St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square
by Nicolo Suffi, ŠLibreria Editrice Vaticana
(all rights reserved)
In this nave seats were installed for the Council Fathers who celebrated the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council here from 1962 to 1965. As for as the third pilaster it was built by Carlo Maderno. It is 45 m. high (137 beneath the dome) 27 m. wide (140 m. in the transept) and 187 m. long. It is bordered by three couples of massive pilasters, with Corinthian pilaster strips. Above the pilasters are six arches (three on each side) which support the long trabeation under the barrel vault enhanced with late 18th-century coffers during the pontificate of Pope Pius VI.
On the trabeation which extends the whole length of the basilica is a Latin text in large black letters on a gold background. On the left, starting from the back it reads: "Ego rogavi pro te, o Petre, ut non deficiat fides tua: et tu aliquando converses confirma fraters tuos" ("I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may never fail; and you in turn must strengthen your brothers" Lk 22:32). On the right, starting above the statue of St. Peter and extending to the back wall,are the words: "Quodcumque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum etin coelis: et quodcumque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis" ("I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Mt 16:19).
At the beginning of the central nave the visitors' gaze is attracted to two holy water stoups that provide a clue to the basilica's real size: the cupids which seem small are in fact 2 m. tall. The basins containing the holy water are the work of Francesco Moderati (1680-1721) and A. Cornacchini (1685-1740), (on the left); and by Giuseppe Lironi (1668-1749) and G. B. De Rossi (on the right). They offer the holy water so that those who enter may make the sign of the cross, in memory of their own baptism.
Close to the entrance to this nave a great disc of red porphyry stands out against the marble paving. It comes from the old basilica, where it was located near the main altar. Kneeling on it, the Emperor Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III, at Christmas in the year 800. Another 21 emperors subsequently knelt on this same disc to receive the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the Pope's hands.
As they proceed, visitors are curious to observe the measurements of the largest churches in the world recorded in brass letters on the pavement. Toward the center of the nave, the Holy Year of the Redemption proclaimed by Pius XI in 1933 is also recalled by an inscription on the floor.
The nave was decorated by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was commissioned by Innocent X in 1645 to complete the decoration of the pilasters and chapels. He and his assistants are therefore responsible for the various decorations: the cherubs, the doves and the symbols of the papacy such as the tiara and the keys.
On the inner sides of the colossal pilasters, between the pilaster strips are two sequences of niches which contain 39 statues of the founders of religious orders and congregations, placed here as from the beginning of the 18th century. Many of their faces are familiar to us. They all remind us to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus. On the right, starting at entrance are: St. Theresa of Jesus (below) and St. Sofia Maddalena Barat (above), St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Eudes, St. Philip Neri and St. John Baptist de la Salle, St. John Bosco (above the statue of St. Peter). On the left are: St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Lucia Filippini, St. Camillo de Lellis, St. Louis Grignion de Montfort, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Anthony Mary Zaccaria, St. Francis de Paola, St. Peter Fourier. As we shall see later, the saints continue in the transept.
The bronze statue of St. Peter stands out among the ornamentations of the central nave. Close to the first pier on the right supporting the dome, it shows us St. Peter seated on a marble throne in the act of blessing the faithful with his right hand, while in his left he holds the keys of the kingdom. On 29 June, the Feast of St. Peter, the statue is dressed in solemn vestments. It has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302) but, it seems, erroneously. In fact a seal dated 1283 was found which shows this statue, and the epigraph beneath it describes it as "ancient". It is probable that it is an early sixth-century work which ended up in the basilica in 1300. St. Peter's throne was made in 1800, and stands on a Sicilian jasper pedestal made in the mid-18th century. The two candelabra were placed in front of the statue in 1971.
Above the canopy made in 1871, a circular mosaic portrays Pius IX (1847-1878) who granted an indulgence to those who kissed the foot of the statue. In fact, it is still the tradition for pilgrims to kiss St. Peter's now worn right foot, after praying in front of the statue.
We have now reached the intersection of the transept and the central nave, the place known as the Confessio, that is, where St. Peter witnessed to his faith with his martyrdom. It already existed in the ancient basilica but was enlarged and embellished with marble by Maderno (1556-1629). It is horseshoe-shaped like an exedra and bordered by a balustrade before which the faithful kneel to confess their faith, reciting the Creed or Apostolic Symbol, that is, the 12 articles of faith which date back to the Apostles. All along the balustrade are 93 perpetually burning oil lamps arranged on artistic cornucopia, symbols of the faith and love of the Christian people.
Two broad stairways in Greek marble, at the end of which are two small statues of St. Peter and St. Paul, give access to a lower area, on the level of the Constantinian basilica. In the center of a sumptuous wall divided by a richly gilded gate is a sacellum, beneath which is St. Peter's tomb. Here the memory of Peter has always been venerated, and it is here that a graffito in Greek was found which says, "Peter is here". Pilgrims come here from all over the world to "see Peter", and to pray by his tomb.
Next to it, in boxes protected by a sheet of glass, are the bones found in recent excavations at the foot of "wall G". On June 26, 1968, Paul VI was able to say: "new extremely patient and accurate investigations have been made, so that reassured by the opinion of the competent persons who are skilled and careful, we believe the result to be positive: the relics of St. Peter have been identified in a way we can accept as convincing".
At the center of the sacellum the "niche of the palliums" is visible. In it is kept the bronze coffer that contains the palliums, that is, narrow white stoles woven from the wool of the lambs blessed on the feast of St. Agnes (January 21) and embroidered with black crosses, which the Pope bestows upon patriarchs and metropolitans as a permanent reminder of the Church's unity.
The back wall of the sacellum is decorated with an 11th-century mosaic depicting Christ the Savior.
Next to the Confessio in the center of the basilica stands the high or papal altar, commonly known as the Altar of the Confessio. It was carved from a gigantic block of Greek marble which lay in Nerva's Forum, and was consecrated by Clement VIII on June 26, 1594. It is set on an older altar erected by Callistus II in 1123, which in turn contains another even older one.
The altar is surmounted by the splendid, majestic bronze "baldacchino", Bernini's first work in the basilica. He took nine years to make it, from 1624 to 1633, and used 6,200 k. of metal. The monument is typical of the 17th-century style: it stands on four pedestals of marble on which in the papal escutcheons a wonderful sequence showing "motherhood" is carved, liberally scattered with the heraldic bees of the Barberini to whose family Pope Urban VIII belonged. It was he who had commissioned Bernini to make this canopy in 1624. It rests upon four gigantic twisted columns, 20 m. high, adorned with sprigs of olive and bay, among which the graceful figures of cherubs appear, Acanthus leaves entwine the base and the capitals. The spiral fluting of the columns suggests upward movement. Like the portable canopies used in processions to cover the Eucharist, fringes and tassels dangle from the top of the covering. Inside the "ciborium" is a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, in a burst of golden rays. Above the frieze on each capital, four angels, the work of Francois du Duquesnoy, offer garlands, while between them couples of smaller angels support the Pope's emblems: the keys, the tiara, the book and sword. The vertex, where four vast ribs and palm branches converge from the four corners, is crowned by the cross, set on a golden globe.
The great dome soars above the altar and the baldacchino, sumptuously embellished with mosaic and stucco ornaments. It is supported by four structural piers with a perimeter of 71 m. and a height of 120 m. from the ground to the roof of the lantern.
The giant letters on a gold background, from St. Veronica to St. Helen, say "Hinc una fides mundo refulgent" (From here a single faith shines throughout the world); and from St. Longinus to St. Andrew: "Hinc sacerdotii unitas exoritur" (From here is born the unity of the priesthood).
In the four spandrels which link the square piers and the circular drum, the four Evangelists are portrayed in medallions with a diameter of 8.5 m.: Matthew with the ox, Mark with the lion, Luke with the angel and John with the eagle.
Around the base of the drum we can read the solemn words from Matthew's Gospel with which Jesus invests Peter with supreme authority. The text reads: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum" ("You are 'Rock' and on this rock I will build my Church, to you I will build my Church, to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Mt 16:18).
The gigantic black letters (2 m. high) of this text on a gold background are lit by the light from 16 large windows, typical of Michelangelo's style, which punctuate the drum.
Above the windows, the dome is divided into sixteen ribs and as many segments, decorated by majestic figures on six ascending concentric levels.
at the bottom the figures portray:
Above the 96 figures is a blue sky spangled with stars, and above it the lantern at whose base is a Latin inscription: "To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate".
The eye then penetrates the lantern which is 18 m. long, and as in a vision come to rest on the glorious figure of God the Father.
Many artists worked on these decorations. Clement VIII commissioned Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavalier d'Arpino (1568-1640) to carry out the upper part of the decoration. He prepared the cartoons from 1603 to 1612. His drawings were simultaneously transposed into mosaic by the best mosaic artists of the period.
The dome above the papal altar is supported by four gigantic piers, 45 m. high with a perimeter of 71 m., started by Bramante and completed by Michelangelo. In 1624 Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to create four loggias in these piers. They are called the "Loggias of the Relics". Each is protected by a balustrade and adorned with two columns decorated with vine leaves and splendid bas-reliefs referring to the four "major relics". In fact, Urban VIII wanted him to carve out four niches in these loggias, where he then had placed the precious relics, formally kept but not properly preserved in the basilica.
The relics were: several fragments of the Cross of Jesus, which were found in the Roman churches of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and Santa Anastasia, which in 1629 Urban VIII wished to be given to St. Peter's Basilica and placed in the pier of St. Helen; a scrap of material, showing the imprint of the face of a bearded man which had been brought by the crusades from Jerusalem to Rome and was already venerated before the 12th century; a fragment of the lance which was said to have belonged to St. Longinus and which Sultan Bajazet, the son of Mohomet II, had presented to Pope Innocent VIII (1492); St. Andrew's head, brought to Venice by Thomas Palaiolagos and donated to Pius II (1460).
The relics are now no longer in their original site, but the three relics of Our Lord's Passion are kept in the chapel above the statue of St. Veronica, and displayed to the people on the fifth Sunday in Lent. The relic of St. Andrew's head however, was sent by Paul VI as a gift to the Church of St. Andrew in Patras and a sign of friendship with the Greek Orthodox Church.
Beneath the loggias of the relics Bernini created huge niches which hold four colossal statues, almost 10 m. high, which are associated with the relics. In the first pier on the right is the statue of St. Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus, from which "blood and water" flowed. It was carved by Bernini in 1643 from four blocks of marble. The second pier contains the statue of St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, to whose devotion we owe the discovery of fragments of Jesus' holy cross. The statue was made in 1646 by Andrea Bolgi from several blocks of marble. The third pier contains the statue of St. Veronica, the woman who according to tradition wiped Jesus' face with a linen cloth as he heaved the cross toward Calvary. It was made by Francesco Mocchi (1580-1654) from three blocks of marble, before 1632. The fourth pier contains the statue of St. Andrew, St. Peter's brother, who evangelized Greece. The statue is the work of Francois Duquesnoy (1594-1643). It was made from a single block of marble and erected in 1639.
Beneath the piers is the entrance which leads down a flight of steps to the Vatican Grottos which pilgrims visit once they have completed their tour of the basilica.
The entrance under the statue of St. Longinus is usually open.
We can now return to the basilica's entrance and walk down the side aisles. Like the central nave they are the work (as far as the central pilasters) of Carlo Maderno, who made them in accordance with the architectural and liturgical norms of the day: a series of communicating chapels embellished with precious works of art. On the inside of the six arches, are portraits of the first 56 canonized popes in marble medallions, supported by cherubs. They alternate with the coats of arms of Innocent X whose emblem was the dove. The architectural structures of the aisles are decorated with 44 Cottanello marble columns with architraves, tympanums, and statuary groups.
Walking down the aisles, visitors should not forget to take a look at the ten minor cupolas: six elliptical, above the lateral aisles, and dour circular, above the four corner chapels.
In the right aisle, after the Holy Door and seen from the interior, the first chapel we reach is the Chapel of the Pieta which was initially called the Chapel of the Crucifix. In fact, in this chapel Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), using a fresco technique, decorated the walls with eight episodes of Christ's Passion, and on the central vault above the altar he painted the Exaltation of the Cross. Other mosaics also decorate the vault, spandrels and lunettes.
But the most famous monument in the chapel is the marble group of the Pieta by Michelangelo (1475-1564). He sculpted it from a single block of white Carrara marble in 1498-1499, when he was not yet 25 years old. Originally destined for the Chapel of St. Petronilla, for the tomb of Cardinal Jean de Bilheres who commissioned it, it was moved to St. Peter's Basilica and only in 1736 placed in this chapel on the base made by Francesco Borromini in 1626.
It portrays the devout gesture of Mary who bears the lifeless body of her Son in her lap. There are no realistic wounds, no hopeless grief is shown, but a composed, serene and heavenly sorrow. The still youthful face of Mary, gently inclined over the body of her dead Son reminded the artist of the face of his mother who died when he was five years old. It reminds Christians that the face of the Virgin Mary was never spoilt by any wrinkle of age or stain of sin, nor even by death. It also represents the ever youthful, unmarked face of the Church, bride and mother, and prefigures the face of the children of the resurrection who have reached the heavenly fatherland. Christians who contemplate Michelangelo's masterpiece think of the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection and invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On the band crossing Mary's breast is Michelangelo's signature: "Michangelo Bonarotus Floren. Faciebat." In 1972, after a lunatic disfigured Mary's face on the morning of May 20, 1971, the monument was restored and is now protected by a special glass screen.
Returning to the nave, we come across two funeral monuments. On the left against the pilaster facing the central nave is the Monument to Christina of Sweden by Carlo Fontana (1634-1714). The Queen is shown in a gilt and bronze medallion, supported by a crowned skull. There are three reliefs on the urn: Christina relinquishes the throne of Sweden to embrace Catholicism (center), the scorn of the nobility (on the right), faith which triumphs over heresy (on the left).
Opposite is the Monument to Leo XII (1823-1829), who is shown in the act of giving his blessing for the Jubilee of 1825. It was executed by G. de Fabris (1790-1860). Above the statue, two reclining figures (Religion and Justice) support the coat of arms. It should be noted that this is not a real funeral monument because the Pontiff's body is buried in front of the altar of St. Leo the Great. Beneath this monument is a door, usually closed, which leads into a small elliptical chapel. This was at first called the Chapel of the Relics or of the Crucifix, because it contains a wooden crucifix, attributed to Pietro Cavallini, a 13th-century Roman artist. It then became known as St. Nicholas' Chapel because although one of its two altars is dedicated to St. Joseph, the other, with a mosaic of the saint make in 1711, is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari.
The Chapel of St. Sebastian, named after the subject of the mosaic above the altar, immediately follows. It was completed by Pier Paolo Cristofari after a drawing by Domenico Zampieri, better known as Domenichino (1581-1641). Below the altar the body of Bl. Innocent XI (1676-1689) is preserved in a crystal casket.
In this chapel we also find two modern works. On the right is the statue of Pius XI (1922-1939), the first sovereign of Vatican City State which was created in 1929 as a result of the Lateran Pact. The statue was made by Francesco Nagni (1897-1977) in 1949.
On the left is the statue of Pius XII (1939-1958), commissioned by the Cardinals he had created, and made by Francesco Messina in 1964. The Pope is shown blessing the faithful, clad in papal robes. His gesture also seems to express his desire to put an end to the scourge of the Second World War, while his expression seems to reiterate his famous sentence: "Nothing is lost in peace, all can be lost with war".
In the aisle, in the archway between the second and third chapels, we find another two monuments. On the left, the funeral monument of Countess Matilda di Canossa, Pope Gregory VII's great champion against the Emperor Henry VI. The monument was conceived by Bernini who began it in 1633. The statue of Matilda is by Andrea Bolgi (1605-1656). The central bas-relief which shows Henry IV knelling before Gregory VII on 28 January 1077 after waiting or three days and three nights to be received, is the work of Stefano Speranza. The two cherubs supporting the inscription are by Andrea Bolgi (on the right) and Luigi Bernini, the brother of Gian Lorenzo (on the left).
On the right is the Baroque funeral Monument of Innocent XII made by F. Della Valle and F. Fuga in 1746. The Pontiff (1691-1700) is seated while he gives his blessing. Next to the tomb are allegorical figures of Charity and Justice.