of San Giovanni and the adjacent Lateran palace were heavily damaged in a great fire. A year later the popes went into exile in Avignon and their misnamed ‘Babylonian captivity’ was not ended until 1377. The next year saw the start of the Great Western Schism, causing one pope to reside in Rome and another in Avignon. This situation lasted until 1417, and occasionally there were even three popes. As the Lateran palace was still in ruins, Pope Gregorius XI (1370-1378) decided to take up residence at the Vatican, which largely explains why even today Saint Peter’s Basilica is more famous and arguably more important than the actual cathedral of Rome. However, old Saint Peter’s Basilica was desperately in need of maintenance. In fact, during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) it was discovered that the basilica was about to collapse. Nicholas’ successors for the moment opted for restorations, and Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) had the long-forgotten architect Giovannino de’ Dolci (ca. 1435-1485) build the famous Sistine Chapel, after a design by Baccio Pontelli (ca. 1450-1492). It was not until the reign of Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who happened to be Sixtus’ nephew, that the decision was taken to demolish the old basilica and erect a new one.
Work on new Saint Peter’s Basilica started in 1506. The first lead architect was Donato Bramante (1444-1514). Bramante ruinante swept through the church like a whirlwind and proved to be especially proficient at breaking stuff: the transept and the church of Santa Petronilla – the former mausoleum of Honorius – were both demolished. At the time of his death in 1514, Bramante had only made a rough start with the new dome. His successors as lead architects were Giuliano da Sangallo the Elder and Raphael, but these died in 1516 and 1520 respectively. The next architect was Baldassare Peruzzi, who remained in office until his death in 1536 and was succeeded by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. He was Giuliano da Sangallo’s nephew and worked on new Saint Peter’s until his own death in 1546. Then the great Michelangelo was appointed, who designed the current dome of the church. Unfortunately it was still unfinished when Michelangelo passed away in 1564. Work on the dome was continued by Pirro Ligorio and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, but it was only completed in 1589-1593 by Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602) and his assistant Domenico Fontana.
Now that the dome and transept had been completed, it was time to work on the nave of the church. The nave of old Saint Peter’s Basilica had so far been left standing, but in 1606 Pope Paulus V (1605-1621) decided to have it demolished and replaced. The atrium, gatehouse and campanile were demolished as well. In the meantime Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) had been appointed as the new lead architect. Moreover, the old discussion about whether new Saint Peter’s was to be given the shape of a Greek or a Latin cross had been settled in favour of a Latin cross. Between 1607 and 1614, Maderno built the nave, side chapels and façade. The façade mentions the name of Pope Paulus V (Camillo Borghese) and the year 1612. The original plan was to provide it with two bell-towers, one on each side, but these turned out to be too high and too heavy. As a result, what we see to the left and right of the façade are basically two tower stumps, which do not extend beyond the roofline. None other than the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) made a second attempt to construct two bell-towers, but unfortunately his attempt ended in failure as well (see Rome: Galleria Borghese). Ultimately, at the end of the eighteenth century, Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839) added two clock-dials to the unfinished towers. The left tower moreover has bells that can be sounded. It is not much, but at least it is something.
New Saint Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626 by Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644). Focus now shifted from the exterior to the interior of the church. Urbanus frequently granted assignments to his protégé Bernini, who really left his mark on the basilica, just like his great rival Borromini did with regard to the cathedral of San Giovanni. In the words of art critic Robert Hughes: “In fact for the next half-century, after 1623, hardly a year would pass in which Bernini would not be involved in the decoration of this prodigious basilica”. Bernini decorated the walls of Saint Peter’s and made some of the papal tombs which will be discussed below. Between 1626 and 1633 he furthermore built the famous bronze baldachin with the twisted columns that stands above the high altar. The baldachin is 28 metres high and features the bees from the coat of arms of the Barberini family, of which Pope Urbanus – who had been born Maffeo Barberini – was a member. It is a persistent myth that Bernini made his baldachin from bronze taken from the portico of the Pantheon. That bronze was in fact used to cast cannons for the Castel Sant’Angelo. The baldachin covers the high altar of the church, which is an enormous block of marble taken from the Forum of the emperor Nerva (96-98). In its turn, the altar is right above the supposed tomb of Saint Peter. In front of the altar two spiral stairs lead to the confessio or crypt.
Bernini was of course also responsible for the square in front of Saint Peter’s, the Piazza San Pietro. The square had been commissioned from him by Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) and was built between 1656 and 1667. The central element of the square is the Egyptian obelisk that once adorned the Circus of Caligula and was placed here in 1586 by Domenico Fontana (see above). Although it is sometimes still argued that the obelisk dates from the age of the pharaohs, this is really not the case. The object does not feature any Egyptian hieroglyphs and was in fact commissioned by Gaius Cornelius Gallus, the first prefect of the Roman province of Egypt. It was then shipped to Rome during the reign of the emperor Caligula (37-41). On both sides of the obelisk we find a fountain. The one on the right was made by Carlo Maderno, the one on the left by Carlo Fontana (ca. 1634/38-1714). Fontana also designed the baptistery of the basilica and can in a sense be considered the last architect of new Saint Peter’s.
There is just too much to see in Saint Peter’s Basilica to be discussed in one post. To give but a few specifications: the church has a maximum length of 220 metres and a maximum width of 150. The nave is over 46 metres high and the dome has a height of 136,6 metres. Since discussing everything is out of the question, I will simply focus on a few highlights that have not yet been discussed above. What makes my job a lot easier is the fact that large parts of the church are not accessible to visitors. The part behind the altar and the right transept are generally closed to the public and certain chapels – the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament for instance – are reserved for those who want to pray.
Starting in the loggia or narthex, we immediately find ourselves in a place of interest. Apart from the aforementioned Navicella mosaic by Giotto (see above) we find five doors here. The central bronze one was made between 1433 and 1445 by Antonio di Pietro Averlino, who was also known as Filarete (ca. 1400-1469). It follows that this door was already part of old Saint Peter’s, unlike the four other doors, which were all made in the twentieth century. The door on the far right is the Holy Door or Porta Sancta. It may only be opened in Holy Years. It would, by the way, be difficult to open the door in a regular year, since the portal in which it has been installed has been bricked up from the inside. The sixteen bronze panels on the door are the work of the sculptor Vico Consorti (1902-1979). Once we are inside the basilica, we will notice that unlike its predecessor, new Saint Peter’s has two aisles instead of four.
The most famous work of art in the church is undoubtedly Michelangelo’s magnificent Pietà. This statue of the dead Christ on his mother’s lap can be found in the first chapel on the right. It was completed in 1499, when Michelangelo was a mere 24 years old. An interesting fact about the Pietà is that it was not intended to be placed in Saint Peter’s at all. In 1500 it was set up as an altarpiece in the church of Santa Petronilla. As the Santa Petronilla was considered the national church of the French, it should not come as a surprise that the statue was commissioned by a French cardinal, Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas (died 1499). When the church was demolished, the statue was moved to the adjacent Santa Maria della Febbre, which had by this time already been converted into a sacristy. It was not until 1749 that the Pietà was moved to the first chapel on the right. The armoured glass that protects the statue is there to prevent an attack such as the one that took place in 1972, when a mentally ill man attacked the Pietà with a hammer. It should be noted that this is not Michelangelo’s only Pietà. Florence and Milan have Pietàs by Michelangelo as well.
The four huge pillars supporting the dome are all named after a saint. Statues of these saints have been placed in niches facing the high altar and Bernini’s baldachin. The four saints are Andrew (Saint Peter’s brother), Helena (the emperor Constantine’s mother), Veronica (who offered Christ her veil to wipe the sweat from his forehead) and Longinus, the centurion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear. Bernini personally made the statue of Longinus, the other statues are by the Flemish sculptor Frans Duquesnoy (1597-1643) and his Italian colleagues Andrea Bolgi (1606-1656) and Francesco Mochi (1580-1654). Near the pillar of Longinus we find another famous and interesting statue, one of Saint Peter sitting on his throne and giving his blessing with his right hand. In his left hand he is holding the Keys of Heaven. The theory that the statue dates back to Antiquity has been largely discredited. It is now usually assumed that it is a work of the Florentine sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/1310). Behind the pillar of Andrew is an entrance to the Grotte, the crypt of the church. For a tour of the crypt, see this interesting video. If you decide to visit the Grotte, you will unfortunately not see the presumed tomb of Saint Peter. In order to see it, you will have to join a guided tour of the excavations below the basilica.
If we take up position near the altar and look up, we can see how beautiful the decorations of the interior of the dome are. The pendentives were provided with mosaics of the four evangelists. Giovanni De Vecchi (1536-1614) was responsible for Luke and John, while Cesare Nebbia (ca. 1536-1622) did Mark and Matthew. In the context of Saint Peter’s, Matthew is obviously the most important evangelist. It is, after all, in his Gospel that we find the famous phrase about the rock on which Jesus will build his church (see above). On the lower edge of the drum of the dome we read the following text from the Latin Vulgate:
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
(“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and I will give you the Keys of Heaven”)
It should be noted that this is only part of the text of Matthew 16:18-19. The part about how the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it (i.e. the church of Christ) has been omitted, and so has the part about what Peter binds and looses on earth (that will have the same status in heaven; this text can in fact be found in the right aisle). The mosaics of the interior of the dome were made by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640), known to his contemporaries as the Cavalier d’Arpino.
The sacristy of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), which was already mentioned above, is currently a museum, the Tesoro or Treasure Room. The museum is very interesting and there is just a small admission charge, but for some reason photography is prohibited. This is rather strange, since taking pictures in the church itself is no problem at all. Regretfully, there is nothing that can be done, visitors will just have to accept the ban on photography. One of the top pieces of the Tesoro is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus from the fourth century. Bassus, a Christian, was prefect of Rome (praefectus urbi) and died on 25 Augustus 359 aged 42. He was buried in the back of old Saint Peter’s Basilica, not far from Saint Peter’s own presumed tomb. Bassus’ father Junius Annius Bassus, who was not a Christian, had been consul in 331 and built a basilica in Rome with marvellous decorations executed in opus sectile. The basilica is long gone, but fortunately the decorations have been preserved. Other interesting objects in the Treasure Room are the funerary monument of Pope Sixtus IV and the processional cross donated by the emperor Justinus II. Sixtus’ tomb is a work by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (ca. 1431-1498); a picture can be found here. The cross is also known as the Crux Vaticana. It was a gift of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinus II (565-578) and his wife to the people of Rome.
In the corridor leading to the sacristy we find a plaque with the header SVMMI PONTIFICES IN HAC BASILICA SEPULTI. The plaque records the names of almost 150 popes that once found their final resting place in the basilica. I deliberately added the word ‘once’, since most of the tombs and monuments have not been preserved. Many early popes were buried in the loggia of old Saint Peter’s and of their tombs at most a few tiny pieces still remain. I already mentioned that we find the monument for Pope Sixtus IV in the Tesoro, which is in a way inside the church, but the tombs of many other popes have been moved to other churches. We for instance find the tombs of Pope Pius II (1458-1464) and his nephew Pope Pius III (1503) in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, while the spiritual father of new Saint Peter’s rests in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Some popes were never buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Examples include Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143), who was initially laid to rest in the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, but moved to the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in 1308. And then of course there are popes whose tombs are not even in Rome, for instance the Avignon popes or Pope Gregorius X (1271-1276), who died in Arezzo and found his final resting place there. A complete list of extant papal tombs can be found here.
Many tombs of popes can be found in the Grotte. The simple tomb of the only English pope in history, Adrianus IV (1154-1159), is one of the oldest preserved monuments down there. The tombs in the church above are of much more recent date. If I am not mistaken, the oldest tomb here is that of Pope Innocentius VIII (1484-1492), made by the aforementioned Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Two genuine highlights can be found in the back of the basilica, i.e. the tomb of Pope Paulus III (1534-1549) by Guglielmo della Porta (died 1577) and that of Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644) by Bernini. Since the back part of the church is not accessible to the public, it is unfortunately impossible to get close to these monuments.
The tombs are on either side of the so-called cathedra Petri, a bishop’s throne supposedly used by Saint Peter himself. However, the wooden throne is definitely not ancient. It was donated to Pope John VIII (872-882) by the Frankish king and Holy Roman emperor Charles the Bald in 875. It should be noted that the throne itself is not visible, as it is encased in a reliquary made of gilded bronze which is supported by four Doctors of the Church, who can be identified as Ambrosius, Augustinus of Hippo, John Chrysostomus and Athanasius of Alexandria (the man who opposed Arius). The cathedra we see today was once again designed by Bernini and executed between 1657 and 1666. The texts in the apse are intriguing. They were written in both Latin and Greek and are variants of John 21:15-17, where Christ commands Peter to feed and tend his lambs and sheep:
O PASTOR ECCLESIAE TU OMNES CHRISTI PASCIS AGNOS ET OVES
ΣΥ ΒΟΣΚΕΙΣ ΤΑ ΑΡΝΙΑ ΣΥ ΠΟΙΜΑΙΝΕΙΣ ΤΑ ΠΡΟΒΑΤΑ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ
Also of great quality is the tomb of Pope Leo XI (1605) by Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), and equally superb is that of Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) by Bernini. Leo’s monument may be considered too much honour for a man who was pope for less than a month. Bernini was responsible for the tombs of two popes who had been intimately connected to new Saint Peter’s Basilica, i.e. Urbanus VIII, who consecrated the basilica in 1626 and commissioned the baldachin, and Alexander VII, who had the Piazza San Pietro and cathedra Petri built. The French sculptor Pierre-Étienne Monnot (1657-1733) made the magnificent tomb of Pope Innocentius XI (1676-1689), after a design by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). The tomb of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) is very special, for the simple reason that it was made by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who was both Danish and a protestant. That he, as a de facto heretic, was commissioned to make the tomb, is a miracle that can be attributed to cardinal Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824).
While exploring Saint Peter’s Basilica, we will not just find funerary monuments for popes. If we go to the Grotte, we will for instance also see the tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden. She was the daughter of the Swedish King Gustav II Adolph, nicknamed “The Lion of the North”, who died in battle in 1632. Christina was six years old at the time and succeeded her father as the only surviving legitimate child. Highly erudite and educated, she refused to marry, abdicated in 1654 and converted from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. She moved to Rome and lived there until her death in 1689. As of 1662, her residence was the (future) Palazzo Corsini. Christina had relationships with men, but mostly with women, and there is still debate about her sexual orientation. Opposite the second chapel on the right we find a cenotaph that was erected in her honour. It was commissioned in 1702 by Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721). The monument was designed by Carlo Fontana, while the portrait was made by Giovanni Giardini (1646-1722) and the bas relief by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (1645-1713). The relief features Christina’s conversion to Catholicism. The text surrounding the portrait is remarkable: Christina is named Queen of the Swedes, Goths and Vandals. The last two peoples actually pillaged Rome, in 410 and 455 respectively.
Another monument of some importance is that for James Stuart, the self-proclaimed King James III of England (1688-1766), also known as The Old Pretender. He was the son of King James II, the Catholic monarch who was deposed in the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) by Stadholder William III and his wife Mary Stuart, James’ protestant daughter. The monument also commemorates The Old Pretender’s sons, Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and Henry, the so-called cardinal-duke of York.
Opposite the monument for the Stuarts is the monument for their wife and mother, Maria Clementina Sobieska (1702-1735). She was a granddaughter of the Polish king John III Sobieski, the man who had saved Vienna from the Turks in 1683. Father, mother and the two sons were all buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Stuart monument was made by the famous Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Filippo Barigioni (1672-1753) designed the monument for Maria Clementina and Pietro Bracci (1700-1773) executed it.
Finally, a remarkable fact about Saint Peter’s Basilica: you will be hard-pressed to find paintings in the church. Because the climate inside is far from optimal, there has for centuries been a policy of replacing canvases with copies executed in mosaic. Many of the original paintings can be seen in the Vatican Museums, for instance a Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Guido Reni (1575-1642), while the enormous painting of Saint Petronilla’s funeral by Guercino (1591-1666) is now in the Capitoline Museums (see above). Quite a few paintings have been moved to other churches, the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Stazione Termini, which has about a dozen canvases from Saint Peter’s, being particularly lucky.
The view from the dome
Every able-bodied person should climb the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica to enjoy the breathtaking view from up there. It is a daunting 537 steps to the top, but you will get so much in return for your effort. The only disappointment is the view of the backs of the thirteen statues on the façade of the church. These were made by a team of relatively unknown sculptors led by Carlo Maderno, and apparently these men did not feel it was necessary to complete the backs of the statues. But then again, who would have expected mass tourism in those days? Here is a list of all the artists involved. The thirteen statues represent Christ, Saint John the Baptist and eleven apostles. Peter and Paul are absent, and Judas has already been replaced by Matthias. While not part of the façade, Peter and Paul can in fact be found on the Piazza San Pietro down below, at the beginning of the steps leading to the basilica. Their statues are of a much later date: they were set up here during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878).
From the dome, one can see many of Rome’s top attractions: the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon, the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, the Villa Medici and the much smaller domes of several Roman churches. The dome of Saint Peter’s is in fact the only spot that offers a good view of the church of Santi Michele e Magno (‘church of the Frisians’). The same goes for two other churches, the Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto Teutonico, which is just south of Saint Peter’s and is considered the church for those who speak German, and the Santo Stefano degli Abissini, which is behind Saint Peter’s and is considered the national church of Ethiopia. The dome furthermore offers a great view of the Vatican Museums, the papal apartments, the Sistine chapel and the Vatican gardens behind the basilica. I will therefore conclude this post with a couple of photos that hopefully demonstrate that the challenging climb to the top is definitely worth the effort.
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 561-564 en p. 585;
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 256-258;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 (Dutch edition), p. 230-233;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 383-384;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapters I and II;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 327-357;
- Robert Hughes, Rome (Dutch translation), p. 304-308;
- San Pietro in Vaticano on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 John 1:44.
 For ‘Simeon’, see Acts 15:14 and the first line of the Second Epistle of Peter. In Matthew 16:17 Jesus calls him Simon Barjona, ‘son of Jonah’ (or John).
 Mark 1:16-18; Matthew 4:18-20.
 Luke 5:10.
 Mark 1:29-31; Matthew 8:14-15; Luke 4:38-39.
 See John 1:42: “Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas” (which is translated, A Stone)” (NKJV).
 See Matthew 26:73, where Peter denies knowing Christ, causing someone to say: ““Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you” (NKJV).
 Acts 11:1-18; Galatians 2:11-14, where Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy for first eating with the Gentiles, but subsequently sitting apart because he fears the reactions of Jewish Christians who demand that non-Jewish Christians adhere to Mosaic Law (which requires them to eat food that is kosher and have themselves circumcised).
 Greek happened to be the preferred language for philosophy as well.
 Acts 12:17.
 See Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 256-258 as well.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 585.
 Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 383.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 563. According to the Atlas, the basilica covered a surface of 7097.03 square metres. It compares Constantine’s building to the Basilica Ulpia, built by the emperor Trajanus, and the Basilica of Maxentius on the Forum Romanum, which was completed by Constantine. Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was at least 500 square metres larger than both other basilicas.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 563-564.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 561.
 The two smaller domes near the transept are Vignola’s creations.
 Robert Hughes, Rome, p. 305 of the Dutch translation.
 If you walk towards the altar, Andrew is on the left and Longinus on the right. Behind the altar are Veronica (left) and Helena (right).
 You can see the level right above it.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 563.
 Acts 1:23-26.