Welcome to St. Peter’s Basilica and what many
rate as the most beautiful building ever made. For centuries, this basilica has been the
center for the Catholic faith and it is regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites of all.
St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the very largest religious buildings ever and has the largest
interior of any Christian church in the world. It has an impressive total capacity of over
60,000 people. The history of the basilica dates back almost
2000 years. The basilica is named after Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus
and according to the tradition, the first Bishop of Rome. Saint Peter is therefore the
first in the line of the papal succession. After the crucifixion of Jesus in the 1st
century, Peter took a leading position among Jesus’ followers and was of great importance
in the founding of the Christian Church. It is believed that Peter met his martyrdom during
a travel to Rome in year 64. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk
in the Circus of Nero. This obelisk is the very same one that you can see standing in
the center of the St Peter’s Square. Peter was buried near the Circus of Nero,
less than 150 meters from the place of his death. A few years later, a small shrine was
built on the site to honor him. Almost 300 years later, the shrine was replaced by a
basilica on order by the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine the first.
Over the course of time, the basilica more and more fell into a ruinous state. In order
to combat this, Pope Nicolas the 5th ordered the restoration and enlargement of the basilica
in the 15th century. The work on the new grand basilica didn’t start until after Pope Nicolas
death, when then new pope, Julius the second, laid the first stone of the new basilica in
1506. Throughout the project, several noted architects and artists were involved. The
most prominent one was the renowned artist and architect, Michelangelo. He was the chief
architect and was responsible for its main design as well as several other features.
Michelangelo never got to see his work fully completed, as he died in 1624, two years before
the St. Peter’s Basilica was dedicated by Pope Urban the 8th. The building itself is truly massive with
its 218 meter long nave. The basilica’s dome is the world’s largest, measuring 42m in diameter
and reaches an impressive 138 meters towards the sky.
The square in front of the basilica was built between 1656 and 1667, designed by Bernini.
The centerpiece is the impressive Egyptian obelisk you can see in the middle, flanked
by two stunning fountains. The obelisk dates back to the 13th century BC and was brought
from Egypt to Rome in the 1st century. It was moved to its present location in the 16th
century on order of Pope Sixtus the 5th. The obelisk stands 40 meters tall, including the
cross that crowns it. The square is outlined by an open colonnade,
symbolically welcoming the visitors into the Catholic Church with open arms. A little fun
fact is that there is a circular stone between the obelisk and each fountain. If you stand
on one of these circular stones and look towards the colonnade, the rows of columns will line
up flawlessly and appear to be just a single row.
As you can see, the colonnade is crowned with not one, not two, but 140 beautiful statues.
These statues were sculptured by a number of different artists during the 17th century
and depict Christian saints. Now, let’s turn our attention to the front
façade of the basilica. The façade was built by Carlo Maderno and stretches almost 120
meters. In the middle of the façade, you can see the classical central balcony. This
balcony is called Loggia of the Blessings and is used for the announcement of the new
pope. Underneath the balcony, you can see a relief depicting Christ giving the keys
to St. Peter. Above the balcony, you can read a long inscription.
Translated it means; “Paul the 5th Borghese, Roman, Supreme Pontiff,
in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, erected in honor of the Prince of Apostles”.
The façade is crowned with 13 statues made in beautiful travertine. These statues depict
Christ the Redeemer in the center, flanked by the twelve apostles.
If you look at either side of the stairs, you will see two more statues, significantly
larger than the ones on top of the façade. These statues represent the patron saints
of Rome. Look towards the basilica, you will have St Peter on your left side and St Paul
to the right. These were ordered by Pope Pius the 9th in mid 19th century, who wanted to
replace the existing smaller ones. If you are impressed with the beauty of the
exterior of the basilica, just wait until you enter it. Inside you will discover the
most amazing church you have ever seen. The building’s interior really displays the wealth
of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The interior, which includes 45 altars, is
decorated by many famous artists. Some of the most important works is the Pietà by
Michelangelo aswell as the papal altar and the Throne of St. Peter by Bernini. Just make
sure you are properly dressed before you enter, as a strict dress code is enforced.
You can also find the tombs of several Popes inside the basilica. Tradition and some historical
evidence hold that Saint Peter’s tomb is directly below the main altar of the basilica. This
is the reason why many Popes have been interred at St Peter’s ever since the Early Christian
period. The majority of the tombs are found in the crypt which is well worth a visit as
it also contains architectural fragments from the earlier churches.
Today, St. Peter’s is famous as a place of pilgrimage as well as millions of tourists.
It is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is considered one of the greatest
buildings ever built. It has been described as “holding a unique position in the Christian
world” and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom” – big words, but hardly any
exaggerations. What a lot of people don’t actually know is
that you can climb the main dome of the basilica. You have the option of taking the elevator
or the stairs, the latter being a bit cheaper. From there you have a magnificent view of
Rome in general and of the Saint Peter’s square in particular.