Old St. Peter's Basilica

Uncover the Enchanting Story of Old St. Peter’s Basilica | 1200 Years of History

Set in the heart of the Vatican is the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica. Before this building was constructed, an old church stood in its place between the 4th and 16th centuries. This church is referred to as Old St. Peter's Basilica in order to differentiate between the current building and the old one.

What is Old St. Peter's Basilica?

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Old St. Peter's Basilica is an important building when it comes to the history of Rome. It was the first church built after the death of Saint Peter to memorialize his martyrdom. The church flourished for about 1,200 years bringing in regular worshippers and pilgrims from the rest of the world.

Although the basilica itself is no more, there is much to be known about its history, significance, and architecture. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about Old St. Peter's Basilica.

History of Old St. Peter's Basilica | 1200 Years

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Who built Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

Old St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned to be built under the reign of Emperor Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great. A notable figure in the history of Rome, Constantine led his empire towards the creation of a Christian State. Old St. Peter’s Basilica is a symbol of this evolution and soon became the epitome of early Christian architecture.

Constantine saw the need for a church in Rome and decided to build a basilica over the grave of Saint Peter.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

When was Old St. Peter’s Basilica built?

Emperor Constantine I ordered the construction of Old St. Peter’s Basilica between the years 326 and 333 to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter. Construction of the structure took about 40 years to complete and finished in 360.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Why was Old St. Peter's Basilica built?

After the crucifixion of Saint Peter at the Circus of Nero, he was buried at Vatican Hill. Construction of Old St. Peter’s Basilica began on the site of the Apostles grave, following the orders of Emperor Constantine I. He wished to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter by building a church on the site of his tomb.

Where was Old St. Peter's Basilica built?

Old St. Peter's Basilica was built atop the site of the Circus of Nero that existed until the 4th century in Vatican City.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Map of Old St. Peter's Basilica

Old St. Peter's Basilica was constructed in the traditional style of Roman churches. These features include the long aisle at the center, the portico and courtyard in front of the church, and the smaller chapels inside. Many of these features were replicated while constructing the new basilica. The old Church was built with a five-aisle plan with a traditional apse at its west end.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Architecture & Design of Old St. Peter’s Basilica

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Structure

The entrance to the church was through a large atrium enclosed with garden fountains. Built in a similar style to most Roman churches, the basilica consisted of five aisles, a central nave, and two smaller aisles on the side. It was large enough to house about 3000 - 4000 people at a time.

Old. St. Peter's Basilica

Materials

Old St. Peter’s Basilica was built with rather ordinary materials such as brick and wood, however, it was adorned with marble columns, colorful mosaics, and detailed frescoes. The windows of the basilica were adorned with frescoes of patriarchs, prophets, and scenes from the bible.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Mosaics

The basilica consisted of many mosaic frescoes, some of which are preserved even today. Notable works include the Navicella or Bark of St. Peter which shows the apostle walking on water, Epiphany, which depicts a Christian feast day, and a standing Madonna. These mosaics are now preserved in different museums and churches around the country.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Tombs

Ever since the death of Saint Peter in 64 AD, his body is believed to be buried at the site of the basilica. A small shrine was built over the grave, which is considered to be the official tomb of the apostle. Over the later years, many more tombs were added around St. Peter’s tomb because of the prestige it had gained.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Columns

Many of the columns used in the structure of the basilica were taken from previous Roman buildings. These columns were made of different materials such as white granite, red granite, and Africano. A group of Solomonic Columns were placed at the altar of the old basilica, two of which were preserved and remain in the current basilica.

Old St. Peter's Basilica

Stefaneschi Triptych

A triptych is an artwork that is divided into 3 sections but forms a complete depiction altogether. The Stefaneschi Triptych was created by legendary Italian painter Giotto di Bondone and served as one of the altarpieces inside the old basilica.  

Major Events at Old St. Peter's Basilica

Old St. Peter's Basilica

During the fourth century, Emperor Constantine I felt the need for a church in Rome, to be built over the grave of Saint Peter. After a few years, the basilica grew in significance, with more than a thousand people attending mass. It also became an important pilgrimage site for travelers from nearby countries. Aside from general mass, the basilica was also used for religious and cultural ceremonies including Papal coronations. In the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

A lot of people were aware of the importance of Old St. Peter's Basilica, which led to the Saracens raiding and destroying parts of the church including St. Peter's Tomb. This took place in 846, after which reparations were carried out by Pope Leo IV. Over the next 1000 or so years, the church continued to flourish as the most important Church in Rome.

Collapse of Old St. Peter’s Basilica

After serving as one of the most important churches in Rome, almost 1,200 years after its construction, Old St. Peter’s Basilica was in a terrible state. It is believed that one of its side walls was leaning almost 6 feet off, a sign that the building was on the verge of collapse. 

Over the next few years, many Popes tried to repair parts of the basilica to preserve the precious structure, however, all these attempts failed. Finally, Pope Julius II who reigned between 1503 and 1513, decided to demolish the building and build a new basilica in its place.

St. Peter’s Basilica Today

Old St. Peter's Basilica
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Frequently Asked Questions About Old St. Peter’s Basilica

Q. What is Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

A. Old St. Peter’s Basilica was an important church that existed between the 4th and 16th centuries.

Q. Where was Old St. Peter’s Basilica built?

A. Old St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site of the Circus of Nero, where the current St. Peter’s Basilica sits.

Q. When was Old St. Peter’s Basilica built?

A. Old St. Peter’s Basilica was built between the years 326 and 333.

Q. Who built Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

A. Old St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Emperor Constantine I.

Q. Why was Old St. Peter’s Basilica destroyed?

A. Many raiders began attacking Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which left the building in a terrible state. Pope Julius II decided to demolish the building and build a new basilica in its place.

Q. Are there any remains of Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

A. Some mosaics and frescoes have been preserved from Old St. Peter’s Basilica and placed in various museums and churches around Rome.

Q. Was St. Peter’s grave really at Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

A. It is believed that Saint Peter was killed and buried at the site of Old St. Peter’s Basilica.

Q. Where is St. Peter’s tomb now?

A. St. Peter’s tomb remains in its original place, however, a new basilica was built on top of it after the destruction of Old St. Peter's Basilica.

Q. When was the current St. Peter’s Basilica built?

A. The current St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 16th century under the direction of Pope Julius II.