St. Peter's Basilica

From New World Encyclopedia

Saint Peter's Basilica
Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano
Petersdom von Engelsburg gesehen.jpg

The Basilica of Saint Peter

Basic information
Location Vatican City
Religious affiliation Roman Catholic
Ecclesiastical status Major basilica
Architectural description
Architect/s Donato Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1520 - 1546), Michelangelo (1546 - ?), Giacomo della Porta
Architectural type Church
Year completed 1626
Capacity 60,000 +

The Basilica of Saint Petrus, commonly called Saint Peter's Basilica, is considered one of the holiest of all Christian sites in the Catholic tradition and is the location of principal church of the Pope, over which St. Peter, the chief disciple of Jesus Christ is said to be buried.

One of four major basilicas of Rome—(St. John Lateran, St. Peter's, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul outside the Walls), it is the most prominent building inside Vatican City. Its dome is also a dominant feature of the Roman skyline. Until recently the largest church building in Christianity,[1] it covers an area of 5.7 acres and has a capacity of over 60,000 people.

Construction on the current basilica, over the old Constantinian edifice, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed in 1626. Although a number of architects worked on the structure, Michelangelo played a key role in saving all that was possible of Donato Bramante's original plan for the basilica, done in the High Renaissance style.

Today, tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists daily visit the basilica, including St. Peter's Square and the church itself, which notably contains Michelangelo's Pieta, the traditional "Chair of Peter," numerous important altars, and the tombs of St. Peter and Pope John Paul II.


The triumphal "Chair of Peter"

One of the holiest sites of Christendom St. Peter's is traditionally the burial site of its namesake Simon Peter, who was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, the first Bishop of Antioch, and later the first Bishop of Rome. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter's presence or martyrdom in Rome, ancient tradition holds that his tomb is below the baldachin (a permanent ornamental canopy) and altar. For this reason, many Popes have been buried there.

Although the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the Pope's official ecclesiastical seat, St. Peter's it is most certainly his principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place at there, due to its size, huge adjoining square, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. The basilica also holds a relic of the Cathedra Petri, the episcopal throne of the basilica's namesake when he led the Roman church. It is believed that a piece of this cathedra, or chair, is contained within the altarpiece, designed by Bernini.


First basilica by Constantine

Nineteenth century drawing of Old Saint Peter's Basilica as it is thought to have looked around 1450.

After his conversion to Christianity, Constantine the Great ordered the building of a basilica to replace the simple sanctuary of the Prince of the Apostles. Begun in the year 323 but not completed until after his death, the southern side of Constantine's basilica was erected along the northern side of the Circus Maximus where the ancient Romans held their games. Known in the Middle Ages as the Palatium Neronis, it was constructed in the shape of a cross and consisted of five naves divided into four rows of 22 columns each.

In its role as the main sanctuary of Western Christendom, the basilica became a repository for vast treasures, including precious mosaic decorations, magnificent vestments, richly decorated entablature, and paintings. A covered colonnade extended from the basilica to the Porta di St. Pietro at the Castle of Sant' Angelo, through which countless pilgrims passed. The Vatican territory provided for their shelter. Soon a palace was built for the pope near the basilica so than the pontiff could receive visitors while officiating at St. Peter's. A number of churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and hospices sprang up around the tomb of the "fisher of men."

Current basilica

Bramante's plan for St Peters

During the papal residence at Avignon, the deterioration of Saint Peter's by the fifteenth century had become obvious. Pope Nicholas V therefore decided to level the old structure and build a new one in its place. Bernardo Rossellini of Florence was selected for the project, and following the pope's plans, the new basilica was to completely surround the choir and transept of the old one. The ground plan was to be a Latin cross with an elongated nave. However, when the pope died in 1455, progress stopped except for the tribune begun in 1450 and the foundations of the wall surrounding the transept.

The next pope, Julius II, kept the idea of reconstructing the basilica. He held a contest in which the Italian architect, Donato Bramante, who introduced the High Renaissance style to Rome, won the prized commission. Bramante's enthusiasm in this monumental undertaking are today found in his numerous plans and drawings, which are preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. The architect wanted to place the Pantheon upon Constantine's basilica, in order that a colossal dome would top the building in the shape of a Greek cross. In 1506, Julius, before 35 cardinals, laid the foundations of this enormous structure.

The dome, as designed by Michelangelo.

When Bramante died in 1514, Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giacondo da Verona, together with Raphael Sanzio, continued his work, but they died in 1516 and 1515, respectively. Raphael was influenced to make changes in Bramante's plan, which he did to some extent. However, after his death, an argument arose as to whether the structure should form a Greek cross, or the nave be extended so create a Latin cross.

The next two architects, Antonio da Sangallo, who was appointed in 1518, and Baldassari Peruzzi, appointed in 1520, tried out all kinds of experiments on the structure. But it was not until 1548, when and aging Michelangelo took control, that Bramante's plan could be clearly followed. Michelangelo strengthened the central piers to bear the weight of the immense dome. Although he died in 1564 without seeing the completion of his artistic conception—only the drum, the base on which the dome rests, was completed—when he died, nonetheless the work was faithfully completed following the great master's vision. The dome was redesigned and vaulted by the architect Giacomo della Porta, with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who also built the lantern, and the finial was placed in 1593.

The Basilica of Saint Peter, portrayed by Viviano Codazzi in a 1630 painting. Note the two bell towers, later removed.

Yet, the structure itself might not have been completed at the start of the next century if, in 1606, Pope Paul V had decided not follow through on the form of the Latin cross. For the next 20 years, Carlo Maderna constructed the current façade and Gianlorenzo Bernini spent considerable time and money adorning the front with bell towers in the Italian Baroque style, which for artistic reasons were removed in their current state of construction. On November 18, 1626, Pope Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the church, which except for some remaining details was virtually complete.

In the construction of St Peter's, there were three identifiable stages: (1) Bramante's Greek cross with the dome; (2) Michelangelo's, a Greek cross with dome, plus a vestibule with a portico of columns; and (3) Paul V's, a Latin cross with Baroque façade.


Part of the funding for the early stages of the rebuilding of St. Peter's came about in very controversial fashion. Archbishop Albert of Mains had taken out a loan from a German banking house, reportedly in order to provide a gift to the Pope that secured Albert's episcopal office. To pay back this sum, Archbishop Albert sold indulgences for the rebuilding of St. Peter's, with half the collection going to Rome and half to pay back his debt.

Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk employed by Albert, promoted these indulgences in Germany, using questionable sales tactics that prompted Martin Luther to write his historic disputation in 95 theses, on October 31, 1517, a copy of which he also sent to Archbishop Albert, thus sparking the schism between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.


St. Peter's Square

View of St. Peters Square from the Dome

Directly to the east of the church is St. Peter's Square (Piazza di San Pietro), built by Gianlorenzo Bernini between 1656 and 1667. It is surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with two pairs of Doric columns which form its breadth, each bearing Ionic entablatures. The colonnade wraps around the square, embracing the faithful in "the motherly arms of the church"

This is an excellent example of Baroque architecture, where creativity is coupled with flexible guidelines. In the center of the colonnade is a 83.6-foot-tall obelisk. Domenico Fontana finished moving the obelisk to its present location on September 28, 1586 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk dates back to the thirteenth century B.C.E. in Egypt, and was moved to Rome in AD 37 to stand in the Circus of Nero some 820 feet away. Including the cross on top and its base, the obelisk reaches 131 feet. The Vatican obelisk is notable for being the second-largest standing obelisk, and the only one that has remained standing since it was erected during the Roman Empire. An original bronze globe on top of the structure was removed when the obelisk was re-erected in St Peter's Square by Domenico Fontana. There are also two fountains in the square, the north one by Maderno (1613) and the southern one by Bernini (1675). The square is reached mainly through the Via della Conciliazione built by Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties.


The dome, redesigned and completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1590.

As built, the double dome is brick, 138.8 feet in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), and rises to 394 feet above the floor. In the mid-eighteenth century, cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, like the rings that keep a barrel from bursting. The four piers of the crossing that support it are each 59 feet across.

The egg-shaped dome exerts less outward thrust than a lower hemispheric one would have done. The dome conceived by Donato Bramante at the outset in 1503 was planned to be carried out with a single masonry shell, a plan discovered to be infeasible. Antonio da Sangallo the Younger came up with the double shell, and Michelangelo improved upon it. The piers at the crossing, which were the first masonry to be laid, and which were intended to support the original dome, were a constant concern, too slender in Bramante's plan, they were redesigned several times as the dome plans evolved.

It is not simply its vast scale (448.06 feet from the floor of the church to the top of the added cross) that makes the dome extraordinary. Della Porta's dome is not a hemisphere, but a paraboloid: 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.


Statue of Saint Peter in foreground with the façade and main entrance in the rear

Above the main entrance is the inscription (translated from Latin), "In honor of the prince of apostles; by Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate."

The façade is 376.28 feet wide and 149.44 feet high. On top are statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and 11 of the apostles; The statues of St. Peter and St. Paul are in front of the parish. Two clocks are on either side of the top, the one on the left has been operated electrically since 1931, its oldest bell dating to 1288.

The Holy Door

Between the façade and the interior is the portico. Mainly designed by Maderno, it contains an eighteenth-century statue of Charlemagne by Cornacchini to the south, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini (1670) to the north. The southernmost door, designed by Giacomo Manzù, is called the "Door of the Dead." The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455), and preserved from the previous basilica.

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 reading PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, and the one just above the door reading GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. In between are white slabs commemorating the most recent openings.


Michelangelo's Pieta

The Pieta

At St. Peter's, Michelangelo's famed Pietà (1498–1499) is situated among several noteworthy monuments and memorials.

This famous work of art depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The theme is of northern origin, popular in France but not yet in Italy. Michelangelo's interpretation of the Pietà was unique in its time. It is an important work as it balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism. It was commissioned by the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was a representative in Rome. Originally made for the cardinal's funeral monument, it was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica, in the eighteenth century.

After an incident in 1972 when an individual damaged it with an axe, the sculpture was placed behind protective glass. The statue is one of the most highly finished works by Michelangelo and is a major attraction for visitors.


Along the same aisle are the monuments of popes Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as the altar of St. Sebastian. Even further up is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is open during religious services only. Inside it is a tabernacle on the altar resembling Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio. Bernini sculpted this gilded bronze tabernacle in 1674. The two kneeling angels were added later. Further still are the monuments of popes Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Rusconi) and Gregory XIV.

In the northwestern corner of the nave sits the statue of St. Peter Enthroned, attributed to late-thirteenth century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (with some scholars dating it back to the fifth century). The foot of the statue is eroded due to centuries of pilgrims kissing it. Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance (not an original detail). Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of saints who founded religious orders.

In the the left aisle there is the Altar of Transfiguration. Walking down toward the entrance are the monuments to Leo XI and Innocent XI followed by the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. After that come the monuments to Pius X and Innocent VIII, then the monuments to John XXIII and Benedict XV, and the Chapel of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin.

After that comes the Monument to the Royal Stuarts, directly opposite the one to Maria Clementina Sobieska. Symmetrically, the two monarchs who gave up their thrones for their Catholic faith in the seventeenth century, are honored side by side in the most important church in Catholicism. Finally, right before the end of the church, is the baptistry.

The right transept contains three altars, of St. Wenceslas, St. Processus and St. Martinian, and St. Erasmus. The left transept also contains three altars, that of St Peter's Crucifixion, St. Joseph, and St. Thomas. West of the left transept is the monument to Alexander VII by Bernini. A skeleton lifts a fold of red marble drapery and holds an hourglass symbolising the inevitability of death. He is flanked on the right by a statue representing religion, who holds her foot atop a globe, with a thorn piercing her toe from the British Isles, symbolizing the pope's problems with the Church of England.

St. Peter's baldachin

Saint Peter's baldichin

Over the main altar stands a 98-foot-tall baldachin, an elaborate, ornamental canopy held by four immense pillars, all designed by Bernini between 1624 and 1632. The baldachin was built to fill the space beneath the cupola, and it is said that the bronze used to make it was taken from the Pantheon. The representation of a chair, part of the sculpture, is said to contain the remnants of the chair belonging to Saint Peter (It is also said that it is the largest bronze piece in the world.)

St. Peter's tomb

Underneath the baldachin is the traditional tomb of St. Peter. In the four corners surrounding the baldachin are statues of St. Helena (northwest, holding a large cross in her right hand, by Andrea Bolgi), St. Longinus (northeast, holding his spear in his right hand, by Bernini in 1639), St. Andrew (southeast, spread upon the cross which bears his name, by Francois Duquesnoy), and St. Veronica (southwest, holding her veil, by Francesco Mochi). Each of these statues represents a relic associated with the person, respectively, a piece of The Cross, the Spear of Destiny, The Spear of Longinus, St. Andrew's head (as well as part of his cross) and Veronica's Veil. In 1964, St. Andrew's head was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church by the Pope. It should be noted that the Vatican makes no claims as to the authenticity of several of these relics.

Interior dome inscriptions

The dome, interior view

Along the base of the inside of the dome is written (translation from Latin), in letters six feet, five inches high, from Matthew 16:18-19; " are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven...." Near the top of the dome is another, smaller, circular inscription: "To the glory of St. Peter; Sixtus V, pope, in the year 1590 and the fifth year of his pontificate."

The Burial of St. Petronilla is an altarpiece painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino) in 1623. It simultaneously depicts the burial and the welcoming to heaven of the martyred St. Petronilla. The altar is dedicated to the saint, and contains her relics.

St. Peter's today

Tourist, pilgrim destination

St. Peter's basilica is a major tourist destination in modern Rome, with tens of thousands of visitors each day to the square and to the church. The numbers can increase dramatically when outdoor masses, such as those officiated by the Pope at Easter, cause the square to fill with the faithful and pilgrims from throughout the world. Visitors to the church come not only to see the striking architecture, art, and artifacts, but for the historic burial sites as well. Tradition also locates Saint Peter's burial place, directly beneath the Basilica's high altar.

Tomb of John Paul II

The tomb of John Paul II

The tomb of John Paul II, located in an underground grotto beneath St. Peter's Basilica, has been attracting a record number of visitors since it was opened to the public, on April 13, 2005. Archbishop Angelo Comastri, head of the office that looks after the world-famous basilica, estimated the number of visitors at "15,000 people per day, with peaks of 20,000 during weekends," a figure that prompted Rome-based daily Il Messaggero to compare the grotto to the city's other major tourist attraction, the Coliseum. On some days, lines of people wanting to visit St. Peter's can be seen extending the full circle around the basilica's enormous square.

Other burials

There are over 100 tombs located within St. Peter's Basilica, many located in the Vatican grotto, beneath the Basilica. These include 91 popes, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Exiled Catholic British royalty James Francis Edward Stuart and his two sons, Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Benedict Stuart, are buried here, due to being granted asylum by Pope Clement XI. The most prominent woman entombed is Christina of Sweden, who abdicated her throne in order to convert to Catholicism. Near John Paul II's crypt, is the recently discovered vaulted fourth-century "Tomb of the Julii."



  1. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Africa has a higher dome and is both longer and wider. However, measurements of the latter include also a rectorate and a villa not strictly part of the church.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • The Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican: The Architecture, the Monuments, and the Works of Art. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 9781417965205
  • Bannister, Turpin. "The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter at Rome,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, March, 1968. 3-32.
  • Boorsch, Suzanne. “The Building of the Vatican: The Papacy and Architecture.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. (Winter, 1982). 1-2; 4-64.
  • Frommel, Christoph. “Papal Policy: The Planning of Rome during the Renaissance,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Summer 1986). 39-65.
  • McIntish, Jane. St. Peter's Basilica: Audio Guide to Rome's St. Peter's Basilica and Its Remarkable Art Treasures (Audio CD), Context Audio Guides, 2005. ISBN 0976905219
  • Scotti, R.A. Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's. Viking Adult, 2006. ASIN B000OFOIWW
  • Tronzo, William (ed.). St. Peter's in the Vatican. Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780521640961


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