St. Peter's Basilica
Text by the Seminarian Guides
North American College, Rome

The Square

Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2



Basilica of Constantine
Present-Day Basilica
Piazza San Pietro
Vatican City State
The Pope's Election
Basilica Entrance
Basilica - Overall
Central nave
Left Aisle
Chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary
Chapel of the Choir
Altar of Transfiguration
Clementine Chapel

Confession and Main Altar
St. Peter
Niche of the Pallia
Statue of St. Peter
Left Transept (St. Joseph's Cross)
Left Transept Passage to Apse
Altar of the Chair
Right Transept Passage from Apse
Right Transept
Right aisle
Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
Statue of Pius XII
Chapel of the Pieta
Miscellaneous Information
Various Biblical Texts
Suggested Tour Route


Basilica Entrance

Just inside the portico (if you turn around and look up) is Giotto's mosaic (1298), completed for the first Holy Year Jubilee of 1300. The "Navicella" after apostle's ship, shows Our Lord sustaining Peter as he walks on the sea.

The stone tablets at the entrance recall the proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption on 1 November 1950, by Pius XII. On the central floor is Pope John XXIII's coat of arms, which commemorates the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, when three thousand bishops entered this door.

Lunettes of the vault contain statues of the first 32 martyred popes.

On the left is the equestrian statue of Charlemagne, first emperor to be crowned in St. Peter's, on Christmas eve of 800.

On the right is the equestrian statue of Constantine (Bernini in 1670, considered a masterpiece). He is rearing back on his horse, startled by the sign in heaven that he saw, the Cross together with the Greek words meaning, "In this sign you shall conquer!" These are the two "sentinels" (the secular defense) of the Church.

The plaques by the Door of Death (on the far left) record the donation by Pope Gregory II (715-731) of 56 olive trees in Anagni (near Rome) to provide oil for lamps to stay burning continually in front of St. Peter's tomb. There is also a plaque displaying part of Boniface VIII's Bull declaring the first Holy Year in 1300.


The entrance to old basilica was called the "limina apostolorum" ( "threshold of the apostles").

The Door of Death is on the far left. It used to be the exit for funeral processions. Images: Death of Jesus (top right) and Death of Mary (top left); violent death of Abel, serene death of Joseph, death of first pope, death of Pope John XXIII, death of first martyr Stephen, death of Gregory VII (died in exile defending the Church against the Emperor), death improvised in space and death of mother at home.

Door of Good and Evil. Images: Goodness (on right); St. Augustine silences Manichaean heretic, doves reflect peace, baptism enables us to do good, weapon of good is communion, Lazarus rising shows what our true good is, Tobias and angel shows that God leads us on the way to goodness. Evil (on left); hatred of the faith, falcon kills a dove, crucifixion of St. Andrew and maltreatment of slaves, torture and killing for religious or political reasons, Cain killing Abel, the unrepentant thief.

Central Door. Images: Jesus and Mary enthroned, St. Paul, St. Peter giving keys to Pope Eugene IV, St. Paul sentenced and then martyred, martyrdom of St. Peter.

Door of the Sacraments. Images: the seven sacraments, and "preaching".

Holy Door is the last door on the right, and bricked up inside. On the first day of a holy year, the Pope strikes the brick wall with a silver hammer and opens it to the pilgrims. The Holy Door represents Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the gate of the sheep pen. The images show signs of man's sin and God's mercy: 1) Adam and Eve; Annunciation, 2) Baptism, Shepherd and lost sheep, father and prodigal son, cures those paralyzed by sin, 3) Jesus forgives sinful woman, tells Peter that he must forgive seventy times seven times, Jesus opens door of heaven to thief, 4) Jesus and doubting Thomas, Descent of Holy Spirit, Paul tumbles from his horse; Jesus knocks at everyone's door.

I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe. He will go in and out, and find pasture. (Jn 10:9)

Basilica - Overall

The first Christians met in one another's homes. By the fourth century, when they began to build houses of worship, many were naturally built along the lines of Roman basilicas (rectangular buildings used for legal proceedings). Today this term is used to designate churches of a special prominence or significance. A cathedral is a bishop's seat, which for the Pope is the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

As the successor of Peter, the Pope also exercises sovereignty over the entire Church; he has chosen to carry out this ministry in the Vatican palaces and at St. Peter's Basilica. The basilica, therefore, symbolically unites all Christians; it is "everyone's" church. It is a fully operational church; all seven sacraments are celebrated: Baptisms, Marriages, Funerals, Confirmations, and Ordinations, Masses are celebrated and Confessions are heard every day. Many acts of government take place here, such as announcements of important events and raising men to the College of Cardinals.

Central nave

The form of the basilica is a Latin Cross, and the focus of the visitor is drawn to the center (Papal altar and confessio), and the apse (Chair of Peter).

Bernini is especially responsible for the baroque air to the basilica, with bold use of natural lighting, baldacchino, monumental tombs.

There are also examples of rococo (Stuart monument), neoclassicism (Clement XIII and Pius VII), and stucco (Chapels of the Choir and the Sacrament).

The basilica has 275,000 square feet, 44 altars, 11 domes, 778 columns, 395 statues, 135 mosaics. Nave is 613 feet long, transept is 460 feet wide. It is the largest church in the world.

Most importantly, however, I encourage you to admire the sense of prayer and serenity that pervades the church. The sense of the sacred is perhaps the most impressive feature of the basilica, and long after the size and the sumptuous art has ceased to astonish, it might be the most lasting memory of your visit.

The cupids on the holy water stoups are over six feet tall. It is a custom for Catholics to make the sign of the cross with holy water when they enter a holy space, which reminds us of our baptism. Holy water is a sacramental whose use is only as efficacious as our faith, unlike Sacraments.

The disc of red porphyry is from the old basilica, on it Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas, 800. He was the first of 21 emperors who knelt on the same disc.

On the floor are measurements of the largest churches in the world, including St. Patrick's in Neo Eboracen ("Eboracen" is "York" in England) and St. Paul's in London.

There are ten minor cupolas in the basilica: six elliptical cupolas above lateral aisles, and four large circular cupolas above four corner chapels.

The statues are founders of religious orders. Right: St. Theresa of Jesus (first bottom), St. Vincent de Paul (second bottom), St. Philip Neri (third bottom), St. John Bosco (above St. Peter). Left: St. Louis Grignion de Montfort (second top), St. Ignatius of Loyola (third bottom).

Texts in central nave Left: Ego rogavi pro te, O Petre, ut non deficiat fides tua: et tu aliquando conversus confirma fratres tuos (Lk 22:32)

Right: Quodcumque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum et in coelis: et quodcumque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis. (Mt 16:19)

Left Aisle

Inside the nave arches are portraits of the first 56 canonized popes, alternating with doves, which was the emblem of Innocent X.

Chapel of the Baptistry

A fifth century font was replaced by this seventeenth century font, made from the sarcophagus of a Holy Roman Emperor. Forepart of the font - two bronze angels bear relief of the Most Holy Trinity and a geographical representation of Italy.

The mosaic is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Beside the chapel are mosaics depicting Peter baptizing the Centurion Cornelius, and Peter baptizing Sts. Processus and Martinian, St. Peter's wardens in the Mamertine prison.

Pope John Paul II's coat of arms is on the pavement before the chapel.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands that I gave you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. (Mt 28:19-20)

Comment on the universal call to holiness

Baptism configures us to Christ and incorporates us into His Mystical Body. It calls us to holiness and offers us the grace - with God's promise of fidelity - to live a fully Christian life.

For about six hundred years, Popes have also canonized saints in St. Peter's. Stages leading to canonization are Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Their "cause" is subjected to medical experts, theological review, and finally the judgment of the Magisterium. Two miracles, strongly evidenced to have taken place through the candidate's intercession, are necessary (unless he or she is a martyr), and these must be instantaneous, lasting, and scientifically inexplicable.

Canonization declares that the person enjoys heavenly glory - and more importantly, it establishes the person as a model of the Christian life whom we can imitate - a life in which heroic holiness is tangibly observed. It reminds us that saints simply point to our own destiny. Sainthood is the goal of every Christian.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 Jn 3:1)

You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48)

Monument to the Stuarts

This monument by Canova was commissioned by the British government. King George III covered the expenses of this monument, completed in 1821. It commemorates James III and his two sons, Charles and Henry. James II was the last Catholic to rule England, and fell from power in the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. He died in 1701.

His son, James III, was known as the "Old Pretender" to the throne of England and spent most of his life abroad. Though he was recognized as the King of England by Spain, France, and the Papacy, he died in Rome in 1766. When his eldest son, Charles Edward the Duke, died in 1788, the succession of the Stuart line fell to the last male heir. Henry assumed the title Henry IX (ironically, the title following Henry VIII who split England from Catholicism to begin with!) but he was never recognized as King of England, even by the Papacy. Nevertheless he is known in history as the "Young Pretender." He died in 1807 as the Cardinal of York and Archpriest of Vatican Basilica.

Two exquisite, sorrowful angels flank the monument, wings folded and heads inclined over two upside-down torches which they are about to extinguish.

Monument to Maria Clementina Sobieska (1702-1735)

She was the niece of King John II of Poland, who in 1719 married James III Stuart, Pretender to the throne of England. Under the monument is the exit from the dome.

Chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple

Under the altar the crystal casket contains the body of Pope Pius X. St. Pius X (1904-1914) was a great Pope of the twentieth century who allowed young children to receive communion, promoted daily communion, reformed the missal, breviary, and canon law, and issued a catechism for the instruction of children.

The "incarnational" aspect of Catholicism and devotion to the relics of saints. Biblical references are cf. 2 Kgs. 13, where a man who touches Elisha's bones revives, and Mt 9, which narrates the story of a woman who was healed simply by touching Jesus' garment. Relics were brought under the altar for two reasons. First, Masses celebrated by the grave of a saint were becoming more and more popular; and the bishops wanted people to return to the church for the liturgy. Second, the catacombs, where many of these Masses were held, had become more and more dangerous to visit.

Monument to Benedict XV (1914-1922)

His tomb recalls the First World War, covered in olive branches, symbols of peace. Above is Mary, presenting Jesus - Prince of Peace - to the world in flames. Because of his support of charitable institutions during the war, Turkish Muslims set up a monument to him after his death, in Istanbul.

Monument to Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)

This monument is by Emilio Greco. Angels alone suggest optimism. The Pope, with a troubled face, visits prisoners, children, and the ill; a young mother asks for a blessing; a young child rejects authority and the past; a hungry, scrawny dog looks hopefully at the Pope - it symbolizes humanity starving for justice, love, and peace.

Monument of Innocent VIII (1484-1492)

This monument by Antonio Pollaiolo was formerly in old St. Peter's. It depicts the Pope imparting his blessing and showing the lance that pierced Jesus side. Four cardinal virtues are shown on the sides: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance; and above, three theological virtues.

In 1492, when the Muslims had captured from the Crusaders the lance that pierced Christ's side, the Pope's forces took prisoner the Sultan's brother, Prince Djem, on a visit to Rome. When the Pope offered to exchange the Sultan's brother for the holy lance, the Sultan, Bajazet II, sent back the lance, on condition that the Pope would keep the Sultan's brother! Incidentally, the brother happily agreed to live in Rome.

Note two features of the etching. When the Sultan fell out of the Pope's favor, a single word was changed on the etching - from "rex" (king) to "tyrannis" (tyrant). Also, the etching erroneously states that Columbus discovered America during Innocent VIII's reign…actually, the explorer set sail eight days after the Pope died!

Chapel of the Choir

The canons of the Basilica celebrate Liturgy of the Hours here on Sunday and Holy Days. The altarpiece shows the Virgin Immaculate in glory surrounded by angels and saints, including Sts. Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, John Chrysostom.

Pope Pius IX, on December 8, 1854, the day when he proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, crowned the image of Mary. Fifty years later, Pius X added a second crown of twelve stars.

Here lie the remains of St. John Chrysostom (Patriarch of Constantinople, 344-407) and relics of St. Francis and St. Anthony.

Monument of Innocent XI (1676-89)

The figure of the Pope is flanked by Religion and Justice. The bas-relief shows victory over the Turks in Vienna in 1683.

Allegorical figures of virtues were depicted by the classical mind as women because it saw virtues, like women, as desirable and beautiful!

Monument to Leo XI

Leo XI reigned only 27 days, in 1605. The allegories are of Fortitude and Generosity. The scene below is the abjuration of Protestantism made by Henry IV of France when Leo was apostolic nuncio, and the signing of a peace treaty between Spain and France.

Altar of Transfiguration

mosaic reproduction of a Raphael masterpiece, the great painter's last work. Note the possessed boy, the overall sense of agitation, the woman representing the Church who points to heaven, inviting us to await peace and hope as gifts of God. As he lay dying at thirty-seven years of age, Raphael asked that this painting be brought in so that he could gaze at it while he died. He died on Good Friday, April 6, 1520, and is buried in the Pantheon.

Clementine Chapel

Monument of Pius VII (1800-1823)

Though Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor in Notre Dame in Paris, and though he had imprisoned and exiled this Pope for his resistance to the regime, when Napoleon's fortunes fell Pius VII readily forgave him. After the Pope's return from his own exile, he helped the exiled Emperor and offered to take custody of his mother. Here, the weary Pope is seated, blessing friends and enemies alike.

When the Pope refused to yield, Napoleon declared, "I will destroy the Church." The Pope's Secretary of State coolly replied, "No you will not. We have been trying for 1700 years and haven't been able to do it."

The allegories are of Fortitude (lionskin) and Wisdom (book and owl). This is the only monument by a Protestant (Thorvaldsen).

Altar of St. Gregory the Great (590-604)

His relics are under the altar. He was known as "Defender of Rome" but he preferred "Servus Servorum Dei". His name is associated with Gregorian chant, and he was responsible for sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize England.

The mosaic depicts the saint as he displays a cloth that had touched the relics of a saint - bleeding after he pricks it with a knife. This was the beginning of period that saw sharp rise in the interest in relics.

Spandrels of dome - Sts. Ambrose, Augustine (Latin Church) and SS. John Chrysostom and Athanasius (Greek Church)

The entrance to the Sacristy and Treasury Museum are below the Monument to Pius VIII

Monument to Pius VIII (1829-1830)

The Pope is show kneeling, accompanied by a statue of Christ enthroned, with statues of Sts. Peter and Paul. The allegories are Prudence and Justice.

Altar of Ananias and Sapphira - "Altar of the Lie"

This altarpiece depicts the story in the Acts of the Apostles of the couple punished for withholding money that they had promised to the apostles and for lying to St. Peter. It is purposefully placed in front of the priest as he leaves the sacristy to celebrate Mass, a permanent reminder to him that he is called to give himself entirely to God and be a servant to His people, and woe to the priest who selfishly withholds from his promise!


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