St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square
by Nicolo Suffi, İLibreria Editrice Vaticana
(all rights reserved)
St. Peter's - Guide to the Square and the Basilica
One day, during a journey to the source of the River Jordan at the foot of the imposing Mount Hermon range in Northern Palestine, Jesus made a solemn promise to Simon, son of John "You are 'Rock', and on this rock I will build my Church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). With these words Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, desiring in this way to make all those present understand that he was about to trust Simon Peter with an important task: to be the foundation stone of his Church. Since the word "Church" means "assembly", that is, a "gathering" of people, at that moment Jesus was predicting that Peter would be the basis of the assembly he would gather.
In fact, Jesus came down to earth to gather around him men who were straying like sheep without a shepherd. As a "good shepherd", he wanted to found his Church for them. But he met with ferocious opposition, so that he was condemned to death and hung on a cross. Then the flock he had started to gather were once again in grave danger of being scattered. However, precisely to avert this risk, during the Last Supper and his agony in the garden on the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed ardently to his Father. And his prayers were heard. Jesus "was raised" and, after his resurrection, he made certain that his own institution would endure by telling Peter: "Tend my sheep" (Jn 21:16). In other words, "Peter, take my place as shepherd". At that very moment Jesus, the only true shepherd of those who believe in him, gave Peter his task and so kept the promise he had made a few months earlier.
Indeed, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, Peter acted as leader of the Apostles, taking Jesus' place. In fact, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that after the ascension of Jesus, it was Peter who, by choosing Matthias, took the initiative of completing the College of the Apostles which had lost one member due to Judas' betrayal. Again, it was Peter, on behalf of all the others, who preached to the Jews of Jerusalem and spoke before the council. It was Peter who condemned profiteers, such as Ananaias and Sapphira. It was Peter who opened the Church to pagans by baptizing Cornelius, the Roman centurion. It was Peter who spoke decisively and conclusively before the Sanhedrin, gathered in Jerusalem.
In brief, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles tell us that during his lifetime Peter exercised indisputable authority in the group of the Apostles. Catholic Christians, taking as their basis these passages from the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, believe that Peter's authority has been passed on to his successors, the popes. This is why they claim that the Pope, Successor of Peter, is Christ's Vicar on earth.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us that after Jesus' death and resurrection, Peter stayed on in Jerusalem for a while. Then when the Jewish persecution of the Christians broke out, he fled "to another place". From this moment the Acts say nothing further about Peter, but from other sources we know that he lived for some time in Antioch, Syria, and then went to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire which was spreading throughout the known world. In Rome, Peter suffered martyrdom.
That Peter came to Rome and was martyred there is confirmed by an impressive mass of writings which date to the apostolic times. There is already a reference to this in the first of the two Letters written by Peter himself, as well as in Paul's Letter to the Romans. A little later, Clement, a Bishop of Rome, in a letter written in about 95, stated that Peter had been martyred in Rome. Papias, the elderly Bishop of Hierapolis who knew several of the Apostles' disciples, says that Peter preached in Rome. In about the year 180, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in France and Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth in Greece, told of Peter's time in Rome in their writings. This mass of documentation has been confirmed by recent excavations under St. Peter's Basilica, which have brought to light many stone tablets and inscriptions which show that Peter's memory was already venerated on the Vatican Hill by about 120. These sources confirm what the Roman priest, Gaius, who lived in the second century, had said in his response to an enemy of the Christians: "Go to the place called Vatican or on the road to Ostia: there you will find the trophies of the founders of the Church of Rome" (in other words, the tombs of Peter and Paul). Gregory of Tours, the French Bishop, also wrote: "Peter's tomb is located beneath the altar of the basilica built by Constantine".
The historian Tacitus relates that during the night of July 19 in 64 AD an enormous fire started at the foot of the Palatine Hill, and the blaze destroyed whole quarters of the city. The crowds, who knew that Nero wanted to build a more beautiful Rome, immediately suspected that it was he who had given orders to set fire to the town. A sullen discontent spread so rapidly among the people that Nero took fright. To defend himself from the accusation of having started the fire, he blamed the Christians and unleashed a furious persecution against them.
On the other side of the Tiber at the foot of the Vatican Hill, Nero possessed a magnificent circus, the Circus of Caligula, commonly known as Nero's Circus. In the center stood the obelisk which the Emperor Caligula had brought from Heliopolis in Egypt. In this circus the Roman people could watch the spectacle of the punishments inflicted by the Emperor on those who were supposed to have started the fire. Here too, many Christians were flung as food to wild beasts; others were nailed to planks in the form of a cross; and yet others, sprinkled with pitch, resin and sulfur, acted as live torches to illuminate the games that lasted all night long in the Emperor's gardens.
The bodies of these Christian martyrs were interred on the neighboring slopes of the Vatican Hill, where a burial ground already existed.
The recent excavations, which began in 1940 and were opened to the public for the first time in the Holy Year 1950, have demonstrated that at the end of the first century AD and during the second century, this zone had become a sepulchral area which was therefore protected by Roman law, and that the subsoil beneath the Vatican Hill is still a maze of ancient tombs today. During the excavations, archaeologists noted that all the tombs converge toward one specific tomb and that in about 160 (it was possible to establish this date because on the bricks several seals from the period of Marcus Aurelius have been identified) a brick wall was built, covered in plaster of a reddish color, which curves around that particularly venerated tomb, forming a niche. In this niche, above the tomb covered with a marble slab, were two small columns. They supported another slab, of travertine, in the form of a table, which divided the niche into two super-imposed "aedicule". During the third century, a new section of wall was built perpendicular to the "red wall", known as "wall G" because of the graffiti scratched on it by the unknown hands of visitors who came to pray at this venerated tomb. Experts have been able to identify the letters of one graffito on the "red wall" as PETR, the first letters of the Greek name Petros, Peter: and EN, which, with the addition of the letter "I", now obliterated, form "eni", that is, "is here"; "Peter is here". It was therefore possible to deduce that this "aedicola" is the same "tropaion" which Eusebius mentioned, that is, the victory monument which preserves the memorial of Peter whose "trophy" was mentioned by the priest Gaius in about 200. To conclude, archaeological excavations have made it possible to identify the precise place where Peter is buried, beneath the present altar of the "Confessio".
In 313 the Emperor Constantine (306-337), who had become lord of the Roman Empire, granted the Christians full freedom. Then to win their friendship, he decided to build a basilica over St. Peter's tomb. To make room for it, he cut into the Vatican hill and covered many of the tombs. He then had a broad foundation wall built and in 324 the construction of a majestic basilica began. It was consecrated in 326 by Pope Silvester and completed in about 349 by Constantius, Constantine's son. In this basilica, Peter's tomb, closed on three sides, was open toward the East and the faithful could see it until the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), when the pavement was raised and an altar built over the tomb, over which another was later built by Callistus II (1119-1124).
In front of Constantine's basilica was an imposing four-porticoed courtyard, reached by climbing a flight of 35 steps. It was entered through five doors leading to five aisles, bordered by four rows of 22 columns each. The basilica was paved in marble of various colors and had a wooden ceiling.
Down the centuries the basilica's walls were adorned with mosaics, pictures and statues. Many artists worked on them, including Giotto, Perugino, Donatello, Filarete, Pollaiolo, but almost all their works have gone astray. Various alterations were also made and certain features added, in order to build tombs for the emperors and popes who wished to be buried near Peter's tomb.
For 12 centuries the Constantinian basilica was the center of worship and the destination of pilgrimages for Christians who came to "see Peter", and so to strengthen their faith.
However, the splendid basilica was repeatedly sacked during barbarian invasions, and during the period of the popes' exile in Avignon it fell into disrepair. It was frequently reinforced and restored, but toward the middle of the 15th century it became obvious that henceforth no restoration would suffice. Atmospheric factors, the barbarian invasions, wars, sacking and neglect during the Avignon period had reduced the basilica's structural walls to such a precarious state that it threatened to collapse. Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) therefore felt the time had come to rebuild it completely. He commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to draft the plan for a new basilica and entrusted the direction of the work to Bernardo Rossellino. However he had hardly started when the Pope died. Under his successors, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV and Alexander VI, the work continued, albeit at a very slow pace.
It took a decisive turn with the election of Pope Julius II (1503-1513). He made a brave decision to begin demolishing part of the old basilica and to resume the project interrupted by the death of Nicholas V. The architect Donato Bramante was put in charge of the new basilica's construction. He set to work immediately, preparing new plans and beginning to pull down the old walls, starting with the central section. Chroniclers of the time say that the demolition of the walls was a fascinating and tremendous spectacle.
On April 18, 1506, the Pope laid the foundation stone of the new basilica. Donato Bramante who had planned a basilica in the form of a Greek cross immediately began to excavate and built the four great structural piers destined to support the weight of the dome, thereby determining the future basilica's basic structure. With the death of Julius II in 1513 and that of Bramante the following year, work was interrupted. It then continued with alternating events and frequent changes of design under the following pontiffs: Leo X (1513-1521), Clement VII (1523-1534), Paul III (1534-1549), Julius III (1550-1555), Paul IV (1555-1559), Pius IV (1559-1565), Pius V (1566-1572), Gregory XIII (1572-1585), Sixtus V (1585-1590), Clement VIII (1592-1605), Paul V (1605-1621). These popes entrusted the planning and direction of the work site to various architects: Raphael (Sanzio) from 1514-1520, aided by Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo da Verona, Antonio da Sangallo the Elder from 1520, Baldassare Peruzzi from 1538, Antonio da Sangallo the younger and Michelangelo Buonarrotti from 1546 to 1564, Pirro Ligorio, Jacopo Barozzi, known as Vignola, who died in 1572, Giacomo della Porta from 1572, Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno, who was responsible for the façade and, from 1629, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who gave the interior its present aspect.
Michelangelo took on the direction of the work when he was already 72 years old but gave it a great impetus, working on it for 16 years. In 1557, when the need arose to decide on the type of roof the basilica required and so on how to raise the dome, it was he who had a wooden model of it built; this took him three years, and he started the construction work but was unable to finish it. By the time he died in 1564, work on the dome had reached the level of the drum and he had constructed the areas for the four corner chapels: the Gregorian chapel, the Chapel of St. Michael Archangel and St. Petronilla, the Clementine Chapel and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Column.
The architects who succeeded him carried on building various parts of the basilica but constantly postponed the construction of the dome, until in 1587 Sixtus V decided to commission Giacomo Della Porta to complete it. He took two years to do so, finishing it on May 21, 1590.
Nonetheless it was not give the final touch until June 1593 when the lantern was built and the cross set on its summit, about 136 m. high.
The forepart of the Constantinian basilica with its portico and façade was still standing. In 1607, Paul V announced a competition for the construction of the façade. Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) won and built it between 1608 and 1612, partly modifying the plans left by Michelangelo.
The pediment of the facade bears the name of Paul V and the date 1612. In the meantime, Maderno had the relics and funeral monuments from the ancient basilica moved to the Vatican Grottoes and in the resulting space extended the three aisles, giving the basilica its present form of a Latin cross and adding three new side chapels.
After Maderno, Urban VIII (1623-1644) put Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) in charge, and at last, on November 18, 1626, 1,300 years after the consecration of the first basilica, the Pope was able to solemnly consecrate the new one.
After Bernini, Innocent XI (1676-1689) appointed Carlo Fontana (1634-1714) to direct the work.
Once the basilica had been built, it was felt that a space should be created in front of it with a capacity sufficient to contain the mass of people who would flock here to take part in the most solemn functions, especially on the occasion of the celebrations for the Feast of Corpus Christi which was then very popular and widely observed. It was Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) who decided to build the square as we know it today - it had actually already been begun by Sixtus V when he had the obelisk moved there - and it was continued by various popes. In 1656, Alexander VII entrusted the direction of the work to Gian Lorenzo Bernini who completed it very rapidly, between 1657 and 1667.
St. Peter's Square has the shape of an immense ellipse (the visitor who stands in one of the two centers of this ellipse, marked by two white disks, one on each side of the obelisk, sees a single row of columns), 320 m. long and 240 m. wide, at its broadest point.
The square is bordered by a double colonnade with 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters of travertine marble. These columns, 13 m. tall, are arranged in four rows and give the colonnade a breadth of 17 m. The superimposed trabeation surmounted by a balustrade gives it an overall height of 21m.
Bernini built two straight covered wings (galleries) 120 m. long, to link the two wings which, with the basilica's façade, give the colonnade its oval form. The wing on the left is the Charlemagne Wing. At the top end, level with the square, various services are provided: the washrooms, the Information Office, the first aid room, the Vatican Post Offices, the book shop Libreria Editrice Vaticana, and rooms for the guard.
Between the Charlemagne Wing and the basilica's façade is the Campane Arch, one of the entrances to the Vatican. Starting from this point, between the pilaster strips of the façade are the stations of the Cross in bronze which continue along the Constantine Wing on the right.
Where the Constantine Wing begins, under the colonnade is the "Bronze Door" through which, ascending the "Scala Regia" (royal stairway), the Vatican Palace is reached. Standing on the colonnade and on the two straight wings are 140 statues, 3 m. tall, and the large heraldic emblems of Alexander VII who commissioned Bernini to make them.
The statues on the southern side (to the left) represent the following saints: above the colonnade: Norbert; Thibaut; Theodore, martyr; Jerome; Hilarion; Bruno; Louis Bertrand; John the Almsgiver; Romuald; Joseph, husband of Mary; Peter Nolasco; Paul the Hermit; Anthony Abbot; Francis de Paola; Anthony of Padua; Charles Borromeo; Philip Neri; Philip Benizi; Cajetan; Francis Xavier; Hyacinth; Theodora, virgin and martyr; Beatrice, virgin; Rose of Lima; Galla, the Widow; Marcellinus, pope and martyr; Sylvester, pope; Martin, pope and martyr; Marcellus, pope and martyr; Peter Celestine, pope; Clement, pope and martyr; Leo IV, pope; Gregory of Nazanzius; Ubaldo, bishop; John Chrysostom; Athanasius, bishop; Leo the Great, pope; Alexander, bishop; Ignatius, bishop and martyr; Spyridon, bishop; Eusebius, bishop; Romanus, martyr; Stephen, martyr; Laurence, martyr; on the Charlemagne Wing; Pelagia; Crescentius, martyr; Andrew Corsini; Constance, martyr; Felix, martyr; Achilleus, martyr; Nereus, martyr; Julian, martyr; Paul, martyr; Basiledes, martyr; Hyppolitus, martyr; Felician, martyr; Sebastian, martyr; Fabian, pope; Prudentiana, virgin; Praxedes, virgin; Modestus, martyr; Vitus, martyr; Marcellinus, martyr; Mark, martyr, and Bonadventure.
The statues above the northern wing (on the right) represent the following saints: on the colonnade: Gallicanus, martyr; Leonard; Petronilla, virgin; Vitalis, martyr; Techla, virgin and martyr; Albert the Carmelite; Elizabeth, queen; Agatha, virgin and martyr; Ursula, virgin and martyr; Clare, virgin; Olympia, widow; Lucy, virgin and martyr; Balbina, virgin and martyr; Apollonia, virgin and martyr; Remigius, bishop; Ignatius of Loyola; Benedict; Bernard; Francis of Assisi; Dominic; John Damascene; Theodosia, virgin and martyr; Polycarp, bishop and martyr; Mary of Egypt; Mark the Evangelist; Febronia, virgin and martyr; Fabiola, widow; Nilamon the Lonely; Marcianus, martyr; Eusignius, martyr; Marinus, martyr; Dydimius, martyr; Apollonius, martyr; Candida, virgin and martyr; Fausta, martyr; Barbara, virgin and martyr; Benignus, martyr; Malco, martyr; Marmant, martyr; Columba, virgin and martyr; Pontian, pope and martyr; Genesius, martyr; Agnes, virgin and martyr; Catherine, virgin and martyr; on the Constantine Wing: Justin, martyr; Cecilia, virgin and martyr; Frances of Rome; George, martyr; Magdalen de Pazzi; Susanna, virgin and martyr; Martina, virgin and martyr; Nicholas of Bari; Nicholas of Tolentino; Francis Borgia; Francis de Sales; Theresa, virgin; Juliana, virgin and martyr; Julian, Bishop; Celsius, martyr; Anastasius, martyr; Vincent, martyr; Paul, martyr; John, martyr; Damian, martyr; Cosima, martyr; Zosimus, martyr; Rufus, martyr; Protase, martyr; Gervase, martyr, and Thomas Aquinas.
Pilgrims arriving to visit St. Peter's have the impression they are welcomed by the two immense arms of the colonnade which embrace the square, an image of the church welcoming all her faithful. The Christian people gathered there, noticing the statues set on the colonnade, feel they are invited to look ahead to the heavenly Church.
Always open to the public, the square affords the visitor a continuous opportunity to meet pilgrims from all over the world who have come to pray at St. Peter's tomb and to see and hear the Pope and pray with him. Every Sunday at noon it is filled with believers who recite the Angelus or the Regina Coeli together with the Pope who appears at the second last window of the top floor of the building on the right; they listen to his words and receive his blessing. On Wednesdays, multitudes of pilgrims of every nationality, age and walk of life cross the square to reach the "Paul VI Audience Hall" where the Pope receives them at the General Audience. On special occasions it is moving to be able to take part in this same square in solemn Eucharistic celebrations or ecumenical prayer meetings together with the Supreme Pontiff, cardinals and bishops, the pastors of other Churches and the people of God, an immense multitude of every nation, race, people and tongue (cf. Rv 7:9). It can certainly be said that in St. Peter's Square the Church's nature is particularly evident; a people of God who recognize him in the truth and serve him with a life of holiness.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, an attempt was made to integrate St. Peter's Square within a broader urbanization context, but the final decision which led to its present situation was taken by Pius XI (1922-1939) alone. It was he who approved the plan to pull down the old buildings between Borgo Vecchio and Borgo Nuovo. The demolition began in 1937 and ended in time for the Holy Year in 1950, when the Via della Conciliazione was inaugurated.
A large pink granite obelisk can be admired in the center of the square. It was hewn from a single block and stands 25.31 m. high on a base 8.25 m. wide. The obelisk which comes from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it was built by the Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honor of the sun, was brought to Rome in 37 BC by the Emperor Caligula (37-41) and erected in the circus he built. Here it was silent witness of the martyrdom of St. Peter and of many other Christians. In 1586 Sixtus V had it moved to the center of St. Peter's Square. This operation, which required hundreds of workmen, was directed by Domenico Fontana with the help of his brother, Giovanni, and took four months. It was erected on September 10, 1586 by 900 men using 140 horses and 44 winches. A pagan monument erected in the greatest Christian square, the obelisk is a symbol of humanity reaching to Christ. Two sides of the obelisk were originally inscribed with dedications to the "divine Augustus" and to the divine "Tiberius". Sixtus V dedicated it to the Holy Cross, and had engraved on it the inscription: "Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat". The obelisk stands between two monumental fountains, 14 m. high, symbols of Christ, the source of living water for eternal life. The fountain on the right is the work of Carlo Maderno (1613). Bernini, who designed the square, had it erected where it now stands, and for purposes of symmetry built the fountain on the left (1675).
Between the obelisk and the fountains are two porphyry disks set into the pavement which mark the two centers of the ellipse. Additional discs of white marble are arranged along the meridian line, linked with the circle surrounding the obelisk and set between the wedge-shaped cobblestones known as "sampietrini" which pave the whole square. In this circle are indicated the cardinal points of the compass and the figures of the Zodiac.