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St. Peter’s Basilica Guide: Art and Faith in the Vatican City

Thu 05 Dec 2019

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St. Peter’s Basilica Guide: Art and Faith in the Vatican City

When you come to Rome, there are certain places that you simply can’t afford to miss. The magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica – venerable centrepiece of the Catholic faith and the world’s ultimate Christian pilgrimage destination – figures right at the top of the list. The current church (built over an original 4th-century basilica) was one of the grandest construction projects ever attempted in the Renaissance, taking over 120 years to complete when it was finally consecrated in 1626. At over 190 metres long and with a dome that soars fully 136 above the floor, it’s still the largest church anywhere on earth, capable of holding fully 60,000 worshippers at once. 

But whilst size matters, it’s not everything. St. Peter’s is also chock-full of artistic masterpieces by artists of the calibre of Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo Bernini amongst countless others. No story of Western culture can be told without a visit to St. Peter’s, and the basilica can lay a strong claim to being the most spectacular church in existence. Located in the heart of the Vatican City where the sweeping colonnades of Piazza San Pietro sweep you inexorably into its marble embrace, it’s likely that you’ll be pairing your visit with a trip to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel next door. But when should you go and what do you need to see? With so many artistic highlights to admire and so much history to absorb, you need to do some research before you get here. Read on for our guide to what you need to know before you go.

 

A Short History of St. Peter’s Basilica: Nero, the Great Fire and a Fisherman 

The story of St. Peter’s goes all the way back to the time of the Emperor Nero, and the notorious fire that razed Rome to the ground in 64 AD. Seeking a scapegoat for a devastating inferno he may well have started for his own ends, Nero hit upon the idea of blaming the eccentric and mistrusted new sect known as the Christians. He ushered in a wave of persecution, and hundreds of members of the new religion were tortured and crucified in the Circus of Caligula across the river to the north-west of Rome - an ancient racetrack where the entertainment more usually took the form of chariots speeding around an Egyptian obelisk at breakneck speed. It’s location? The Vatican hill. 

Amongst the executed was one of Christ’s oldest companions, crucified upside down in the earth – this was a certain fisherman from Bethsaida by the name of Peter, whom Jesus himself anointed as the spiritual leader of the new faith. When the emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 A.D., the Christians chose to build a site of worship on the site of Peter’s martyrdom and tomb with the Emperor’s blessing. For over a millennium Constantine’s great basilica stood as the epicenter of Christianity, but by the start of the 16th century the church was in a state of terminal decline, slowly sinking into the foundations of the ancient circus.

 

Bramante, Michelangelo and the Building of New St. Peter’s 

Instead of repairing the Constantinian basilica, the ever industrious Pope Julius II - whom you might know as Michelangelo’s patron in the Sistine Chapel – decided that the only thing to be done was to build a massive new state-of-the-art church on the same site. Sparing no expense, Julius entrusted the enormous responsibility of designing Christianity’s most important edifice to Donato Bramante, the father of High Renaissance architecture. 

Julius and Bramante died within a year of each other however, and the architect’s controversial plan for a centralised building inspired by the Pantheon was put on ice. Various illustrious Renaissance artists and architects (including Raphael) proposed designs to complete Bramante’s church, but the devastating Sack of Rome in 1527 meant little progress was made for decades. In 1547 Pope Paul III finally turned to the only man really capable of bringing such a project finally to completion: the aged but seemingly indomitable Michelangelo

It’s to Michelangelo, who took on the job only with great reluctance, that we owe the basilica’s distinctive undulating interior and the massive dome crowning its centre – still the world’s tallest, half a millennium later. A popular urban legend recounts that the Lateran Pact (the agreement between the church and the Italian state that brought the Vatican City into existence) forbids any buildings that reach higher than Michelangelo’s cupola to be built in Rome; whilst the oft-repeated claim has no basis in fact, it does seem something of an unwritten rule that St. Peter’s remains the reference point for any construction projects in the Eternal City, and to this day it remains the city centre’s highest point. 

The new church took over 150 years to complete, and Michelangelo too died before the work was done. The basilica was given its final shape by Carlo Maderno, who added two more bays to the church in order to transform it into the shape of a more theologically resonant Latin cross and designed the facade. Giacomo Della Porta was the final architect to have a hand in the work, finally completing the dome in 1590. If you want to see what Michelangelo’s church would have looked like in its entirety, keep an eye out for a fresco of the proposed project in the vestibule of the Vatican Library as you are making your way to the exit of the Vatican Museums from the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo’s Pieta  

Michelangelo’s Pieta 

Long before the aged Michelangelo turned his thoughts to the basilica’s architecture, he had already provided its interior with what might be its greatest artistic treasure – the sculpture of the Pietà in the first chapel to the right of the entrance. In an incredibly moving representation of boundless maternal grief, a youthful Virgin Mary carries the dead weight of her beautiful son on her lap. Completed in 1499, the Pietà was Michelangelo’s first public commission in Rome, and set the 24 years old artist on the fast-track to fame. The sculpture was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for his funeral monument, and Michelangelo’s satisfaction in his achievement was such that it was the only work he ever signed. His contemporaries were no less impressed, with Giorgio Vasari writing that it was ‘a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.’

Bernini’s Longinus 

Bernini’s Longinus and the Crossing Sculptures 

If Michelangelo’s Pietà represents one of the highpoints of Renaissance sculpture, St. Peter’s basilica is also home to some of the most indelible monuments of the Baroque age. In the century following the old master’s death and the consecration of the new basilica, the interior of St. Peter’s came to be associated with one great artistic personality more than any other: Gianlorenzo Bernini. His massive statue of St. Longinus (over 4 metres high) in one of the niches at the crossing of the church is truly awe-inspiring. The spear-clutching Roman centurion marks the presence of one of Christendom’s most precious relics – the lance with which Longinus pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion, bringing about his own immediate conversion. 

Three more massive statues stand silent guard over the crossing, each marking the site of further priceless relics: Andrew, Helen and Francesco Mochi’s Veronica, who flamboyantly displays the Veronica veil – reputed to preserve the face of Christ himself in its folds.

Bernini’s Baldachin 

Bernini’s Baldachin and the Cathedra Petri 

To mark the spot where St. Peter’s tomb lies in the necropolis below, Bernini produced what is perhaps his most famous work between 1623 and 1634. Sited at the very centre of the crossing and directly beneath Michelangelo’s dome, the enormous Baldacchino is the focal point of the church, and the first thing that catches your eye when you enter the yawning space. Equal parts sculpture and architecture, the baldachin takes the form of a bronze canopy held up by massive spiraling bronze columns, each more than 60 feet high. 

According to a famous 17th-century anecdote there was not enough bronze in all of Rome to cast this massive work, and so the henchmen of the commissioning Barberini Pope Urban VIII resorted to chiselling it off the roof of the Pantheon so Bernini could finish the job: ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini’ – what the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.’ Leaving the faithful in no doubt as to who was responsible for the deed, the Barberini’s heraldic bees swarm all over the canopy. Framed by the baldachin, at the end of the apse is the Cathedra Petri - a wooden relic that was supposedly St. Peter’s ceremonial throne, enclosed in a magnificent bronze sculpture designed by Bernini.

Bernini’s Colonnade  

St. Peter’s Square and Bernini’s Colonnade 

Maybe Bernini’s most lasting contribution to the basilica, though, and indeed to the entire city of Rome, was in the colonnade he built in the piazza outside the church. Here his two lines of massive columns swell outwards to seemingly embrace the waves of pilgrims that come to pay their respects at the tomb of St. Peter in one of the world’s most iconic pieces of urban planning. At the centre of the piazza is a massive 40 metres tall Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome in 37BC, re-erected in front of the basilica in the 1580s in an incredible feat of early-modern engineering. For centuries it was taken as common knowledge that a golden orb atop the ancient obelisk contained the ashes of Julius Caesar himself. To everyone’s disappointment, when the globe was opened during the 1580s operation it was found to be empty.

Filarete's door, Saint Peter Basilica 

Other Highlights to Lookout For 

Marvels of religious art are everywhere you look. Even the basilica’s main door itself is worth stopping at before you go in: it features magnificent bronze panels with 15th-century reliefs of Christian and Pagan subjects by the Florentine Renaissance sculptor Filarete and is one of the finest works of 15th-century art in all of Rome. 

Before crossing the threshold take a look down the corridor at the far right end of the entrance portico and you’ll see another masterpiece by Bernini, a dramatic marble statue of Constantine galloping along on horseback, gazing rapt at an apparition of a cross in the sky - this was the sign that heralded his victory at the Milvian bridge and subsequent conversion to Christianity. 

Other highlights include a beautiful bronze statue of St. Peter sitting on a throne and grasping a massive key attributed to the great medieval sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio – the toes of Peter’s right foot have been almost entirely worn away from centuries of pilgrims kissing it as a mark of respect towards the apostle and a request for him to open to them the gates of heaven. To the left of the Baldachin, meanwhile, we have to cite one final work by the incomparable Bernini – the creepy funeral monument to Pope Alexander VII where death itself appears in the form of a winged skeleton clutching an hourglass.

View from St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican 

Climbing St. Peter’s Dome 

If you are up to the challenge, then be sure to climb to the top of the dome and admire one of the best views in all the city. The climb takes place in two stages. The first involves ascending up the interior of the dome itself, offering amazing views down into the basilica and a close-up look at the mosaics that decorate it (practically invisible from the floor of the church far below).  It’s 231 steps up to the roof level, or you can take an elevator if you prefer. If you want to reach even higher and you’re feeling fit, then you can keep going for another 320 steps right up to the very top of the cupola – the final stretch is an extremely narrow spiral staircase, but the panorama over the city from the top has to be seen to be believed. 

To climb the dome, look for the entrance on the left side of St Peter's portico. Open daily from 07.30 to 18.00 (April-Sept) and from 07.30 to 17.00 (Oct-March). Tickets to climb the dome cost €8, or €10 if you take the elevator.

 

How to Get in St. Peter's Basilica and Skip the Lines 

St. Peter’s opens later than the Vatican Museums, until 7 PM in Summer and 6.30 PM in Winter. Usually, you can’t enter St. Peter’s directly from the Vatican Museums – you will have to exit and then make your way around the walls to St. Peter’s Square, where you’ll have to join the (usually long) queue. But if you take a special guided Vatican tour, you will be able to bypass this and reach the basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel via a special exit, skipping the lines. Alternatively, if you hang around the Sistine Chapel until closing time, chances are you will be ushered out this exit by the security guards rather than sent all the way to the normal exit – another excuse to spend every minute you can in the museums. There is no entrance fee for the Basilica but to climb the dome costs €8 if you take the stairs and €10 if you take the elevator. If you wish to visit the Vatican Necropolis, tickets cost €13 and must be reserved in advance by emailing email scavi@fsp.va. Finally, remember the dress code. If your shoulders and knees aren’t covered, you will be refused admission. So leave the hot-pants at home and bring a scarf or shawl. For more tips on how to make the most of your time in the Vatican City including the Vatican Museums, check out our practical guide to visiting the Vatican

Now you’ve read our guide to St. Peter’s Basilica, you’re ready to visit yourself. Through Eternity offers a range of guided tours of St. Peter’s and the Vatican museums – look us up if you’re coming to Rome!

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