St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square
by Nicolo Suffi, ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana
(all rights reserved)
From the square, we can admire the grandiose dome of St. Peter's. It was planned and designed by Michelangelo who directed work on it to the level of the drum. Giacomo Della Porta completed the task. He increased its span by 7 m. in comparison to the original plans thereby giving it a greater impetus. The dome, almost 137 m. high, can be seen from every part of Rome and has become the city's symbol.
On the outside of the basilica and dome, Michelangelo designed a continuous, level wall which surrounds the whole building. This gigantic wall in a single order punctuated by windows and niches, is surmounted by an attic with windows. Above this structure is the drum and the final arch of the dome.
A flight of 39 steps divided by three platforms leads to the parvis. At the foot of the steps are two statues: on the left, St. Peter, and on the right, St. Paul, sculpted by G. Fabris and A. Todolini in 1840 and erected there in 1847 by Pius IX, replacing two smaller statues.
The noble and dignified façade, as we have mentioned, is the work of Carlo Maderno. He wanted it rather low (45.50 m.) in comparison to its breadth (117.70 m.) in order not to obscure the view of the vast dome. The travertine marble façade is divided by eight gigantic columns, 27 m. high with a diameter of almost 3 m., and four pilaster strips in Corinthian style, which support the entablature. Above it is the attic, with rectangular windows, surmounted by a balustrade, on which stand 13 statues, 5.50 m. tall, portraying Christ the Redeemer, eternally alive in his Church, St. John the Baptist, precursor of Jesus, and 11 Apostles (the statues of St. Peter and St. Paul are at the foot of the steps).
The facade is flanked by two 18th century clocks, built by Giuseppe Valadier. The one on the left shows the exact time in Rome, and the one on the right, which has a single hand, European mean time. They recall that the Church lives on in time and that Christ will be with her until the end of time.
Beneath the clock on the left is the campanone (great bell) of St. Peter's which has a diameter of 2.50 m., a height of 2.60 m. and weighs 440.92 lbs. It was cast by Luigi Valadier and blessed by Pius VI in 1786. It is rung at Christmas and Easter, on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, and every time the Pope imparts the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing (to the city and to the world).
On the entablature is a Latin inscription in enormous letters: "In honorem Principis Apostoli Paolus V Burghesius Romanus Pont. Max anno MDCXII - Pont. VII" (in honor of the Prince of the Apostles Paul V Borghese, Supreme Roman Pontiff, in the year 1612, the 7th year of his pontificate).
There are nine loggias between the columns and the pilasters of the façade. In the center the Loggia of the Blessings stands out. It is from here that the election of the new Pope is announced with the famous words: "Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam!"; and from here the new Pope imparts his first "Urbi et Orbi" blessing which he renews on the solemnities of Easter and Christmas. Above the central loggia is a tympanum in the classical style; beneath it is the famous high relief portraying the consignment of the keys, by Ambrogio Bonvicino (1552-1622). It shows Jesus who is saying to Peter: "I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19).
The portico is reached from the parvis through five entrances. Above the central door is the coat of arms of Paul V Borghese, above the two middle doorways that or Urban VIII Barberini, and above the two outer doors on the far sides, is that of Paul VI Braschi.
Stone tablets on the walls which support the central entrance and the two middle doorways recall the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, defined by Pius XII on 1 November 1950.
The portico, large, solemn and bright, is the masterpiece of Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). It is 71 m. long, 13.5 m. wide and 20 m. high.
The wall of the basilica is divided by six pilasters and Ionic columns. The pavement of precious marbles, initially designed by Bernini, was restored under Leo XIII in 1880. In the central section, Pope John XXIII's coat of arms commemorates the inauguration of the Second Vatican council on October 11, 1962.
The vault of the portico is decorated in stucco reliefs by Martino Ferrabosco. It shows Paul V's coat of arms and episodes from the Acts of the Apostles. The stucco statues next to it in the lunettes of the vault, show the first 32 martyred popes.
At the left end of the portico is the equestrian statue of Charlemagne, the first emperor to be crowned in St. Peter's (on Christmas Eve, in the year 800), made in 1725 by Agostino Cornacchini (1685-1740); at the other end on the right, is the equestrian statue of Constantine, made by Bernini (1598-1680) in 1670, and considered one of his masterpieces. The two straight wings, as we have said, are named after these two statues which are 139 m. apart.
Opposite the central entrance as one turns to look toward the square, high up in the lunette is the "Navicella Mosaic", attributed to Giotto (1266-1337). Only fragments remain of the original hung here in 1675, when a copy of the artist's work was made. The mosaic shows Jesus who is walking on the waters of the Sea of Tiberias and inviting Peter to come to him. But Peter, letting himself be overcome by fear is beginning to sink; Jesus saves him and says "How little faith you have! Why did you falter?" (Mt 14:24-31).
Five doors, corresponding to the five naves of the ancient and new buildings, give access to the basilica. Four of them are the work of contemporary artists, as a witness of the perennial vitality of the Church and her capacity to awaken artistic inspiration in all ages. The scenes portrayed on the doors invite the visitor to reflect on the significance of the building he is about to enter, and on the meaning of his visit to the basilica.
The first door on the left is called the Door of Death because at one time it was the exit for funeral processions. The scenes sculpted between 1961 and 1964 by Giacomo Manzu (1908-1991) in accordance with the wishes of John XXIII (1958-1963), express the Christian meaning of death in ten episodes. Above right: the Death of Jesus; the death of the Just who redeems and saves us; above left: the Death of Mary who is immediately borne to heaven, a sign of the sure hope of resurrection for all humankind. In the center, a vine branch (left) and some ears of wheat (right). From the ground grains of wheat and the pressed grapes are made the bread and wine which in the Eucharist become the bread of life and the drink of salvation. Below left: the Violent death of the innocent Abel, for whom God asks his brother Cain to account, and the Serene death of St. Joseph, patron of all who desire a holy death; the Death of the first Pope, St. Peter, hanging on a cross, but upside down, since he felt unworthy to die like his Lord, and the Death of Pope John XXIII, the good parish priest of the world whose death deeply affected people of all religions and nationalities; below right: the Death of the Protomartyr, St. Stephen, killed by those who had killed Jesus and, who like Jesus, prayed for and forgave his executioners; and the Death of Pope Gregory VII, who died in exile because he "loved justice and hated irreverence", defending the Church against the emperor's claims. Finally, Death improvised in space and the Death of the mother at home in front of the child she abandons. Under the panels are six creatures: a blackbird, a dormouse, a hedgehog, an owl, a tortoise and a raven. On the inside of the door can be seen the impression of Manzu's hand and a portrayal of John XXIII receiving the bishops on the first day of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962.
The second door, the work of Luciano Minguzzi, who worked on it from 1970 to 1977, is the Door of Good and Evil. The artist donated it to Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) on his 80th birthday. On the right panel: Goodness is shown. St. Augustine silences a Manichaean heretic, because the truth must triumph over error; a pair of doves nesting are a reminder that love generates peace; Baptism which was grafted in Jesus enables us to do good: the un-armed soldier who is receiving communion from a black cardinal recalls what the true weapons of good are. John XXIII and Paul VI together with the three cardinal moderators represent the Church meeting the Council to seek the best ways to help man achieve his own good; Lazarus rising from his tomb shows what man's final good is, while the young Tobias accompanied; by the Angel Raphael assures us that God leads us on the way of goodness.
On the left panel, Evil is depicted: hatred of the faith leads to the martyrdom of Sts. Vitalis and Agricola, the slave and the master; a falcon kills a dove; the crucifixion of St. Andrew and the maltreatment of the slaves; torture and killing for religious or political reasons are inspired by the devil; Cain killing Abel and the unrepentant thief who insulted Jesus and was crucified with him, are slaves of evil.
The central door is the oldest. Pope Eugene IV commissioned the Florentine, Anthonio Averulino, known as Filarete (1400-1469) to make the two bronze imposts which he completed in 1445. The six panels show: Jesus the Savior and Mary enthroned, the two centers of Christian piety, then as now; St. Paul with the sword, the weapon with which he was beheaded and whose blade is double-edged like God's words, and St. Peter, who is giving the keys to the kneeling Pope Eugene IV, are the two pillars of the Church of Rome. The two lowest panels show St. Paul sentenced by Nero and the martyrdom of St. Paul, who kneels as, blindfold, he the stroke of the sword that will take his life, and the martyrdom of St. Peter, dragged to the Vatican Hill where he is crucified. St. Paul then appears to Plautilla, to give her back the veil she had lent him to blindfold his eyes. The bas-reliefs between the framed panels show scenes from the pontificate of Eugene IV, and representatives at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, summoned in 1438 to reunite the Churches of the East and of the West.
On the right of the main entrance is the fourth door, made by Venanzio Crocetti (1965), called the "Door of the Sacraments". It is 7.43 m. high and 3.80 m. wide, and consists of two leaves of four panels each. These show the seven sacraments, signs of the faith and sources of grace, actions with which Jesus saves us. In the panels on the left: the angel announces the grace of the sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Penance; in the panels on the right: the Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick.
The last door on the right is the "Holy Door". This door is bricked up on the inside. On the first day of the Holy Year the Pope strikes the brick wall with a hammer, and so opens the door to let in the pilgrims who come to make the most of the indulgence. It will be closed by the Pope himself at the end of the Holy Year. The Holy Door represents Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the gate of the sheep pen: "I am the gate. Whoever enters through me, will be safe. He will go in and out, and find pasture" (Jn 10:9). The Holy Year is celebrated every 25 years. In this century two extraordinary Holy Years of Redemption have also been celebrated on the anniversary of Jesus' death on the Cross: 1933 and 1983. When the wall is knocked down, the bronze panels of the door made by Vico Consorti appear. Since 24 December 1949 they have replaced the former wooden panels made in 1749. This door is also called the "Door of the Great Pardon". Its panels portray scenes of man's sin and his redemption through God's mercy: 1. Through disobedience Adam and Eve turned away from God and happiness and were chased from the garden; Mary receives the announcement of salvation from the angel and directs humanity back to God. 2. Through Baptism, Jesus permits us to join his People; he comes to seek us when we stray from him, as the shepherd goes in search of his lost sheep; he awaits our return and welcomes us at the door, as the father welcomes the prodigal son; he cures those who are paralyzed sin. 3. Jesus opens the door of new life to the woman who is sinful but can love; Jesus tells Peter says that one must forgive seventy times seven times. Jesus trusts anew in the man who promises fidelity and then denies him; Jesus opens the door of heaven to the thief who calls on him. 4. Jesus unlocks the heart of doubting Thomas to the faith; he gives his Spirit to the Apostles to enable them to forgive sins; he tumbles Paul from his horse and suddenly opens up a whole new world to him; he knocks at everyone's door and waits for us to open it.
On entering the central nave, we might well wonder what a church is. It is well known that the first Christians met in one another's homes to pray. Only in the fourth century did they start to make permanently available for worship certain buildings that were called churches, that is, places to receive the "Ecclesia", a word which means "a summoned gathering". Various kinds of churches have different names: basilica, cathedral, parish church, temple, shrine.
The name "basilica" is the architectural term for the rectangular building used by the ancient Romans for their legal proceedings. The Christians of Rome held their gatherings in this type of building which is why Rome's most important churches are called basilicas.
The church which is the bishop's seat, where he gathers his flock, is called a cathedral. (A parish church is one where the parish priest, appointed by the bishop, gathers the faithful who live in that specific parish). The Bishop of Rome's cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Here, as Bishop of Rome, the Pope gathers Rome's Christians. However, as Successor Peter, he also exercises spiritual sovereignty over all the Church and in his capacity as Head of the whole Church, he has chosen to carry out his ministry in the Vatican palaces and to gather the faithful of the whole world in St. Peter's Basilica.
For several centuries the popes alternated between the two basilicas, but with Nicholas V (1447-1455), the Vatican definitively became the Pope's residence. This is why St. Peter's Basilica is considered the Pope's church and therefore somehow everyone's church, the cathedral of the world, the place which symbolically unites all Christians.
In St. Peter's Basilica the Pope exercises the functions which Jesus bequeathed to his Apostles: the roles of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
The Pope teaches frequently in this basilica, and in some cases exceptionally, for example when "as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful … he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals" (Lumen gentium, n. 25). In these cases he enjoys the prerogative of infallibility, which "is also present in the body of bishops when, with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme teaching office" (ibid.), that is, when they meet in council. The two last ecumenical councils, (the First and Second Vatican Councils) were celebrated precisely in St. Peter's Basilica. In addition, the Pope "canonizes" saints in St. Peter's, that is he decrees that a "Servant of God" who has already been beatified (proclaimed blessed), should be added to the list of saints and venerated in the universal Church.
By this act the Pope declares in an infallible way that a person enjoys heavenly glory, and above all, shows that sainthood is an essential element in the life of the Church and that in every age there are members of the People of God in who heroic holiness can be tangibly observed. The first "canonization" recorded as having taken place in St. Peter's Basilica was St. Bridget's celebrated on October 7, 1391.
In St. Peter's Basilica the Church exercises her sanctifying role. Here all the sacraments are celebrated, and it is often the Pope who presides. The Eucharist is solemnly celebrated at the Altars of the Chair and of the Confessio, occasionally also at the basilica's numerous other altars, and at fixed times in two chapels where the Blessed Sacrament is preserved for adoration. The faithful who enter the church never fail to spend a few minutes praying before the tabernacle.
Many Christians have been baptized in this basilica. Many have also received confirmation here. On some occasions the Pope himself has blessed the marriage of Christian couples. Many bishops have been able to receive their Episcopal consecration here from the Supreme Pontiff's hands, a most obvious expression of their link with the Bishop of Rome. Here too, numerous priests have been able to receive their priestly ordination from the Pope himself. Lastly, the sacrament of reconciliation is also celebrated in this basilica. The faithful may have recourse to it at all hours and find a priest who speaks their language here at all times. On Good Friday, the Pope himself enters a confessional and exercises this ministry for several hours. In St. Peter's Basilica several important acts of government also take place.
It is here that the Pope usually announces important events. Here the Pope confers the insignia of their rank to cardinals he has chosen as his co-workers in the governance of the Church. Here the new Pope, elected by the cardinals a few days earlier in the Sistine Chapel, begins his ministry as Supreme Pastor of the Church.
Those who enter St. Peter's Basilica come here first and foremost to pray, to strengthen their will to follow the teaching of the Apostles and to pay the homage of obedience to the Successor of Peter whose duty it is to maintain the bond of unity, charity and peace within the Church.
Visitors can also admire the basilica's magnificent artistic masterpieces that have inspired artists of all ages and all places, and contemplate the various historical memorials. However, their conduct must always be properly respectful for a sacred place and they cannot visit the basilica as tourists during important celebrations. This guide, in which we now briefly present the major artistic monuments should be understood in this light.
The plan of the basilica is in the form of a Latin cross. That is, the vertical or upright bar, constituted by the central nave and tow lateral naves, is longer than the horizontal one formed by the transept. Marking the point of their intersection are the four massive piers which support the dome and in the center is the papal altar.
When they enter the basilica, visitors immediately pause for an instant at the beginning of the central nave to enjoy the ecstatic view of grandeur and the solemnity and peace which the basilica inspires. Despite the vast size of the structures and the splendor of the decorations, one has the impression of entering a place of prayer and recollection. One cannot but feel admiration for the "magnanimity" of those who conceived, commissioned, planned and built a church on such a grand scale, perhaps out of proportion for their time, but worthy of the immense crowds which have filled and fill it so frequently and which they prophetically foresaw.
Here, at the beginning of the central nave, one immediately realizes that the immense basilica was built to safeguard two precious heirlooms: the tomb of St. Peter and his Chair. The famous "baldacchino" (canopy) over the Altar of the Confessio and the sumptuous Altar of the Chair direct the pilgrims gaze to these two treasures.