Saint Peter’s Basilica

From the Sistine Chapel it’s just a short walk to the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica, where perhaps in a different year we might have acquired a bit of surety on truly making it to Heaven one day. The Holy Door on the north end of the portico is cemented shut and opened only at the beginning of a Jubilee Year in a solemn ceremony conducted by the Pope. Cast in bronze, the Door’s twelve panels depict the fall of Adam and Eve, the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Gospel stories of forgiveness, and the events of Easter week. Pilgrims who enter through The Holy Door have the opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence, freeing them from being punished for their sins. But Jubilee years occur only once every quarter century (Pope Francis did declare an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in December of 2015, but we were a couple of years too late for that one and several years to early for the next; too bad.)

Saint Peter’s Basilica,1 the largest church in the world, covers 5.7 acres. It stands atop what began as a small Roman aedicule (shrine) constructed over the spot in Caligula’s Circus where Emperor Nero apparently took great pleasure in persecuting Christians. Here in 64 A.D. Saint Peter was crucified and buried. Constantine authorized the construction of a basilica in 324 (now referred to as the “Old Basilica”); it stood for over a thousand years before the need for restoration or rebuilding made a major change inevitable.

Work was begun in 1506 with many stops, starts, and changes in direction (as several Popes—and architects—died along the way) until it was finally completed in 1626. Michelangelo, who took over the project in 1547 (he was in his seventies by then), is credited with being the principal designer of a large part of the building and with bringing it to the point where it could be completed. Art historian Helen Gardner described his genius thus: “Michelangelo, with a few strokes of the pen converted…snowflake complexity into massive, cohesive unity.”

Once inside, the feast of visual splendor is so incredibly rich that it is truly overwhelming. Of all that we saw, these impressions remain vivid in my memory:

The Pieta, a meditation in marble, Michelangelo’s stunning, larger-than-life sculpture of Mary cradling the dead body of her crucified son; it resides in the Chapel of the Pieta, first on the north wall (to the right) when you enter from the portico. This lovely chapel is a place of serene reverence and contemplation.

But it is the Basilica’s monumental centerpiece that anchors this vast space and truly left me thunderstruck: The high altar, reserved for the exclusive use of the Pope, stands in the wide crossing of the nave2 and the transept, 3 directly over the tomb of Saint Peter. Above it, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous gilded baldachin4—a colossal bronze delicacy of turned columns, intricate carving, and symbolic sculptures (saints, angels, doves)—soars nearly 100 feet skyward; and above that Michelangelo’s magnificent dome, tallest in the world. Visible through the pillars of baldachin is The Altar of the Chair of Saint Peter—focal point of the apse.5

The baldachin was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII; scion of the wealthy noble Barberini family and patron of the arts, he was said to have practiced nepotism on a grand scale. It is made of solid bronze, much of it stripped from the facade (or perhaps the beams—accounts vary) of the Pantheon (ancient Rome’s temple to all the gods), giving rise to the saying “What the barbarians didn’t do was done by the Barberini.” The twisted and fluted columns of the colossal baldachin are generously decorated with olive and laurel sprigs, cherubs and heraldic bees (emblems of the Barberini family). On the inner side of its “roof” a magnificent dove spreads its wings, symbolizing the presence and protection of the Holy Spirit. Topping all this, a solemn orb and cross, denoting the power and authority of the Pope, draw the eye to the dome above.

Michelangelo’s great dome soars to a height of nearly 400 feet. It is supported by four massive piers; atop each, medallions nearly 30 feet in diameter display images of the four evangelists (Matthew with an ox, Mark with a lion, Luke with an angel, and John with an eagle). At the base of the dome inscribed in Latin, in letters seven feet high, is the text from Matthew’s Gospel: “You are ‘Rock’ and on this rock I will build my Church; to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This inscription, black mosaic on gold is lighted by sixteen windows, and above each an arched wedge divided into segments in six concentric levels, all lavishly decorated, of course. At the apex of the dome, the lantern rises 18 feet. Inscribed at its base “To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate.” Thus, Sixtus,6 with his credit line in the dome, seems to have one-upped Urban, with his bees on the baldachin.

Back at ground level, behind and beyond the papal altar is the glorious Altar of the Chair of Saint Peter—the second major altar in this vast church—another masterwork of Bernini(whose masterpieces abound throughout both the Vatican and the Eternal City). Seeming to float above a base made of black and white marble and red jasper, a massive gilded throne holds an elaborate wooden chair inlaid with ivory; although not itself the chair on which St. Peter sat, this chair is embedded with fragments that tradition says could be part of the seat from which the First Apostle taught the faithful. That is enough to make it worthy of this exalted place of veneration. Above it, two angels hold aloft the tiara and keys of the kingdom, symbols of the Pope’s authority. And above this, a glorious oval window framed by sculpted rays of light, clouds, and angels; in its center an alabaster dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. All this in gilt, of course. The Italians truly know how to do opulence!


Stepping outside, we took in the vast expanse of Saint Peter’s Square bathed in sunshine. Last stop, before crossing the Square and looking back at the splendor of the buildings wrapped around it, was the Vatican Post Office. Here, we were disappointed when we found it was no longer possible to get our passports stamped. We did, however, purchase and mail postcards, which would arrive with the rare postmark of Vatican City.

All in all, we were quite satisfied with the hours spent in Vatican City. The contradictions inherent in the fact that the seat of the religion founded by Jesus—who warned against storing up earthly treasure—is in fact a treasure trove of priceless art—well, that is a topic for another day.


1Being a person who loves words, I felt myself compelled to find out what the word “Basilica” actually means. (I was under the misapprehension that it had something to do with being a burial place. Nope! It’s not called Saint Peter’s Basilica because Saint Peter is buried under the high altar…or thereabouts. Not at all.) There are three distinctly different uses for the word. First, the kind of public building in ancient Rome that was usually used for court proceedings was called a basilica; it had a door at one end and at the other, a raised platform (where the magistrate or officials would sit) under an half-dome shaped roof or ceiling (see “apse” in note 4, below). Second, as the Roman Empire became Christianized, major churches constructed using the same basic plan were called basilicas. Third, Catholic churches that have been authorized by the pope to perform certain special ceremonies are called basilica, regardless of their architectural plans. Now you know!

While I was at it, looked up a few more terms, as well. Why do guidebooks assume we know all this?

2Nave: The central part of a church, where the congregation sits—or stands if there are not seats.

3Transept: In a church laid out in the shape of a cross, the “arms” of the cross.

4Baldachin: Ceremonial canopy; earliest versions were of fabric, but over time these were replaced with permanent architectural structures.

5Apse: A large recess in the shape of a semicircle or polygon with an arched or domed roof; in a church it is usually at the eastern end, by tradition this would be place for the altar.

6 Described as stern and severe, Sixtus is credited with rooting out corruption, launching a “far-sighted” rebuilding program (involving the destruction of antiquities), and making ex-communication the penalty for both contraception and abortion. He also urged establishment of a secular law that would impose the death penalty for adultery, but this undertaking was unsuccessful. Hmmm. I would call the descriptors “stern and severe” an understatement.


Note: Please don’t think I remember all the detail in this piece from the tour. Excellent as it was, the tour turned out to be just a springboard for looking back through my guidebooks and visiting the Vatican web sites, to understand more about what I saw…to see for the first time much that I totally missed, and to learn more than our guide ever could have conveyed in just three hours.