St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square
by Nicolo Suffi, ŠLibreria Editrice Vaticana
(all rights reserved)
Passing from the transept to the left aisle, on the left is the Altar of Ananias and Sapphira or Altar of the Lie. The mosaic is after a painting by Cristoforo Roncalli, known as Pomarancio (1552-1626), and shows the punishment of the couple who had lied to St. Peter.
Opposite, on the right, is the Monument to Pius VIII (1829-1830), by Pietro Tenerani (1789-1869), in the Neoclassical style. The Pontiff is kneeling; above him is the statue of Christ enthroned, and below, are the statues of Sts. Peter and Paul. On the base are the allegorical figures of Prudence and Justice.
Under this monument a door leads to the Sacristy and the Treasury.
On the right is the Clementine Chapel commissioned by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), whose coat of arms stands out against the paving. It was begun by Michelangelo and completed by Giacomo Della Porta (1540-1602) for the Jubilee in 1600. The altar is dedicated to St. Gregory the Great (590-604). In a sarcophagus beneath the altar his remains are preserved, brought here in 1606. This Pope, also called the "Savior of the Church" and the "Defender of Rome", is associated with the name of the Gregorian chant or plainsong which he promoted.
He was also responsible for the evangelization of England. The splendid mosaic on the altarpiece, after a picture painted in 1625 by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661), is the work of Alessandro Cocchi and Vincenzo Castellini, and portrays the saint as he shows the faithful cloth stained by the blood which miraculously flowed from the relics of some martyrs.
In the spandrels of the dome are four great saints, Doctors of the Church: Ambrose and Augustine, of the Latin Church, John Chrysostom and Athanasius, of the Greek Church.
In the lunettes: The Visitation, St. Zachary and St. Elizabeth, Malachi the angel and Daniel in the lion's den. The designs are by Cristoforo Roncalli, known as Pomarancio; the mosaics are the work of Marcello Provenzale and Paolo Rossetti.
The Monument of Pius VII (1800-1823) occupies part of the left wall of the Clementine Chapel. He was the Pope imprisoned by Napoleon and exiled to Fontainebleau. After his liberation, he did all he could for the emperor exiled at Sant' Elena and helped his elderly mother. The weary Pontiff is seated majestically on his throne and is blessing all, friends and enemies. The monument is the work of the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), Roman by adoption. Beside the Pontiff are two allegorical figures: the Genius of time and History, intent on recording the Pope's achievements with the hourglass and a book; on the pedestal are another two statues which represent Fortitude, with the lion skin, and Wisdom, with the book and the owl.
Returning to the aisle, against the pier supporting the dome is the Altar of the Transfiguration, with a mosaic reproduction of one of the masterpieces of Raphael (1483-1520), the great painter's last work. Jesus, bathed in light, is borne aloft between Moses and Elijah, also in ecstasy, while the Apostles Peter, James and John, prostate, contemplate this glimpse of paradise. On the left, almost hidden, are Sts. Felicissimus and Agapitus, who are commemorated on 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration.
In the lower part, the healing of the young man who was "possessed" is portrayed, giving the scene a sense of agitation, while in the upper part of the picture, profound peace is contemplated. In the center, a kneeling woman represents the Church which brings peace and hope and invites us to await them as gits from above.
In the passage way are two monuments. On the right, the white marble Monument to Leo XI by Alessandro Algardi (1595-1654). The Pontiff is seated in the center. The roses carved on the plinth and the inscription "Sic florui", refer to the fact that he reigned only 27 days, in 1605. Beside him are two female figures: Majesty and Generosity. On the sarcophagus, are scenes of the abjuration of Protestantism made by Henry IV of France when Leo was still a cardinal and apostolic nuncio, and the signing of the peace treaty between Spain and France.
On the left, towards the central nave, is the funeral Monument of Innocent XI (1676-1689), the work of the French sculptor Pierre Etienne Monnot. The Pontiff, making a solemn, oratorical gesture, is seated on the throne set above a sarcophagus, in giallo antico marble, flanked by Religion and Justice. A bas-relief on the urn by John Sobieski, shows the Victory over the Turks in Vienna in 1683.
At this point we have reached the section of the basilica with the three aisles built by Carlo Maderno between 1606 and 1614.
A little further, on the right of the aisle is the Chapel of the Choir. Its design was traditionally attributed to Giacomo della Porta (1540-1602), but today it is thought to be the work of Carlo Maderno. It owes its name to the fact that the canons of the basilica used to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours here as a choir. The gate of the chapel, usually closed, is of exquisite workmanship.
The altarpiece, by Pietro Bianchi (1694-1740), shows the Virgin Immaculate in glory surrounded by angels and venerated by Sts. Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, John Chrysostom. On December 8, 1854, on the occasion of the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pius IX crowned the image of Mary. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Dogma, St. Pius X added a second crown, consisting of twelve stars, gleaming with twelve brilliants, donated by various nations.
Beneath the altar are the remains of St. John Chrysostom and relics of St. Francis and St. Anthony. The paschal candle stands on a black and white marble column with a porphyry base, in accordance with Paul VI's wishes.
The vault of the chapel, divided by four Corinthian pilasters, is decorated with fine gilded stucco ornaments on a white background, showing the Creation, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Baptism of Jesus. In the dome are the Vision of the angels and the Elect of the Apocalypse. In the vault are shown: Habakuk and the angel, Daniel in the lions' den, David, Jonah inside the whale. In the lunettes, Deborah and Barak, Judith with Holofern's head, Moses and Aaron, Ozaziah and Uzziah and Jeremiah.
The dark wooden choir against the walls has a triple row of stalls, adorned with magnificent bas-reliefs and decorations; above it on each side are two historical organs.
Between this chapel and the next is the Monument to St. Pius X (1904-1914), planned by the architect Florestano Di Fausto and carved by the sculptor Pietro Astorri in 1923. The Pontiff, carved from the whitest marble, is shown standing, his arms outstretched to the faithful. Around the door and on its panels are the most beautiful bas-reliefs in bronze illuminated with gold, recalling episodes from the saint's life.
On the left is the funeral Monument of Innocent VIII (1484-1492), a very fine work made between 1493 and 1498 by Antonio del Pollaiolo (1431-1498), which was formerly in the old St. Peter's. The Pontiff sits solemn and authoritative on his throne. He is imparting a blessing with his right hand, while with his left, he shows the lance that pierced Jesus' side. The relic of the lance which was presented to him by the Sultan Bajazet II, is now kept, as we have seen, close to the Altar of the Confessio. Next to the Pontiff are four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The upper lunette displays the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. In the lower section of the monument, the Pontiff is shown lying in a sarcophagus, shrouded in the stillness of death.
Then on the right is the Chapel of the Presentation, named after the marble retablero over the main altar from a painting by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662) of the Presentation of the Virgin. In the gilded bronze and crystal casket beneath the altar is the body of St. Pius X (1904-1914), clad in solemn papal robes.
The chapel is decorated with mosaics by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). In the pendentives of the dome: Aaron with the thurible, Noah and the ark, Gideon and the fleece, Balaam and the Star of Jacob. In the lunettes: Moses removes his sandals before the burning bush, Miriam and the Red Sea crossing, Judith and Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, Joshua makes the sun stand still, Isaiah and the cloud. The vault is decorated with scenes of the Coronation of the Virgin and Lucifer's defeat.
Against the wall on the right is a bronze Monument to Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). On the left we can see the Monument to Benedict XV (1914-1922), made in 1928 by the sculptor Pietro Canonica (1869-1959). The Pontiff is absorbed in prayer, kneeling on a tomb which commemorates the First World War which he described as a "useless massacre". The tomb is covered in olive branches, symbols of peace. Above the statue is Mary, presenting Jesus, Prince of Peace, to the world in flames.
Under the next arch on the right is the Monument to Maria Clementina Sobieska (1702-1735), niece of King John II or Poland, who in 1719 married the Pretender to the throne of England, James III Stuart. The princess is portrayed in a medallion held up by a cherub and by the statue representing Charity, the work of Pietro Bracci (1700-1773).
Under the monument is the exit from the dome.
Opposite, toward the central nave is the impressive Monument to the Stuarts, a masterpiece by Antonio Canova (1757-1822), who completed it in 1819, commissioned by the British Government. It celebrates James III (1688-1766), Pretender to the Kingdom of England, the husband of Maria Clementina Sobieska, and their two sons, Charles (1720-1788) the Duke, and Henry (1725-1807), Cardinal of York and Bishop of Frascati, Ostia and Velletri. All three died in Rome, where they had been exiled. In the center of the white marble stele an inscription recalls these last three members of the Stuart family. On it are portrait busts of them in profile. Above, is the escutcheon of the Stuarts with two lions rampant. Below, next to a closed door, are two of the loveliest sorrowful angels, their wings folded and their heads inclined over two upside-down torches which they are about to extinguish. Above the door a biblical sentence encourages Christian hope: "Blessed are those who die in the Lord". George III of England covered the expenses of this monument, begun in 1817 and completed in 1821.
Thus we reach the last chapel in the left aisle. It is the Chapel of the Baptistery, one of the basilica's most beautiful chapels and built after a design by Carlo Fontana (1634-1714). In the center is the baptismal font, still used on Sundays to administer the sacrament of baptism.
The original 5th century font, which dates back to Pope Damasus, was replaced by a sarcophagus used as a font, and then in the 17th century by the present day font whose red porphyry basin was made from an ornament on an ancient pagan sepulcher, later used to cover the sarcophagus of Otto II who died in 983. The Rococo cover in gilded bronze with volutes and cherubs, dominated by the Lamb of God, is the work of Giovanni Giardoni. In the forepart, two bronze angels bear a relief of the Most Holy Trinity and a geographical representation of Italy.
The altarpiece in mosaic was made in 1722, reproducing a design by the painter from the Marches, Carlo Maratta, which dates to 1696-1698. It represents the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, in the River Jordan.
Beside the chapel are another two mosaics: on the right, St. Peter baptizing the Centurion Cornelius inspired bya painting by Andrea Procaccini, executed in 1711; and on the left, St. Peter baptizing Sts. Processus and Martinian, his two fellow-prisoners, after a painting by Giuseppe Passeri.
The dome is decorated with mosaics, from originals by Francesco Trevisani da Capodistria. In the spandrels are portrayed the races of the four continents which became Christian: Europe, Asia, Africa, America. In the lunettes are various baptismal scenes: Jesus baptizes Peter, St. Peter baptizes the Centurion Cornelius, St. Philip baptizes the Eunuch of Queen Candace, St. Silvester baptizes Constantine, and several symbols of baptism: Moses causes the water to spring from the rock, Noah prays before the rainbow of the Covenant.
In this chapel, on October 16, 1994, Pope John Paul II's new coat of arms was set into the marble pavement in the center of the chapel. Against the lapis lazuli background of the escutcheon, the bars of the cross and the letter "M" (for Maria) stand out clearly in giallo anico.
The keys, miter and infulae stand out against the black French marble. The letters of the motto: "Totus tuus", in giallo antico are inlaid in green serpentine which borders the black background at both sides.
At the end of the aisle is the Door of Death.
In the left aisle, under the monument of Pius VIII, is the entrance to the sacristy. Is is a building which was attached to the basilica under Pius VI who commissioned Carlo Marchionni (1702-1786) to build it in 1776. On the right o the entrance, is a list o the popes buried in St. Peter's and a statue of St. Andrew in polychrome marble, and then a gallery, decorated with columns of the rarest marbles and bronze busts of Benedict XIII and Paul IV by Agostine Penna. The main Sacristy, which is octagonal, is decorated with eight columns from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.
From the sacristy, the ten rooms which house the Treasury can be visited. Worthy of note are: the fourth-century twisted marble column, decorated with vine tendrils; the gilded-medal cock, which formerly adorned the bell tower of old St. Peter's; the Chair of St. Peter, a copy of the oak throne which Charles the Bald presented to Pope John VIII in 875; the Dalmatic, said to have belonged to Charlemagne, but which is in fact an 11th century Byzantine masterpiece; the red cope and the tiara embellished with precious stones, which are put on the statue of St. Peter in the central nave for important solemnities; the Stuart chalice; the Crux Vaticana, made of leather studded with silver and precious stones and which contains fragments of the cross of Jesus; numerous reliquaries and valuable candelabra; a plaster cast of Michelangelo's Pieta made in 1934-35, thanks to which it was possible to restore the original perfectly after it was vandalized in 1972; the funerary monument of Sixtus IV, founder of the Sistine Chapel and the Apostolic Library, sculpted by Antonio del Pollaiolo. One of the most important sources of documentation of the art and faith of Christians in first-century Rome is the Sarcophagus of Junio Bassus, a noble and prefect of Rome, and a convert to Christianity. The marble sarcophagus, a fourth-century work, is carved with reliefs showing scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
The entrance to the dome is located on the right of the basilica. An elevator can be taken to the first level which gives access to the terrace over the central nave, over which tower the central dome, two large circular cupolas which are purely decorative since they are unrelated to the interior, four smaller circular cupolas which correspond to the our large chapels at the end of the transept, and six elliptical cupolas which give light to the side aisles. The rest of the ascent must be made on foot. From the gallery on the inside, the interior of the basilica can be admired and on the outside, one can view the magnificent panorama of Rome's churches, bell-towers and rooftops, with the Alban hills in the background.
The Vatican Grottoes
At the foot of the statues in each of the four central piers there are entrances which lead down stairs to the Vatican Grottoes (or crypt of the basilica). The usual entrance is the one in the pier of St. Longinus. On entering the Grottoes, the visitor first sees vestiges of the basilica built by Constantine. In fact, the new basilica was built at a higher level than the old one, so that the foundations of the old basilica are now visible in the Grottoes. Secondly, it is also possible to see the remains of a first-century Roman necropolis, where little by little Christian tombs were added to the pagan tombs. Archeological excavations in the last century led to important discoveries. Many rooms have therefore been built, in which, as well as the finds of the excavations, monuments, mosaics and sculptures from the old basilica are also displayed. Lastly, along the walls and between the massive pillars that support the basilica, are the tombs of numerous Popes. The faithful pause to pray before them and often lay flowers on the tombs of the recent Pontiffs: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I.