St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square
by Nicolo Suffi, ŠLibreria Editrice Vaticana
(all rights reserved)
Also on the right is the vast Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, behind a Baroque wrought-iron grill designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). The Blessed Sacrament is exposed here for the continuous adoration of the faithful. A notice reads: "Only those who wish to pray may enter". The Eucharist is frequently celebrated in this chapel, with hymns and community prayers. In bygone ages, the faithful would pause in silent prayer and contemplation of Jesus, the living bread come down from heaven. This bread is the Body of the Lord for the life of the world. Whoever eats this bread will have eternal life. The decision to reserve this chapel for the Blessed Sacrament implied the greatest commitment to its decoration. This is why the faithful who admire its beauty and harmony feel encouraged to pray and to reflect here.
The most precious work is the Tabernacle of gilded bronze, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1674) on the lines of the famous tempietto of St. Pietro in Montorio, the work of Bramante. Its charm is enhanced by the statuettes of the twelve Apostles on the cornice and of Jesus on the miniature dome. It is encrusted with deep blue lapis lazuli which stands out against the golden background and is flanked by tow o the loveliest angels in gilded bronze, kneeling in reverent prayer. Behind the altar is an altarpiece painted in oils by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) which celebrates the Trinity, God the Father, the Son make man who died for us, the Holy Spirit who guides the Church. It is the only canvas in the whole basilica. The Apocalypse aflame and the Saints in adoration decorate the ceiling. In the spandrels are episodes from the Old Testament, prefiguring the Eucharist. The Eucharist is also the theme of the scenes in the lunettes. The mosaic covering the wall on the right was inspired by the Ecstasy of St. Francis by Domenichino.
Continuing along the aisle we encounter another two funeral monuments. On the left, the monument of Gregory XIV (1590-1591) by Prospero of Brescia, with two statues representing Religion and Justice.
On the right is the monument to Gregory XIII (1572-1585), who gave his name to the Gregorian University and the Gregorian calendar. Indeed, beneath the white marble figure of the Pope imparting a blessing, the work of Camillo Rusconi (1658-1728), is a bas-relief commemorating the Reform of the calendar desired by the Pontiff who decreed in 1582 that the days from 4 to 15 October be omitted, in order to gain 10 days with respect to the calendar then in use, which had been introduced by Julius Caesar. The statue is flanked by two allegorical figures: Religion and Fortitude.
At the intersection with a transept is the Gregorian Chapel, which is named after Gregory VIII (1572-1585), the Pontiff who commissioned Giacomo Della Porta (1540-1602) to complete this work which had been begun by Michelangelo and continued by Barozzi and Vignola. It has been described as "the most beautiful chapel in the world" because of all its marbles, mother-of-pearl, precious stones, gilded bronze, multi-colored mosaics and stucco ornamentation. Its dome is 42 m. high.
On the back wall is the Altar of Our Lady of Succor, embellished with the rarest alabaster, amethysts and other semi-precious stones, and four superb columns of African marble and green porphyry, the work of G. Muziano (1528-1592). It is called after the 12th-century fresco framed above the altar, brought here by Gregory XIII in 1578. The remains of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), one of the great theologians from Cappadocia, are preserved in a porphyry urn beneath the altar. He is shown in the spandrels, together with St. Gregory the Great, St. Basil the Great and St. Jerome.
The chapel is adorned with splendid mosaics made mainly by Marcello Provenzale after designs by Girolamo Muziano, and by Salvatore Monosilio after designs by Nicola La Piccola. In the lunettes are the Annunciation and the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel; in the pendentives are the Latin Doctors St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great, and the Greek Fathers, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
On the right of the chapel is the monument to Gregory XVI (1831-1846). The Neoclassical monument, made by Luigi Amici (1817-1897), shows the Pontiff seated on a throne, in the act of giving his blessing. The bas-relief on the urn portrays the Institution of the Missions by the Pontiff. The two allegorical lateral figures represent Wisdom and Prudence.
Returning to the aisle, against the pier supporting the dome we find the Altar of St. Jerome decorated with a mosaic reproduction of Domenichino's famous painting of the Last communion of St. Jerome. Next to the 93-year old saint, St. Paul can be seen bending to kiss his hand; and a lion, its paws tucked under it, looks almost as if it were participating in his deep sorrow (the original canvas is in the Vatican Picture Gallery). At this point we note that most o the pictures in the basilica are mosaics, many of which are the work of P. Cristofari (whose preparatory cartoons can be found in various museums and churches).
On the other side of the pilaster, on the left of the aisle is the Altar of St. Basil the Great. Pietro Subleyras (1699-1749) showed St. Basil celebrating solemn Mass for Epiphany in 372 and so involved in his devotion that he is oblivious to the entry of the Emperor Valentius with his retinue.
Opposite, on the right, is the monument to Benedict XIV Lambertini, a marble sculpture by Pietro Bracci (1700-1773).
The Pontiff is shown standing, in the act of blessing the Catholic world in the Jubilee of 1750. The allegorical figures below represent Wisdom (by Bracci) and Impartiality (by Gaspar Sibilia).
We have now reached the transept of Sts. Processus and Martinian, the shortest bar of the Latin cross which corresponds to the northern bar of Michelangelo's original Greek cross. The vault in travertine was decorated in the 18th century by Vanvitelli with white and gold stucco ornaments. This right transept was assigned as a hall for the sessions of the 700 Council Fathers who took part in the First Vatican Council here, opened by Pius IX on 8 December 1869 and suddenly interrupted on 18 July 1870 when Rome was taken by the Italian army.
The central altar is called after Sts. Processus and Martinian. The mosaic altarpiece, after Jehan de Boulogne (Gianbologna) (1594-1632) portrays the martyrdom of the tow saints jailed in the Mamertine Prison, converted and baptized by St. Peter. The two columns in giallo antico marble which flank the altar, are valuable and rare.
The altar on the right is dedicated to St. Wenceslas, King of Bohemia. The mosaic showing the saint's martyrdom was inspired by a 1630 drawing by Angelo Caroselli. Beside the altar are two oval portraits in mosaic of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, patrons of Europe. The altar on the left is dedicated to St. Erasmus of Formia, Bishop and Martyr.
The mosaic is a reproduction of a painting by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), made by Cristofari in 1743.
A series of niches along the walls of the transept from the central nave contain statues of the holy founders of religious orders. In this right hand section of the transept we have: St. Gaetano Thiene, St. Jerome Emiliani, St. Joan Antide Thouret, St. Bruno, St. Paul of the Cross, St. Joseph Calasanctius, St. Bonfiglio, St. Frances Cabrini. Above the statues, in huge letters on a gold background on the frieze are the words: "O Petere, dixisti: Tu es Christus, filius Dei vivi. Ait Iesus: Beatus es Simon Bar Iona: quia caro, et sanguis non revelavit tibi" ("You are the Messiah' Simon Peter answered, the Son of the living God!' Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father'") (Mt 16:16-17).
Leaving the transept and continuing down the right aisle, on the left, next to the second pier supporting the dome, we find the Altar of the Navicella whose name derives from the Gospel narrative of Jesus walking on the water. This mosaic was made in 1727 after a painting by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647).
Opposite, on the right, is another artistic masterpiece: the monument to Clement XIII (1758-1769) sculpted by Antonio Canova (1757-1822). It was the basilica's first monument in Neoclassical style.
It is dominated by the figure of the elderly Pope, clad in his papal robes and kneeling in prayer at the tomb.
On the left stands the noble, solemn statue of Religion, one of whose hands rests on the sarcophagus; the other holds the cross, the instrument of our salvation. On the right, the statue of the Genius of death, is calmly and languidly extinguishing the torch of life.
The sarcophagus is decorated with delicate reliefs of the figures of Charity and Hope. On the wide plinth of the base, two splendid, crouching lions guard the tomb. They are carved in travertine, while the rest of the monument is of white Carrara marble.
Continuing, we enter the Chapel of St. Michael at the end of the left aisle. The vault is decorated with the Gloria of the Saints. In the spandrels of the dome the Doctors and Fathers of the Greek and Latin Churches are portrayed: St. Leo the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Denys the Areopagite, St. Gregory the Wonderworker. In the lunettes: Elias and the angel, Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, St. Peter baptizing St. Petronilla, St. Nicodemus giving communion to St. Petronilla.
The altar on the right is dedicated to St. Michael Archangel. The great altarpiece in a gilded bronze frame, is a 1757 mosaic reproduction of a painting of St. Michael by Guido Reni (1575-1642), a famous artist of the Bologna School.
The altar at the back is dedicated to St. Petronilla. On it can be admired a scene of the Burial of St. Petronilla, who is received into heaven by the heavenly Bridegroom, one of the loveliest mosaics in the basilica. It is by Pier Paolo Cristofari after a painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino (1590-1666). Under this altar are the relics of St. Petronilla, whose body, buried in the cemetery of Domitilla, was exhumed in 750 and venerated in a small shrine which Pepin le Bref had requested from the Pope and was therefore known as the "Rotunda of St. Petronilla".
When the saint's body was translated to St. Peter's basilica in 1606, it was this little chapel that became the national Church of France. Here, on May 31, the French community gathers solemnly to venerate the saint.
Between this chapel and the apse where part of the basilica's organ is displayed, on the right we find the monument to Clement X, designed by Mattia de Rossi (1637-1695), for which rare and precious marbles were used. The statue by Ercole Ferrata (d. 1686) shows the Pontiff enthroned. Beside him stand two allegorical figures, Clemency and Beneficence. Leonardo Leti's relief on the pedestal shows the Opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee of 1675.
Opposite, on the left, is the Altar of St. Peter raising Tabitha, the woman of Jaffa (Acts 9:36-42). The miracle is shown in a mosaic inspired by a painting by Placido Costanzi (1702-1759).
The apse is at the end of the central nave. In the center is the Altar of the Chair of Peter, a masterpiece which is unmistakably the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1659).
Every year on February 22, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, to commemorate St. Peter's teaching in Rome. Already in the second half of the 18th century an ancient wooden chair inlaid with ivory was venerated and traditionally held to be the Episcopal chair on which St. Peter sat as he instructed the faithful of Rome. In fact, it is a throne in which fragments of acacia wood are visible, which could be part of the chair of St. Peter, encased in oak and reinforced with iron bands. Several rings facilitated its transportation during processions. Pope Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to build a sumptuous monument which would give prominence to this ancient wooden chair. Bernini built a throne in gilded bronze, richly ornamented with bas-reliefs in which the chair was enclosed: two pieces of furniture, one within the other. On January 17, 1666 it was solemnly set above the altar.
The base of the altar is made of black and white marble from Aquitaine and red jasper from Sicily. Four gigantic statues (about 5 m. tall) in gilded bronze surround the Chair which looks almost as if it were suspended amidst the clouds. The two outer statues are figures of two Doctors of the Latin Church: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine; the two inner statues, with bare heads, are of two Doctors of the Greek Church: St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom. These saints represent the catholicity of the Church and at the same time, the consistency of the theologians' teaching with the doctrine of the Apostles.
Above the Chair are two angels bearing the tiara and keys, symbols of the Roman pontiff's authority. On the Chair, are three bas-reliefs picked out in gold, which refer to the same number of Gospel episodes: the Consignment of the keys, Feed my sheep, and the Washing of the feet.
The whole composition is crowned by the fantastic gilt and stucco Gloria peopled by a host o angels among rays of light and gigantic billowing clouds. In their midst is the precious window of Bohemian glass, divided into twelve sections as a tribute to the Twelve Apostles; a brilliant dove stands out against it, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church which he never ceases to help and to guide. Vanvitelli decorated the vault with gilded stucco. In the three medallions are portrayed: the Consignment of the Keys, the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Beheading of St. Paul.
To the right of the Altar of the Chair is the Monument to Urban VIII (1623-1644), designed by Bernini in 1627 and completed in 1646, after he had worked on it for 20 years. The artist wished to offer his very best to this Pope who had discovered him and entrusted him with such important projects. The Pontiff is shown in the act of giving his blessing, solemnly dressed in his papal robes. The statue is not made of marble but of bronze with gold highlights. Above the sarcophagus, in Portoro marble, is a skeleton of Death, in the act of writing the Pope's name on a scroll of parchment which it is clasping. Beside it, in white Carrara marble, the beautiful allegorical figures of Justice, who is raising her eyes almost as if to trust herself to divine justice, and Charity, who holds a child in her arms and looks sorrowfully at another, pointing to the dead Pope. Even the bees of the Barberini Pope's coat of arms, which we have already seen on the altar of the Confession, seem to have lost their sense of direction. On this monument too, we admire the balance between architecture and sculpture, a great merit of Bernini's style. Typical of this monument is the use, mentioned above, which has been made of various types of material.
On the left of the Altar of the Chair is the Monument to Paul III (1534-1549), the Pope who in 1545 convoked the Council of Trent and in 1547 commissioned Michelangelo to direct the work of building the basilica. The monument was made by Guglielmo della Porta (1533-1602) who probably used a drawing by Michelangelo. The bronze statue of the Pope crowns the pyramidal monument. Below, two marble figures allude to Justice and Prudence.
The first statue is a likeness of the Pope's sister, Julia; the second, of the Pope's mother. This monument was first placed in the Gregorian Chapel, then in 1628 Bernini moved it here.
In the tribune of the Chair, a continuation of the central nave and the transept, are niches with statues representing the holy founders of religious orders. Here on the right are: St. Elias, St. Francis de Sales, St. Dominic, St. Francesco Caracciolo; on the left: St. Benedict, St. Frances of Rome, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Alphonsus of Liguori.
Four great tablets beneath the statues recall the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX on December 9, 1854.
Above, on the golden background of the frieze, is the Latin inscription: "O Pastor Ecclesiae, tu omnes Christi pascis agnos et oves" (O pastor of the Church, you feed all Christ's lambs and sheep). On the right is the same writing in Greek:
The Passage between the Apse and the Left Transept
We now begin our visit of the left side of the basilica, in the opposite direction from the itinerary we took for the right side; we start from the apse and proceed towards the entrance. Leaving the apse, in the passage from the left aisle where the keyboard and part of the basilica's great organ stands, on the right is the monument to Alexander VIII (1689-1691), after a design by Arrigo di San Martino (d. 1726). The bronze statue by Giuseppe Bertoni represents the Pope; the two majestic statues in marble by Angelo Rossi, are Religion and Prudence. The marble bas-relief in the center below, also by Rossi, portrays the Canonization by Alexander VIII in 1690, of St. Laurence Giustiniani, St. John of Capestrano, St. John of San Facondo, St. Paschal Baylon, St. John of God. This monument is a typical example of the use of various types of marble and stones, alabaster, breccia, giallo antico.
Opposite, against the pilaster, is the Altar of St. Peter healing the cripple. The altarpiece, a mosaic reproduction of the original by Francesco Mancini (1679-1758), shows St. Peter healing a cripple in Jerusalem by the temple gate called "the Beautiful" (Acts 3:1-10).
We now enter the Chapel of Our Lady of the Column, surmounted by one of the smaller cupolas, a corner chapel, located at the end of the left aisle.
On the right of the chapel is the Altar of St. Leo the Great (440-461), the first pope to be buried in the basilica. When he died, he was buried in the sacristy of the ancient basilica, and his body was subsequently moved to the Porticus Pontificum. Finally, Paul V desired it to be translated to this chapel, together with the remains of Popes Leo II, Leo III, Leo IV and Gregory XIII. The great carved marble altarpiece by Alessandro Algardi (1602-1625) portrays the Meeting of Pope Leo the Great with Attila, King of the Huns, whose advance on Rome in 452 the Pope had succeeded in halting, thereby saving Rome from destruction.
On the left is the Altar of Our Lady of the Column called after the image of the Blessed Virgin painted on a column from the old basilica. In 1607 it was placed on this altar designed by Giacomo Della Porta, framed by the finest marbles and precious alabaster columns. After the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI honored it with the title of "Mater Ecclesiae". In 1981 John Paul II had a mosaic reproduction of it set on the external wall of the palazzo facing St. Peter's Square, where it can also be seen illuminated at night.
The chapel is covered by one of the basilica's minor cupolas which lets in light that enhances the colors of the altar. On the vault of the dome are portraits of the Litany of Loreto; in the spandrels: St. Bonadventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Cyril of Alexandra, St. John Damascene. In the lunettes are portrayed: The Virgin Mother and Child, the Dream of St. Joseph, and the Kings, David and Solomon.
In the passage between this chapel and the transept, on the left against the pilaster supporting the cupola is the Altar of the Sacred Heart, which on the occasion of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque's canonization in 1923, was decorated with a mosaic inspired by a painting by Carlo Muccioli (1857-1933).
Opposite and on the right, is the famous monument of Alexander VII (1655-1667), the last great masterpiece of the 80-year old Bernini who was assisted by various artists. The Pontiff, kneeling and absorbed in prayer, is not disturbed by the sudden appearance of Death, who, raising a heavy pall, brandishes an hour-glass to indicate that time has passed. The four statues represent the virtues practiced by the Pontiff: in the foreground is Charity by G. Mazzuoli, with a child in her arms, and Truth, by Morelli and Cartari, who sets a foot on a map of the world, and precisely on England where the Pope sought in vain to quell the growth of Anglicanism; on the second level is Prudence, by G. Cartari, and Justice, by L. Balestri.
The skeleton of Death is in gilded bronze; the splendid drapery which conceals part of the door under it is made of Sicilian jasper; the statues are carved in white marble and the plinth in black, as a sign of mourning.
The left transept resembles a chapel, open to all, but reserved for recollection and prayer. On weekdays, the basilica's scheduled Masses are celebrated at the main altar, dedicated to St. Joseph, at: 10, 11 and 12. On Sundays, only one Mass is celebrated at 13:00. Communion is also distributed here to the faithful who ask for it. The Blessed Sacrament, a memorial of Christ's love for us until the end of time, is constantly preserved in the Tabernacle. All the faithful who enter the basilica pass here and genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, pausing a few moments, kneeling or sitting in the pews, to pray.
There are three altars. The Central Altar was previously dedicated to the Holy Apostles, Simon and Jude, and Thaddeus, whose relics are preserved in an ancient sarcophagus. John XXIII dedicated it to St. Joseph, Mary's husband and the putative father of Jesus. The mosaic which now decorates the altar was designed by A. Funi (1890-1972), and shows St. Joseph. Flanking the altar are two oval mosaic portraits of the two Apostles, after paintings by Vincent Camuccini.
One the right is the Altar of St. Thomas above which is a mosaic altarpiece inspired by a painting of the Disbelief of the Apostle Thomas, by Vincent Camuccini (1771-1844). The relics of Pope St. Boniface IV who consecrated the Pantheon for Christian worship are kept beneath the altar.
On the left is the Altar of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, with a mosaic reproduction of a picture by Guido Reni (1575-1642) showing St. Peter crucified upside down. An ancient tradition claims that St. Peter suffered martyrdom precisely where the altar stands. In fact part of the basilica is actually built on the site of Nero's Circus.
series of niches containing statues of the holy founders of religious
orders continues from the central nave along the walls of this part of
the transept. Here we have: St. John of God, St. Mary Euphrasia Pellettier,
St. Peter Nolasco, St. Juliana Falconieri, St. Louise de Marillac, St.
Angela Merici, St. Norbert, St. William. Above, against a golden background
on the trabeation the inscription reads: "Dicit ter tibi, Petre, Iesus:
Diligis me? Cui ter, o electe, respondens ais: O Domine, tu omnia nosti,
tu scis quia amo te" ("A third time, Jesus asked him, 'Simon, son of John,
do you love me?' 'Yes, Lord', Peter said, 'You know that I love you'")