St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour
Text from the CD-ROM ©1999 Our Sunday Visitor
(all rights reserved)
Beside the Chair are, on the right, the Monument to Urban VIII, and on the left the one dedicated to Paul III, symmetrically in harmony as was required for the layout of the apse, supervised by Bernini himself. This work is considered a masterpiece among the funeral monuments of the 17th century, and rightly so, if we consider the high artistic value of each statue and the careful execution of all the other elements, harmoniously included in a measured architectural solution.
It was ordered by Pope Urban VIII himself in 1628-29, but was completed only in 1647, three years after his death. It was certainly he who ordered the removal of the Monument to Paul III from the right hand niche to the left hand one, where it can now be found, so that he could "have his sepulcher built there."
This monument by Bernini is animated by such an intense vitality - from the soft beauty of the two female figures, symbolizing Justice and Charity, to the realistic fleshiness of the putti, up to the majestic stateliness of the Pope who is portrayed talking - while the figure of Death, placed on the urn, makes the purpose of the monument unequivocally clear, but only partially balances the above dominant sensation. This was immediately perceived even by Bernini's contemporaries, as Cardinal Repacciolli witnessed writing that, to make its function as a tomb clear, it was necessary for "death itself to be upon the sepulcher to demonstrate that he was deceased."
In order to grasp the ingenious taste of the period, typically represented by Bernini, it is useful to observe that on the left, underneath the leaf upon which the winged skeleton of death is writing the name of Urban VIII, can be glimpsed the edge of another on which the letter "G" can be seen and this is the initial of Gregory XV, the Pope's predecessor from the Ludovisi family; and again, that the bees of the Barberini family were placed two on the upper hoof and one the sarcophagus, almost certainly only after the death of the Pope, symbolizing the almost immediate dispersion of his family.
Lastly, it should be noted that, as a model for Charity, Bernini used his famous companion Costanza Bonarelli, as can be seen by comparing this statue to the famous bust of her housed in the Bargello in Florence.
Although, Della Porta had imagined it differently, his Monument to Paul III, in its re-composition, after the removal of two statues transferred to Palazzo Farnese, is in any case one of the most excellent in the Basilica, due to its sober and harmonious architectural layout. In it, the noble expression and attitude of the Pope stand out, as well as the proud severity of the two allegorical statues of Prudence and Justice.
It is said that Della Porta executed the work under the supervision of Michelangelo and in effect, the style of the seated statue of the deceased is Michelangelesque. The same can be said even more so of volutes below, like those in the Medici Tombs in the New Sacristy of the Church of St. Lawrence in Florence; especially with regard to Prudence, with the symbols of the book and the mirror, which evoke some of the faces of Michelangelo's Sibyls.
Of great value, due to its rarity, is the mask in Ancient Yellow and Black marbles placed between the two statues, a classic work found in the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine. According to the initial projects, the sepulcher composed of eight statues was to be placed at the center of the Tribune; but Michelangelo opposed this idea, also insisting on its reduction to four statues.
In this form it was placed in the center of the Gregorian Chapel, from where it was transferred to the back of the south-east pier of the Dome; after which, for its final placing by Bernini, it was necessary to reduce the allegorical statues to two.
Leaving the main tribune and continuing our tour, immediately on the right is the Monument to Alexander VIII commissioned by his nephew Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, to a design by Count Arrigo di San Martino, in 1725. The monument, however, had been ready for some time, since De Rossi, author of the two statues of Prudence and Religion, had died in 1715. The bronze statue of the Pope is a fine work by Giuseppe Bertosi, who also made the front of the base, showing the presentation of the offerings to the Pope during the solemn canonization ceremony on Oct. 16, 1690.
This monument, even though it shows little original inspiration, is remarkable for the rich variety of precious kinds of marble used. Facing it, flanked by two columns in gray Egyptian marble, is the Altar of the Cure of the Cripple, as told in Chapter three of the Acts of the Apostles, by St. Peter together with St. John, at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The cartoon for the mosaic, executed in 1760 by skilled specialists, including Ottaviani, was taken from a painting by F. Mancini, which replaced an earlier painting by Cigoli on slate, which soon deteriorated.
Continuing on, we enter the Virgin of the Column Chapel, so called because of the Virgin's image designed on a piece of column of porta santa marble, which was part of the central nave of the Old Basilica. It was transferred here in 1607 and crowned by the Chapter in 1645.
Beneath the altar lie the remains of the Sts. Leo II, III and IV, while at the center of the Chapel beneath the floor lies Leo XII, remembered by a humble epitaph which he himself dictated. It is also known as the St. Leo Chapel because of this. The cupola is decorated with symbolic figures taken from the Liturgy of Loreto, which are rather monotonous and were executed in 1757 based on cartoons by Giuseppe Zoboli.
. The decoration of the corbels dates from much earlier (circa 1630) with two Doctors of the Greek Church, St. Germano and St. John Damascene, both the work of Sacchi, chosen among those who had particularly exalted the glory of Mary. The mosaicist was the famous Calandra in 1647 transformed the cartoons by F. Romanelli into mosaic in the lunettes. These show "David" and "Solomon," the '"Announcement of Mary's conception to Joseph" and "Mary with her sleeping Holy Son."
On the right of the Chapel is the St. Leo the Great Altar, flanked by two columns in oriental black granite, beneath which lie the remains of the Pope, which Clement XI had transferred here in 1715. The altar can thus also be considered as the funeral monument of the Saint.
It is also unique in St. Peter's, in that it is decorated not by a mosaic but by a magnificent marble altarpiece by Alessandro Algardi, the candor of which contrasts with the polychrome works of Bernini, his great rival. With a mobile and well articulated composition in which the figures superbly show expressive introspection, it celebrates the victory of Christianity, personified by the courageous Pope, over barbaric strength impersonated by Attila.
Entering the so-called Michelangelo ambulatory running around the outside of the piers around the central octagonal area, on the outside wall, there is the Monument to Alexander VII, completed in 1678 by Bernini, at the time almost 80 years old, who created a masterpiece emblematic of Baroque and of the art of funeral monuments.
With ingenious theatricality, he solved the problem of the pre-existent door, leading to the St. Mary Chapel and then out of the Basilica. This door was transformed into a symbolic entrance to Eternity, by means of the scenographic device of swelling draperies created in Sicilian Jasper, raised by a skeleton holding an hour-glass, extreme sign of Death.
The many colors of this work, rich in precious marble including breccia marble of the seven bases is completed by the gilded stucco of the vault. There is therefore an effective contrast between this and the white marble of the allegorical figures, Charity with a plump child and Truth, whose nudity was covered by order of Innocent XI.
The serene figure of the Pope in prayer rises above, not in the least disturbed by the unavoidable call from the beyond by the skeleton. The treatment of his majestic cope is refined and effective. It is the work of Domenico Bassadonna, who admirably exploited the veining of the marble to render the streaks of cloth. Bernini provided clay models and water-color sketches of this monument and had a full size model built before the actual work was carried out.
Facing it is the Sacred Heart Altar, with the mosaic altarpiece illustrating the "Apparition of the Heart of Jesus to St. Mary Margaret," executed in the 1920s. It is without a doubt one of the less successful works in the Basilica, both because of the banal conventionality of its inspiration and the rash mediocrity of its execution.
It replaced the "Fall of Simon the Magician," painted on slate by Francesco Vanni, and commissioned by Cardinal Baronio, who saw the episode as a victory of the Papacy over Protestantism. This painting was briefly substituted by another by P. Batoni on the same subject, now in Santa Maria degli Angeli. Vanni's painting was restored and put back in place until 1921, but it soon deteriorated once again. Then C. Muccioli was commissioned to create the actual painting, later put into mosaic by several artists.
Entering now the left transept, one of the arms of the Greek cross, once known as the Tribune of St. Simon and St. Jude Apostles, due to the two saints' relics, whose remains, transferred from the St. Agnes mausoleum dating from Constantine's time, lie under the high altar. On the vault of this southern Tribune, as in the one on the opposite northern side, there are valuable stucco and gold decorations by Luigi Vanvitelli, with three representations in stucco, taken from Raphael's tapestries and illustrating the "Miraculous Catch," the "Healing of the Cripple" and the "Punishment of Ananias and Sapphira."
Also to be admired is the very elegant crafting of the capitals crowning the columns at the sides of the altars, in fluted porphyry, yellow and ancient yellow granite. The last of these flank the central altarpiece while two identical ones flank the corresponding altar dedicated to St. Processo and St. Martiniano in the opposite right hand transept.
The decoration of this central altar was extremely problematic and the final result is far from satisfactory. In 1822, a mosaic copy of the famous "Crucifixion of St. Peter" hanging in the Vatican Pinacoteca, a work by Guido Reni in which Caravaggio's influence on him was strongest, was placed here as a replacement for an altarpiece by A. Ciampelli showing the above mentioned saints. This mosaic has, however, recently been moved over the altar on the left. At the sides of the altar are two round mosaics by V. Camuccini, representing "St. Simon" and "St. Jude."
Over the altar there is now a rather poor image of "St. Joseph Patron of the Universal Church" by A. Funi, from which altarpiece this area of the Basilica takes its name.
Over the altar on the right is the "Incredulity of St. Thomas" by V. Camuccini, which replaces an earlier work on the same subject by Passignano. This work has a correct but rather cold neoclassical conception. At the time, Passignano was director of the Mosaic Studio, and was one of the most coherent Roman executors of David's work, but with more convincing results in historical subjects.
There are 12 large carved wooden confessionals in this Tribune, in which it is possible to confess oneself in various languages, specified on the plaques hung upon them. Under the statue of St. Giuliana Falconieri there was a large throne, from which, during the Office of the Darkness each Easter Thursday and Friday, the Grand Penitentiary Cardinal used to touch the heads of the faithful kneeling before him with a long staff, granting indulgence to them. This rite originates from the ancient Roman law, which provided that slaves could be freed by their masters striking them upon the head with a cane called a "vindicta."
Returning to the Michelangelo Ambulatory, on the inside wall is the Altar of the Lie, so called because of its mosaic altarpiece. It shows the sacrilegious fraud committed by Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who lied to St. Peter about the price of a field sold by them, and were therefore immediately struck dead. It was executed in 1768 by P. Adami from an original by C. Roncalli, with less than satisfactory results because the colors are too vivid.
On the opposite side above the entrance to the Sacristy and the Treasury is the monumental Tomb of Pius VIII, created in 1866 by P. Tenerani. It is a work which has an essential line and a formal simplicity, but its predominant overall effect is one of excessive coldness, despite the noble intentions of the sculptor to combine a classical style with sincere Christian sentiment, following the examples of Canova and Nazareni.
Next comes the Clementine Chapel, completed by Giacomo Della Porta, like the Gregorian Chapel on the other side of the Basilica. Its name comes from Clement VIII who wished to see it finished and sumptuously decorated for the Jubilee in 1600.
In its dome, M. Provenzali and P. Rossetti executed scenes from the life of Mary, based on drawings by C. Roncalli. In the lunettes there are the "Visitation," "St. Zachariah and St. Elizabeth," "Daniel in the den of lions" and "Malachi helped by the Angel." In the corbels there are St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, Doctors of the Latin Church, and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, Doctors of the Greek Church, the same chosen more than half a century later by Bernini to be placed on his Throne.
Over the altar A. Cochi and V. Castellini executed a mosaic altarpiece from an original by A. Sacchi, who can be considered the forerunner of P. Berrettini and the pictorial parallel of A. Algardi, but who also began that convergence of classicist and Baroque styles, later perfected by Maratti.
It depicts a "Miracle of St. Gregory Magnus," whose body, first buried in the Popes' Portico in the Old Basilica, was transferred here in 1606, after being moved several times. Before this altar, newly elected Popes received the obedience, before being consecrated and crowned.
This Pope was an eminent figure of the Papacy and its holiness, defining the Pope as "servus servorum," and raising its spiritual standing, after having defended Rome from the menace of annexation by the Longobards.
On the other side of the Chapel is the Monument to Pius VII by A. Thorvaldsen, the most valid of Canova's followers, who executed a work accurately described by Galasso Paluzzi as showing a "tiresome ostentatious overabundance." In fact, in his quest for simple stateliness and severity, there is little relationship between the sculptures - the emaciated Pope seated on a throne, the two winged spirits at his side and the excessively small statues of Time and History - and the naked, square base, somewhat out of character with the upper part decorated with rays.
At the end of the left aisle, on the outside of the St. Andrew pier, there is a mosaic copy of Raphael's "Transfiguration," executed under the supervision of the expert Monosilio from a copy by A. Masucci (an earlier one by S. Pozzi was refused) now in the Loggia of the Benediction.
The painting, left incomplete by Raphael, and finished by G. Romano and F. Penni, was commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, the future Clement VII, for the Narbonne Cathedral, where he was bishop.
There is, in fact, a certain imbalance between the sublimely conceived and intensely painted upper part, and the lower part in which the expressiveness of the characters is carefully rendered, but exterior aspects of Mannerism also surface in the excessively emphatic attitudes and postures.
This work was considered as Raphael's testament, since it was placed at the head of his death bed "breaking the heart of all who look upon it," as Vasari wrote.
Continuing along the left aisle toward the front of the Basilica, on the right is the Monument to Leo XI, executed from a design by A. Algardi, who sculpted the statue of the Pope, with its penetratingly expressive intimism, and the bas-relief on the urn, depicting the "Abjuration of Henry IV."
This sepulcher, entirely in white marble, contrasts with Bernini's polychrome creations, also in the linearity of its style and in the smooth refinement of the niche in which it is placed. There is a general simplicity which is perfectly fitting for a funeral monument such as this, without however arousing that emotive pathos communicated by the more inspired monuments of his above mentioned rival.
The two female statues, Fortitude by E. Ferrata and Generosity by G. Peroni, are certainly among the most convincing allegorical figures of all the funeral monuments in the Basilica. The wording "Sic floruit" accompanying a bunch of roses at the base, is an allusion to the brevity of Leo XI's Papacy (only 27 days) even though as a cardinal he had had a leading role in the previously mentioned conversion of the king of France.
Facing it is the Monument to Innocent XI, executed by P. E. Monnot who, inspired equally by Algardi and Bernini, created a work with a harmonious compositional unity. The bas-relief shows the Liberation of Vienna from the Turks in 1683 thanks to Sobiesky, which undoubtedly was a decisive episode in the history of Europe.
The two metal lions sustaining the black marble urn overlaid with bronze refer to the arms of the Odescalchi family to which the Pope belonged. He is solemnly represented above as if talking to the people. The two allegorical figures do not represent, as is often repeated, Religion and Justice but rather, as rightly indicated by R. U. Montini in his "Tombs of the Popes" (1957), Faith and Fortitude, symbolizing the Christian virtues shown by the Pope in his struggle against the Turks, with prayer, diplomacy and huge financial aid, though a donation of 5 million florins.
Our tour then takes us under the oval cupola in front of the Choir Chapel, closed by an iron, bronze and glass gate designed by Bernini and bearing the arms of Clement XIII. It is made up of a large rectangular space opening off the outside of the aisle, in the same position as the Holy Sacrament Chapel on the opposite side.
Both were designed by Carlo Maderno, who in 1607 supplied the drawings for this one, also called Sistine because it took the place of the one which Sixtus IV had built and consecrated, and where he was later buried in the superb funeral bed by Pollaiolo, commissioned by his nephew Giuliano della Rovere, who later became Julius II.
The old 15th century chapel was dedicated to the Immaculate Virgin and to St. Francis of Assisi (Sixtus IV was a Franciscan) and St. Anthony of Padua. The decoration of the present Chapel started in 1622 under Gregory XV, as is inscribed in the base ring of the lantern.
Urban VIII, whose heraldic bee can be seen in a frieze, finished decorating it and consecrated it in 1627. The space is set out between four large arches, enclosed by eight Corinthian pillars supporting a pediment with an open curved tympanum. Of these arches, one serves as an entrance, the one opposite houses the altar with the mosaic altarpiece depicting the "Virgin and Saints" from an original drawing by P. Bianchi; in the other two are the two large organs, each accompanied by two small choirs, constructed in 1626 by Cerricola, but rebuilt using modern techniques by Morettini and later by the Walcker firm of Ludwigsburg.
The space at the sides is occupied by the magnificent choirs with three rows of seats, decorated with bas-reliefs and sculptures in the style of Bernini, which were commissioned by Urban VIII.
There are three rows because there are three ranks of clergy - canons, incumbents and incumbent priests - who sing the praises of the Holy Trinity in chorus. Here the Gregorian chants accompanying the daily services held in this chapel, known for this reason as the Choir Chapel, are sung.
Its walls and quadrangular vault, upon which the dome rests, are covered by the richest decorations in the Basilica, executed with gilded stucco on a white background by G. B. Ricci to drawings by G. Della Porta. Significant facts from the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the Baptism of Christ are illustrated within splendid cornices sustained by small putti and alternated by medallions representing Faith, Religion and the Church.
In this very rich Chapel, it is worth mentioning the oriental white and black marble column with its porphyry plinth and gilded bronze base and capital, which serves as the Easter candle and was donated by Pius VI.
It should also be mentioned that from 1622 to 1749 it housed Michelangelo's Pietà, which had already been housed in the earlier Sixtus IV Chapel from 1560 to 1609.
The Virgin Mary in the altarpiece was crowned with a golden diadem by Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854, the day on which he decreed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Later a crown of diamonds was added, donated in 1904 by an international committee of ladies.
Outside the Chapel, we can admire the fine mosaic decoration of the elliptical cupola of the bay, which refers to the offering of sacrifices and praises raised to the Almighty by the Ministers of the Sanctuary. Within the dome itself is a Vision of the Apocalypse, with the Angels, the Chosen and the four animals of the tetramorph, who adoringly surround the throne of the Eternal Father. Its author was M. Franceschini, its mosaicist F. Cocchi.
The corbels illustrate the four cantors of the divine glories: Daniel and Habbakkuk by C. Maratti, David and Jonah by C. Ferri, transformed into mosaic by G. Conti. The lunettes show the great canticles of praise and victory and of sorrow from the Old Testament: based on cartoons by Ricciolini, Moses in the Desert and Samuel reproaching Saul; on cartoons by Franceschini, Judith with Holofernes' head, the prophetess Deborah under a palm, Deborah again with Barsac the general and Jeremiah weeping over the Holy City. The mosaicist was Giuseppe Ottaviani.
In the passage leading to the next chapel, on the inner side, is the oldest and smallest monument in the Basilica, the sepulcher of Innocent VIII created by Antonio Benci, known Pollaiolo, with the help of his brother Piero.
Completed in 1498, it was originally in the triumphant arch of the Old Basilica; it was then moved to the so-called aisle of the Shroud in the New Basilica and was finally re-composed here in 1621, with an unexplainable inversion of the statue lying on the sarcophagus, formerly higher up and now lower, and the seated one of the Pope. The two statues are symbols of the splendors of imperial majesty and the equalization of death which strikes all mortals alike.
Above in the lunette, the three Theological Virtues are sculpted in bas-reliefs, beside the four Cardinals. In his left hand, the Pope holds the iron of the holy spear which wounded Christ's side on the cross, donated by the Sultan Baiazet in 1492; the point is missing and this was held in the Royal Chapel in Paris until the French Revolution.
In the inscription beneath the statue are several inaccuracies, such as the discovery of the New World at the time of the Pope, who, however, died eight days after Columbus left on his voyage. It is also worth mentioning that Innocent VIII battled with unsuccessful insistence to promote a great crusade.
Above the facing door is the Monument to Pius X, squeezed into a rather small niche. The Pope is shown, entirely in white marble, with his arms outstretched.
The conception and execution of the later metal bas-reliefs are elegant, but they are not in keeping with the statue. They illustrate the major works of this canonized Pope, such as the acceptance of Church doctrine by the learned men, against excessive modernity; the consecration of 15 French bishops, the reorganization of the Curia, the reconstitution of Canon Law and Gregorian Chant, to support the struggle against secularism; the founding of the Bible Institute and the reorganization of the Vatican Pinacoteca.
The architect of this cenotaph, inaugurated in 1923, was Florestano Di Fausto; the sculptures are the work of Pier Enrico Astorri.
Continuing on we reach the Presentation Chapel, the last in the Marian cycle. Its mosaic decoration in fact concerns the prefigurations in the Old Testament, referring to the gifts of the Virgin. The author of the original drawings was C. Maratti, a master who, for the number of his works present in the Basilica, was second only to Pietro da Cortona, the undisputed leader of the painting school in Rome in the last decades of the 17th century. Maratti was helped by his favorite pupil G. Chiari.
The mosaics, which are of good chromatic and decorative quality, were executed by F. Cristofari, Ottaviani and others. The vault shows the fall of Lucifer, in contraposition with the one on the other side depicting the coronation of the Queen of the Most High above the Choirs of Angels.
On the corbels are Isaiah looking at the cloud, Joshua stopping the sun, Jael stabbing Sisera, Judith with the head of Holofernes. In the lunettes are Mary, the sister of Moses, singing the freedom of the Israelites, Moses removing his sandals before the burning bush, Noah with his arc and the dove of peace, Aaron anointing the Holy Arc, Balaam showing Jacob's star, Gideon with the mystic fleece bathed in dew.
In 1727 a mosaic copy by Cristofari of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple by G. F. Romanelli, painted by this artist from Viterbo in 1622, was placed above the altar of the Chapel. This work replaced a deteriorated work by Passignano.
On the left is the Monument to Benedict XV by P. Canonica, inaugurated in 1928. The statue of the Pope, shown in the act of invoking peace, is finely sculpted but has little to do with the large square bronze decoration serving as its background, which with banal symbolism shows the horrors of war, surmounted by the figure of the Regina Pacis holding an olive branch. The book placed in the lower part, resting on a cushion, refers to the publication of the codes of the Canon Law, promoted by Benedict XV.
In the passage toward the last Chapel, on the outside wall over the door leading to the dome, is the Monument to Maria Clementina Sobiesky, who died in 1735 and was the wife of James III, pretender to the throne of England.
Designed by F. Barigioni, with sculptures by P. Bracci and work in metal by G. Giardini, it is typically 18th century in its overall graceful elegance, especially in the elaborate hairstyle of the deceased, executed in mosaic by Cristofari from an original by L. Stern, and in the grace of the two small white marble putti which stand out well against the parallel veining of the marble pall. The emphatic figure of Charity, holding a portrait of the deceased in one hand and raising a flaming heart in the other, seems to be a last embellished manifestation of Baroque style.
Facing it is the Stuart Monument, designed in 1817 by A. Canova, in imitation of a truncated pyramid-shaped funeral stone and executed in marble only in 1829.
In its simple linearity it is the most appropriate and penetrating funeral monument in the Basilica. In it, in fact, Canova's Christian spirit was able to instill a vitalising lyricism into his pagan neoclassic inspiration. The soft effect of the patina confers a harmonious unity to the various elements of the composition, from the three busts of the Stuarts to the delicate spirits who, with their upturned faces, flank the closed door of the tomb, symbolizing serene Christian resignation to death. The Monument was erected at the expense of George III, king of England, triumphant over two other rival pretenders to the throne, and who was in exile in Rome.
Finally, we arrive at the Baptistery Chapel, where the guiding theme of the mosaic decoration is the administration of the Sacrament of the Holy Font. The mosaics in the cupola show the triple Baptism with water, by St. John the Baptist; with blood, of the martyrs; and with desire, of the multitude eager for the purifying bath.
In the lunettes we can admire the Old Testament prefigurations and the first famous Baptisms: Noah contemplating the rainbow after the flood, a sign of the alliance between God and man; Moses drawing water from a stone, savior of bodies but not yet of souls; Christ baptizing St. Peter; St. Philip baptizing the eunuch of Queen Candace; St. Silvester baptizing the Emperor Constantine.
The corbels show the effects of the regeneration of Baptism performed in the four corners of the world: Europe with the papal tiara, America girded with feathers and a quiver, Africa with an elephant and Asia with a thurible.
The original drawings were by F. Trevisani who was one of the leading exponents of late Baroque painting in Rome in the early decades of the 18th century. N. Ricciolini supervised G. Brughi, L. Fattori and others in the translation into mosaic, certainly one of the best with regard to the rendering of the colors and of the plastic-design effects.
In this Chapel too, as Galassi Paluzzi also points out with regard to others, in the tambour are four statues not normally mentioned in guides, not even in the very accurate one by Turcio.
In this sumptuous Chapel, designed by C. Fontana, are three altarpieces, which are quite typical of Maratti's school, already mentioned before. In the center is the Baptism of Jesus by C. Maratti and helpers, now in Santa Maria degli Angeli, transformed into mosaic in 1722 by Cristofari.
On the right is the Baptism of Sts. Processo and Martiniano by G. Passeri and on the left is St. Peter baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by A. Procaccini, both successful pupils of the Maratti. The subjects are two fundamental episodes in the life of St. Peter, chosen to underline the two similar attitudes of Peter and Paul toward the people.
In the middle of the Chapel is the magnificent baptismal font, commissioned in 1692 from Fontana himself, who completed it in 1698, after a difficult preparation (his first project was refused because it was too large and too expensive). It is made up of a rich bowl in red porphyry measuring 4x2 meters, of uncertain origin while definitely pagan, previously used as the cover of the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto II, who died in Rome in 983.
Upon it has been placed a superb gilded bronze cover, designed by Fontana and crafted by G. Giardini, completely decorated with foliage and arabesques. It is surmounted by a mystic lamb, and on the front bears a medallion showing the Holy Trinity blessing the world, supported by two angels; the angels are by Pigers and the Agnus Dei by Tedeschi.
Until 1694 the sarcophagus of Anicius Sestus Petronius Probus, prefect of Rome in the fourth century, now in the Grottoes, had been used as the font. It had been in the Old Basilica, placed there in the mid 15th century by Nicholas V, to replace Pope Damasus' early font which was no longer usable.
At the sides of the Chapel, there are two elegant porphyry brackets bearing the Pignatelli coat of arms of Pope Innocent XII which are worth admiring as they are true jewels of applied art. As Galassi Paluzzi points out, this Chapel symbolizes the Precursor of the Christ, corresponding to the one opposite in the right aisle symbolizing his Mother. In this way, the two great sources of health, blood and water, are represented one at the entrance to and one at the exit from the Basilica.