by James Lees-Milne, ©1967

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Square & Area
Tourist Info

Vatican City
Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2



Peter Saint and Man
Christianity in the Making
Constantine's Basilica
The Site
The Shrine
The Church
The Sacks of Rome
Influence of the Old Basilica
The Vatican Palace
The Renaissance Basilica

Nicholas V
Paul II (1464-71)
Sixtus IV (1471-84)
Innocent VIII (1484-92)
Julius II
St Peter's in 1505

Death of Julius & Bramante
Leo X (1513-21)

Baldassare Peruzzi

Clement VII (1523-34)
Paul III (1534-49)
Michelangelo and Followers
Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo as Architect
Michelangelo's Death (1564)
Gregory XIII
The Dome
The Obelisk

Clement VIII (1592-1605)
Maderno's Nave
Paul V (1605-21)
Problem of the Facade
The High Baroque and Bernini
The Baldacchino
The Bell Towers
Tomb of Urban VIII
Innocent X (1644-55)
The Colonnades
Cattedra Petri
Monument to Alexander VII
Clement IX (1667-9)

Clement X (1670-6)
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Innocent XI (1676-89)
Carlo Fontana
Innocent XII (1691-1700)
Liturgical Significance
Clement XI (1700-21)
Benedict XIII (1724-30)
Clement XII (1730-40)
Benedict XIV (1740-58)
Sobieski Monument
Clement XIII (1758-69)
Clement XIV (1769-74)
Pius VI(1775-99)
The Sacristy
Pius VII (1800-23)
Stuart Monument
Mon. Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI
Pius IX (1846-78)
Vatican Council I
Pius X (1903-14)
Pius XI (1922-39)
Pius XII (1939-58)
A Final Assessment


I have mentioned that by the date of Constantine's death - A.D. 337 - the architecture of the old St Peter's was fairly complete. We do not know how long or closely the emperor followed the course of the building which he had initiated in a frenzy of enthusiasm. During the later part of his reign he was kept extremely busy establishing his authority in the Eastern Empire and raising the new capital called after him Constantinople. His main interests had undoubtedly veered from the Tiber to the Bosphorus. Nevertheless, from the precious gifts which he continued to bestow upon the Apostle Petter - gilded candelabra ten feet high, silver vessels, chalices encrusted with gems, and a gold paten with finialled lid, its stem inset with emeralds and amethysts - we may suppose that he still looked upon the adornment of the great basilica of the old western capital as a primary duty. St Sylvester, who had been pope when the emperor began to build, predeceased him by only one year. Sylvester shared, as may be supposed, Constantine's enthusiasm and just lived to consecrate St Peter's with much solemnity, granting generous remission for sins committed to all overseas visitors who came to venerate the great mother church of the Christian faith.

No contemporary descriptions in writing, no frescoes nor mosaics survive to give us a full and satisfactory picture of the basilica as built by the Emperor Constantine round the shrine of the Apostle to whom it was designed to bring honour. There is, curiously enough, nothing of consequence in the way of illustrations before the Renaissance began its long toll of destruction. Of the process off this destruction and the rebuilding, numerous frescoes, drawings and sketches bear record. Of the several descriptions given in late medieval times, hardly one agrees with another. This is not altogether surprising because in the twelve to thirteen hundred years of its existence the basilica underwent repeated restoration and alteration. Quite apart from frequent embellishments of detail, wide-scale renewal was from time to time found necessary. For instance, little more than a hundred years after the church was finished, Leo the Great was obliged to repair terrible damage caused by an earthquake. He had to renew large areas of the ceiling and replace quite sixteen of the forty columns of the nave. Honorius I (625-38) had to re-roof the whole building with tiles taken from the Basilica of Maxentius. This pope was incidentally responsible for adorning the principal entrance with silver. His pious benefaction tempted the Saracens in 846 to enter and bring unwonted havoc upon the shrine and tomb. Sergius I (687-701) in course of restorations came upon a piece of the True Cross hidden in the sacristy and as a thanksgiving presented splendid vessels of gold and silver. To Adrian I (772-95) more than to any other medieval pope the basilica and campanile were indebted for expensive ornament. Gregory IV (827-44) largely rebuilt the atrium. Gregory VI in 1045 had to appeal to Christendom for money to avert total collapse of the fabric; the response was negligible, only one French duke subscribing to the fund. St Leo IX's first act on his accession in 1049 was to put work of restoration in hand, money or no money forthcoming from the European princes. Gregory IX (1227-41) actually had to issue a threat of excommunication against any persons caught treating the walls of the basilica as a quarry. Nicholas III (1277-80) resumed work of restoration, as well as presented to the Treasury magnificent copes of English needlework, then acknowledged to be the finest in the world. John XXII (1316-34) deprived himself of means of subsistence in order to launch repairs which his successor Benedict XII continued until the intervention of the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. When Urban V (1362-70), urged by Petrarch, was persuaded to return to Rome from Avignon, he found St Peter's in decay and abandonment, the cattle grazing off weeds in the atrium and even wandering up to and nuzzling the altars within the church. On Martin V's reaching Rome in 1420, conditions were such that not a soul could be found to light a lamp before the confession, far less to pay for the oil required. The portico was tumbling into ruins and the Vatican walls, breached in several places, allowed wolves from the Campagna to forage at night time for dead bodies in the Campo Santo. With commendable zeal, Martin rebuilt and repainted the portico, repaired and largely re-roofed the fabric. No wonder then that the building which the renaissance popes decided to do away with barely resembled the one raised by Constantine the Great. The vicissitudes of centuries had altered its appearance in very many particulars.

As regards plan, it had not altered substantially. From the western end of the Borgo, where now the great piazza is, a flight of thirty-five steps led to an ample platform paved with marble before an irregular huddle of buildings. These did not form the front of the basilica, but the entrance to a vast court, or atrium, an early Christian arrangement which may still be seen at the rebuilt basilica of St Paul outside the Walls. To the left lay the square tower-like church of St Apollinaris, its base splaying out like a fortress over the valley; to the right, behind what was to become the balcony reserved for papal benediction, the campanile. The conspicuous tower was the largest in Rome. Emile Mâle was satisfied that it had been built by Stephen III, and given three massive bells, after the coronation of Pepin in 745. It was square with finials at the four corners, and crowned with a dunce cap steeple, partly tiled in laminated gold and silver. In 1574 a small dome was substituted for the steeple. The sixteenth-century drawings are not in agreement whether all the pairs of gothic openings on each face of the tower were of tow lights, or some of three. Since the campanile was struck by lightning and seriously damaged three times during the fourteenth century alone, the openings probably varied in size and shape as they were frequently being renewed.

The thirty-five steps to the atrium were in five flights. They were greatly extended in width by Pope Symmachus (498-514). At their foot, visitors were pestered by the beggars who besieged the steps day and night. All the way up on either side, and even within the entrance to the atrium, were makeshift kiosks and stalls, mostly kept by Jews who did a thriving trade, selling cheap jewelry, rosaries and veronicas (handkerchiefs bearing the impression of Christ's head), figs and salt fish, and acting as quack doctors and dentists. At the top of the steps emperors and royal potentates were received by the Pope, and on the level platform Charlemagne, having mounted on his knees, was raised to his feet and embraced by Adrian I. Here too heretical books were burnt with much solemnity, those of Photius, the deposed patriarch of Constantinople, emitting - so it used to be said - a noticeably offensive odour to the intense gratification of the righteous dignitaries present.

The entrance to the atrium was by a two-storeyed portico of three arches. These had great bronze doors which in 1167 were stolen and carried as trophies of war to Viterbo by the German troops of Frederick Barbarossa. On this terrible occasion, the emperor stormed the basilica, desecrated the altars with blood, and left heaps of slain weltering on the nave pavements. Above the portico doors, mosaics were introduced in the fourteenth century. On the inner wall of the portico facing the atrium was Giotto's famous mosaic, the Navicella. It was saved from the renaissance demolitioners and re-set, in a horribly over-restored condition it is true, within the portico of the present church. This mosaic depicts the tempestuous scene on the Lake of Galilee, St Peter, having left the ship to walk across the waves to Jesus, loses heart. From the sky, allegorical winds are blowing violently through conches. The huge sail billows. The other disciples on board pray, or merely wonder, and a man under a dead tree on dry land, which seems to be a handclasp distance from the tossing vessel, placidly fishes.

The vast atrium, 200 feet long and 180 feet broad, enclosed a level area from a line where the present piazza joins the ellipse of the colonnade to the junction of the first with the second bay of the renaissance nave. As the ground on which the atrium's eastern half, and indeed that on which its entrance and the platform as far as the steps stood, is now again sloping, and was then flat, some idea is given of Constantine's tremendous work of leveling. The atrium was surrounded on four sides by colonnades, called the quadriporticus, which were opened about the year 1500 on the north and south sides to lesser courtyards. The atrium was reserved for the penitents, who were not allowed admission to the church. Originally laid out as a garden decked with flowers and shrubs, it soon acquired the name Paradise, which lost some significance when Pope Donus I (676-8) scrapped all vegetation and laid down paving instead. In the middle of the garth, where today are the steps in front of the present church, arose two fountains for the ablution of those passers-by privileged to enter the basilica. The one nearer to the entrance, known as the 'cantharus', which is Latin for a large holy water vessel, was according to the Liber Pontificalis finished and decorated by Pope Symmachus - 'beautified with marble work and with lambs and crosses and palms in mosaic'. This fifth-century pope did more than any other to finish the works begun by Constantine. Owing to an antipope being entrenched in the Lateran for much of his reign he wa obliged to live at the Vatican on which he therefore concentrated improvements. Symmachus's cantharus took the form of a square tabernacle with dome of gilt bronze, supported by eight columns of red porphyry. The cornice was adorned with four bronze dolphis to spout rain water from the roof, and four peacocks, symbols of eternity. Behing classical plutei, or solid marble panels carved with griffins holding candelabra in their paws, rose the giant pinecone of bronze. All the bronze ornaments, except the peacocks and the pinecone, were melted down by Paul V in 1614. These last now embellish the great niche of the Belvedere Court of the Vatican Palace. The pinecone on which the name of its bronze founder is incised was, according to the Liber Pontificalis, taken by Pope Symmachus from the summit of Hadrian's Mausoleum but, according to an English traveler to Rome in 1344-5, carried from the pagan monument by the devil on the night in which the Virgin Mary bore Christ into the world. The mosaics with which Pope Symmachus covered the west walls of the quadriporticus were removed in the late thirteenth century. Instead, the space was painted with ten frescoes of scenes in the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, including the Quo Vadis and the Fall of Simon Magus. They in turn were all destroyed by Paul V to make way for the present nave and façade. Fragments of copies taken before their destruction survive. One fresco of Constantine's Dream includes the head and shoulders of Peter and Paul. Against a green ground, Peter under a yellow halo is given the traditional white hair and beard and wears a dark red mantle.

In this delectable court, sheltered on all sides, fragrant with the scent of blossom and aromatic herb, and enlivened by the dripping of water into the central cantharus and the splashing of a plume of spray into the second fountain, devout pilgrims and curious sightseers would mingle with the wretched penitents before passing into the church. Until the sixth century, an odd custom was observed in the atrium in front of the basilica. Rich senators and members of the upper classes would hold banquets in the open air, at which they patronized the poor. They dispensed charity of all kinds, clothing, food and drink. It was a sort of prolongation of the very early Christian habit of commemorating the dead by pouring libations down a pipe into the coffins. The atrium banquets soon led to the wildest excesses. The fashionable reveled; the hoi poloi got drunk. Eventually, the clergy put a stop to this time-honoured procedure as incompatible with the reverence expected with the sacred precincts.

Above the atrium's west colonnade, which formed the portico to the church, loomed two stages of the façade. This was a straightforward affair much modified by Gregory IX (1227-41). He opened two rows of three great round-headed windows, each of three pointed lights. Over them in the tympanum he put a rose window ike the all-seeing eye of God. The façade as altered by Gregory is partly shown in the Fire of the Borgo fresco in the Raphael Stanze. Gregory also inserted mosaics to take the place of Leo the Great's Twenty-four Elders offering Gifts to Christ between pairs of Evangelists. The substitute mosaics were of Our Lord enthroned with Peter and Paul on either side - clearly visible over the portico in renaissance drawings - and on his let Pope Gregory IX suppliant on his knees. From the portico, under the floor of which more than forty medieval popes were buried (the three other colonnades were reserved for the coffins of emperors and kings), five doorways, silvered by Honorius I, opened into the basilica, the central three to the nave, the end ones to the aisles. The middle nave door was called 'Porta Mediana', 'Regia', or 'Argentea', because of the solid silver plates which, until they were plundered, enriched it. The first on the right, 'Porta Romana', for the use of Romans only. The second on the right, 'Porta Guidonea', because of the guides who conducted the tourists through it. The first on the left, 'Porta Ravenniana', for the use of those living in Trastevere, the west bank of the Tiber; and the second on the left, 'Porta del Giudizio' for the dead - an ominous reminder that enjoyment of the next world would be measured by the relative degree of man's sins in the present.

The unknown English pilgrim of 1344-5 was filled with suitable awe by the time he had crossed the atrium. 'And then,' he said, 'lie open the doors ['sumptuously constructed'] to the church, which is the largest of all churches in the world.' He went on to emphasize its alarming grandeur by remarking that, 'If one loses his companion in that church, he may seek for a whole day, because of its size and because of the multitudes who run from place to place, venerating shrines with kisses and prayers, since there is no altar at which indulgence is not granted.' By contrast, a stranger visiting St Peter's at the time of Pope Sylvester's dedication would not have been the least confused. There was then no likelihood of losing himself. The plan of the building as Constantine left it was very straightforward indeed. It was a perfect rectangle with only an apse at one end to break the uniformity. As the centuries advanced, the basilica became more and more cluttered with chapels, monuments and treasure of all sorts. Until the sixth century there were no side chapels at all. Thereafter, they cropped up literally by dozens, clinging like barnacles to the hull of a submerged man-of-war. At one time, there were over ninety projecting from the aisles or propped haphazard against open wall spaces, the piers, and columns of the nave. When there ceased to be room in the portico in which to bury popes, their corpses were deposited under the floor of the church and monuments raised as close to the remains as the restricted space allowed. Most of these monuments were destroyed with the old basilica. Some were re-erected in the crypt of te new building. Where altars and tombs had not been jammed together, those precious fabrics for which St Peter's was renowned were spread or hung. Rare oriental cloths of purple Tyrian dyes, the gifts of eastern potentates or the spoils of pious crusaders, Turkish and Persian tissues, and English embroideries in gold and silver thread on a ruby red background, dazzled the eye. Glass witchballs, silvered, gilded, or stained a sapphire blue, tinkled against ivory ostrich eggs, symbols of the world's mystery and the source of life, which were threaded on wire attached to changeliers. And always the dark interior was brightened by the innumerable lamps kept burning before the shrines, and the thirteen hundred and seventy was candles of Adrian I's great pharos in the shape of crowns and crosses suspended from a central beam on a glittering silver chain.

The size of the building was certainly impressive. The interior was divided by four rows of twenty-two Corinthian columns in each, so as to form a nave and four aisles. The height of the inner rows of columns, which were raised above the nave on five steps, was from base to architrave nearly thirty feet. Since these columns had been taken from various pagan temples, their size and shape were not exactly uniform. They carried a straight, projecting entablature (on which one could walk, protected by a rail), broken in the middle of the church by two huge arches rising to the roof plate. The first two columns at the entrance to the nave, being of rare black African marble, were eventually spared and re-erected on either side of the central door of the renaissance church. The space immediately over the nave entablature had been decorated by Pope Liberius (352-66) with conjectural medallion portraits of all the popes since Peter. Above them were three tiers of compartments painted, the upper between the windows with patriarchs, prophets and apostles, and the two lower with forty-six scenes from the Old and New Testaments. They were restored for Popes Gregory IV and Formosus (891-6), and again by Giotto. The four aisles were separated by further rows of columns, nineteen to twenty feet high, forming arcades. In all, precisely one hundred columns made the interior into a closely packed forest - but for a wide central clearing - seemingly of great depth and distance. I have said that the roof, like those of all Constantine's churches, was of open timber. One very like it to survive, although subsequently renewed, is that of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Since the Romans had long ago perfected a form of brick arched vaulting, Constantine's comparatively primitive and economic method can only be explained by his desperate hurry in building so many basilicas. Here rafters laid from one wall plate to another, and clamped in the middle with iron stays, were painted in bright mosaic-like patterns. The floor of the nave was paved in squares and rectangles in two coloured marbles.

The sanctuary and apse were framed through a high arch supported at the end of the nave by two great detached columns of the Ionic order in granite. This very distinctive arrangement, shared only by St Paul's outside the Walls, allowed an uninterrupted view from one end of the church to the other. Over the triumphal arch, Constantine had inscribed in mosaic, in gratitude for the undeniable mercies bestowed upon him, these words:

'Quod duce te mundus surrexit in astra triumphans
Hanc Constantius victor tibi condidit aula(m).'

('Because under your leadership the triumphant universe has reached to the furthest stars victorious Constantine dedicates this church to you.')

Surely they are the final acknowledgment of the supreme Christian God by this level-headed ruler who was also an indefatigable seeker after religious truth.

The head of the apse too was long renowned for its beautiful mosaics. Leo the Great (440-61) first decorated it in this medium. But the mosaic which remained until the apse was finally destroyed only dated from the reign of the Conti Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). A fragment was removed to the chapel in the Conti Palace at Poli, and a painting of the whole was hung in the crypt of St Peter's. Christ sits enthroned between St Paul on his right hand and St Peter on his left, both standing. Behind each apostle a palm tree. There are figures of men in small and animals grouped round a fountain gushing at Our Lord's feet. Below, the Lamb of God, Pope Innocent III and a female figure, representing the Church.

And of course there stood conspicuously in the middle of the sanctuary the nucleus and very reason of Constantine's basilica, namely the shrine over St Peter's tomb. This most sacred object by no means escaped alteration throughout the centuries. I have already described how Gregory the Great raised the presbytery floor, built a new canopy over the shrine which he enriched with rare marbles, and formed the first sunk confession. The next pope to make notable changes was Gregory III (731-41). He duplicated the six vine-wreathed, twisted columns by six more, a present from the Exarch of Ravenna, which he placed in front of the others. In this formation the twelve columns stood throughout the Middle Ages, objects of wonder and admiration to pilgrims and artists alike. Their introduction into various fields of art during many different stylistic periods is proof of their extraordinary popular appeal. They gave rise to the Easter candlesticks of marble and mosaic fashioned by the Cosmati family in Romanesque days. They appeared in Jean Fouquet's illuminations of Pompey and of King Herod entering the Holy of Holies in 'Les Antiquites Judaiques', as a consequence of the artist's visit to Rome in 1443. Raphael introduced them into his cartoon, 'The Healing of the Lame Man', which was reproduced in Flemish and Mortlake tapestries. Rubens and Rembrandt put them in the background of their pictures. Spain copied them upon countless gilded reredoses and tombs. England upon the Jacobean porch of St Mary's church at Oxford, and a Charles II fireplace in Ham House. In most European countries baroque architects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seemed never to weary of reinterpreting a theme first invented by some unknown Greek carver of the third century after Christ.

Gregory III did not stop at duplicating the barley sugar columns. In defiant protest against the Iconoclasm raging in the East, he erected two magnificent monuments on either side of the Apostle's tomb. He also built a new canopy over the tomb itself. It had columns of onyx surmounted by a silver encrusted architrave, upon which were engraved images of the Saviour with the Twelve Disciples and the Mother of God accompanied by the Holy Virgins - the very kind of things which the Byzantine emperors were ruthlessly destroying. Close to the shrine Gregory built a chapel to contain various holy relics of such sort as were being dispersed in Constantinople. Did he by any chance also set up at the north-west corner of the crossing the seated figure of St Peter and institute the tradition of kissing that bronze toe? If so, Pope Gregory III could not have lit upon a scheme better calculated to confound the Iconoclasts of the eighth century and those of every subsequent century down to our own.

The experts have not yet reached agreement upon the date of the famous bronze statue. A long honoured tradition, almost certainly without foundation, claimed that St Leo the Great had it converted from an ancient statue of the Capitoline Jupiter. Until recent times it was believed to date from the firth or sixth century. Antonio Nunoz and other scholars observing the seemingly Gothic rigidity of the draperies, attributed the figure not to pagan derivation, but to a Christian origin of the thirteenth century. It was in all probability, they asserted, the work of Arnolfo di Cambio. Arnolfo may have been inspired by the statue of St Peter, once outside the old basilica and now in the crypt, which was undoubtedly transformed from that of an ancient philosopher by a change of head and the addition of the sacred keys. Schuller-Piroli on the other hand claims that the bronze of the seated figure is composed of the same alloy of lead and silver as that found in coinage of the second half of the seventh century; that the warm brown-gold patina is only shared by bronze of the late medieval centuries. He does not exclude the remote possibility that Arnolfo di Cambio may have recast an ancient statue, substituted a new head, and provided keys.

At all events this deeply venerated image survived the destruction of Constantine's basilica and was given a place of honour in the new one. The present marble throne dates from renaissance times, and the plinth of Sicilian jasper inlaid with green porphyry panels was carved by Carlo Marchionni in 1756-7. It does not greatly matter precisely when the figure was made. There is about it a primitive dignity and sublimity which has awed generations of the faithful, who day by day congregate to salute the worn toe and rub their foreheads against the foot. Its symbolical beauty is not enhanced by the pontifical mitre and bejeweled raiments with which it is incongruously decked on high festivals. Vain are the most exhaustive efforts of men, even of popes, to raise perennial monuments, however splendid as art, however rich in substance. Callixtus II (1119-24) reconstructed the Gregorian altar, using the same white marble so carefully selected by Pope Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine and willfully discarded by the first Gregory. On the Feast of Our Lady, he laid the new altar stone, granting an indulgence of three years to those who might worship at it. His was probably the Gothic octagonal ciborium with finials clustering round a dunce-cap cupola, depicted on several late drawings and sketches of the interior. It too was to disappear in the Renaissance.

Even during the latter half of the fifteenth century, after pontifical schemes for the total demolition of Constantine's basilica had been ventilated, additions as well as restorations were still being made to the building. Lack of any concerted policy was due to a series of financial crises in the papal treasury, international distractions and the too quick succession of popes. Instead, muddle and makeshift in regard to the fabric's future ensued. In 1463 Pius II began reconstructing the tribune, or loggia of the papal benediction on the east front of the atrium and to the north of the entrance, which Innocent VIII (1484-92) completed in the renaissance style. Both popes must have known that when a comprehensive scheme of rebuilding was finally put in hand it would be swept away. It was demolished by Paul V after a hundred years' existence. Pius II likewise began the conversion, which Innocent completed, of Pope Symmachus's circular church of St Andrew to a sacristy. This fifth-century circular appendage, on the south side of the old basilica, joined to its fellow, the similar round church of St Petronilla (for a long time treated as an imperial mausoleum and sheltering the remains of the Apostle's daughter brought from the catacombs) made in old drawings and woodcuts a strange and picturesque group with Caligula's obelisk. When the transept was added the group fromed a very uncomfortable tangent to the basilica, like a fractured limb. St Petronilla's church became a chapel under the patronage of the kings of France and in 1500 sheltered Michelangelo's Pieta. Minute detached churches, or sepulchral chapels, dedicated to St Martin, St John and St Paul, the deacons Sergius and Bacchus, and the senatorial family of Probus, were grouped about the west end of the basilica like satellite moons revolving round the planet Jupiter.

The Sacks of Rome

The picture of St Peter's throughout the Dark Ages must be seen against the sacks to which Rome was repeatedly subject. The process of disintegration of the Western Empire began under the absentee Emperor Honorius, who had fled to Ravenna on ht first rumour that Italy might be invaded by the Goths. Here, entrenched between almost impenetrable marshes and the Adriatic Sea, he set up his capital. Honorius's terror of the Goths was only equaled by his ingratitude and folly. He put to death on the specious accusation of treachery his ward and protector, Stilicho, who had twice defeated Alaric, the King of the Goths, and thus deprived himself of the one general capable of defending him. He then refused to treat with Alaric, who begged him to do so in order that the city of Rome might be spared the fury of his troops. To the plea of this magnanimous enemy and the exhortations of the pope, Honorius turned a deaf ear. As a result, Rome fell to Alaric in 410 and suffered the first terrible sack at the hands of a barbarian invader. Within three days the Goths plundered everything they could remove from the city. Every church but two was entered and looted. The exceptions were St Peter's and St Paul's which Alaric commanded his men to respect and leave alone. The shrines of the two apostles were spared by the invaders who, regarded by the effete Romans as wild savages, were yet Christians, although Arians, in holy dread of disturbing places so sanctified by tradition. During the three day loot, a Gothic soldier came upon a girl in charge of a pile of treasure. He was about to fall upon it when the defenceless guardian remarked that he would do so at his peril. The things belonged, she said, to St Peter who would undoubtedly wreak his vengeance on the looter. The terror-striken soldier not only refrained from plundering, but escorted the girl and the treasure to the basilica where it belonged. On the journey, other soldiers turned from their booty and reverently joined the strange procession headed by the Roman girl and her Gothic accomplice, helping them to carry to safe custody chalices, crucifixes and lamps of gold and silver, encrusted with emeralds and amethysts.

The news of the sack of Rome by Alaric spread swiftly overseas, causing consternation and horror that the greatest and richest city of the civilized world, anciently the capital of the impregnable empire, and now the set of the Christian religion, had succumbed so absolutely to a horde of barbarians. The lamentations of contemporary writers are still pitiable to read. St Jerome in his distant solitude at Bethlehem felt himself smitten to the earth. Never, he thought, would civilization raise its head again. He could not eat, nor think, nor act like a person of sound mind, so appalled was he by the first accounts of the Roman fugitibes who had lived through the sack and now were reaching Palestine in dire distress. Other wretched victims, deprived of all their possessions, fled to Africa where St Augustine learned the dreadful story in Hippo. The catastrophe inspired his great treatise, The City of God, which was begun in answer to those pagans who claimed that the fall of Rome was owing to the abolition of heather worship. On the contrary, Augustine postulated that out of the ruins of the Roman Empire would arise a far greater and more widespread hegemony of Christian rule.

Terrible as was the sack of 410, far worse sacks were to follow. Only moveable treasure had been carted in quantities out of the city by Alaric's Goths. The monuments and statues were unscathed. The citizens indeed were ruined temporarily, but the property and wealth of the papacy were little affected. In fact, a very short time was to elapse before St Jerome was reviling the sybaritism of the Roman clergy who were over-dressed and over-scented, who strutted about on tiptoe lest they dirtied their jeweled sandals, who wore rings on their fingers and had their hair curled and set. It was not because of these mincing popinjays nor of any display of lay leadership that Rome escaped the imminent destruction by Attila, King of the Huns. The extraordinary authority and courage of Pope Leo I, aided by an opportune vision to Attila of the threatening saints Peter and Paul, persuaded the terrible 'Scourge of God' to withdraw from the very gates of Rome. This miraculous delivery took place in 452.

Respite was not to endure for long. Only three years later, in 455, there occurred the sack of Rome by the Vandals under Genseric. These people, a migratory tribe originally from Scandinavia, and now come from Africa, likewise refrained from shedding blood - only the Emperor Maximus, while trying to escape, was slain by one of his own bodyguard. But they too plundered, this time for fourteen days, palaces, houses, public buildings, churches and temples, taking away all they could lay their hands upon. The roof of the Temple of Peace being made of gilded bronze was stripped, and the sacred Jewish spoils, including the seven-branched candlestick captured by Titus in Jerusalem, were shipped on board Vandal vessels in the Tiber. But again, the shrines of the apostles were spared.

The decline of the Western Empire in the fifth century is tragic and unedifying. In 472 the third sack of Rome, this time under Ricimer, a Suebian prince, brought the city finally to its knees. In 476 the last sovereign, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated and the Roman Empire came to its inglorious end. Henceforward, Italy was ruled by barbarian kings. Then in the sixth century came the turn of the Gothic Kingdom to be destroyed. Between 535 and 553 Rome was occupied and sacked, first by Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, and, secondly, by the Eastern Emperor's general, Belisarius. Both these invaders offered gifts and prayers at the Apostle's tomb, which their troops were commanded to respect. The barbarian king, nevertheless, carried out his threat to turn the city into a pasture for cows by entirely depopulating it, and driving the miserable inhabitants into the Campagna. For forty days, not a soul was to be seen in the empty streets, where abandoned dogs, cat and cattle aimlessly wandered and foraged amongst the ordure, all that was left by the departed invaders and refugees.

Compared with the Lombards, Muslims, Magyars and Normans, who were the next invaders of Italian soil, the Goths, Vandals, Huns and Suebians had been civilized and Romanized. Alaric, Attila, Genseric, Ricimer and Totila, names that sent a shudder down the spine of every Roman citizen of their times, were gentlemen in relation to the savage leaders of the hordes which were now to pour into the peninsula and inundate whatever region they passed through. Whereas the earlier invaders had admired and wished to preserve the Latin civilization, the later invaders were bent merely on its destruction. When the Lombards descended upon the valley of the Po, swarms of heathen savages attended them. Together they swept down Italy consuming and sacking, and leaving behind them a trail of pestilence, famine and want. Although Arians, the Lombards were the most rapacious of the invaders up to date, and throughout their long domination were more consistently feared and loather by the Romans and the Church than any of their barbarian predecessors. Only the anarchy that prevailed in their ranks, and the persuasiveness and ransom money of Pope Pelagius II in 578 once again warded off an impending sack of Rome. The city was saved, but not by any intervention of the inhabitants, who by now lived in conditions of absolute demoralization and were quite incapable of making even a show of armed resistance.

The Lombards ruled Italy for over two hundred years until finally conquered by Charlemagne at the papacy's urgent instigation. Not until 756 did they besiege, without entering Rome. Nonetheless, they carried off from the catacombs in cartloads the sacred bodies of martyrs in order to enshrine them in the churches of their own capital, Pavia. This desecration so roused Pope Stephen III that he adopted a desperate method of eliciting support from the Franks. He sent a letter, signed in the name of the Apostle Peter himself, to their King Pepin, demanding in the most peremptory tones substantial aid, and threatening the loss of eternal life in the next world, if it were not instantly forthcoming. To Stephen's intense relief, the letter acted like a charm upon the devout Franks. Military relief was supplied without delay, and again the city escaped destruction.

Pepin's son, who was to bear a name even greater than his, was like the father to become supreme papal champion, first of Pope Adrian I against the Lombards and finally of Leo III against his mutinous subjects. Three times in the course of his long reign, he rushed to Adrian's rescue in Rome. He confirmed in the pope's favour the donation of vast territories in central Italy granted by Pepin, to which he continually added others. No wonder Charles looked upon himself as the patron as well as the saviour of God's Vicar on earth. No wonder too that he finally looked to the papacy for the supreme reward for more than twenty-five years unremitting services. On Christmas Day of the year 800 one of the most solemn occasions in the history of St Peter's took place. Charles went to the basilica with a large retinue to attend Mass. He was on his knees meekly praying before the shrine of the Apostle. Certainly to the surprise of the congregation, if not of the Frankish king, Leo suddenly approached, and placing on his head a splendid crown, proclaimed him Caesar Augustus. 'God grant life and victory to the great and pacific Emperor!' he cried. Whereupon the priests, soldiers, nobles and common people present took up the words so that the whole basilica echoed to them. Then the pop actually bent the knee to the new emperor by way of homage. By this means, a barbarian monarch was made successor of the Roman caesars, and granted the rights and authority which were still nominally claimed, if no longer exercised by the Byzantine emperors in the East.

The great circular porphyry disc on which Charlemagne is said to have been kneeling at the moment of his coronation escaped the destruction of old St Peter's. It was relaid in the nave in front of the central door of the present basilica.

But in the terrible age the luck of St Peter's church could not be expected to continue indefinitely. Hitherto, her ancient prestige as the resting place of the first Christian bishop had worked wonders on the admiration and superstition of barbarian invaders. Soon, alas, depredators were to be at her gates who held her in no awe whatsoever. On the contrary, the followers of Mohammed both detested and despised all she stood for.

In short, the sack of Rome by the Saracens in 846 transcended in intensity and horror of human carnage any that had occurred previously. It was however different to all previous sacks in that this time the walled city was spared, whereas the basilicas of the two apostles and all the buildings that stood around them suffered cruelly. The attack did not happen unexpectedly. The Governor of Tuscany warned Pope Sergius II by letter of the approaching Saracen fleet. He cautioned him to remove for safety inside the fortifications of the city the bodies of the holy saints Peter and Paul, and the rich treasures that adorned their shrines, 'ne de tanta salute tra [? salutare re] gens nefandissime paganorum exultare potuisset', - to avoid the exultation by these most accursed pagans over their possible capture. His words were not totally unheeded. Father Engelbert Kirschbaum believes that at this time the heads of the apostles were taken to the Lateran, where they have remained ever since. There is no doubt that, inflamed with righteous detestation, the Saracens raided the shrine of St Peter. They smashed to pieces the lower part of the tropaion, or tabernacle, which had been erected in the second century and was seen by the clerk Gaius; they destroyed the right side of the heavy stone ledge which rested upon the marble columns, and forced a way through the slab covering the grave below. The evidence of the recent excavations is that the jubilant Muslims penetrated the grave, robbing whatever treasure they found outside and in, and almost certainly desecrating if not dispersing the Saint's remains. At last, the most sacred cynosure of all Christendom was violated by an enemy bent on striking a devastating blow at the very seat and centre of the Faith.

Finally, in 1084, the Normans, who were in Rome by papal invitation to fight the partisans of an antipope, pillaged, plundered and burnt the city. No previous raiders had wreaked quite such widespread havoc to buildings, nor caused such lasting confusion in papal government. Some English crusaders, happening to be in Rome a year or so later, left an account of the civil strife still raging. 'When we went into the Basilica of St Peter,' they related, 'we found before the altar the men of Guidbert the antipope [Clement II] who with swords in their hands wickedly seized the offerings laid on the altar. Others ran back and forth on the [ceiling] beams of the church and threw stones down upon us as we lay prostrate at our prayers. For when they saw any adherent of Urban [the lawful pope] they tried to kill him on the spot. We grieved not a little therefore in seeing such atrocity there.'

It is not a little surprising, when we consider the vicissitudes of Rome throughout the Dark Ages, that the shrine of St Peter survived so long the covetousness and savagery of successive invaders, heathen and Christian alike, only to be rifled in 846; nor surely that Constantine's basilica, battered, renovated and altered though it was, outlasted thirteen hundred years of violence, before finally being pulled down in order to make way for a more magnificent substitute.

One inevitable consequence of the repeated sacks of Rome which caused almost more distress to the Christian population than any other was the disturbance, and at times dispersal, of the relics of the saints and martyrs. Simple, devout persons derive no harm, and often much comfort, from objects that once belonged to those they loved and revered, or to those distant beings, now long dead but years ago specially blessed. It is when they attach supernatural powers to relics and when their veneration turns to worship that the sin of idolatry rears its ugly head. The temptation is apt to arise when they are desperate and life is dangerous and uncertain.

With the decline of Latin literature and scholarship in the West and the recrudescence of barbarian invasions there arose in an ill-educated and ignorant world a miasma of superstition. The wildest apocryphal stories were current, strange martyrologies were accepted, devils and sacerdotal powers were rife and relics were in fervent demand, often credited with miraculous cures. In the first and second centuries no interest had been shown in relics. The priest Gaius, writing in the late second or early third century about the shrines of Peter and Paul, merely referred to their triumphal memorials. But when St Cyprian was beheaded in 258 his flock mopped up the young man's blood with their own clothing which they preserved in his memory. Already a mystic virtue was sensed in the physical remains of a specially holy man. By the fourth century relics were acquiring a sacred meaning, and were being venerated. Soon they were believed to be wonder-working. They began to accumulate in astonishing numbers. Not only bones and sinews of saints were collected, but objects associated with Our Lord were, after three hundred years of obscurity, conveniently assembled - the reed on which the sponge was offered to the crucified One, the sponge itself, the nails of the cross, the thorns of the crown and the seamless robe (the last of which is claimed by twenty different cathedrals). The holy blood and hair, the manger, the napkin which bound the sacred head in the tomb, and of course the cross, were discovered and apportioned among the treasure of Christian churches. Even the holy prepuce was formerly venerated in an obscure church in Latium, until a decree of 190 forbade further mention of this detail. Relics of Our Lady were claimed; and her home was miraculously transported from Syria to Italy by air. By the sixth century, godly people overstepped the limits of honour in acquiring relics by methods only matched by some stamp collectors of our own time. The richer and greater a person, the more over-reaching his or her unscrupulousness. Owners of private chapels in need of relics rifled tombs at night, purloined an arm or finger from coffins and bargained with venal custodians of cemeteries for pieces of cerecloth, which they took home and mounted in jeweled caskets. This pious mania persisted even into counter-reformation times. A lady devotee, in kissing the corpse of St Francis Xavier, is said to have bitten off a great toe which she carried away in her mouth.


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