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


Confession and Main Altar

This is a good opportunity to take in the overall dimensions of the basilica. The former, Constantinian basilica was enormous - especially for its day - and this is half again as long. The dome soars forty-five stories high - well over a football field tall. The space shuttle, together with its booster rockets, could fit inside, as could the Statue of Liberty.

The letters around the basilica are each six feet tall. The size, however, in good Baroque style, is not intended to be overwhelming, but rather to "bring heaven down to earth." In fact, the builders tried to minimize the effects of such vast proportions - for example, by making the statues above about twenty feet tall, some five feet taller than their counterparts below. Consider, too, that this basilica was designed in the sixteenth century - imagine the prophetic vision of its builders, when Rome was still struggling to emerge from centuries of obscurity and decline, that it would one day shelter the crowds of today!

St. Peter

Though a few scholars still dispute the point, it is now almost universally agreed that St. Peter lived in Rome, for about twenty-five years before his death. It is confirmed by many ancient writings, including one of his successors, Pope Clement, in about 95. For seventeen hundred years, tradition alone told us that St. Peter was buried in this site - until the mid-twentieth century, when workers began digging a tomb in 1939 for Pope Pius XI. At the time they were trying to heighten the crypt in the Basilica and decided to lower the floor by about three feet.

They came upon graves of the old Basilica, but also struck the roofs of mausolea from the second century necropolis, a total of nineteen tombs underneath the nave of the church. All had been chopped in half for the construction of Constantine's basilica. This might have been expected; what was surprising were the Christian symbols that they found in the tombs - despite it being a pagan burial ground - such as the shepherd, fisherman, anchor, and vine.

When they began to excavate underneath the main altar, behind the niche of the pallia, they found a gray Constantinian monument surrounding a red plastered wall from the second century. On its left was a "Graffiti Wall" with Christian symbols and requests for prayers scratched into the stone. One of the inscriptions, which are in Greek and Latin, clearly states, "Peter is here." On its right they found the remains of a funeral monument from about the year 160.

Digging deeper still, they came to a small chamber which almost certainly was St. Peter's grave. Not only was the grave carefully protected by the large red retaining wall, but inside the archeologists found votive offerings and coins dating back to the first centuries after Christ. In addition, the archeologists found that many other tombs converged, indeed crowded around, this tomb - indeed, some tombs were stacked several high in their efforts to reside closer to the central tomb. Inside they also found a set of bones which, years later, proved to be from three different individuals.

At this point one of the archeologists, Dotoressa Guarducci, recalled the team having found a set of bones inside the "Graffiti Wall" in a small "repository" which had been locked away for almost ten years. These were removed from their protection under lock and key and submitted for analysis. They turned out to be from a single individual, a man between sixty and seventy years of age, of robust build, and from the right time period to be Saint Peter. They also found that all the bones, ankles down, were missing, confirming an ancient tradition that, after Peter's death, Christians had to steal his body at night by chopping him down from the cross at the ankles, and the bones did not conflict with the purported skull of St. Peter at St. John Lateran. Finally, the bones were found to have particles of earth from the grave itself and to have been wrapped carefully in a purple cloth (made from a dye from a shellfish called "murex" and reserved exclusively for the imperial household) and bundled with a golden cord. It would appear that the bones of Saint Peter had been found, carefully protected inside the wall from would-be thieves and Roman legionaries during times of persecution. While these bones are not "proven" to be St. Peter's, many other graves, of more recent date, are positively identified with less evidence. Thus the Pope had the bones returned to the site where they had lain for eighteen centuries, and they remain there today.

The Papacy: Ministry of Unity

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But you,' he said, 'who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter spoke up and said, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Jesus replied, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven. So now I say to you, 'You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it. And I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.' (Mt 16:13-19)

As in the first Church council, in Jerusalem, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and indeed even before in his leadership of the Twelve Apostles, Peter had an undisputed authority in the primitive Christian Church. Catholics believe that this authority is extended in time through Peter's successors, the Popes, Christ's Vicars on Earth.

If one were to drop a line from God the Father in the lantern of the dome, it would fall through the Holy Spirit on the baldacchino, through the present altar of 1594 - where the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and where Christ Himself really becomes present - through the altar of Callistus II of 1123, through the altar from Constantine's basilica in the early fourth century, to the relics of St. Peter himself, about sixteen feet below where the Pope celebrates Mass today. This is a visual demonstration of the unity that exists between the Church, built on St. Peter and his successors in the human realm, and her true Founder, Jesus Christ; her vivifying principle, the Holy Spirit; and her Creator, God the Father.

Niche of the Pallia

In this niche is a silver coffer with fabrics (each known as a "pallium") woven from the wool of lambs blessed on the feast of St. Agnes (Jan 21) and bestowed upon patriarchs and metropolitans as a reminder of the Church's unity.

After the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, this is the most venerated tomb in the world. There have been 264 popes; the first thirty-five are saints; 144 are buried in the basilica. Pope John Paul II is the first non-Italian Pope since 1522, and Pope Hadrian VI from Holland.

Pope Hadrian IV (1154-1159) was the only English Pope - from a humble London family - and is buried downstairs. He was a Pope who strongly defended the Papacy's independence against Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. "Pope" is from Greek "pappas", father, used of any bishop during first centuries of the Church.

The lower area is on level with the old Constantinian basilica.

Statue of St. Peter

Peter's keys represent power and authority, like being given the keys to a city. The sling over his left arm may represent his human weaknesses, or perhaps that the keys of authority are a weight too heavy to bear without God's help.

The drapery behind the statue is actually a mosaic! Though this is disputed by some scholars, the statue is probably an early sixth century work which has been in the basilica since about 1300. The mosaic above is of Pius IX, who granted an indulgence to pilgrims who reverently kissed the foot of the statue. It remains a tradition today.

By tradition, St. Peter reigned as Pope for twenty-five years, and legend had it that no Pope in history would rule longer. It raised some eyebrows, then, when Pope Pius IX passed the twenty-five year mark. (In fact, he reigned for thirty-one years.) This brings us to the second reason for his mosaic above the statue of St. Peter. Pius IX convened the First Vatican Council, which met here during the twenty-second year of his pontificate, and which issued a document entitled "Pastor Aeternus" (The Eternal Shepherd) that defined Papal infallibility. Though the "eternal shepherd" of the title refers to Jesus Christ, apparently the Council Fathers joked that it was actually Pius IX, whose pontificate seemed to be lasting forever!

Role of Indulgences

By His Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, Christ redeemed us and offered to humanity the possibility of being restored to friendship with God. As both God and man, Christ was able to bridge the infinite gap that had opened due to man's primordial sin of pride and rebellion against the commandment of God. Christ shows God's love for us and His desire that we become not only his servants or friends, but indeed his sons and daughters.

It is the merit of Christ, then, that forgives our sins. Christian teaching, however, also shows that God deigns to use human instruments - though secondarily - in working out his overall, providential plan of salvation. A direct result of this is the "communion of saints" that links all believers in the mysterious bonds of grace. When a person obtains an indulgence, which is "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which is already forgiven, which a properly disposed Christian obtains under certain and definite conditions," he obtains remission by the merits of the saints, which themselves are absolutely dependent upon the infinite merit of Our Lord.

The conditions to obtain an indulgence, then, are the good work (for example, visiting the dead on All Soul's Day, praying before the Blessed Sacrament or reading the Bible for half an hour, and going on certain pilgrimages), in addition to Confession, Communion, a prayer for the intentions of the Pope, and - very importantly - exclusion of all attachment to sin.

Thus the notion of buying and selling indulgences, while certain individuals may have taken part in this forbidden and sinful practice, has never been compatible with Catholic teaching. How can buying anything take away all our attachment to sin?

Statues and Relics

St. Helen is shown with the cross, she was the mother of Constantine. Relics in the loggia above are fragments of the True Cross of Jesus.

St. Veronica, according to pious tradition, was the woman who wiped the face of Jesus during the Way of the Cross. The relic is a scrap of material with the imprint of a bearded man brought from Jerusalem in the crusades, believed to be Veronica's veil. In this area, Pope Julius II laid the first stone of the new basilica on April 18, 1506.

St. Longinus (by Bernini) was the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus on the Cross, from which flowed blood and water - traditionally understood to signify the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The relic is a fragment of the lance, given by Sultan Bajazet, son of Mahomet II, to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492.

St. Andrew was Peter's brother, who evangelized Greece and was crucified on the "Andrew Cross." In 1400, Christians in Greece sent his head to Rome to rest near his brother. In 1966, it was sent by Paul VI as a gift to the Church of St. Andrew in Patras as a sign of friendship with the Greek Orthodox Church.

Andrew was initially arrested because his following in Greece was growing so rapidly that the Emperor saw him as a threat to his rule. Despite public protests, Andrew was sentenced to execution on the X-shaped crucifix and left to the elements to die a slow and agonizing death. On the cross, it is told, Andrew continued preaching the Gospel and indeed converted over three thousand people! Eventually the Emperor relented and Andrew was released, but it was too late; he died shortly later.

Text from St. Veronica to St. Helen: "Hinc una fides mundo refulget" (From here a single faith shines throughout the world)

From St. Longinus to St. Andrew: "Hinc sacerdotii unitas exoritur" (From here is born the unity of the priesthood)


This is Bernini's first work in the basilica. Nine years, ninety-three tons of metal! Four, sixty-foot twisted columns are based on columns that surrounded St. Peter's tomb in the old basilica; and those, it is said, had come from ancient Greece or even Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem (which are now in the reliquary chapel loggia's in the dome piers). The columns, decorated with sprigs of olive and bay, cherubs, and the heraldic bees of the Barberini family (Urban VIII), suggest upward movement, drawing the eye up to the dome and to the lantern.

The baldacchino's flags and tassels appear to be wafted by a breeze, and is reminiscent of the portable canopies used in Eucharistic processions. It becomes an almost mobile device wavering above a ceremony that is perennially being performed at the high altar. The baldacchino is topped with couples of smaller angels playfully supporting the Pope's emblems: keys, a papal tiara, the Scriptures, a sword. It is crowned with a globe and finally the Cross.

Note the sequence of motherhood on the Barberini shields at its base, inspired by a niece of the Pope who had requested his prayers for a safe delivery. It begins on the southeast corner and proceeds clockwise around the baldacchino.

Some of the bronze for the baldacchino came from the dome's ribbing, but the rest came from the porch of the Pantheon - earning the Pope the expression, "Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini!"

Only the Pope (or a Cardinal designated by him) can celebrate Mass at the Basilica's High Altar.


The dome is supported by gigantic piers, each 140 feet high. Here four evangelists are represented with their corresponding symbol: Luke with ox, Mark with lion, Matthew with angel, John with eagle.

Figures in the dome: beginning from the bottom, Sixteen popes who are buried in basilica, Christ, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, and the apostles Angels with instruments of Jesus' passion, Cherubim and seraphim Angels as custodians of St. Peter's tomb, Winged angels. God the Father is shown in the lantern of the dome.

Base of drum: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum" (Mt 16:18-19)


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