Stand at the base of the ancient Egyptian Obelisk ‘The Witness’ in St. Peter’s Square and an overwhelming feeling starts to dawn on you. The vast colonnade seems to embrace you from both sides, even as you crane your neck to admire the imposing facade and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, speechless – a visit to the St. Peter’s Basilica will leave you with many emotions.
The largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica is more than just the most important building in Christendom. It is a jewel within Vatican City from where Popes have spread the word of God throughout the world. The Basilica is a focal point of millions of pilgrims each year, but it is also a true cultural, historical and architectural landmark.
The classic Renaissance structure holds within itself treasures from millennia including paintings, sculptures, artefacts and the art decorated on the walls. A visit to St. Peter’s Basilica is a treat to the senses and the soul!
Address: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City
Construction started: 18 April 1506
Architects: Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Raphael
Completed: 18 November 1626
History of St. Peter’s Basilica
The story of St. Peter’s Basilica begins with the crucifixion of Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus, in 64 AD. He was crucified upside down on a cross in Circus of Nero, and buried nearby on what is now the Vatican Hill. Emperor Constantine The Great built the Old Basilica between 319 AD and 333 AD on the grounds of the burial spot of St. Peter. Later on, in the 16th Century at the behest of Pope Julius II, the current St. Peter’s Basilica was built.
St. Peter’s Basilica is currently a Papal Basilica and is famous for being the site of St. Peter’s Tomb and the Chair of St. Peter, which confers a spiritual authority to the Pope. However, it is not the official Basilica of the Pope, but all major Papal functions and events are conducted here due to its sheer size and importance.
St. Peter’s Basilica holds a lot of records including the largest church building in the world, second tallest building in Rome and the tallest dome in the world. Apart from that it is also conferred as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the wealth of art and culture it embodies and preserves.
St. Peter’s Basilica Architecture
The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica took over a century in the making! The planning of the Basilica started when Pope Julius II commissioned a competition to design the grandest building in Christendom. The winner of the competition was Donato Bramante, and the foundation stone was laid in 1506. A series of deaths and personnel changes led to the change of architects from Bramante to Raphael to eventually Michelangelo in 1547.
The final dome and the architecture are accredited to the brilliance of Michelangelo who based it on the designs of Bramante. The Basilica is built in the traditional Renaissance architecture and has been an inspiration for church buildings across the world. The iconic facade was designed by Maderno and remains an unforgettable memory in millions of pilgrims who visit it each year to see the Pope.
St. Peter’s Basilica Highlights
The Dome or the Cupola of the St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest domes in the world. The design of the Dome is attributed to Michelangelo; however the construction of the dome was completed only in 1590, by his pupil Giacomo Della Porta. The cupola has several elements across six concentric circles, including 16 large windows, busts, frescos and figurines of over 96 figures. You can climb 231 steps or take the elevator to reach the base and climb up another 320 steps to reach the top of the cupola for unhindered views of the Vatican and Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica is also the resting ground of several popes and historical figures and you can find their graves in the underground level known as the Vatican Grottoes. There are more than 100 such tombs, as well as chapels, dedicated to the popes and saints. These grottoes, or artificial caves, have elaborate designs and are decorated with frescos, sarcophagi, paintings and inscriptions. Among the notable ones are the Chapel of St. Peter, tomb of Christina of Sweden, marble statue of St Peter enthroned, and the tomb of Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.
The Pieta is one of the most recognisable statues in the world and was created by the Italian Master Michelangelo. The Carrara marble structure depicts Jesus after his crucifixion in the lap of Mother Mary. Almost 6 feet in height, the sculpture towers and exudes a monumental aura that portrays the sanctity of the moment. Pieta roughly translates to Pity in English, is the only sculpture that was signed by Michelangelo and was created in the late 15th century. You can find this breathtaking statue in the first chapel on the right as soon as you enter St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Baldachin
Baldachin, otherwise known as ciborium, means a canopy or a structure that is placed over an altar. In St. Peter’s Basilica, the baldachin over the high altar rises magnificently becoming the focal point of the hall. It is placed directly above St. Peter’s Tomb and under the dome, and it is where the Pope celebrates Mass. The bronze structure was the first work created in Bernini in the Basilica and took nine years to complete and was finished in 1634. It is designed in classic Baroque style and became a standard for church interiors and architecture.
Statue of St. Longinus
The Statue of St. Longinus is located in a gallery ‘loggia’ at one of the crossings in the St. Peter’s Basilica. You will have to crane your neck to admire this statue that towers over 13 feet and was sculpted by Bernini. The evocative marble sculpture is of the Roman centurion, St. Longinus, who pierced Jesus with a lance but who converted to Christianity after Christ’s death. The statue was built in 1643 and took over four blocks of marble.
St. Peter’s Tomb
St. Peter was said to be crucified in Caligula’s Circus back in 64 C.E. and buried at a spot on the Vatican Hill. Later on, during the reign of Constantinople, a church was built on the tomb of St. Peter, which was later turned into the present St. Peter’s Basilica in the 16th century. Currently, the Confessio area is created infront of St. Peter’s Tomb to commemorate his martyrdom. The baldachin and the dome are created directly above the tomb, and several popes are buried below the tomb in the Vatican Grottoes. There is however a lack of consensus whether the tomb really contains the remains of St. Peter!
The Chair of St. Peter
The famous Chair of St. Peter is a glorious throne that is located in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica. The chair is essentially an ancient oaken chair that has been repaired and decorated by Bernini and is now ensconced in a spectacular display of bronze statues of Saints, angels and the depiction of holy spirit through a glass stained painting of a dove. It is considered to be a relic and is known as Cathedra Petri, which is significant as it gives spiritual direction to the Pope, and the word itself Cathedra means ‘Seat of the Bishop’.