The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, officially known in Italian as Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and commonly known as Saint Peter’s Basilica, is a Late Renaissance church located within Vatican City. The basilica is not only the main church, but also the first of the seven pilgrimage churches, in Rome.
Circus of Nero
In the first century AD, the site of St. Peter’s Basilica hosted the Circus of Nero and a cemetery. According to earliest history, St. Peter was put to death in the Circus and his remains were buried just outside. Many people remembered and visited his grave considering that he is one of the most important figures in the Roman Catholic Church. In the year 324, this prompted then Emperor Constantine to begin the construction on a great basilica over the tomb. The shrine of St. Peter is still the central focus of the church today.
The original St. Peters Basilica
After eleven hundred years, the original St. Peter’s church was neglected and already in poor condition. There are several attempts to restore it but to no avail. In 1506, it was decided that the old basilica could no longer be saved. It was demolished to make way for a new St. Peter’s Basilica.The construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica began on that same year with the chosen design of Donato Bramante. Bramante did not go yet beyond the four central pillars and arches of the cathedral and he died. Raphael took over his place. He had other ideas of the church and decided to work on his plans.
After Raphael, Antonio del Sangallo took care of the construction of the church. Even though he followed Raphael’s design, he wanted to take part on its edifice that he decided to break the church down and rebuild it.
Then came Michaelangelo who bring back the church to its original design made by Bramante. Finally, Carlo Maderno build the St. peter’s Basilica further. He spread it out, so the basilica was bigger than its original design. Rich decorations covered the basilica and Gian Lorenzo Bernini made most of the decorations. In 1626, the structure was completed.
Inside St Peter’s Basilica
Opposite the bronze gateway is a remnant of the 13th century mosaic la Navi Celli of Giotto. In the pre frontal are five bronze doors. The left door, also called the door of death, displays the image of Christ, St. Peter and Pope John XXIII. Giacomo Manzù made the door. Its name derives from its traditional use as the exit for funeral processions as well as its subject matter. The right door, also called the holy door, which is by tradition only opened for great celebrations such as Jubilee years. The door is completely bricked on the inside. The last time it was opened was when Pope John Paul II died in 2005.
At the entrance, you will find on each side two bins with cherubs. These containers are filled with holy water. At the right side, you come to see the statue of La Pietà that represents Mary with her arms around the dying Jesus Christ. Michaelangelo created La Pietà .
If you are in the middle vessel, you will see on the floor a bronze medal. These symbolize the size of other Catholic churches. In this way, only you can see how great St. Peter’s Basilica is.
At the crossing of the transepts is the fundamental focus of the interior, the baldacchino. It is assumed as the resting place of St. Peter. This colossal canopy shelters the papal altar and the sacred relics of St. Peter. Artistically, it also serves to fill the vertical space under Michelangelo’s great dome. At the right portion of the Bernini’s canopy is a staircase. This leads to the crypt under the church which is the cemetery for many popes.
Four huge columns hold up the dome that has pictures of saints that stand on the pedestal of each column. These images are also on the bronze statue of St. Peter. Those who take pilgrimage in the St. Peter’s Basilica should follow the custom of kissing the apostle’s feet.
Bernini designed the splendid gilt-bronze Cattedra di San Pietro (throne of St. Peter) in the apse above the main altar. The legs of the throne are decorated with finely pierced ivory bands made in the School at Tours.
At the left side of the transept, the tomb of Alexander VII can be found at the horizontal part of the church that crosses the nave at the canopy. Above its door was Bernini’s last work, a skeleton holding an hourglass. With this painting, Bernini wanted to say that death will come to all of us.
In St. Peter’s Basilica, there are 148 tombs of deceased popes. These are located under the nave to the crypt. The St. Peter’s Basilica has room for about 60,000 people.
- 395 images
- 44 altars
- 135 mosaics
- Surface 15 x 160 square meters
Piazza San Pietro
St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily, April to September 7:00-19:00 and October to March 7:00-18:00
No visitation during ceremonies.
Note: If you want to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, wear any clothes with no bared shoulders or legs.