Guide to Saint Peter's Basilica
by Fr. Giovanni Giuliani OFM Conv
©1995 A.T.S. Italia- Roma (all rights reserved)
St. Peter's Basilica is honored by containing the tomb and mortal remains of its famous son, the pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), incomparable defender of Church doctrine against heresies. His writings, the Homilies, in classical style are still as current as ever. He was called the "Savior of the West", even though he could not prevent the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455.
Above the altar where he is buried, there is a majestic, high-relief marble portrait of Leo the Great as he met Attila the Hun, the scourge of god, near Mantua. The Pope's words were convincing, Attila was persuaded not to attack Rome. He told his troops that when the Pope spoke he saw the threatening figures of Peter and Paul with drawn swords before him. The sculpture was done by Alessandro Algardi (1595-1654) and is the only high relief of this type in the Basilica.
After the chapel dedicated to St. Leo the Great, beneath the small dome that lets in a soft light to enhance the colored marble in the Basilica, we come to the Chapel of the Virgin of the Column, with an ancient painting of the Virgin on the column that had been part of the Old Basilica. In 1607 the painting, framed by fine marbles and precious alabaster columns was placed on this altar designed by G. Della Porta.
In 1645 the Vatican Chapter ordered golden crowns placed on the head of the Virgin and Infant Jesus. After the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI honored her with the title "Mother of the Church." Then in 1981 Pope John Paul II ordered a mosaic copy placed on the outside wall of the palace overlooking St. Peter's Square when, illuminated during the night, it shines with a graceful smile on those who stop to admire it. The Pope unveiled and blessed it on 8 December of the same year. The light from the dome highlights the altar-frontal which, like many others, was designed by Bernini and reproduced in colored mosaic with such skill that it seems to be an embroidered cloth.
This monument is Bernini's last masterpiece, done when the artist was eighty years old. A friend and admirer of Bernini, as soon as he was elected Pope, Alexander VII (1655-1667) asked the great artist to prepare a small coffin for his bedroom because, "I will be a good Pope if I think of death."
During the pontificate of Alexander VII Bernini designed and built the magnificent colonnade in St. Peter's Square, the bronze Cathedra, and the Royal Stair, which along with the Baldachin represents the triumph of Baroque art in the Vatican. After the death of the pope Bernini, with his still rich imagination, wanted to honor his memory with a great monument that is still admired by thousands every day.
The pope is portrayed kneeling in prayer that is interrupted by the appearance of Death, a gigantic skeleton coming out from under the funeral draping, brandishing an hourglass to show that the time has come. Death is shown with a covered face because it comes to all men, without distinction, even to the Supreme Pontiff.
The monument is crowned by four statues of the virtues that distinguished the life of Alexander VII, that is Justice, Prudence, Charity and Truth. The last statue which also symbolized Religion has a sorrowful expression because of the Pope's many vain attempts at resolving the difficult situation that had developed with the Anglican Church. The statue's left foot rests on a globe, and specifically right on England.
The monument is striking because of the different and beautiful types of marble used: the bases are black and white, the colors of mourning, the great funeral drape is made of Sicilian jasper, and the statue of the pope, atop a perfect pyramid is white marble.
The light-filled left transept of the basilica, with its gilded stucco ceiling, is a large chapel that is not open to tourists or the curious. Here there is silence, prayer and devotion. The center altar was dedicated to St. Joseph, Mary's husband, and blessed by Pope John XXIII on 19 March 1963. An ancient sarcophagus on the altar contains the relics of the apostles Simon and Jude Thaddeus.
All the masses in the Basilica are celebrated here except for Sundays and holy days; Holy Communion is given if requested. The faithful come here to pray, or wait their turn for Confession, the sacrament of reconciliation and peace. On Good Friday, Pope John Paul II joins the other fathers and hears confessions.
An ancient tradition maintains that this part of the Basilica which rises over what was once Nero's Circus is the exact site of Peter's martyrdom. On the basis of this tradition a fine marble altar was built here, with a mosaic reproduction Guido Reni's painting of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, head down. The famous composer, Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) is buried nearby in a lead coffin.
Opposite the altar is a mosaic made to a drawing by Camuccini (1771-1844) portraying St. Thomas, who confused and repentant about having been skeptical, touched Jesus' wounds.
In the center of the altar are the mortal remains of Saint Gregory the Great (590-604), one of the greatest pontiffs in the history of the Church. He preferred to be known as the "servant of the servants of God", however the faithful also called him "Consul of God", "Savior of the Church", "Defender of Rome" (he defended the city against the Lombards whom he then converted to Christianity). He evangelized England by sending forty Benedictine monks as missionaries. Gregory's name is also linked to the musical forms he promoted, and even today Gregorian chant resounds with its pure melodies.
In the splendid mosaic above the altar, one of the most perfect in the entire basilica, the saint is depicted as showing the faithful a cloth stained with the blood of martyrs; he encourages them to remain faithful to Christ and to the commitments of Baptism.
To honor this great person, his tomb is surrounded by the four great Doctors of the Church: Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius and John Chrysostom, in the mosaic on the dome above the altar.
The successor to Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) who died in exile at Valance, France, victim of Napoleon's power, was the Benedictine monk Barnaba Gregorio Chiaramonti who took the name of Pius VII (1800-1823). His was a difficult pontificate filled with moral and physical problems inflicted by Napoleon whom the pope himself, for love of peace, consecrated Emperor of France in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Later Napoleon took him prisoner and sent him to Fontainebleau. Pius VII, never bore any resentment towards his persecutor and when Napoleon was exiled on the island of St. Helena, the pope made efforts to render the ordeal less bitter. He offered asylum to Napoleon's elderly mother and gave both moral and material assistance to his family.
The dignified effigy of the pope shows fatigue and the signs of his long exile, and yet he is portrayed as blessing both friends and enemies alike. There is a statue on either side of the monument. Wisdom, crowned with an olive wreath and with an owl, symbol of Christian vigilance, at its feet, acquires knowledge from the Bible. Fortitude is dressed in a lion's skin and treads on a club. These are the two virtues that distinguished the troubled times of the pope's long reign.
The monument was created by the Danish sculptor Thornwaldse and was commissioned by Cardinal Consalvi, loyal Secretary of State to Pius VII.
In this chapel it is possible to admire a mosaic reproduction of one of the world's most famous paintings "The Transfiguration" showing Christ on Mount Tabor, Raphael's last painting (1483-1520).
It shows the Lord in a nimbus of bright light, raised in the air with the prophet Elias and Moses, the lawgiver, while the three favored apostles, Peter, James and John gaze on this heavenly scene from earth, wishing that it would last for eternity.
The upper portion of the picture reveals the tranquil ecstasy, the celestial serenity and peace the Lord grants only to those who are with Him and who want to be with Him.
The lower part contrasts strongly with the upper. The figures are agitated; they look at the possessed boy whose father is holding him. All are troubled, and they seem to be seeking a human solution to ills of the spirit. Only an apostle, indicating the Lord on the Mount reminds them, the disheartened and discouraged, of the source of salvation.
In the middle, the kneeling woman symbolizes the Church and its task of bringing peace, hope and faith to the victims of evil. Raphael died young, he was only 37. In his final delirium he asked to see his painting for the last time. His friends brought it to him, and placed it on the bed in which he died on Good Friday, 1520.
The same painting was carried at the head of the funeral procession to the Pantheon where the great artist is buried and awaits his own transfiguration.
This is an impressive chapel, with finely carved stalls, and richly decorated with precious marble and gilded stuccowork depicting biblical scenes. It was designed by Giacomo Della Porta and dedicated by Pope Urban VIII in 1627. The canons of the Vatican Chapter meet here on Sundays and holy days to pray and sing the Divine Office. During Holy Years this chapel is the starting point for the procession that goes through the Holy Door to the Cathedra. Even when the chapel is closed by its wrought iron gate, one can see the tomb of one of the greatest defenders of the faith, the great Doctor of the Church St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople (344-407). Above the altar, a mosaic portrays Mary Immaculate with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua and St. John Chrysostom; the original design was by Perugino.
On 8 December 1854, the date that the Immaculate Conception was solemnly proclaimed, Pope Pius IX placed a gold crown on the Virgin, and 50 years later, a group of noblewomen added a crown of twelve diamond stars.
There is an organ on either side of the chapel and when they are played together, they create magnificent stereophonic effects. Domenico Scarlatti (1695-1728) was the organist of this chapel.
This is one of the few monuments from the Old Basilica that has survived to this day. Originally it was under the triumphal arch. It was designed by Antonio Pollaiolo (1431-1498) the great bronze sculptor. The Pope (1484-1492) is shown surrounded by the four cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance) and in the lunette above are the theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity). The pope is seated, and in his left hand holds the spear that pierced Jesus' side, one of the most venerated relics in the basilica. This lance, or spear, jealously guarded by the early Christians was later given to the crusaders so that it could be brought to Rome. It was captured by the Saracens and placed in the religious treasure of Constantinople. Later, it was surprisingly offered to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 by the Turkish sultan Bayazet, son of Mohammed II under the condition that the Pope would detain the sultan's brother, who was threatening his power. The pope agreed (as did the brother who was quite happy to stay in Rome) and received the lance.
Beneath the monument the Pope is depicted as laying in serene, peaceful death in a sarcophagus. It is interesting to note that notwithstanding some corrections made to the black stone at the base of the monument, there is still an error. It reads that America was discovered during the pontificate of Innocent VIII, the fact is that Columbus set sail from Europe eight days after the pope died.
The bronze monument by Emilio Greco is a symbol of the Church's gratitude to the gentle Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) the "Good Pope".
On the upper part angels are coming down to earth to announce the spring of optimism, hope and trust in man. In the center is the impressive, strong and human figure of the Pope visiting prisoners, children and the ill. The expression on his face is not the usual one of joyful optimism, but rather it is preoccupied because of the troubles afflicting today's world.
A young mother holds her child up to the pope for his blessing. But the child, a symbol of the new generation the rejects the past turns his back on the pope who wants to bless him. On lower left, there is a young seated woman, she is tired, sad and disappointed, perhaps she is supposed to symbolize the politics and philosophies of today that are incapable of solving the difficult problems of a complicated world. At the bottom center, the only figure that looks at the pope with trust is a hungry, scrawny dog, symbolizing humanity that is starving for justice, love and peace. Above, behind the pope is a cardinal who holds his hand over his heart as if to say that the ills of today's world can be solved by listening to the voice of one's own conscience which is the voice of God, everpresent in our hearts.
Before this altar was dedicated to St. Pius X, it was known as the altar of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple. She is portrayed as a little girl joyfully going up the steps to the temple with her parents Anne and Joachim. This event is magnificently depicted in mosaic by Romanelli to drawings by the painter Carlo Maratta.
Below the altar, is a crystal coffin containing the body of St. Pius X (1904-1914), "pauper et dives, mitis et humilis corde". The body is dressed in pontifical robes, while the face and hands are covered with silver. The world greatly admired his wisdom and firm government. He helped restore Christian life by issuing wise laws on the religious education of children, youths and adults. His catechism gives clear answers to many religious questions. He allowed young children to take Communion, promoted the practice of daily communion as a source of virtue and holiness, he reformed the liturgy in the Missal and Breviary as well as sacred music and Gregorian chant. He fought against and condemned modernism which is still the cause of many evils. He was, however, unable to convince the reigning monarch and heads of state of his era to avoid the conflict that would shed blood throughout Europe for four long years.
His heart could not stand the vision of so many innocent deaths. He died after having offered his life for peace. On the right pillar he is shown with arms and gaze upraised to heaven. The statue was carved by Pietro Astorgi (1923).
To the left of the Chapel of the Presentation our eyes can admire the monument to the successor of Pius X, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) who led the church the difficult years of World War I which he defined as "useless slaughter".
This pope expended most of his energy and strength in trying to convince the heads of state and governments to put down their arms and meet at a negotiating table to resolve Europe's problems peacefully. He organized charitable institutions to help refugees, deportees, prisoners, the wounded and the persecuted without regard for their political or religious beliefs. Wherever his charity could reach, pain and suffering were diminished. Upon his death, the Turkish Muslims, grateful for his charity and good works, built a monument to him in Istanbul.
In the monument here in St. Peter's, he is portrayed in prayer, kneeling above a tomb that is supposed to symbolize the graves scattered throughout Europe to commemorate the soldiers who fell in battle and the innocent victims of war. The tomb is delicately decorated with olive branches, symbols of peace. Above the statue is the Virgin Mary, presenting the Infant Jesus, "Prince of Peace" to a world in flames. It was Pope Benedict SV who added the words "Queen of Peace, pray for us" to the Litanies of Loreto. The monument by Pietro Canonica (1869-1959) a renowned sculptor, was unveiled in 1928.
This is a stupendous work by the young Antonio Canova; It may seem to be a pagan monument as it recalls the funeral steles of ancient Greece.
However, it is a Christian monument to the last three members of the royal house of Stuart who, because they remained faithful to the Catholic church were removed from the throne of England.
The monument is dedicated to James III (1688-1766) son of James II (1633-1701) the last Stuart to reign over England, Scotland and Ireland, and to his sons Charles Edward (1720-1788) and Henry (1725-1805). Henry, Cardinal Duke of York was the bishop of Frascati (1761) and of Ostia and Velletri as well as archpriest of the Vatican Basilica and Deacon of the Sacred College. After the death of his brother Charles, he took the name of Henry IX and proclaimed himself King of England.
The monument is in line with the underlying tomb in the Vatican Grottoes. The small fronton on top is embellished with a carving of the Stuart coat of arms of two lions rampant. On the lower part, in front of a closed door, symbol of the old unfortunate dynasty stand two angels whose incomparable beauty blends with their pain. The folded wings and bowed heads express resigned sadness over the mystery of death. All this sadness, however, is dissipated by the comforting words of the bible over the closed door "Happy are those who fall asleep in the Lord".
George III, king of England (1738-1820) wanted to forget all monarchical and dynastic rivalry, so he generously financed the cost of this monument.
Opposite the monument to the Stuarts, above the entrance to the dome, is a monument to Maria Clementine Sobieska, the pious niece of the King of Poland, John III and wife to James III Stuart, pretender to the English throne. The woman is portrayed in a mosaic medallion supported by a putto and the personification of Charity.
The great historical events majestically portrayed in the mosaic seem to welcome us to this chapel. The chapel recalls the baptismal ceremony, the white gown, the burning lamp and the solemn promises made by godmothers and godfathers.
They may be sad memories, the towns are no longer white, the light of faith had dimmed or perhaps even been extinguished, and we walk in the dark. Promises and commitments have been forgotten.
In this chapel, a moment of silence and meditation can help restore hope and faith in life and in ourselves.
Here, amidst much splendor we can easily recall the words of the Lord, "What is it worth to a man who conquers the world if he lose his soul?" This means that our soul is worth more than all the masterpieces in the Basilica. It is even more precious than this final monument, the magnificent baptismal font made of an ancient pale red porphyry cone with a splendid gilded bronze cover (by Fontana) decorated with swirling arabesques and leaves on which we can clearly see the Lamb of God, who "takes away the sins of the world".