Guide to Saint Peter's Basilica
by Fr. Giovanni Giuliani OFM Conv
©1995 A.T.S. Italia- Roma (all rights reserved)
This book is for you, be you pilgrim or tourist, who have perhaps long wanted to come to the Eternal City. Perhaps you have wanted to enter the embrace of Bernini's colonnade and listen to the message of these ancient stones, the foundation stones of St. Peter's.
Here, amidst the colorful crowds, you will feel the emotional impact of the enormous basilica, the "Cathedral of Humanity". And, you will immediately see that all people are welcome.
People have been coming here for centuries; pilgrims have come to the tomb of St. Peter to pray for enlightenment, strength and courage. We hope this booklet will help you become acquainted with and understand the treasures of art and faith that are here. They were created by the Western world's greatest artists and with a dual purpose, to be admired and to convey a profound spiritual message.
Look through the book slowly; you will find "new friends" whose faith may give you new courage. Look around, listen. You will hear a message of faith and suffering, of battles won or apparently lost. But mainly you will feel a Presence; the presence of the Lord who had guided Christians of old and Christians today, and who is still reaching out to guide us all.
Please accept our invitation, to continue on this wonderful journey through the history of the faith. Many others took their first steps, right here in St. Peter's Basilica.
The largest and perhaps most impressive basilica in the world rises over the pagan cemetery that extended from the Via Cornelia, the road that connected the Tiber to the Via Aurelia, and flanked Nero's Circus. It was exactly here, that around 67 A.D., during the first persecution of Christians launched by Nero that the Apostle Peter was crucified during a spectacle that included battles between slaves, gladiators and wild beasts. The Christians immediately took Peter's body and buried it in the cemetery near the Circus. The remains of that cemetery can still be seen today beneath the basilica. Excavations between 1939 and 1950 unearthed both the tomb and the relics of the apostle.
Pope Anacletus (76-88), Peter's immediate successor, built a small chapel over the Apostle's tomb. It immediately became a place of worship and pilgrimage for the early Christians, later popes and those who came to Rome in spite of the risks of the ferocious persecutions, so that they could pray at the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
The persecutions came to an end under Constantine, the emperor who had a vision of the Cross as a sign of victory. Under his reign the church's spiritual leadership was officially recognized with the famous Edict of Milan in 313. It was Constantine who, in 324, built a lavish basilica over the entire cemetery and part of the circus. The main altar was to stand over Peter's simple tomb. Legend tells us that the emperor removed his rich robes and began digging the foundations with his own hands. He personally filled and carried away twelve baskets of earth: one for each apostle.
The circus had to be destroyed to build the church (much of the circus structures were made of wood) and many tombs had to be removed and reburied. According to Roman law, only the Emperor, the supreme authority, could give permission to tamper with grave sites. Then, to position the main altar over St. Peter's tomb, half the hillside sloping down towards the circus had to be excavated. The cuts in the hill are still visible to this day on the northern side, outside the Basilica.
The old, five-aisled basilica was 118 meters long, 64 meters wide and had 88 columns, that is, 22 in each row. It was begun in 324; the main portion was finished in just five years, and was consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester (314-335). Over the following decades it was embellished with a portico, that soon became a preferred burial place for popes, kings and emperors who wanted their final resting places near that of St. Peter. During pervious centuries many simple faithful had been buried there, giving further proof of the authenticity of the legend that this is, indeed, the site of St. Peter's tomb. Later, a bell tower, with 12 windows on each of its six stories was built, as was a double-portico that was used for papal blessings.
The basilica had 120 altars, 27 of which were, in some way, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Of the 700 oil lamps, 120 burned around St. Peter's tomb. The basilica was a focal point for spiritual life: Peter and other early Christians were martyred on the site, and Peter was buried there. Peter's successors chose the site as their seat, and it was there that relics from the Holy Land such as the relic of the Holy Cross, St. Veronica's veil and the lance that had pierced the side of Christ were kept. The interior of the basilica was resplendent with rare marble, mosaics of all colors, shinning metals, draperies, tapestries and precious stones. The floor around the tomb of St. Peter was covered with gold and silver. These priceless treasures were stolen when the shrine was sacked by the Visigoths (410), the Vandals (455), the Saracens (846), the Normans (1084) and others who, attracted by their material value, totally ignored their spiritual significance. In fact, the countless pilgrims who traveled to Rome from all over the world were not interested in gold or silver, they only cared about "videre Petrum", seeing the shrine, strengthening their faith and enriching their spirit.
In order to help this constant flow of pilgrims, the Scholae Peregrinorum sprang up around the old basilica; providing hostels and hospices for pilgrims of all nations: Frisians, Franks, Czechs, Teutons, Flemish, Hungarians, Illyrians, Saxons, Lombards, Armenians, and Abyssians, they came from Corsica and from north of the Po River and every other part of the world. Rome was becoming the patria communis. The opportunity to live, eat and sleep so close to the tomb of St. Peter, gatekeeper of heaven, for even a short time was considered a step towards salvation. This international "facility" had to close down when work was begun on the new basilica. The only Cholae that remained within the Vatican wall are the Teutonic Church and the Church of St. Stephen of Abyssinia.
However, the glorious basilica, where twenty-three emperors had been crowned, that had welcomed pilgrims from every part of the world, that had celebrated the first Holy Year (1300), described by Dante and immortalized by Giotto's paintings, that had confirmed and strengthened Christian faith, began to show the ravages of time after twelve centuries. In the XVI century, after several attempts at restorations, the Basilica with its enormous history and traditions, was at risk. Reluctantly, the decision was made to demolish it, but on the brighter side, another decision was made, to erect an even greater one, the basilica as it exists today, on the same site.
In 1506 Pope Julius II laid the first stone of the new basilica and started construction that was to last for one hundred and twenty years. The greatest artists of the era worked on it: Bramante (1444-1514), Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Fontana (1541-1607), Della Porta (1540-1602), Bernini (1598-1680), Maderno (1559-1629) and others. Faith and genius paid homage to Peter's tomb and the new basilica, with its enormous dome reaching skyward, continues its hymn of praise to the greatness of God and the honor of St. Peter.
Bernini (1598-1680) built his colonnade between 1656 and 1667. Its magnificent design symbolizes the Church, two arms embracing all humanity, "Catholics, to confirm their faith, and others to welcome them to the Church and show them the Way."
It is 340 meters wide, with a 240 meter central ellipse enclosed by four rows comprising 284 columns with 88 pillars. The balustrade is topped by 140 statues of saints, while below, at the foot of the grand staircase, the two 8-meter high statues of Saints Peter and Paul seem to welcome the pilgrims to the basilica.
In the center of the square stands the obelisk which the Emperor Caligula had brought to Rome from Egypt to decorate Nero's Circus. In 1586, by order of Pope Sixtus V, the obelisk was moved to where it stands now, to embellish the square, and mainly so that all pilgrims who come here can see this silent witness of St. Peter's martyrdom. Over 900 workers, 140 horses and 47 winches were needed to raise the obelisk. The entire project was designed and supervised by the architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607).
The obelisk is 25 meters high, 41 if we count the base and the cross on top. It is also a sun dial, its shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the white marble disks in the paving of the square. Two lavish fountains designed by Carlo Maderno (1559-1629) and Carlo Fontana (1634-1714) symbolize the purification needed to enter the house of the Lord. During Conclaves, the square is filled with faithful, waiting for the white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to announce the election of a new pope, who then comes out on the balcony of the Basilica to give his blessing to Rome and the world (Urbi et Orbi). From April to October every year the square is filled with pilgrims from all over the world for the general audience on Wednesdays and the major religious celebrations (Palm Sunday, Easter, Beatifications, etc.).
Every Sunday, at noon, the faithful gather in the square to recite the Angelus and receive the Pope's blessing when he comes to his window (the next to the last one on the top floor, on the right).
In addition to being the most beautiful square in the world, it is the most peaceful and most cosmopolitan.
The impressive dome which soars majestically towards the sky (h. 137 meters) was designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564). It looks like a giant tiara, crowning the tomb of St. Peter. Construction ordered by Pope Sixtus V was begun in 1588 and took only 22 months. Eight hundred men worked day and night (by torchlight) under the direction of the architect Giacome Della Porta (1540-1602) who increased the overall height by seven meters and modified Michelangelo's original plans. It is the largest dome ever built at that height. "The immense structure seems to be balanced against the Roman sky, as if by miracle, free of all weight. It is awesome, and yet its lines are simple. This rare blend of strength and grace, of power and faith seems to summarize the genius of Michelangelo himself and it has become the monumental symbol of the Rome of Christ and the Popes much as the Coliseum is the symbol of the Rome of the Caesar's" (Carlo G. Paluzzi). It can be seen from anywhere in Rome and Catholic pilgrims salute it solemnly as soon as they glimpse it from afar, because it is the symbol of the Church and the seat of the Papacy. It is almost impossible to imagine the Roman skyline without its grandiose outlines which are a source of joy and spiritual comfort. Even the sun caresses it with its rays so that it has been described as "red at dawn, opaline in the early morning, silver in the afternoon and purple at twilight." (G. Turcio)
The impressive, 45 meter high and 114 meter long travertine façade was designed by Carlo Maderno. It is crowned by thirteen, six meter high statues; in the center is the Redeemer blessing the pilgrims who come from all over the world. He is flanked by St. John the Baptist and eleven Apostles, because the statue of St. Peter, with that of St. Paul is located on the staircase below.
The eight giant columns are 27 meters tall and nearly three meters in diameter. They support the cornice along which are the words dedicating the basilica to Peter, Prince of the Apostles, by Pope Paul V (1605-1621).
In the center of the façade is the balcony from which the election of the new pope is announced. The works are part of Western history "Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam". The newly elected pope stands on that same balcony to give his first blessing Urbi et Orbi, while the members of the College of Cardinals, stand on the balconies on either side. It is from the same balcony that on Easter and Christmas, the Pope gives his blessing. Beneath the balcony there is a fine marble bas-relief sculpture of Jesus handing the keys to Peter.
Jesus handing the keys to Peter. To the left, below the large clock is the famous bell of St. Peter's, it weighs 10,000 kgs and is 3 and a half meters in diameter. Five elegant wrought iron gates flanked by marble columns lead into the atrium of the Basilica.
The terrace above affords an unforgettable view of the fine geometry of St. Peter's square, and the domes, churches, palazzo, parks and pines of Rome.
A flight of twenty five steps lead to the basilica's entrance, and easily brings to mind the jubilant song of the pilgrims as they reached the Temple of Jerusalem: "I was glad when they said unto me: 'Let us go into the house of the Lord'. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, …to give thanks unto the name of the Lord … Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good." (Ps. 121:1-2, 4, 6-9)
The solemn, luminous portico, richly decorated with stucco and medallions depicting scenes from the construction of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica, with statues of the first thirty two martyred popes is so noble and majestic as to seem like a basilica itself. It was designed by Maderno in 1612, with elegance and grace. It is 71 meters long, 13 meters wide and 20 high. Its five monumental bronze doors take the faithful into the basilica. Pilgrims respectfully stop in front of the Holy Door, which is somewhat smaller and is opened only once every 25 years.
In the middle of the fine marble floor is the coat of arms of Pope John XXIII who convened the second ecumenical Vatican Council. The more than three thousand bishops who attended this historic meeting on 11 October 1962 entered the basilica this way. To the left and right of the Door of Death there are two ancient plaques affixed to the wall. The first commemorates the donation by Pope Gregory II (715-731) of fifty six olive trees at Anagni near Rome to provide oil for the lamps that continually burn in front of St. Peter's tomb. The second bears the elegy that Charlemagne composed on the death of Pope Adrian I in 795.
A third plaque is located on the wall to the left of the Holy Door, it is engraved with part of the Bull by which Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Holy Year in 1300. In the lunette above the central door is Giotto's famous mosaic "La Navicella" that he made for that first Holy Year in the old basilica. The many marble columns that grace the portico come from the old basilica. At the right end of the portico is Bernini's statue of Emperor Constantine when he had the vision of the cross with the words "In this sign, conquer." Facing it is the statue of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor who was crowned in St. Peter's by Pope Leo III on Christmas night in 799.
This door is usually opened every twenty five years during the Holy Year. It was also opened recently for the Jubilee years in 1933-34 and 1983-84. The Holy Door represents Christ, the Savior, Shepherd and Teacher. He said of himself, "I am the door: by me if any man enters in he shall be saved." (John, 10:9)
This bronze door, made by the artist Vico Consorti (1950) is decorated with scenes on the subject of sin and forgiveness focused on the Gospel parables of mercy.
1. When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, it seemed that a door was closed forever, but the Annunciation opened the door of life through forgiveness brought by Redemption.
2. The Lord is waiting for us at the Holy Door to a) restore joy to those who have wasted the gift of baptism; b) to look for the lamb lost amidst the evils of the world; c) to await the return of the prodigal son; d) to heal those who are maimed by sin.
3. Much has been forgiven in exchange for much love" a) Love and forgiveness; b-c) (St. Peter is the key figure) are the elements needed to find the Lord who, crucified by sin, spoke the words, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise".
4. Lack of faith, a) pride and b) sin that prevent the development of faith will be eliminated by Jesus who said "Forgive us our sins" c) the Lord is waiting for us at the other door, which is our heart, where he knocks every day because he wants to enter "Sto ad ostium et pulso" (I stand at the door and knock); d) To the left of the Holy Door is the Door of Sacraments designed by Venanzo Crocetti (1950). The imagery on this door is easy to understand because it lists the sources of Grace, which are the seven sacraments.
This is truly an historical door, as it was part of the old basilica. It was made by the Florentine artist Antonio Averulino known as Filarete (1400-1469) in the year 1455. The rich and elegant workmanship is a hymn to Christ, the Virgin Mary and to the apostles Peter and Paul. At the top are the Savior enthroned, giving a blessing, and the Virgin Mary, humble and reverent. This was one of the most widely used themes in the Middle Ages: the Church as a family. Where there is the Father, there must also be the Mother, otherwise it would be cold and heartless.
In the center are the impressive standing figures of Peter and Paul, the two great pillars of the Roman Church. Paul holds a sword, symbol not only of his martyrdom, but of that double-edged blade, the word of God. At his feet is an elegant vase of flowers. Peter is the keeper of the keys. He is depicted as holding the Gospel in one hand and giving the keys over to the kneeling Pope Eugenius IV who had commissioned this door.
The last two panels show the Apostles condemned to death by Nero seated on his throne. Peter is being forcibly led to the Vatican hill where he would be crucified upside down. Paul, on the other hand was a Roman citizen, and met a less cruel death. He was made to kneel, he was blindfolded and he was beheaded with a single stroke of a sword. We see Paul, in the middle of the same panel as he emerges from a cloud to return the veil to Plautilla: the girl had given it to him to cover his eyes before he was executed.