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There is little more to be told. This book is neither a history of the Catholic Church nor of the papacy. Individual popes have been introduced in so far as they personally, or events in their reign, have had some bearing upon the fortunes of St Peter's. Since Pius VI's reign, few alterations to the fabric have taken place; and the chief additions have been papal monuments, in their style, taste and cost the most telling records of their period. Some of them have been good, some downright bad, and many more indifferent.
Pius VII, Chiaramonti (1800-23), was a scarcely less tragic figure than his uncle Pius VI. Benevolent and generous to a fault, he was one of the sweetest and mildest of men. Yet he was treated as the shuttlecock of Europe, knocked hither and thither by those battledores, Consalvi, his active Secretary of State, a diplomatist of the highest skill, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet Pius VII was not a mere featherweight. Although humiliated and bullied by the emperor and grossly maltreated during his captivity in Savona - to which town in 1810 he was whirled away from Rome in a carriage without a single attendant, a change of linen or even his spectacles - his extreme goodness gave him a strength of resistance almost divine. He survived to lament the death of his old enemy, towards whom he always felt more compassionate than resentful and for whose health during the banishment in St Helena he was touchingly concerned.
Pius VII during the years when he was not in exile was a generous friend to artists. In his patronage of the arts, as in all his interests, he was encouraged and guided by Consalvi. While still a cardinal, he had befriended the composer, Cimarosa. While pope he patronized Canova and Thorwaldsen. The Secretary of State was chiefly responsible for the Stuart memorial by the first and the tomb of his master by the second sculptor.
Consalvi never forgot that he owed his rise to greatness to Henry Stuart, Cardinal of York. On the death of the cardinal and titular King of England, he persuaded Pius to commission a monument to the last three Stuarts. He was also astute enough to persuade the Prince Regent of England to pay for it. The project appealed to the pope who liked to recall the loyalty to the Catholic Church of the Pretenders, and to the Regent who was both romantic and generous. In 1819 Canova set up the beautiful memorial against the first pier in the left aisle. It is perhaps the most successful neo-classical monument in the world. Of the utmost simplicity, it takes the form of a Greek funerary stele. A bust in relief of each of the three crownless kings appears above an inscription. Alas, that the head of Bonny Prince Charlie resembles a prosperous butcher's with double chin! On either side of the closed door of the tomb, symbolizing the exit of the old and unfortunate dynasty, stand a pair of mourning angels. These partly draped figures, with wings folded, heads bowed, and arms leaning upon extinguished torches, revive the very spirit of ancient Hellas. Stendal was so enamoured of the mourners that again and again he returned to visit them at dusk when he said they assumed a celestial beauty. He advised tourists on their first visit to Rome to rush to the Stuart tomb in order to gauge whether or not they had a heart capable of appreciating sculpture. The beauty of the mourners is undeniable. But it is a classical and impersonal beauty. I find it difficult to understand Roger Peyrfitte's insinuation that what the guide books describe as 'l'indicibile soavita della morbida patina' of the marble thighs of these sexless ephebes is caused by the libidinous fingers of passers-by.
Pius VII's monument in the Capella Clementina is a greater tribute to the devotion of the faithful Consalvi than to the art of the Danish sculptor, Thorwaldsen, who was Canova's pupil. Geometrical and frigid in composition, the monument does not merit detailed attention. There is something stiffly incongruous in the attitude of the seated pope within a renaissance tabernacle. The studious and handsome face, however, shows plenty of character. The eyes gaze under beetling brows. The mouth is half quizzical, half disdainful. The expression does not accord with what we know of Pius VII's guileless nature, which is more faithfully interpreted in the splendidly sympathetic portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
The monuments of the next three popes, Leo XII (1823-9), Pius VIII (1829-30) and Gregory XVI (1831-46), are still in the neo-classical, sub-Canova style, Leo's effigy resembles an opera singer of the 1830s. It stands stiffly over a doorway to a little oval chapel which now contains the lift to the Pope's apartments and the sedia gestatoria under a dustsheet. Pius VIII kneels below a seated figure of Christ, larger in scale than the pope's and over the sacristy entrance. It is a colossal and static composition, given faint praise by the official guide book for a 'classicism less frigid than usual'. Gregory XVI's monument is, like the man it commemorates, overbearing and insensitive. Reigning at a time when Europe was in the throes of democratic claims and Italy undergoing a succession of revolutions, Gregory did much harm to papal prestige by identifying himself with the forces of reaction. He inveighed against secret societies, the liberty of conscience and the press, and refused all civil reforms. Modern inventions were to him anathema. 'Chemin de fer, chemin d'enfer!' he is reputed to have said. He did not make himself less unpopular by the equivocal favouritism of Gaetano Moroni, a former baker's apprentice, from whom he was inseparable. Yet Gregory SVI loved the arts, and patronized the Protest sculptor Thorwaldsen and the painter Albert Kuchler. He established the Museums of Egyptian and Etruscan Antiquities in the Vatican Palace.
Gregory XVI knew that he was walking round a volcano and hoped that the eruption might be reserved for his successor. It was. The reign of Pius IX (1846-78) was the longest of any pope on record. It was also the most significant within modern times in that it witnessed the end of the temporal power of the papacy. This end was inevitable. The wonder is that it did not come sooner. Anticipated by the Church with terror ever since medieval times, it was finally provoked by the retrogressive policy of Gregory XVI and brought about by the intransigence of Pius IX. The grant of temporal power to Pope Stephen III by Pepin in the eighth century had been the greatest disservice ever done to the papacy. That the successors of St Peter should wield the scepter over the nations of the earth as well as the keys to the kingdom of heaven was an anachronism disastrous to Christendom. It involved the popes in disputes over frontiers with the sovereigns of Europe in which they invariably came out worst, disputes in which they should have been above playing any part at all. It depreciated their spirituality in the eyes of Catholics, and debased their moral authority in those of heretics. Not the least unfortunate sequel was the popes' utter incapacity, because of their sacred office, to wage wars and govern laymen efficiently by profane means.
Piux IX had a strong personality but certain weakness of character. He was a man of commanding presence, bewitching charm and angelic beauty. His voice was dulcet and persuasive. His one consistency was his priestly duty which made him blind to all shades of opinion, except those which he was convinced were right. He was a sentimental man who welcomed adulation, which at the opening of his reign he received. For he began by being extremely tolerant, determined on much needed reforms of papal government. Mischievous opposition to his liberalism by Austria and dissatisfaction with the speed of his improvements among Italian republicans, which led to the invasion of Ferrara by the emperor in 1847 and the assault on the Quirinal Palace by the Roman mob in 1848, quickly disillusioned the pope. In spite of great courage and gallantry, the Swiss Guards were overcome in the fighting that broke out. Pius, who was obliged to flee from the capital in disguise, felt profoundly injured and humiliated. After that event, he completely changed from the indulgent father figure to the harsh autocrat who had learned from bitter experience that lenity was an ineffective means of guiding his unruly children. But it was not too late to adopt this role. The advance of democracy in nineteenth-century Italy could no longer be stemmed by pontifical excommunications. Pius was, however, buoyed by the support of Emperor Napoleon III, whose approval of the pope maintaining his temporal power was clearly actuated by a desire to hinder Italian unity. In vain, as it turned out, for in 1861 Victor Emanuel of Savoy was proclaimed King of Italy. As though to counter this unpalatable circumstance, the pope summoned the ecumenical council, known as the Vatican Council of 1869-70, the first since that of Trent held over three hundred years before.
The council assembled in the north transeptal arm of St Peter's which was walled off from the rest of the church with what looked like a massive partition of solid marble in many colours, entered through a pair of bronze doors. In fact the whole counterfeit thing was mad to fold up like a screen. Reading-rooms, drawing-rooms and cloak-rooms were fitted up in an ingenious way. Six hundred prelates sat on benches of eight tiers on either side of the transept. The opening session saw them resplendent in their silver copes and linen mitres. Royal visitors in ribbons and jeweled decorations were ensconced in tribunes to watch the proceedings as at an opera. Eyewitnesses have left lively accounts of the council's proceedings and the conditions in which they were conducted - the appalling acoustics which prevented all but the younger prelates hearing the speeches delivered in halting Church Latin from the temporary pulpits; the incessant shouts of placet which echoed down the nave like the sharp rattle of rifle fire, as the bishops gave assent to the barely audible motions put by the chairmen. And the final session which opened in teeming rain on 18th July 1870. The transept was filed to the utmost with cardinals and bishops soaked to the skin and sweating in the heavy heat. From their steaming vestments, a veil of mist hovered over the nodding mitres. The floor between the benches was a river bed of slush. Then the storm broke again. Lightning flashed upon the baldacchino and thunder echoed round the dome while the pope, supremely unconcerned, delivered in musical accents his culminating speech. The outcome of the Vatican Council was a triumph for ultramontanism, but a pyrrhic victory for temporalism. The doctrine of infallibility was indeed passed in spite of a few dissident prelates who voted against acceptance and a larger number who, out of loyalty to the Holy See, absented themselves. Henceforth, papal pronouncements made ex cathedra were to be regarded as divinely protected from error. In a spiritual sense the papacy was immensely strengthened. In a temporal sense it was doomed.
On the following 20th September, the Italian troops of Victor Emanuel entered Rome. In the plebiscite held on 2nd October, an overwhelming vote was cast for union with the Kingdom of Italy. By this means, the Papal States ceased to exist, and the Pope was deprived of his territorial sovereignty. Pius's ineffectual protests were accompanied by a resolve never to leave the Vatican until his rights were recognized by the State. His successors continued to observe a self-imposed imprisonment until the papal sovereignty was restored to Pius XI in a strictly modified form under the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
Pius IX never recovered from the shattering blow. His humiliation was made all the more bitter by King Victor Emanuel's lack of tact, ostentatious self-congratulation and shameless confiscation of Church property. The pope in public audiences was provoked to refer to Victor Emanuel and his party as thieves, hypocrites, children of Satan and monsters of hell.
Pius IX's love of St Peter's never wavered. In 1838 he erected two vast mediocre statues of Peter and Paul on either side of the steps leading to the portico, which they guard like mute and stupid sentinels. He agreed to a suggestion of Antonio Sarti to place around the obelisk four bronze candelabra with branched arms, crowned and dated 1861. Only within the ring formed by them and the fat granite bollards, embossed with the Borghese eagle of Paul V, is the spectator safe today from the motors and charabancs swirling around the piazza. Pius also paved the piazza with square cobbles. He laid the wide steps to the portico and fashioned the central ramp in the likeness of a flood of petrified lava. Inside the basilica he substituted Carrara marble for the travertine bases of thirty-six pilasters of the transept. Michelangelo had intended the whole interior to be of naked stone, but the later baroque process of clothing the walls with marble had made a contrast with the pilasters of austere stucco too strident to be tolerated any longer. Pius also marked the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 1854, by solemnly crowning her image in the mosaic of the altar in the Choir Chapel.
Pio Nono was not buried in the basilica which he so deeply revered, nor has a sepulchral monument there. His memorial is associated with the famous enthroned figure of St Peter against the last pier (St Longinus's) of the nave. It is an appropriate one. Pius held St Peter in greater affection than any pope had done within modern times. In 1857 he granted by brief an indulgence of fifty days to whomsoever kissed the Prince of the Apostles' bronze toe. From the first, he had regarded the Apostle as a sort of friendly rival. When on his election the customary words, 'Thou wilt not see Peter's years', were read to him, the new pope, much to the bystanders' surprise, retorted, 'This is no article of faith.' Peter, the first Vicar of Christ on earth, was reputed to have been bishop of Rome for a quarter of a century. It was a remarkable fact that up to date no successor had exceeded this span of years. Pius IX was the first pope to do so. His Jubilee is 1871 was celebrated, in defiance of the recent terrible reverses to the papacy, with much acclaim and no little awe. Characteristically, the pope took care to record the achievement for all time. And he chose the environment of the Apostle's venerable statue upon which to emblazon it. Henceforth, every pious pilgrim after making obeisance at Peter's foot, and so benefiting from Pius's indulgence, must, on stepping back and raising his head, see the mosaic portrait of the pope and the inscription announcing how he surpassed the years of the Apostle's bishopric. Pius had the background to the statue lined with a shiny marble imitating Genoese velvet and the rather flimsy canopy and lamp suspended overhead.
Without reaching the thirty-two years of Pius IX, his successor Leo XIII (1878-1903) also exceeded a quarter century's reign, dying at the age of ninety-three. This kind, open-minded pope who welcomed railways and all modern technical improvements, was a complete contrast to Pius IX. 'Away from narrowness!' was his constant cry. A prisoner in the Vatican and seldom seen, he nevertheless made his conciliatory authority felt in world affairs. He left little mark upon St Peter's beyond re-laying Bernini's pavement in the portico. The sainted Pius X (1903-14) was a different character again. This son of a postman and a seamstress radiated a holiness which deeply impressed those who came in contact with him. The ordinary Italian people hailed him as a saint - a verdict that was confirmed by the Church forty years after his death. As a spiritual leader, Pius was notable for his encouragement of frequent communion, a practice that has transformed the lives of the faithful throughout the world. His agglutinate effigy stands in a niche of the left aisle. The pope, with outstretched arms and head bowed under the weight of an outsize triple tiara, is wrapped as it were in a blanket of white flour. He is shown in the act of supplicating the Almighty for the deliverance of mankind from the First World War, the declaration of which broke his compassionate heart. On either side of the cupboard door below him are bronze reliefs representing the grant of Holy Communion to children and the homage of intellectuals to the Faith. St Pius X's embalmed remains, with copper mask and hands exposed, lie behind glass in the altar of the adjoining Chapel of the Presentation.
The election of Benedict XV (1914-22) coincided with a terrible moment in history. The pope was unhesitating in his condemnation of the First World War, against which he courageously made eight pronouncements and which he declared to be 'degrading' mankind. He demanded a league of all nations, and disarmament. When these were not forthcoming, he organized relief work on a wide scale. He denounced the Versailles peace terms as a 'consecration of hatred'. His monument by Pietro Canonica depicts him kneeling in prayer for divine propitiation against the horrors of war. It is by far the least banal of this sculptor's several statues in St Peter's.
Pius XI (1922-39) was the first pope since the voluntary imprisonment of Pius IX within the Vatican to appear in public. This was a consequence of the Lateran Treaty of 1929 which settled the Roman question, in the words of those who drafted it - 'once and for all'. The Vatican City was officially recognized as a sovereign state by the Italian government, which in return was acknowledged by the Holy See. Attached to the treaty was a concordat providing for Catholic religious instruction in the state schools, and the freedom of Catholic Action, that proselytizing but non-political organization for pastors and laymen founded by the pope on the words of St Peter's first Epistle: 'Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of him, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.' The ratifications were immedi9ately followed by a Fascist campaign of confiscations of Church property and penalties against Catholic youth organizations. The pope denounced these unwarranted reprisals. He fearlessly rebutted the aggressive nationalism taught by Mussolini, and called his policy of anti-semitism 'a repulsive movement'.
There are no reasons for supposing that Pius XI was a man of taste. Hi is not known to have expressed an opinion favourable or unfavourable upon Mussolini's mutilation of the Borgo and opening of the straight, axial Via della Conciliazione in 1937. The operation took place outside the Vatican City on territory over which he had no jurisdiction.
The demolition of the spina, or spine of the Borgo, which consisted of a conglomeration of old and picturesque buildings, pierced by three very narrow streets running more or less parallel from the S. Angelo Bridge to St Peter's, had provoked hostile criticism. The main objections are that the most remote and mysterious quarter of Rome has been sacrificed to form a pompous and boring boulevard, and that the straight wide vista formed has totally deprived the first view of the church of that surprise and contrast which were formerly so striking. Augustus Hare wrote in 1892 that 'the whole external effect of St Peter's depends upon the sudden entrance into the sunlit piazza from the gloomy street'. That effect has certainly gone for ever.1
On the other hand, the architects2 of the new Via dell Conciliazione have defended themselves on practical as well as historic grounds. Firstly, they declared that had the narrow streets been left as they were, the flow of traffic to and from the Vatican City would long ago have come to a standstill. This is an argument of unimaginative town planners to which we have become only too well accustomed. There are usually alternative solutions to destruction of what is traditional and beautiful. And in the Vatican environment there were other approaches, even underground ones, which could have been explored and probably made available. Secondly, the architects referred to the fact that Bramante, Bernini and Carlo Fontana wished to carve some sort of processional approach to St Peter's and were only prevented by lack of funds. This argument is, I concede, irrefutable. No renaissance or baroque creator of a monumental building would have preferred it to be cluttered up to the entrance with small houses of little architectural value, however picturesque these might be. When allowed a free hand, one and all gave their monuments as exposed and generous a setting as possible. Nonetheless, the 1937 destruction of the Borgo spina and the making of the boulevard have proved to be a mistake for the following reasons. The approach to St Peter's is up a hill. You come to it not from a level, but from below. In consequence, your upward vision is restricted, to start with. Then Maderno's prolongation of the basilica towards the piazza is an additional cause of the drum and dome being hidden from the eye at close quarters. Before you have walked or driven halfway along the processional road the drum begins to disappear, and when you are at the obelisk the dome has gone altogether. By the time you have climbed to the inert façade you experience anti-climax. It is true of course that when the Borgo existed, and you emerged from the narrow arteries into the piazza, there were still no complete drum and dome. But you had not been led to expect them. Instead you marveled, not at the vertical, but the sudden horizontal effect around you, at the wonderful expanse offered by those outspread welcoming colonnades. In 1937 this instantaneous effect was taken away. But in 1950 the authorities, as though to make some amends for the regrettable deprivation, built two projecting arms at the west end of the boulevard. To a slight extent, the arms have corrected the trouble by narrowing the entrance to the piazza, and restoring to the visitor who emerges upon it a faint illusion of surprise.
1Certainly for the vast majority who approach St Peter's by the Via della Conciliazione. Those who walk up the Borgo Santo Spirito may get an oblique glimpse of the south clock turret and then, at the bend by the eponymous church a tantalizing view only of the grey dome and top stage of the façade, cushioned, as they seem, upon Bernini's colonnade. A vague idea may thus be got, first of a partial and then of the full revelation of St Peter's previously granted to the traveler on his emerging from the old Borgo streets now destroyed.
2Marcello Piacentini and Attilio Spaccarelli.
In fairness to the authors of the 1937 scheme, the minor merits of the Via della Conciliazione ought to be pointed out. The sky-level, set by the old buildings which are left, has been maintained by the new street. The Bramantesque Palazzo Giraud, the Hotel Columbus and S. Maria in Transpontina have mercifully been spared. The new intervening blocks may be uninspired, but they are good-mannered, made of Roman brick scantling in traditional tones of yellow, brown and pink. The long serried row of obelisks bearing lanterns on either side of the boulevard are perhaps a trifle absurd. Certainly the sight of the whole twenty-eight popping up within a fortnight provoked mirth in those tourists used to the leisurely methods of British builders. But then the lovers of architecture in Great Britain have nothing there to be mirthful about. They are perpetually in tears. When they consider how the post-war opportunities of improving the precincts of St Paul's in London have been bungled, they have cause to weep. Have the English then any right to criticize what is at least a serious, of on the whole misguided, attempt made by the Italians to improve the approach to St Peter's?
Pius XI's monument confronts the effigy of his successor, Pius XII, which is by Francesco Messina and was erected in 1964. This is the best papal monument to appear since Canova's to Pius VI. The great bronze mitred figure with sloping shoulders, sharp bespectacled features and infinitely beautiful hands, gives an excellent impression of the delicate, patrician pope, whose mystical spirit, willfully misrepresented in certain quarters today, left on those encountering it an indelible memory of benignity and grace.
The reign of Pius XII (1939-58), although covering a period of world cataclysm, saw much repair work done to the fabric of St Peter's. In 1933 extensive reinforcements of the dome found necessary by his predecessor had been completed. Pius XII was nevertheless obliged to have metal substituted for wooden frames in the large windows of the drum. Then he had every window in the building fortified by a complete armour. The pope also continued the task, begun by Pius IX and resumed by Pius X in 1914, of encasing eh pilasters of the apse in marble. In preparation for the Holy Year of 1950, Pius XII held a competition for three new bronze doors to lead from the portico to the basilica. Of the winners, the most distinguished artist was Giacomo Manzu. His door had large modeled panels of the Crucifixion and Annunciation, and lesser panels of prophets, apostles and saints. The designs are linear and economical. Venanzo Crocetti has recently been responsible for a second door. The third is still awaited.
Pius XII's most remarkable achievement at St Peter's was undoubtedly the excavations below the pavement level of Constantine's basilica. What these excavations have revealed was described in chapter 3. The process called from the pope the greatest courage and enthusiasm. Leo XIII had allowed Father Hartmann Grisar to begin certain tentative researches, which were inconclusive. Benedict XV gave reluctant permission for digging below the confession, permission which he afterwards withdrew. When at the beginning of the last war Pius XII was erecting the tomb of his predecessor in the crypt, some eighteen inches of floor were removed for installing the base. The work brought to light signs of a Roman burial ground which had not previously been suspected. Pius was deeply interested, and gave funds and encouragement to an extremely distinguished team of archaeologists. Their systematic excavations lasted for more than a decade.
A memorial of the beloved Pope John XXIII (1958-63) is being installed in the Chapel of the Presentation. It is a huge bronze relief of the pope by the sculptor Emilio Greco. Meanwhile, the opening of the ecumenical council in 1962 is commemorated in the more or less rectangular marble escutcheon in the centre of the portico pavement. It is designed by Manzu. The edges of the shield are curiously, but I presume, consciously irregular to make us suppose that the mason could not cut straight. The lion of St Mark emblazoned on the shield is of semi-modernistic design. This memorial may be considered interesting by posterity as indicative of a rough and ready interlude in the long annals of the fine arts which have been lavished upon St Peter's.
It is too early to judge the effects of the Second Vatican Council which met in four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Like the first, it was held in St Peter's Basilica - but not in the transept. The vast attendance could only be accommodated in the nave which was entirely separated from the aisles by high wall of red damask. Rows of red damask seats were raised against them in two opposing tiers. Of the two thousand eight hundred and sixteen bishops who participated, forty per cent came from Europe, thirty from North and South America, ten from Asia, ten from Africa and ten from the Eastern Rites. For the first time in history observers from almost all the non-Roman Catholic Churches were present. In an astonishing atmosphere of good will and understanding innumerable speeches were made in Latin.
To many a layman the conclusions of the council may appear negative. No new dogmas were promulgated, and no old ones dissolved. No heresies were condemned, and no fundamental differences between Churches done away with. Many world problems, such as peach and matrimony, were discussed, but not settled. The two major positive results were to make permissive use of the vernacular in parts of the Mass, and to establish a Senate of Bishops to assist the Pope in Church government. In addition, declarations of religious liberty and of tolerance of beliefs by non-Catholics were made in deep earnestness. Probably the most important outcome of all was the council's absolute determination that in the immediate future the Church should work by all possible means for Christian unity. The Second Vatican Council has been called a process rather than an event. It certainly witnessed an astonishing development within the body of the Church, a change from a defensive inward look to a more sympathetic outlook upon the non-Catholic world.
In attempting a final assessment of St Peter's Basilica, what conclusions do we arrive at? If we can first decide by what procedure our assessment should be guided, I believe the conclusions will eventually emerge of their own accord. To begin with, we should not look upon the building as a single, concerted work of art. If we do, then we are bound to call it a gigantic failure. For it is no coordinated entity like Wren's St Paul's Cathedral, designed and carried out by one master mind. Over a period of several hundred years, nearly every great architect of his generation had a 'go' at St Peter's. One by one they dropped off the stage, thwarted, disillusioned, disappointed, their schemes either rejected or incomplete, to be altered by a successor. How then can the finished thing, made up of so many men's conflicting and only partially fulfilled ideas by called an architectural success? Strictly speaking, it is nothing of the kind. The mixed-up children of frustrated geniuses do not always marry well. If we relate one to another, we become sadly aware of their incongruities. In the aesthetic context Michelangelo's elevations seem cramped and grotesque. Maderno's façade is squat and lumpish. Della Porta's lantern is too small for the dome, which is only visible from a distance. On the other hand, the single quality which every feature of the church has in common is immensity. To maintain this all the artists who worked at St Peter's were in agreement, at considerable trouble to themselves. Each had to observe an abnormal scale in making his particular contribution.
St Peter's is certainly a hotchpotch of great warring components. Byron, who had little understanding of art, and was inclined to be sentimental about St Peter's, nevertheless grasped this fact:
not all - but piecemeal thou must break
Is what he advised the spectator in Childe Harold.1
1Childe Harold, IV, line 157
In walking into the church our fist amazed impression of 'the great whole' is a soft, dove-grey fluttering of pavement, pillar and arch which is very sympathetic. But on close scrutiny we find that a good deal of the interior offends us just as much as that of the exterior. Having discountenanced the heavy mustard ceilings, the flashy mosaic copies of pious paintings by mannerist artists, the hackneyed evangelists under the dome, the excessive polychrome marble of the walls, and the sickly stucco saints, what are we left with? An impressive temple of stupendous proportions filled with an almost infinite number of works of art. There is no need to recapitulate by way of apologetic the masterpieces, which have already been described at some length in these pages.
But immensity and works of art are by no means St Peter's only title to our veneration. We have surely to take into account the purposes for which the place was built. The first was practical. Twenty thousand people must be accommodated in the nave and transept. The second was proselytistic. The enormous basilica was meant to demonstrate the Church's triumph over schism, heresy, the abnegation of her Sacraments and interference in her affairs by emperors, kings and councils. It was to be a concrete testimony to her powers of withstanding the tempests of a hostile world. It was the loud proclamation of papal supremacy over the universal Christian Church. Nearly every component of St Peter's is symbolic of this great boast. The marble relief of Bonvicino over the central door to the portico pictures Christ handing the keys to Peter. This is the initial reminder to those about to enter that divine authority has been committed to the papacy. Lest the visitor should be in any doubts, the relief by Bernini over the central door into the church itself next brings to his eyes and understanding the doctrinal incident, 'Feed my Sheep.' It lays emphasis upon the spiritual leadership given by God to Peter and his successors. The basilica was meant then to be not only a colossal token of victory but an instrument of propaganda.
be,' Byron declaims again,
And, indeed, beauty. St Peter's primary beauty is to be looked for in its historical context. It is surely found in the living continuity of Christian worship on this site, the sublimity of symbolism, and the everlasting thanksgiving it renders to the Prince of the Apostles, the uncouth fisherman from Galilee, one of the most human mortals who has ever walked the earth.
Catholics are no freer from frailties than the rest of mankind. No wonder they like to petition Peter to intercede with the Almighty on their behalf and that of their friends in the great community of the faithful. They have done so since time immemorial. 'Petrus roga Christus Iesus pro sanctis hominibus Chrestianis ad corpus tuum' - Peter, pray Christ Jesus for the holy Christian men buried near your body. This prayer was found by Pope Pius XII's excavators scratched beside the Apostle's shrine by a barely literate pilgrim, at some unknown date before the first stone of Constantine's basilica was even laid.