from 'Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome'
by © June Hager, Cassells, 2001
(all rights reserved)

The Square


Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2










































































































Christendom's Capital The shining dome of St Peter's Basilica has become the emblem of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. Rome's greatest and grandest church is built above the tomb of the First Apostle.

Any visitor arriving for the first time before St Peter's Basilica immediately feels a sense of majesty and authority. For this is not only Rome's but also Western Christendom's most important shrine. The immense proportions and imposing quality of the architecture aim to inspire joy and awe in all believers. The monument raised over the tomb of the Apostle chosen by Christ to be the visible head of his Church clearly affirms the pre-eminence and continuity of St Peter's succession - the Pope and the Papacy.

Concerning St Peter's, Vatican guides often quote the eighteenth-century traveler Charles de Brosses - who in fact was not particularly known for his piety. 'St Peter's is the finest thing in the universe …all is simple, natural, and august, consequently sublime,' the French magistrate wrote home to a friend. 'You might come to it every day without being bored … It is more amazing the oftener you see it.'

A Catholic tradition going back 2,000 years holds that Peter, the First Apostle, came to Rome, capital of the Empire, to preach the Gospel, that under the Emperor Nero (54-68) he suffered martyrdom and was buried in the area known as the Vatican, and that later the Emperor Constantine (c.288-337) built over his tomb a world-famous church, demolished in the sixteenth century to give rise to the present basilica.

What would be the reaction of Simon, the simple fisherman from Galilee, were he to stand under the vast dome and classical portico of the basilica built in his name, dwarfed by a statue of himself more than twice his size?

The New Testament tells us that Simon was a native of a small village (Bethsaida) on the Sea of Galilee, earning his living by fishing with his brother Andrew. From the Gospels, we can sense his amazement and reverence as Jesus summoned him, along with Andrew, James and John, from his humble boat on the Judaean shore, to follow him in his spiritual mission.

This simple and unlettered man, as he was described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:13), was both fallible and lovable. The Gospels show us that Peter was slow in understanding and impetuous in action. He fell asleep when he should have been keeping watch, and sliced off the ear of the High Priest's servant during Christ's arrest. He refused to let his Master wash his feet. His warm-hearted and impulsive nature prompted him to disagree with the necessity of Christ's humiliation and death. In fact, it is Peter's very human qualities, his alternating weakness (denial of Jesus during the Passion) and spiritual strength (recognition of Christ as the Messiah, Son of the living God), which endear him to us and make him the ideal leader of the earthly Church.

Upon Peter, Christ himself bestowed the Aramaic title of kepha, the term for both 'Peter' and 'rock' (petros and petra, respectively, in Greek and Latin), with these words from Matthew's Gospel (16:18-19): 'And on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.' According to St John, Peter received three times from the Lord the pastoral charge to be the shepherd of his sheep. It was in fulfillment of this mission that Peter came to Rome.

An unbroken tradition from the first century, and later historical sources (the historian Eusebius, d. 340, and St Jerome, d. 420) suggest that Peter was martyred during Nero's persecutions after the great fire of Rome in AD 64, in the Neronian Circus in the Vatican. (Declaring himself unworthy of suffering the same martyrdom as Christ, the Apostle was crucified upside down.) He was allegedly buried by pious Christians just beyond the arena, in an area already used as a pagan necropolis.

The memory of St Peter's burial on the very spot where his huge basilica now stands has lasted in Rome for 2,000 years. Sceptics will claim that no precise documentary or archaeological evidence irrefutably proves the location. Nevertheless, a fervent and unbroken conviction remains in the hearts of the Christian faithful - and provides the very foundation of Catholic tradition.

Any visitor to the churches of Rome, and to St Peter's Basilica in particular, is advised to descend to the Scavi, or excavation site beneath the church, to judge first-hand the tradition of Peter's burial here. A guide leads small groups along a narrow underground passageway lined with house-like facades, opening to rooms decorated with paintings, mosaics and carved sarcophagi. These were the (mostly) second-century tombs of middle-class Romans, located at that time above ground and along a main Roman thoroughfare flanking the northern side of Nero's Circus. (This area was outside the prescribed city limits, or pomerium, and thus appropriate for burials).

Most of the mausoleums were pagan; some have Christian symbols (the dove of peace, Christ as the sun-God) and inscriptions ('Rest in Peace'). Further along, on a slight downward incline (the necropolis was built upon the Mons Vaticanus, or Vatican Hill), was the area for poorer burials - which were made directly into the earth, often unmarked, and sometimes superimposed one above another.

According to tradition, Peter had a simple earthen grave. The site was the object of special care and veneration from the beginning; around the saint's tomb an extensive Christian burial ground sprang up in the second and third centuries. It seems that a small funerary monument, consisting of niches, small columns, a red retaining wall, and another wall covered with pious graffiti, was built around Peter's grave in the second century (the 'trophy of Gaius' noted earlier). Archaeologists could date the structure by seals on the bricks from the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180).

In the Scavi we can stand a few feet from that early monument. Peering through gates and past a jumble of walls and ruins, we glimpse sections of the 'red wall' and one of the trophy columns. Excavations carried out beneath St Peter's Basilica between 1939 and 1951 uncovered first a pagan, the an increasingly Christian graveyard, and finally a semi-circle of graves surrounding a central cavity - directly below the present altar. The central grave was empty, but covered with coins and other votives from the first and second centuries. Within the hollow 'graffiti' wall above, engraved with surnames, greetings and funeral invocations, was found a packet of bones, encrusted with dirt and wrapped in fine cloth.

These were the remains of an older man, broad-shouldered and short of statue, and were datable to the first century. Obviously they had been hidden away here for safe-keeping during a great danger. No great leap of faith was needed to convince the diggers - or those of us who visit the excavations today - that this was the burial of Peter of Galilee, the Prince of Apostles.

Now, entering the third millennium, pilgrims come to St Peter's to experience the continuity which links the Apostle to his successors, the Roman Popes. An important personage in that spiritual-historical thread was the Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity and decided to build a great church on this very spot.

In order to execute his project, the Emperor had to level the Vatican Hill, slice off the tops of many of the mausoleums, and fill in the cemetery with 20,000 tons of dirt and rubble. Why would Constantine have taken on such a difficult task, even infringing Romans' deeply ingrained - and strictly regulated - respect for burial grounds, if he had not been firmly convinced of the sacredness of the site?

An oratory had been built here in the time of Pope Anacletus (79-91). Constantine replaced the shrine with a marble 'memorial', within which he enclosed St Peter's so-called trophy. Around this the Emperor raised (320-26) his immense basilica, with a great nave, four aisles, and a four-porticoed courtyard reached by a flight of thirty-five stairs.

Down through the ages, the basilica was richly embellished: pavements of coloured marble, stained -glass windows, hanging lamps of gold and silver, bas-reliefs and statues, Oriental draperies and silken tapestries. Many great artists worked here. Popes crowned Kings and Emperors before St Peter's altar, notably Charlemagne on Christmas Eve in the year 800. Emperors and Pontiffs had their tombs built in the vicinity of the Fisherman's shrine. In the succeeding centuries, three new altars were built over Constantine's memorial to St Peter: by Gregory the Great (590-604), Calixtus II (1119-24), and Clement VIII (1592-1605).

For twelve centuries the Constantinian basilica was the center of Christian worship and the destination of pilgrims from every corner of the globe. The church was sacked by Goths, Vandals and Saracens, and during the Avignon exile, when the Popes resided in France for over seventy years (1305-78), the building suffered irreparable decay and disintegration. In the early sixteenth century the building was finally declared unfit - and it was progressively demolished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The new St Peter's, without skipping a beat, continued to be a protagonist in every era of Church history, and a showpiece for the artistic genius of each age. It was the great Renaissance Pope Julius II who laid the first stone in 1506. 'His' church, conceived by the father of Renaissance architecture, Bramante, was continued by - among other artists - the premier painter of the age, Raphael.

The original Greek cross design (with nave and transept of equal length) was later modified, but the classical harmony and humanist symmetry, so admired in the Renaissance, are prevalent even today. In 1546, the seventy-two-year-old Michelangelo became chief architect of St Peter's for Pope Paul III (preceded by Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger), conceiving the resplendent dome which is now visible from almost every point in the Papal city.

By the time Paul V (1605-21) instructed Carlo Maderno to complete the basilica, almost a century had passed since Luther's Reform movement and the Sack of Rome. Returning to the plan of a Latin cross, with the longer nave riveting attention on the altar, where the Pope himself presided, Maderno joined the church of St Peter to the battle ranks of the Counter-Reformation.

A line of determined and munificent seventeenth-century Popes, especially Urban VIII (1623-44) and Alexander VII (1655-67), ushered St Peter's into the Baroque age. It was Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) who lavishly decorated the basilica - inside and out - in the Baroque style. Bernini and his contemporaries did not hesitate to appeal to all the senses in order to effect conviction and conversion in the hearts of Christian worshippers.

We can thank Pope Alexander VII for deciding to construct St Peter's Square as we see it today. The Pope entrusted the task to Gianlorenzo Bernini, who worked rapidly between 1656 and 1667. This is certainly one of the world's most successful architectural spaces. The square has the shape of an immense - and immensely harmonious - ellipse. Pilgrims arriving to visit St Peter's feel they are embraced by the two huge arms of the curving colonnade, stretching around the square in rows of classical Doric columns, thirteen metres tall and four on each side.

Bernini's was an image of the Church welcoming all her faithful. In one of his architectural sketches the architect portrayed God the Father rising from the basilica dome, with his arms extended along the parapet (where now perch 140 statues of gesticulating saints and martyrs) of both branches of the colonnade. Bernini's clear intent is realized almost every Sunday, when, from his window in the Apostolic Palace, the Pope addresses the crowds of faithful in the square below.

The centerpiece of the piazza, a lofty obelisk first raised in Heliopolis by the Egyptian Pharaohs, was later transported to Rome by the imperial legions and set in the middle of Nero's Circus. Constantine topped it with a relic from the True Cross brought from the Holy Land by his mother, St Helena. Finally, as part of a great urban renewal scheme, Sixtus V moved it to the square in 1586. Before this obelisk, we are again overwhelmed by that sense of historical and spiritual continuity. As one Vatican guidebook notes: 'The very obelisk which looks down on us today witnessed the martyrdom of St Peter, and in all probability, the exodus of Moses and the Jews, as they fled Pharaoh's Egypt.

The obelisk stands between two monumental fountains, designed by Maderno and Carlo Fontana and placed here by Bernini. Two huge statues before the basilica are of the Apostles Peter and Paul; they were made in the nineteenth century and placed before the basilica in 1847. The basilica's massive classical façade by Carlo Maderno, completed in 1612, is a monumental example of human vanity. Although many Popes patronized St Peter's construction and decoration, it was Pope Paul V Borghese who emblazoned his name in huge letters across the entrance architrave.

Upon entering St Peter's a visitor is first struck by the 'classical' harmony of the colours, proportions and light, just as the original Renaissance architects intended. The immense structure is pure and simple in design. The colours are few - marbled whites, and gleaming gold and bronze. Between the nave's Corinthian pilasters, or under Michelangelo's dome, can be sensed the influence of imperial Roman monuments such as the Pantheon, or basilica of Maxentius and Constantine.

Yet, because of the splendour of Bernini's decorations, St Peter's is known as a Baroque church. And perhaps no other monument of the period can match the lavish exuberance of Bernini's bronze Baldacchino (materials taken from the Pantheon), towering over the altar and St Peter's grave, and of the Papal throne, upheld by Doctors of the Latin and Greek Churches beneath a great golden sunburst. Bernini and his contemporaries used all their theatrical talents to impart Catholic doctrine - and all their sensual gifts to stir impassioned devotion.

Volumes have been written on the monuments and artistic treasures of St Peter's Basilica, and any visitor should be equipped with detailed maps and guidebooks or a thorough visit. Here are just a few things not to be missed. After entering the basilica, the first chapel in the right aisle contains Michelangelo's Pietà, carved in 1498-9 when the artist was only twenty-four years old, and the only sculpture he ever signed (on the band across Mary's breast). Mary's youthful appearance has been explained by the artist's remembrance of his own mother, who died when he was only five years old. The statue was vandalized in 1972 and is now protected by a special glass screen.

On the right aisle's left-hand wall are the funerary monuments of several amazing women: among others, the eccentric Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89), who relinquished her throne to convert to Catholicism, and Countess Matilda of Canossa (1046-1114), Pope Gregeory VII's champion against the Emperor Henry IV. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel has Pietro da Cortona's Trinity (1628-31) - the basilca's one and only oil painting; most of the basilica's art works are, in fact, mosaic copies of original paintings.

The four massive piers supporting the dome have large statues of Sts Longinus, Helena, Veronica and Andrew. They were designed by Bernini to host the basilica's holiest relics: Longinus' lance, a piece of the True Cross, Veronica's veil, and the head of the Apostle Andrew (all now gathered in the Veronica reliquary, except for St Andrew's skull, which Pope Paul VI returned to the Greek Church).

Tradition has it that the Barberini Pope Urban VIII commissioned Bernini's Baldacchino as a thanksgiving offering or the safe childbirth of his favourite niece. Close inspection of the bases of the canopy columns show the face of a woman in various stages of labour, and, finally, a cherub-like baby's head.

One of the basilica's last left-aisle tombs is the mournful memorial to the 'last of the Stuarts', attesting to the sad exile and end of this family of eighteenth-century Pretenders to the British throne. Throughout the church there are huge and elaborate funerary memorials to Pontiffs of every era. In the so-called 'grottoes', that is the crypts below the present church (entrances near the St Longinus pier of the dome), many art treasures from Constantine's demolished church have been preserved, as well as the tombs of recent Popes.

Perhaps the basilica's most visited monument is the bronze statue of St Peter in the nave near the main altar. Although created by Arnolfo di Cambio in the thirteenth century, the work breathes the spirit of an even earlier age. Peter, seated upon a simple throne, is solemnly imparting his blessing, and his right foot has been worn smooth by the kisses of pilgrims down through the centuries. There is something so appealing and so humble about this figure that we immediately conjure the image of the Galilean fisherman buried below, in whose honour this magnificent temple has been built and enriched throughout two millennia of Church history.

Indeed, everything in the church speaks of St Peter. Written above the pilasters of the nave, and in gigantic letters on the golden band around the cupola, are the New Testament phrases upon which Peter's authority and his Apostolic succession are based. At almost every hour, rays of seemingly 'heavenly' light flow downwards from the dome, towards the Confession over St Peter's tomb. The altar above is framed by Bernini's Baldacchino against the brilliant amber light of the apse window. The effect is worthy of Western Christendom's most important shrine.

- June Hager


Return to Documents Page - Top