Guide to Saint Peter's Basilica
by Fr. Giovanni Giuliani OFM Conv
©1995 A.T.S. Italia- Roma (all rights reserved)
The altar, reached by climbing seven steps, is made of a single block of marble from the Forum of Nerva. Like all altars in early Christian churches, it faces east, and as always, the Pope celebrates Mass facing the people. It is the focal point of the basilica, built over Peter's Tomb, crowned by Bernini's canopy and protected by Michelangelo's dome.
It is the third altar built over Peter's tomb. The first was erected by Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), modifying the one built by Constantine; the second was built by Pope Calixtus (1119-1124), and this, the third one was built by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1602). It is known as the Main or Papal Altar because it is here that the Pope presides over religious ceremonies, its real name, however, is the altar of the confession, in the sense of a confession of faith. Peter is buried beneath it; by professing his belief and faith in Christ, Peter accepted martyrdom. And it is here that generations of Christians have been coming to profess their faith and the twelve articles of the Apostolic Creed:
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord;
2. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He descended into Hell;
3. The third day He arose again from the dead;
4. He ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty;
5. Thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
6. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen
This is the heart and holiest place in the basilica. It was and is the goal of countless pilgrims who come to Rome from all over the world to videre Petrum. Petrus est hic. Peter is here, for two thousand years, in a humble, simple tomb over which the magnificent triumphal basilica was built. It seems that Jesus' words have a material value as well: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." Here we are in the spiritual and physical center of Christianity. From the tomb of St. Peter, the Gospel spread throughout Europe and then to the whole world. After the Holy Sepulchre from which Jesus rose, this is the most venerated tomb in the world. In the year 195 Gaius wrote, "Go to the Vatican on the Via Ostia and there you will find the trophies, (the tombs) of the founders of this Church".
In the sacellum above Peter's tomb in a richly decorated niche is a fine silver casket containing the Palls, white wool stoles embroidered with six black crosses that the pope gives to the patriarch and metropolitan as a constant reminder to be faithful to Christ and to Peter. Day and night, 99 oil lamps burn along the railing that circles the shrine and along the two semicircular ramps. They are symbols of faith, love, prayer for Christians. Here, the faithful humbly profess their faith, repeating the words taught by Peter, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed.
There are four niches, approximately 10 meters high in the base of the pillars that support the dome. Each niche contains a statue: St. Veronica, St. Helena, St. Longinus and St. Andrew, they are the works of F. Mochi, A. Bolgi, G.L. Bernini and F. Duquesnoy, respectively. The chapels above the niches were created to contain the relics of these saints. They were designed and built by Bernini, and are decorated with rare marble, ancient columns and figures of praying angels.
Saint Veronica, was the poor pious woman whom Jesus cured, and who met him again on the road to Calgary where she wiped his face when he fell under the weight of the cross. Miraculously, he left the image of his face on the cloth. The crusaders brought a "veil of Veronica" to Rome from Jerusalem. It was highly venerated, especially during the Middle Ages and was mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy (Paradise, XXXI, 104) and in the Vita Nuova (40,1).
St. Helena was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Near the Calvary in Jerusalem she found part of the True Cross. This precious relic was brought to Rome and for centuries was venerated in the Church of the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme of Rome that had been built by St. Helena. Since 1629 this relic is in St. Peter's, in a gold, cross-shaped case.
St. Longinus was the attendant of the Roman centurion who had to ascertain that Jesus was dead. He pierced his side with a lance from which "blood and water" flowed. Longinus became a Christian along with the centurion who declared Christ to be the Son of God (Matt. 27, 54). The lance was given to the crusaders, but was stolen by the Saracens. It was brought to Rome as a gift of the Sultan Bayazet, son of Mohammed II, in 1492.
St. Andrew Apostle was St. Peter's brother. He evangelized Greece where he was crucified on the cross that still bears his name. In 1400 Greek Christians sent his skull to Rome so that it would rest near his brother, Peter. In 1966 Pope Paul VI sent this precious relic as an ecumenical gift to the church of St. Andrew of Patraxos.
The three relics of the Passion are now in the chapel above the statue of St. Veronica. During Holy Week they are shown to the faithful who are blessed with them.
After the tomb of Peter, we raise our eyes to admire his glory. The splendor of the 96 figures in the mosaic is overwhelming, the gaze is drawn towards the center, to the high lantern that rises another 18 meters where, as if in a vision, is the glorious figure of the Eternal Father, with arms outstretched in blessing towards Peter's tomb. He seems to be repeating Jesus' words to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jona". We can read the words of Peter's investiture that circle the dome "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." (Matt. 16, 18-19).
The dome is decorated in mosaic in the three colors of Medieval mysticism, blue, gold and red. The triumphal decoration is divided into sixteen sections that converge at the top of the dome and are divided in six horizontal circles:
1. the busts of the first sixteen popes buried in the basilica;
2. the great figure of Christ triumphant surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and the Twelve Apostles;
3. sixteen angels holding the symbols and instruments of Christ's passion
4. flights of winged cherubs;
5. angels reverently looking down at Peter's tomb
6. flights of winged seraphs
Standing beneath the dome one gets the impression of belonging not to the "militant" church, but rather to the triumphant church. Although the dome expounds the theory of glory, it also recalls the pain, it rests on pillars in which the relics of Christ's passion are conserved to tell us that only through suffering can we reach God. Per Crucem ad lucem. This triumph was designed by G. Cesari, know as the Cavalier d'Arpino (1568-1640), who completed it in 1603 with the help of the era's best mosaicists, Turchi, Torelli, Rossetti, Abatini and Serafini
This big and luminous transept is known as the "Transept of Saints Processus and Martinian" two Roman martyrs who were the warders of St. Peter in the Mamertine prison and whom he converted and baptized.
Their relics are kept in the porphyry urn under the altar. On either side are two columns of antique yellow marble which, along with those of the altar of St. Joseph are believed to be unique.
The mosaic above the altar depicts the cruel martyrdom of the saints, who were killed before their parents' eyes while an angel hands over the palm of martyrdom. The mosaic is a fine reproduction of a painting by the French artist Jean de Boulogne (1640).
On the left of the altar is a mosaic portrayal of the martyrdom of St. Erasmus, the bishop who was killed at Formia during the persecution of Diocletian (303-313).
The altar on the right is dedicated to St. Wenceslas, king and patron saint of Bohemia, martyred because of his Christian faith. The painting by Angelo Caroselli was done in 1740. The ovals on the right and left depict saints Cyril and Methodius, joint patrons of Europe. According to Pope Pius XI they were sons of the Orient. Byzantine by birth, Greek by nationality, Roman by mission, Slav by apostolate and did everything for everyone to achieve the unity of the Catholic church.
The large transept has a history of its own: the sessions of the First Vatican Council were held here from 8 December 1869 to 18 July 1870, and over seven hundred bishops took part. The dogma of papal infallibility was proclaimed here. The council was abruptly interrupted when the Italian troops took Rome on 20 September 1879. It was declared officially concluded ninety years later when, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council of over three thousand bishops on 11 October 1962.
This splendid monument was carved by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) to honor Pope Clement XIII (1758-1769) by his countrymen. It was the first neoclassical monument in the Basilica and is one of the most admired.
The extraordinary figure of the Pope is kneeling at the tomb in prayer, in an almost other-worldly state. He was an extremely pious and generous Pope, a gentle man with deep spiritual feelings. He distributed his entire personal fortune to help the poor when famine struck the Latium region in 1763-64. With one hand resting on the tomb, the statue personifies Religion holding the Cross, symbol of hope and salvation.
The Hebrew letters on the forehead and belt read: "God is Holy" and "Doctrine and Truth." On the right is the Angel of Death who sadly extinguishes the torch of light.
The two perfectly carved crouching lions seem to take turns guarding the tomb, in fact, one is asleep while the other is fiercely alert.
According to legend, Saint Petronilla was St. Peter's daughter, she left Jerusalem with him to go to Rome. According to history, Petronilla was a virgin and martyr, from the family of Domitilla. She was Peter's "spiritual daughter" in that he baptized her and showed her the light.
Her body was removed from the catacomb of Domitilla in 750 and was translated to the imperial rotunda in the old basilica, next to the tomb of the empress Mary. The chapel with the tomb of St. Petronilla became that of the kings of France, Pepin and Charlemagne (768). Later, embellished with fine artworks it became the French National Chapel.. The French ambassador, Jean Cardinal De Bilhares commissioned Michelangelo to carve the Pieta for this chapel (1499). Unfortunately the chapel was demolished when the new basilica was erected (1606). Saint Petronilla's relics are now beneath the altar in the chapel that was consecrated by Pope Paul V in 1623. Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the centuries, the chapel is still the "French National Chapel". Mass on her feast day, 31 May, is attended by the French community in Rome, including the French ambassador, who venerate the "spiritual sister" of France, the "first daughter of the Church".
Above the altar is one of the most outstanding mosaics in the basilica, by Pietro Cristofari, first director of the Vatican School of Mosaic, after a painting by Guercino (1590-1666). In a marvelous play of chiaroscuro effects, the mosaic shows the martyrdom and apotheosis of the saint as she is received by Christ.
Saint Petronilla is also depicted in the lunette of the dome, as she is baptized by St. Peter and given Communion by St. Nicodemus.
This structure is a brilliant creation by Bernini, designed to display the chair on which, according to ancient tradition, St. Peter sat and taught Roman Christians. Pope Alexander VII had the ivory-covered chair put into the gigantic bronze cathedra, with the statues of the Doctors of the Church, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine of the Roman Church and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom of the Greek Church. The religious significance is extremely clear. The Doctors of the Church were always consistent with Peter's teachings as they expounded theological doctrine.
The gospel does not change because the Holy Spirit, portrayed as a dove flies along the span of the centuries, assisting and accompanying its church. The chair or cathedra of Peter symbolizes the perpetual continuity of the doctrine and its promise of infallibility. It triumphed over all heresies throughout the centuries.
The fine alabaster window, surrounded by golden clouds and angels flying between rays of light, casts a mystical warmth through the basilica, especially in the afternoon. It is divided into twelve sections, in homage to the twelve Apostles who carried the words of the Gospel throughout the world.
On either side of the Chapel of the Cathedra are funerary monuments to two Popes, Urban VIII and Paul III, patrons of two of the most eminent artists who contributed to the construction of St. Peter's Basilica: Michelangelo and Bernini. Urban VIII (1623-1644) "discovered" the great Neapolitan artist Gianlorenzo Bernini who, with enormous gratitude, dedicated this monument to his patron. The majestic figure of the pope giving a blessing is solemnly dressed in his pontifical robes. Like the monument to Paul III, it is made of bronze, not marble. On either side of the black marble sarcophagus are fine, white marble statues of young women. The first, on the left holding a child in her arms represents Charity who looks sadly at another child pointing at the dead pope. The figure on the left symbolizes Justice who sadly raises her eyes upward to seek comfort from God. In the middle, on the sarcophagus, is a bronze skeleton, Death who holds a scroll with the name of the dead Pope in a bony hand. The three bees of the Barberini family crest are usually arranged symmetrically, here however, the are facing in different directions, disoriented and confused by the death of their sovereign.
The name of Pope Paul III (1534-1549) is inexorably linked to the Council of Trent that he convened in 1545. Paul III was the patron of Michelangelo, whom he convinced to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The great artist was over seventy when He had completed this monumental masterpiece and the pope ordered him to direct construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica in 1546. It is well known that Michelangelo accepted the assignment and refused any form of payment, because he wanted to work to "render glory to God, honor to St. Peter and for the salvation of his soul." Upon the death of the pope, Michelangelo wrote, "Pope Paul III only showed me kindness." This majestic, impressive monument was sculpted by Guglielmo Della Porta and it shows Michelangelo's influence, especially in the figure of the Pope. Ravaged by age and pain, he is shown blessing the figures of Justice and Prudence. The first is actually a portrait of the pope's sister Julia, famous for her beauty. The second is his mother, Giovannella Gaetani, a strict, dignified old woman who resembled the Cumaean Sybil Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. Originally this monument which was in the Gregorian Chapel was decorated with two other statues, Peace and Abundance. In 1628 it was moved next to the Chapel of the Cathedra by order of Pope Urban VIII who had commissioned Bernini to build his tomb on the opposite side.