St. Peter's Basilica - A Brief History
by Fr. Carolan, OMI, English Guides to St. Peter's

The Square

Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2













Rome's Christians and Nero's Circus
Peter's Tomb
Constantine's Basilica
Michelangelo's Basilica
A Visit
The Five Doors
Entering the Basilica
Left Aisle
Center of the Basilica
Beneath the Dome
Central Altar
The Left Transept
Blessed Sacrament Chapel

St. Peter's Basilica - A Brief History

Where St. Peter's now stands was once a chariot racing stadium, built in the time of the Emperor Caligula, Claudius and Nero (40-65). That was the first century of our era. Nero was the Emperor who began the first great persecution of Christians in Rome. Under his rule of terror, many Christians were imprisoned and put to death here in the newly completed stadium ("Circus" in Latin).

Among those first Christians to be rounded up by Nero's soldiers was the leader of the Christian community in Rome, St. Peter the Apostle. He had probably come to Rome about the year 40 and was therefore about 25 years in the city preaching the Good News and obviously making many converts to Christianity - to many for Nero's liking.

Many of these Christians were thrown to the wild animals as part of the entertainment in the stadium. Many, however, were crucified. A low wall divided the arena of the stadium so that the chariot races took place around them. Some, we are told by Tacitus, the chronicler of the Roman Empire, had oil and tar poured over their bodies and they were set alight to illuminate the stadium in the late Summer evenings.

The stadium, about six hundred yards long, stretched from about the end of the Western wing of the Colonnade to well beyond the apse of the present basilica. St. Peter's place of crucifixion is traditionally marked as corresponding to the left hand wing of the basilica, more or less where the altar of St. Joseph is today.

Peter's Tomb

Afterwards, some of his friends took Pete's body and buried it in the nearest cemetery. That was just outside and to the right of the stadium. The tomb of Peter is still there, underneath the front of the Papal Altar and about 20 ft. below the floor level of the basilica.

Constantine's Basilica

When Christians were eventually given their freedom (313), under the Emperor Constantine, after more than two hundred years of persecution, it was decided to build a basilica above the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Many things had changed in those two hundred years. Christians had become so numerous in Rome that persecution was judged counter productive. Contrary to pagan practice, Christians assembled frequently for worship. They needed increasingly large buildings - much larger than the tiny pagan temples of the past. Constantine saw to the building of a number of these "Basilicas" and especially to the largest of them which was erected above the tomb of Peter on the slope of the Vatican hill.

Michelangelo's Basilica (1506-1626)

That building lasted throughout the centuries until 1500. It was then in such a state of disrepair that Pope Julius II decided to replace it with a new and more magnificent structure. Work began in April 1506. Many great artists were involved in its construction and decoration: Bramante, Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno, Della Porta, Bernini, Fontana. The most notable contributions, however, are those of Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini. At the age of 72, in 1546, Michelangelo was obliged to undertake the building of the present Basilica by Pope Paul III. When he died, the construction of the Greek Cross section surrounding the Papal altar and the tomb of Peter had been completed only as far as the top of the drum: the large windows which are underneath the upturned bowl of the dome. The bowl itself, changed in shape from the half rounded shape of Michelangelo's design to the half oval shape of today, was completed by Della Porta in May 1590. The Pope was Sixtus V.

Pope Paul V, in the beginning of the 1600's, decided that the Greek Cross design was too small. He obliged his architect, Maderno, to pull down the front wall of Michelangelo's building and extend the eastern end of the basilica by 116 yards. That was completed in 1626, and in the following 30 years Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the Colonnade.

A Visit

The immense ten-acre spread of Bernini's Colonnade is the pilgrim's introduction to St. Peter's. Its design incorporates a sun-dial, a calendar, and the welcoming arms of God's embrace as He stretches out to receive all who come to pay their respects at the tomb of the first Pope. The obelisk in the center, as well as determining the time and the date by its shadow, takes us back in the millennia through the history of the old basilica, the Circus of Nero, the ship-building skills of the Romans who transported it across the sea from Alexandria in Egypt during the first century of the Christian era. It also takes us back through the centuries of the Pharaohs, perhaps to the Egyptian captivity of Israel. Did Moses see it before he led his people to freedom?

From the balcony above the central door, the Pope comes to address the peoples of the world after his election and on the feasts of Christmas and Easter when he gives his Blessing "Urbi et Orbi" (to the City of Rome and to the world).

The five artistic bronze doors leading from the entrance to the basilica, each have their own history. The best known is the smallest one, on the right, the Holy Door. It is sealed by a wall on the inside and is opened during the Jubilee Years (the Holy Years), which are times of spiritual renewal in the Church. The present bronze Holy Door is the work of Vico Consorti (1950), while the other doors, from right to left, are by Crocetti (1963), Filarete (1438), Minghuzzi (1977), Manzu (1963). Above the central gateway is the mosaic by Giotto, the Gospel scene of Peter faltering as he walks on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, while beyond the glass door at the northern end is Bernini's horseback sculpture of the emperor Constantine.

Entering the basilica, usually by the door of Sacraments (by Crocetti), we see the Pieta in the chapel on the right. Moving as close as possible to the rear of the central door it is possible to have an overall view of the building (204 yards long and covering an area of almost six acres). The space is large enough to hold about 90,000 people. However, the seating installed for ceremonies at which the Pope presides consists of 11,500 chairs. These are placed in the areas within view of the central altar. The huge statues represent 39 of the Founders and Foundresses of various religious Orders and Congregations.

About thirty yards from the rear of the central door is the circular, red porphyry stone on which Charlemagne knelt to be crowned by Pope Leo III on Christmas night of the year 800.

Opposite the Pieta chapel, on the left hand side, is the Baptistry. The picture on the rear wall is a mosaic reproduction of the painting by Maratta. The subject is the Baptism of Christ. The Baptismal Font (monumental structure) is in two parts. The upper part is gilded bronze depicting the Lamb of God. It is by Domenico Fontana. The basin, symbol of the spiritual cleansing of Baptism, was the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto II in the Constantinian basilica. In the dome the mosaic represents the three forms of Baptism: by water, by blood, by desire. The triangles beneath the dome represent the peoples of the four continents (before the discovery of Australia) coming to receive Baptism.

In the archway beyond the Baptistry are the Stuart monuments: to the right the monument (by Canova) of Cardinal Henry Stuart and his brother (Bonnie Prince Charlie) together with their father. To the left, the picture of Maria Clementina Sobieska, mother of the cardinal and prince.

The altar in the next chapel is dedicated to Mary, under the title of Mary's Presentation (one of the many representations of Mary in St. Peter's). Beneath the altar is the casket containing the body of Pope St. Pius X (d. 1914). To the right the monument to Pope John XXIII (d. 1963) by Emilio Greco, and to the left that of Benedict XV (d.1923) by Canonica.

In the next archway, the monument to the right is to Pope Innocent VIII (d. 1942) by Pollaiolo from the old basilica and to the left the monument to St. Pius X.

The chapel on the left is the Choir Chapel. The mosaic commemorates the Definition of Mary's Immaculate Conception (8.XII.1854). The Choir benches are the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Moving over to the center of the basilica, we may try to imagine that the end wall of Michelangelo's Greek Cross design was here, immediately after the Choir Chapel. The theme of the Greek Cross design is written in the 5 high letters in the base of the dome: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. These are the words of Christ (Mt 16:17-18; Jn 1:42). Christ built a Church, not of bricks and mortar, but a society. Simon, renamed Cephas (the rock), is the foundation of that Church. His tomb is the center of Michelangelo's Greek Cross. Within that Church (building or society) are the followers of Peter (and Christ). Around them are the monuments which remind them of the centuries of Christian tradition. Today they are themselves part of that tradition. They have come to pay their respects at Peter's tomb and the home of his successor (the Pope).

Moving beneath the dome, we see the four huge statues around the altar: St. Helena (4th cent.) represented with the Cross of Christ which she brought from Jerusalem to Rome, St. Veronica with the towel which, according to pious tradition, she presented to Christ on his way to Calvary and on which He left the imprint of his face, St. Longinus with the spear with which as a Roman soldier he pierced the lifeless body of Christ on the Cross. The fourth statue is of St. Andrew, the first of the Twelve Apostles to accept Christ's invitation: "Come follow me" (Jn 1), and later martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross in Greece. He represents all those who have been prepared to accept Christ's invitation and who have proved their sincerity by accepting martyrdom.

In the dome, the mosaics represent the inhabitants of Heaven: Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles, the angels carrying the instruments of Christ's Passion and Death towards the center. Finally the mosaic in the ceiling of the lantern, 390 feet above the floor, represents God the Father, presiding over Heaven.

Heaven (the dome) and earth (the floor level) are brought together by the circular mosaics at the base of the dome, representing the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). They have written the story of Christ: God become one of us to show us the way to heaven.

From the area near the central altar can be seen many of the works of Bernini: the canopy above the altar, the alabaster window with the Dove representing the Holy Spirit guiding the teaching of the Pope as head of the Church (represented by the Chair-Cathedra supported by the four bishops), the four balconies around the altar, the statue of St. Longinus and (forward and far to the left) the monument of Pope Alexander VII (d. 1617).

The central altar of St. Joseph, in the left transept, is supposedly above the place where St. Peter was put to death in the Circus of Nero.

The area to the right of the papal altar (right transept with chapel of Sts. Processus and Martinianus) was the site of Vatican Council 1 (1869), while the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) took place in the main aisle of the Basilica.

Opposite the Choir Chapel is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the principal place of prayer and devotion in St. Peter's. Christ, present under the form of the Bread consecrated in Mass, is in the tabernacle. That tabernacle with the bronze angels kneeling in adoration is the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Beyond the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, towards the entrance, is the Chapel of St. Sebastian. The casket beneath the altar contains the remains of Blessed Innocent XI (d.1689).

Finally, the chapel nearest the Holy Door has the Pieta by Michelangelo on the altar. A youthful Mary, whose expression is one of deep sorrow, but of serenity rather than anguish, as she gazes, not so much at the body but over the lifeless body of her Son, at the place where we as onlookers should be standing, just beyond the step of the altar. The dying Christ gave Mary to John as his Mother. We are the brothers and sisters of John, the new family of Mary, and so it is at us, her children, that Mary is looking.


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