Old St. Peter's Basilica

Old St. Peter’s Basilica | A Glorious History

Set in the heart of Vatican City is the iconic St. Peter’s Basilica. Before this structure was constructed, an old basilica stood in its place between the 4th and 16th centuries. It was the first church built to memorialize Saint Peter after his death. Although the basilica itself is no more, there is much to be known about its history.

Who built Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

Old St. Peter's Basilica

The Old St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned under the reign of Emperor Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great. A notable figure in Roman history, 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 Christian architecture.

When was Old St. Peter’s Basilica built?

Emperor Constantine I ordered the construction of Old St. Peter’s Basilica in the year 326 to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter. Construction of the structure, which was built on the site of the Circus Nero, took about 40 years to complete.

History of Old St. Peter’s Basilica

Old St. Peter's Basilica

After the crucifixion of Saint Peter, construction of Old St. Peter’s Basilica began, following the orders of Emperor Constantine I. Construction took place some time between 326 and 333, and took almost 40 years to finish. After its initial years, the basilica started to gain a lot of importance, becoming one of the most prestigious churches in Rome. 

It not only served as a church but soon became an important pilgrimage site for all Catholics. Many religious and cultural events took place at the basilica, including the coronation of various Roman Emperors and Popes. Eventually, the basilica became a target of many raiders and was destroyed significantly by the 15th century.

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.  

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

Thanks to the vision of Pope Julius II and his predecessors, a beautiful new basilica was built on the same site as the old one and named St. Peter’s Basilica. Designed by Michelangelo, Bernini, and other renowned architects, St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the most stunning piece of Renaissance architecture. It is one of the largest churches in the world and regarded as the most important one in all of Christendom. 

Construction of the basilica began in 1506 and carried on until 1615 under the direction of Pope Paul V. Aside from its outstanding architecture, the basilica holds a lot of history within its walls. Due to its religious significance and historical value, St. Peter’s Basilica attracts millions of visitors every year. 

Even though the loss of the old basilica is a tragic one, the new St. Peter’s Basilica more than makes up for it.

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All Your Old St. Peter’s Basilica Questions Answered

Q. What is Old St. Peter’s Basilica?

A. Old St. Peter’s Basilica was an important church that existed between the 14th 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 the old one.

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.