Saint Peter’s Basilica within the Vatican City in Rome is where the Pope and the government of the Roman Catholic Church is based. It contains the resting place of St Peter and 91 popes and is the greatest of all the churches of Christendom.
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 center 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 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 which is said to have a capacity of 300,000 people.
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.
In the centre of St. Peter's Square is a 40-metre-high obelisk dating from 1835 BCE.
This 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 rise over 10 metres high were constructed in 1847 to replace two smaller statues and stand in front of the basilica.
The statues themselves are 5.5 metres high and stand on a pedestal of 4.9 metres. St Peter is holding the keys to the Gates of Heaven in his right hand. The statue of St Paul holds a long sword in his right hand, while his left hand holds a book. This was sculpted in 1838 by Tadolini, a student of Canova.
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.
Leading from the Colonnade is a straight covered wing, 120 metres long, which links with the Basilica's façade. At the end of that is a set of Bronze Doors.
This is an entrance to the Apostolic Palace (the official residence of the pope), which is guarded by the Swiss Guard.
The Swiss Guard dates back to 1506 when they were recruited as mercenaries as the Pope’s bodyguard. These days they still have that function although they are mainly ceremonial.
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 with the Baldachin rising above it.
The Baldachin has four gigantic, twisted bronze columns modelled on the pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem.
These columns sit on marble bases and have a canopy on top with four angels, which were designed and constructed by Bernini. It is the largest bronze sculpture in the world. Started in 1623 it took over nine years to complete. Part of the bronze was acquired from the beams of the Pantheon.
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". 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 numerous statues including Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta. This has a glass screen in front of the chapel which was erected after the statue was attacked by a man with a hammer in 1972. Carved by Michelangelo when he was 24 years old, and is one of his most famous works, it is the only one he ever signed.
A major attraction 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 their pilgrimage. This tradition has continued and today most people will touch or kiss its foot, resulting in the foot being worn away. The statue has been attributed to the late 13th century, though some date it back as far as the 5th century. Behind the statue appears to a fine brocade draping, however, it is actually a mosaic. In fact, many of what appear to be paintings in the chapels are mosaics.
There are eleven chapels in St Peters and also on display are the preserved bodies of a number of the popes in glass cases, these can be seen at the altars of some of the chapels.
Such as the temple dedicated to St. Pius X, whose body is contained in a crystal coffin below the altar, as in fact are a number of other popes.
The majority of the popes are buried in crypts in the grotto and a total of 91 are buried in St Peters Basilica.
There are a number of Monuments to previous popes. It was Pope Gregory XIII who is famous for the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which was first introduced in 1582, although it took several hundred years for some countries to change from the Julian calendar.
Pope Gregory XVI was the last Monk to be elected pope in 1831 and on his monument, he has two symbolic figures on the sides, which are Knowledge and Prudence.
An interesting tomb is that of the Stuarts which marks the spot in the grotto below where King James III, the 'Old Pretender' to the English throne, and his two sons, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Henry lie buried.
The Basilica contains contemporary objects as well as those dating back hundreds of years, so it is worth a visit to the Treasury.
It is interesting to see the difference in the tombs in the Crypt from the older elaborate ones to the simple one of Pope John-Paul II and to see columns from the original Constantine Basilica. It is also possible to go to the top of the dome, which provides an excellent view of Rome.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.