An ornament of the earth
The stunning St. Peter’s Basilica is the centrepiece of Vatican City, and its huge dome can be seen on the Roman skyline from most points in the city. Although not the mother church of the Catholic Church, it is its largest and holiest shrine, and an important place of pilgrimage.
St. Peter, a humble fisherman from Galilee, was the first of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. He is also considered to have been the first ever Pope, ordained by Christ Himself. According to tradition the tomb of St. Peter lies directly beneath the main altar in the Basilica. In 64 AD Nero had Peter crucified, head downwards, in the Circus of Nero, which was close to where St. Peter’s is today; Nero didn’t much like the Christians - and they considered him the Antichrist.
The Basilica was first built and dedicated to Peter in 315 AD on the command of the Emperor Constantine, who was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The magnificent building we see today is, however, a Renaissance creation which replaced the church built by Constantine. The original was a smaller and more modest building. Since its inception the Basilica has been considered one of the holiest places on earth, and it is still visited by hundreds of tourists and pilgrims on a daily basis.
The erection of a new, grander Basilica was begun under Pope Julius II della Rovere in 1506 and was not finished until around 1626 under Pope Urban VII Barberini. There had been 22 Popes between the beginning and end of its construction. During this long period the design of the Basilica’s design benefited from the expertise of ten of the world’s greatest artists, including Bramante, Maderno, Bernini
and Michelangelo, who can be regarded as principal designer of the building as we see it today. By then in his seventies, Michelangelo was forced to do the work by Pope John Paul III and undertook it grudgingly ‘only for the love of God and in honour of the Apostle.’
You approach the majestic building through the elegant St. Peter’s Square
and enter through a huge Greek style portico, both of which are the creation of Bernini
. The cruciform interior of the Basilica bears witness to a variety of architectural styles, and is resplendently adorned throughout with gold, marble, huge statues and frescoes. It is hard to overstate the magnificence of its decoration.
A majestic altar, which may only be used by the Pope, sits in front of the throne of St. Peter; Bernini’s baldacchino, a 30 metre marble canopy over the altar (which is rumoured to employ bronze pilfered from the Pantheon
) is just as impressive. Members of the faith line up to kiss or touch the feet of the 13th century bronze figure of St. Peter. Another significant statue is Michelangelo’s beautiful marble Pietà, completed in 1500 when Michelangelo was only 25 years old. It is the only artwork that Michelangelo ever signed, and is held behind a glass wall to prevent damage; it suffered an attack in 1972 by a mentally disturbed geologist.
The Basilica’s architectural genius and breathtaking ornamentation make it a truly awe-inspiring destination, only heightened by its importance as a centre of liturgical and papal ceremony. A trip to Rome is incomplete without visiting St. Peter’s: as Henry James wrote, ‘if it were not the most beautiful place in the world, it would be the most entertaining.’