Located within the Vatican City, the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter, commonly known as Saint Peter’s Basilica, is the greatest of all the churches of Christendom and the centre piece of the Vatican, which contains the government for the Roman Catholic Church. An independent sovereign city-state the Vatican consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome, approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), it has a population of around 800 and is the smallest independent state in the world by both population and area.
After Jesus’s death, the apostle Peter found his way to Rome where he started to establish the foundations for the Christian Church. Peter was crucified head down and buried in Rome during the time of Nero who blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in AD 68. For many years the Christians were persecuted until the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and reversed that persecution. It was Constantine who constructed the first Basilica in the year 326 over the spot where Peter was believed to have been crucified and buried. In 1506, St. Peter's Basilica was considered to be too small as the main church of the Vatican and a new one was commissioned. In 1546 the project came under the control of Michelangelo who designed the brick dome modeled on the Duomo in Florence. The dome is supported internally by four piers more than 18 meters (60 feet) thick, the dome, which is 138 feet in diameter rises to 390 feet above the floor. Although the dome was completed in 1590, the building itself took over 100 years of intermittent work before it was consecrated in 1626.
Located directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica is Saint Peter's Square. Designed by Bernini to enable the greatest number of people to see the Pope if he is either at a window in the Vatican Palace or on the balcony of the church façade. Around the square are two Colonnades consisting of 284 columns and 88 pilasters, these are said to have been designed to represent the arms of the Church welcoming people. On the Colonnades are 140 statues of the Saints: Above the façade are the statues of Jesus and the Apostles.
In the centre of St. Peter's Square is a 40 metre high obelisk dating from 1835 BC which was brought to Rome in the reign of Caligula to stand in the Circus a few hundred metres away. It was moved to its present location in 1585 by Pope Sixtus V. Also in the Square are two 8 metre high fountains, one by Maderno and one by Bernini. Statues of St Peter and St Paul rising over 10 metres high were constructed in 1847 to replace two smaller statues.
Entrance to the Basilica is via five doors which correspond to the five naves of the ancient and new buildings. One of the doors, the Holy Door, is bricked up on the inside and only opened by the pope during Jubilee years, when pilgrims may enter through it. The Church is built on the design of the Roman cross and has a capacity of 60,000 people. The central nave stretches for 186 metres and would hold a 15 storey building, in fact all the major cathedrals would fit inside St Peters and marks along the nave floor show where the other cathedrals would come to.
The central focus of the interior is the Baldachin, a monumental canopy 95ft high that covers the papal altar. The altar, where only the pope can say mass, is carved from a single block of Greek marble: Directly below the altar is the tomb of St Peter. The Baldachin has four gigantic twisted bronze columns modelled on the pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem, designed and constructed by Bernini it is the largest bronze sculpture in the world. Started in 1623 it took over nine years of work to complete.
Above the altar is the dome which is supported by four gigantic piers. In 1624 Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to create four loggias in these piers. They are called the "Loggias of the Relics". The relics are: several fragments of the Cross of Jesus; a scrap of material, showing the imprint of the face of a bearded man; a fragment of the lance which was said to have been the one that pieced the side of Christ on the cross; and parts of St. Andrew's head. Within the niches of the piers are statues associated with the relics: St. Helena is holding the cross; St. Longinus holds the spear; St. Andrew with his cross; and St. Veronica holding the veil with the image of Jesus’s face.
The Church contains eleven chapels and numerous statues including Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta. Also is the bronze statue of St. Peter portrayed giving a blessing and holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Pilgrims, who reached Rome in the Middle Ages, touched or kissed the foot of the statue and prayed to St. Peter to open the gates of heaven for them if they died during the pilgrimage. This tradition has continued so that today most people will touch or kiss its foot, resulting in the foot being worn away. Also on display are the bodies of a number of the popes in glass cases, these can be seen at the altars of some of the chapels.
The Basilica contains contemporary objects as well as those dating back hundreds of years. Visitors are able to visit the Treasury and the tombs in the Crypt and to see columns from the original Constantine Basilica and to go to the top of the dome which provides an excellent view over Rome.
Bronze Statue of St. Peter in the Basilica
The Pieta by Michelangelo
Temple dedicated to St. Pius X, whose body is contained in a crystal coffin below the altar.
The dome above the Papal Altar & Baldachin
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.