Guide to Saint Peter's Basilica
by Fr. Giovanni Giuliani OFM Conv
©1995 A.T.S. Italia- Roma (all rights reserved)
This door was presented to Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) in honor of his eightieth birthday on 2 September 1977. It was designed and cast in bronze by the artist Luciano Minguzzi. It develops the theme of the ancient conflict between Good and Evil. The figures on the right leaf portray Good. a) Saint Augustine who fought the Manichean heresy during his life is shown closing a heretic's mouth because truth must triumph and error must be repudiated; b) Good is symbolized by the two doves building a nest, because love is creative; c) the gift of Baptism is great, it purifies and makes us true children of God. One of the fruits of good is to be free of excess patriotism and racial discrimination. A kneeling weaponless soldier receives Communion from a Black cardinal; d) Vatican II tried to unite humanity in a single, big family. Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI are shown with the three cardinals who presided over the committees. e) Knowing that one is free of earthly bonds, like Lazarus who rose from the dead and was released from his death clothes, and having a good friend as the Archangel Raphael was a friend to Tobias, are all positive consequences for those who seek the Good.
The left leaf portrays Evil: a) Saints Vitalis and Agricola master and salve were crucified on the same cross because they were Christians b) the owl is the symbol of evil because it stalks the dove, symbol of Good; c) the martyrdom of St. Andrew, Peter's brother, together with the ferocity of slavery, is one of the poisonous fruits of evil that brings dishonor upon the dignity of man who was created in the image of God; d) murder only comes from the evil one; man, the slave of evil tortures his brothers for religious or political reasons; e) Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, is both victim and slave of evil, like the thief who did not even convert when Christ died and a crow picks at his brain.
In the past funeral processions left the basilica through this door, so it was originally known as the Door of Judgment. It was ordered by Pope John XXIII (1959-1963) who commissioned the sculptor Giacome Manzu to create this modern bronze masterpiece. He brilliantly developed the theme of Death that leads to holiness.
1. The death of two of the greatest figures who ever had human form: Christ as he is being taken down from the cross, and the Virgin Mary, just dead, rapidly ascending to heaven so that her pure body not be corrupted by the tomb;
2. this high relief, a sign of Christian hope, depicts the cut vine and stalks of wheat: their "deaths" give us bread and wine, symbols of the Eucharist and antidotes of death, because "he who eats of this bread will have eternal life".
3. this panel is filled with solemn drama: a) the violent death of an innocent (Abel) and the serene death of the just (St. Joseph); b) the awful death of the first pope, (St. Peter) and the holy death at prayer (John XXIII); c) the cruel death of the first martyr (St. Stephen) and the bitter death of Pope Gregory VII in exile; d) agonizing death in space and the sorrowful death of the mother who outlives her child.
4. even the six animals below the last panels recall the drama of death, with an admonition to remain faithful.
5. On the inner part of the door, in addition to the artist's handprint, there are two scenes that refer to the second Vatican Council. The door handles themselves recall the theme of death: they are shaped like handkerchiefs, used to wipe away tears of sorrow.
Once inside the basilica the visitor immediately becomes aware that this is not only the shrine containing St. Peter's tomb, it is also a holy place of the religion for which Peter so generously gave his life. Here Catholics come to profess their faith in God, in Jesus Christ and in their Church, which is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic," and to reaffirm their promise to remain faithful to peter in the person of his successors. "Here we are in St. Peter's, in the Vatican Basilica, the most beautiful church of the most beautiful religion in the world … How can one but adore a religion that is capable of producing such beauty?" (Stendhal)
A brief stop at the beginning of the central nave offers a magnificent view: grandeur, splendor, spiritual peace and serene joy come together here. The immensity of the place, the harmonious ceiling, the colored marble floors, the statues of the saints who founded religious orders and congregations in the niches of the pillars, in fact, they are the jewels and true pillars of the Church. In the middle, as if to mark the holiest place, the tomb of St. Peter, stands the magnificent baldachin designed by Bernini beneath Michelangelo's majestic dome.
Along the perimeter of the central nave of the transept, and above the arches, portrayed as female figures are the twenty eight Christian and human virtues that help us as we travel on our journey towards God, source of all that is good.
The basilica extends over an area of 25,616 square meters; the outside perimeter is 1,778 meters long. It has 44 altars, 11 domes, 778 columns, 395 statues and 135 mosaic pictures. The central nave is 187 meters long, 140 meters wide at the transept, 46 meters high. The dome rises 137 meters into the Roman sky.
This building, the creation of some of the world's greatest artists, is a lasting testimony of faith in the Church. It embodies the majesty, power, glory, strength and beauty of God who welcomes all to His church.
Before taking a look at the most important artworks inside the basilica, let us stop a moment. Two pairs of chubby little angels support the holy water stoups, and they remind us to respect the silence of this place of worship because, "My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer" (Mark 11:17)
This is probably the world's most famous sculpture of a religious subject. Michelangelo carved it when he was 24 years old, and it is the only one he ever signed. The beauty of its lines and expression leaves a lasting impression on everyone.
With this magnificent statue Michelangelo has given us a highly spiritual and Christian view of human suffering. Artists before and after Michelangelo always depicted the Virgin with the dead Christ in her arms as grief stricken, almost on the verge of desperation. Michelangelo, on the other hand, created a highly supernatural feeling.
As she holds Jesus' lifeless body on her lap, the Virgin's face emanates sweetness, serenity and a majestic acceptance of this immense sorrow, combined with her faith in the Redeemer. It seems almost as if Jesus is about to reawaken from a tranquil sleep and that after so much suffering and thorns, the rose of resurrection is about to bloom.
As we contemplate the Pieta which conveys peace and tranquility, we can feel that the great sufferings of life and its pain can be mitigated.
Here, many Christians recall the price of their redemption and pray in silence. The words may be those of the "Salve Regina" or "Sub tuum presidium" or another prayer. After Peter's Tomb, the Pieta Chapel is the most frequently visited and silent place in the entire basilica.
It is said that Michelangelo had been criticized for having portrayed the Virgin Mary as too young since she actually must have been around 45-50 years old when Jesus died. He answered that he did so deliberately because the effects of time could not mar the virginal features of this, the most blessed of women. He also said that he was thinking of his own mother's face, he was only five when she died: the mother's face is a symbol of eternal youth.
Pope Pius XII (1939-58), who guided the Church during the difficult days of World War II could not fail to be honored in the Basilica he loved so dearly.
The Cardinals ab eo creati ordered a monument to him that was made by the famous artist Francesco Messina in 1964.
A high pedestal further augments the already tall figure of the pope who stands majestically in the robes of his authority and spiritual power. His far reaching gaze extends to the horizon and imminent war. With his famous gesture, hand raised in blessing, he symbolically tries to stop the oncoming disaster.
His prophetic words to the heads of state before the outbreak of the war have become famous "Nothing is lost with peace, everything can be lost with war."
Opposite this monument is the one to his predecessor Pope Pius XI (1922-39), the pope of "dauntless faith", of the great social encyclicals, the pope of Catholic Action, of the missions, of the Eucharistic Congresses, of the University of the Sacred Heart. This pope, who could force the devastating consequences of totalitarian regimes, condemned their doctrines from the beginning. Pius XI was also the first Pope Sovereign of Vatican City, a title recognized by the Lateran Treaty (11 February 1929). The monument was created by Francesco Nagni (1949).
Under the altar, between the two monuments in a crystal casket are the remains of the Blessed Pope Innocent XI (1676-89). This pope was highly respected for having encouraged morality in public life and for having contributed to the victory of the Christian forces that defended Vienna against the Turkish siege in 1683.
Above the altar is a mosaic by Pietro Paolo Cristofori (1738), a copy of Domenichino's (1581-1641) Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
This is a silent chapel, filled with the scent of flowers and incense. Perhaps it is the most mystical in the entire basilica. The Blessed Sacrament is here for the faithful to see, and it is particularly awe-inspiring for Catholics. It brings to mind the words and melodies of the Lauda Sion Salvatorem, the Pange Lingua and the Adoro te devote, the great hymns written by St. Thomas Aquinas when he composed the Holy Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi.
These hymns seem to develop in a joyous crescendo, following the harmonious lines and colors of the gilded stucco on the ceiling, the gaze of angels in mid-flight, and the slanting rays of light that gently illuminate the space. All this beauty helps the soul, as does the intimacy and silence of this place, the trusting dialogue of prayer which becomes a song of joy.
The tabernacle, by Bernini (1598-1680) is based on the famous Gianicolo temple by Bramante. The two large angels kneeling on the altar watch us, filled with joy and invite us to worship and pray, and to forget the deafening noise of the world for an instant or two. Mesmerized by all this, pilgrims and visitors alike can leave frivolity aside, and contemplate what is really important. The devout may kneel before Christ, their "Bread of Life" who brings the "word of eternal life."
Before being elected to the papacy, Gregory XIII (1572-1585) taught jurisprudence at the University of Bologna. An expert in law and theology, he was sent by Pope Pius IV to the Council of Trent. As pope he worked hard to support Catholicism when the new Protestant creeds were spreading through Bavaria and Poland. He had direct contacts with many saints: Carlo Borromeo, Filippo Neri, Ignatius Loyola, and Roberto Bellarmino as well as indirect contacts with Saint Theresa d'Avila and Saint John of the Cross. During his papacy Jesuit missions flourished in India, Japan and Brazil; he can also be considered the founder of the Gregorian University; the great master of polyphony, Pierluigi da Palestrina and the poet Torquato Tasso were his protegés. He also issued the Gregorian Calendar. Eminent scientists and astronomers pointed out that the last calendar reform, by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. contained some errors, and therefore, over the past sixteen hundred years these errors had grown to 10 days. The correction was made in 1582, October 4th was followed by October 15th. This episode is depicted in the bas-relief carving on the sarcophagus. The pope is shown with famous mathematicians and astronomers including the Jesuit Priest Ignatius Danti, Father Clavius of Bamberg and Antonio Lilio of Calabria, who are well visible because the allegorical figure of Wisdom, with helmet and shield is lifting the drapery to reveal the meeting of scientists presided over by the pope. The figure of the Pontiff may well be the most beautiful in all papal iconography. The monument was carved by Milanese sculptor Camillo Rusconi (1658-1728).
In the Annals a leaflet much used during the XVI century, it says that this chapel, the first one to be finished according to Michelangelo's designs, is the most beautiful and lavish in the world. It is indeed worthwhile to stop and admire the inlays of colored marble, mother of pearl, and gemstones, the carved capitals, mosaics of all colors and the enchanting stuccowork on the ceiling.
Above the altar, set into fine marble, is an image of the Virgin Mary. It was originally in the old basilica and is known as Our Lady of Succor. She joyfully presents Jesus, "blessed fruit of her womb" who will redeem our sins.
After presenting their credentials to the pope, Catholic diplomats accredited to the Holy See go to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the basilica and stop here to ask the Virgin for her assistance; then they go on to see the Tomb of St. Peter.
In the middle of the altar is a porphyry urn containing the remains of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (died 390) who was known as the Luminary of Cappadocia. Together with St. John Chrysostom, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, he was an ardent defender of Church Dogma and a brilliant theologian. With his colleagues, he now rests in the basilica.
To the right of the chapel is the monument to Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), who did much to defend the faith.
This ancient statue of St. Peter, portrayed as he gives a blessing and preaches, while holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven is famous throughout the world. Some scholars have attributed it to Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302), but others believe that it is a V century casting.
Pilgrims who come to the Basilica traditionally touch and kiss its foot, so that it is literally worn thin. In the Middle Ages pilgrims who reached Rome, touched and kissed the foot of the statue and prayed to St. Peter asking that he be merciful and open the gates of heaven for them if they died during the pilgrimage.
On 29 June, the feast of St. Peter, the statue is clothed with an amice, alb, tiara, stole, red cope and a ring so that it practically seems to come to life.
Fine marble, Sicilian jasper, green porphyry and the "marble of St. Peter" decorate the pedestal. Behind it, there is what seems to be a fine brocade draping, however, it is actually a mosaic. Above the baldachin, in a circular mosaic is a portrait of Pope Pius IX (1847-1878), the first Pope who in nineteen centuries reigned longer than St. Peter himself, who had led the church for twenty-five years. Pius IX sat on Peter's throne for thirty one.
This supreme example of Baroque art was the first masterpiece that the twenty six year old genius, Gianlorenzo Bernini made for St. Peter's Basilica. It is impossible not to admire this fantastic, sumptuous bronze canopy supported by four spiral columns, richly decorated with gold, as it majestically rises upward.
It seems to be, and is, a gigantic processional canopy. It is here that pilgrims through the centuries have stopped to pray and honor St. Peter.
Above the four finely carved white marble pedestals adorned with the three bees of the Barberini family crest (Pope Urban VIII, 1623-1644 who commissioned the canopy was a Barberini) rise the spiraling columns.
They are decorated with gold olive and laurel branches, and graceful little putti. The first part of the columns with helicoidal fluting, typical of Roman tombs symbolizes the soul as it moves heavenward.
Above the columns, weighing a total of 37,000 kgs, is the impressive draping, decorated with festoons that seem to flutter in the breeze.
The white dove in the middle symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and above the capitals, four angels hold wreaths of flowers, while other smaller ones hold the symbols of the papacy: tiara, keys, sword and the Gospel. Above it all is a cross set on a globe, at a height of 29 meters.
It is well known that in creating these columns with their ascending curves, Bernini drew on ancient models. Some sources say that the vine-leaf decorated columns from the old Basilica came from ancient Greece, others say they were from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. These eight columns (plus one which is in the Vatican treasure) now decorate the loggia of the reliquaries that Bernini made in the pillars supporting the dove. This brilliant project was begun in 1624 and was completed after nine years of intensive work. It is the largest known bronze artwork.