St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour
Text from the CD-ROM ©1999 Our Sunday Visitor
(all rights reserved)
Continuing along the aisle, on the right is the small Chapel of the Relics, normally closed, in which an ancient ligneous cross, erroneously attributed to Cavallini, is venerated and the heads of St. Petronilla, St. Damasus Pope and of the Egyptian martyr St. Mena are preserved.
On the door of the Chapel is the funeral monument to Leo XII, commissioned from G. Fabris in 1836 by Gregory XVI. It shows a front view of the Pope standing while giving his blessing, in a declamatory pose. In the background the heads of his cardinals: Pacca, Odescalchi, Zurla and Cappellari, who was to be Gregory XVI, can be seen.
In front is the Monument to Christina of Sweden, ordered by Innocent XII but finished under Clement XI in 1702. It was designed by Carlo Fontana; the bronze medallion with the harsh profile of the eccentric queen is by Gilardoni; the putti are by Ottoni; the bas-relief, depicting the abjuration of Christina, which took place in Innsbruck in 1655, is by Théodon.
Next comes the St. Sebastian Chapel, over the altar of which is a copy in mosaic by Cristofari of the fresco by Domenichino, which once decorated this chapel, but was then transferred in 1730 to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, under the guidance of Zabaglia, a famous head "sampietrino" and inventor of several "machines and devices" used to carry out complex operations for the transfer of works of art. The Saint, captain of the praetorians and martyred under Diocletian, is shown tied to a tree in the Adonis wood on the Palatine, about to be pierced by arrows. This is an example of classicist nobility of expression and composition.
In the cupola, the corbels and the lunettes, Pietro da Cortona on the contrary offers us a typical example of Baroque decoration, of which he was a master in Rome. The dynamism and pleasantness of his inventive style appear natural in their easy execution and in their pictorial smoothness, even though they are in effect based on the painter's great skills in perspective and composition.
The cupola shows the apocalyptic scene of the Glory of the Throned Eternal Father near the divine Lamb adored by martyrs carrying the palms of martyrdom. The corbels show Abel who offers the lamb in sacrifice, Isaiah with the saw, instrument of the martyrdom, Ezekiel killed for his faith and Zechariah stoned in the vestibule of the Temple. The lunettes show the Martyrdom of the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother, Mattathias killing the Hebrew Apostate, Daniel in the lion pit, the three boys in the burning furnace, the old Eleazar conducted to his torture, the Hebrew women thrown from the walls for having circumcised their sons.
Then comes a third passage surmounted by a third cupola, devised together with the corbels by Pietro da Cortona and transformed into mosaic by Abbatini. The guiding theme of the decoration is the Eucharistic Mystery contested by the Protestants, which was therefore illustrated with great scenes full of religious struggles, with symbols and prefigurations referring to this Mystery.
In the cupola, we can see an apocalyptic vision of the Altar sprinkled with incense by the Angels and with perfumed aromas by the Blessed Souls. The corbels show the persons who announced the Eucharistic sacrifice: Melchizedek who offers bread and wine; Elijah nourished by the angels; Aaron with the pot with the Manna; a priest distributing the bread of the proposition.
The lunettes, devised by Vanni and transformed into mosaic by Mancuti, allude to the Holy Communion and to the punishment of those who took it undeservedly: the supreme priest who offers the firstlings of wheat; Joshua and Caleb bringing a bunch of grapes from the Promised Land; the Angel purifying Isaiah's lips with burning coal; Oza struck dead because he tasted the prohibited honey; the idol Dagon smashed by the presence of the Lord's Arc.
The splendid, solemn Holy Sacrament Chapel opens on the right. Visits to it are restricted to those who wish to pray. It is entered through an elegant iron gate decorated in bronze with the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII, designed by Borromini. Defined by Turcio as "the very soul of the Basilica," it shines with the rich gilded stucco decorations, the work of Giacomo Perugino to drawings by Pietro da Cortona, made up of 29 bas-reliefs supported by small putti, showing symbols and characters from the Old and New Testaments.
The four arches are adorned with allegorical statues representing Abundance, Faith, Sacrifice and Charity, which are crowned by 16 statues of angels, eight large ones in the tympanums and eight small ones in the corbels. The light penetrates radiantly from the small central cupola. The focal center of the Chapel is the altar, enriched by precious marble with the arms of Clement X Altieri at the side from which rises the Ciborium by Bernini, who with it created a harmonious foretaste of monumental goldsmithing, with sparkling contrast between gold and silver and the dark blue of lapis lazuli.
There is a clear revival of the 16th century style, directly inspired by Bramante's Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio. It shows, however, the Baroque spirit in the upper decoration of the 12 statuettes of the apostles, plus the one of the Savior on the small cupola in clear Berninian style, which ennoble the whole structure of the work.
At the sides, two gilded bronze angels kneel, a motif dear to Bernini right from the beginning of his career, which here become two magnificent figures, at the same time light because of the wide looseness of their robes, the affected grace of their attitudes and the expressive ecstasy of their faces. This ecstasy seems more gently natural in the angel on the right, the work of the Master, while the other is the work of a helper. Bernini's preparatory sketches of both are, however, still in existence.
Behind the altar, from 1628 to 1631, Berrettini painted the Holy Trinity on slate. It is a work in which the master, without foregoing the typical Baroque style, was able to express a dynamic composition, animated by many figures, but at the same time harmoniously intimate, an image strictly in line with the theological concept to be illustrated, so much so that it became a true iconographic model for this subject until the end of the 18th century.
On the altar on the right is a mosaic copy of St. Francis receiving the stigmata by Domenichino, which is in the Church of the Cappuccines in Rome. At the sides are two spiral columns from the Oratory of St. Mark ad Praesepem, constructed by John VII at the beginning of the eighth century.
Up until 1922, before the altar there was Sixtus IV's bronze Sepulcher transferred there in 1635 from the Sistine Choir and now housed in the Treasury Museum of the Basilica. This magnificent funeral bed, terminated in 1495, is an absolute masterpiece of this kind of monument and is one of the most important ones by Antonio Benci, known as Pollaiolo, because of its superb, truly masterful sculpturing. In it the Pope, a famous humanist and learned theologian, appears serenely relaxed, surrounded by the theological Virtues and cardinals, while the lower part shows the Arts and Sciences, of which he was an enlightened protector.
The rich furnishings of this Chapel are completed by the floor which Pius IX had re-laid with a fine mosaic inserted in the center and by the organ placed on the left, which was originally in the adjacent Gregorian Chapel and is based on an earlier model, created for Pope Gregory XIII, restored in 1914 by Morettini. The door on the left of the altar connects with the Papal apartments, by means of a stairway which Pope Sixtus V had built.
On leaving the Chapel, on the right of the subsequent passage is the Monument to Gregory XIII, built by Camillo Rusconi in 1723, entirely in white marble, in a classicist style influenced more by Algardi than by Bernini in its structural linearity and the expressive peacefulness, enlivened however by the dynamism of the winged dragon of the Boncompagni family which appears to spring out from beneath the sarcophagus.
Above it sits the majestic, but not severe, figure of this venerable Pope, flanked by statues of Religion and Wisdom in the guise of Minerva, who raises a drape to show the bas-relief of the sarcophagus. With an animated yet balanced layout, rich in personages, this work by Carlo Mellone illustrates the event for which Pope Gregory XIII is most famous: the reform of the calendar, which is still in use. The monument was commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Boncompagni to honor his illustrious ancestor.
Facing it is the humble tomb of Gregory XIV. Built by Prospero da Brescia with the two lateral statuettes of Faith and Knowledge, it was originally meant for Pope Gregory XIII. However, after the transfer of his remains to the above monument, the tomb was adapted with a stucco urn for Pope Gregory XIV Sfondrati, who reigned for only 10 months, from 1590 to 1591.
Leaving this side aisle, we find ourselves in front of the St. Jerome Altar, situated at the back of the front right hand pier. On it is the large altarpiece transformed into a mosaic in 1744 from the famous painting by Domenichino dated 1614 and now hanging in the Vatican Pinacoteca. The artist painted the 90 year old Saint nude, almost dying, receiving the last Communion from St. Ephrem, with the help of the Roman matron St. Paula.
It is a work which expresses the high technical qualities of the author, devoted to a strictly objective rendering of the episode, not without an emphatic and expressive pathos in the characters.
Turning right, we enter the Gregorian Chapel, the first in Michelangelo's construction to be completed, by Giacomo della Porta on the wishes of Gregory XIII; his coat of arms is before the altar dedicated to St. Mary of the Succor (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), whose image, formerly in the St. Leo Oratory in the old Basilica, was moved here in 1578.
Built with a profusion of rich furnishings, using various kinds of marble and gems, bronze and stucco ornaments, this chapel can be considered a church within the church. It is surmounted by a round dome 42 meters high - one of the four identical domes placed on the corners of the Basilica - decorated between the windows of its tambour by allegories and symbols of the Virgin Mary, by Salvatore Monosilio in the 18th century. More valuable are the corbels by Girolamo Muziano, a valid master contemporary of Michelangelo, who in them illustrated the Fathers of the Latin Church, St. Gregory and St. Jerome, and those of the Greek Church, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus with dignified solemnity.
In the lunette over the altar at the sides of the window, Marcello Provenzale realized an Annunciation, later partially replaced by Nicola La Piccola.
On the right, above the door leading to the Holy Sacrament Chapel, is the Monument to Gregory XVI, built in 1855 by Luigi Amici with the classicist style on a model by Canova which, however, is rather academic in its precision and strict linearity. At the top sits the Pope blessing his flock, at the sides are Wisdom and Prudence, and below the bas-relief of the sarcophagus. The two columns in African gray marble, like the two similar ones near the altar come from the temple of Rome in the Roman Forum.
In the passage between the Gregorian Chapel and the right hand crossing, behind the St. Longinus pier, is the St. Basil Magno Altar with its altarpiece painted in 1745 by a French artist who had settled in Rome, Pierre Subleyras, and transformed almost immediately into a mosaic under the supervision of Pier Leone Ghezzi. The work showing Bishop Basil who continues to celebrate Mass, regardless of the entry of Emperor Valens and his followers into the church, expresses the gifts of this protagonist of Roman painting in the mid 18th century.
Its majestic descriptive simplicity, based on a classic balance between the plastic and chromatic masses, also perfectly adapts itself to transformation into mosaic, with the result that it is one of the most successful of the entire series. It should be noted that this altar is the only one that does not have a mosaic altar frontal, but panels of Verona red marble with white Carrara marble moldings.
Facing the chapel is the Monument to Benedict XIV, built in 1769 by Bracci, which refers back to the late Baroque tradition, introducing the novelty of a Pope standing and blessing his flock with a rather declamatory gesture. More convincing, as often is the case in these works, are the lateral statues of Wisdom, by Bracci himself, in memory of the erudition of the Pope, and Gaspare Sibilia's Unselfishness, shown refusing the gifts brought by a small putto.
We now enter the wide right hand transept, corresponding to one of the original arms of the Greek cross designed by Michelangelo, of whom we can admire the majestic spatial concept exalted by the powerful architectural masses, but also by the clear linearity of the semicircular apse ending the transept and of the vault. This was decorated with white and gold stucco, designed by the young Luigi Vanvitelli, nominated in 1726 as architect in St. Peter's. In the three large round gilded bas-reliefs, G. B. Maini sculpted three scenes with the Liberation of St. Peter, St. Paul's sermon in the Areopagus and St. Paul and St. Barnabus healing a cripple, based on tapestries by Raphael.
In the niches in the walls are some of the most excellent statues of the Founders of the 18th century: St. Brunone by Slodtz, St. Giuseppe Calasanzio by Spinazzi, St. Gaetano by Monaldi and St. Girolamo Emiliani by Bracci.
In 1870, in this crossing then used as the council chamber, the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope was solemnly proclaimed by the First Vatican Council, while the papacy's "temporal dominion" came to an end.
The main altar is dedicated to Sts. Processo and Martiniano who, according to tradition, were St. Peter's jailers, who were converted and baptized by him. Their relics, originating in an apostolic era cemetery along the Via Aurelia, after being moved to various other locations, in 1605 were placed in the porphyry urn under the altar, which is flanked by two superb antique yellow columns. The depiction of the martyrdom of the two saints was executed in 1737 by the able mosaicist Fabio Cristofari from the original painting, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca, by Jean de Boulogne known as "Valentin," one of the major French followers of Caravaggio, from whom he assimilated the expressive realism and the dramatic contrasts in light and shade, giving them his own interpretation.
The altar on the right is dedicated to St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia, the king made saint whose worship was introduced into the Basilica right from the early 14th century, by the Bishop Hincon of Holmütz. His martyrdom, decreed by his brother Boleslav, is shown with accentuated realism in the altarpiece, a mosaic dating 1740 based on the original painting by Angelo Caroselli, another follower of Caravaggio.
The left hand altar is dedicated to St. Erasmus, a martyr at Formiae under Diocletian, whose worship was instituted in St. Peter's by Gelasius II in 1118. The altarpiece was transformed to mosaic in 1739 by Cristofari and Ottaviani, very faithfully reproducing the colors and the lines of the original painting by Poussin, donated to the Basilica by Cardinal Francesco Barberini and now in the Vatican Pinacoteca.
It is a work of emphatic grandeur, much admired at the time of its painting, but marred by a stylistic and interpretative compromise of this master of 17th century classicism, who in this example shows himself open to the Caravaggesque influence in the crude representation of the martyrdom, and some Baroque inspiration in the young angels.
Leaving the right transept and continuing our tour, we enter the so-called Michelangelo ambulatory around the back of the piers. Behind the St. Helen pier can be found the "Navicella" Altar, so called because of the mosaic of the altarpiece by Cristofari based on the pre-existent fresco by Lanfranco. It is a Baroque translation of Giotto's Navicella, but marred by the excessive emphasis of the facial expressions and postures, as well as a complicated composition.
The two lateral columns should be noted. They are covered in Sienna yellow marble (the so-called "brocatello"); the only ones in St. Peter's, they replace the previous two in red granite, then in a poor state and later used for the thresholds of the five doors to the Basilica.
Facing the altar is the Monument to Clement XIII, one of the masterpieces of the series, by Antonio Canova, who with it introduced neoclassicism into the Basilica. The general idea is in line with the new aesthetic tendencies in the purity of its planes and lines, accentuated by the use of white marble which produces an overall candor.
Due to the skillful placing of the elements in the composition, the monument subtracts itself from a rigid frontal and symmetrical view, as do almost all of the subsequent works in this style. A diagonal line, marked by the seated figure of the Genius of Death and by the standing figure of Religion, and especially by the kneeling three-quarter figure of the Pope, contrasts with the direct contraposition between the two lions and between Charity and Hope sculpted on the bas-relief of the sarcophagus.
The figure of the Pope, nobly composed in the act of prayer and in the embellishment of his vestments, is nevertheless realistically animated by the objective likeness of the face, which confers a sense of vitality to the whole group.
This is a sensation to which the two magnificent lions also contribute - one roaring as a symbol of ever vigilant strength, and the other sleeping to suggest docility which moderates this strength. In its purity of line, the mournful Genius of Death appears as a convincing revival of ancient classical statues, which certainly inspired Canova.
The only jarring note in the general harmonious balance is the excessively large and static size of the front-facing figure of Religion which, moreover, holds an enormous cross. The Hebrew words radiating from its forehead mean "God is Holy," while those on the belt mean "Doctrine and Truth."
Next comes the St. Michael the Archangel and St. Petronilla Chapel, so called because of its two altars of the same name. Its mosaic decorations are based on the Celestial Militia headed by the Archangel. In the dome is an angelic Gloria, designed by Niccolò Ricciolini who coordinated the work of the various mosaicists, among whom was Ottaviani. The corbels show the effigies of some of the Doctors and Fathers of the Church who had written about Angels.
These mosaics were executed by Calandra in 1639 on cartoons by Romanelli, Abatini, Pellegrini and Sacchi. In the lunettes the Ottaviani brothers executed mosaics based on designs by Lamberti and Benefial, with two scenes connected to the protection of the angels, and two with the life of St. Petronilla.
The altarpiece showing St. Michael Archangel, which replaces the previous one by Cavalier d'Arpino, is a mosaic copy dated 1757 of the famous painting by Reni, which hangs in the Church of the Cappuccins. It is a duplicate executed directly from the original, fully conserving that ideal beauty, more graceful than proud, expressed by the artist, so much so that it was said that he had been to heaven to copy it.
The other altarpiece in this chapel is based on a much more complex and original composition, created in 1730 by Pietro Paolo Cristofari from the large canvas by Guercino, now in the Capitoline Pinacoteca, representing St. Petronilla's Exhumation and Glory. This transposition in mosaic was among the first carried out in St. Peter's, and is in any case a masterpiece in the whole series, due to the intrinsic value of the painting and the sensitive skill of the mosaicist in faithfully maintaining the chromatic and chiaroscuro relations, as well as the plastic and linear effects of the original, thus succeeding in perfectly rendering the dynamism of the composition and the pictorial and expressive intensity of the various figures in all their details.
This altar, which from 1606 contains the remains of the Saint, can be considered to be the heritage of the devotion of the kings of France and of their people to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Basilica in particular. It, in fact, replaces the round imperial construction situated on the left side of the old St. Peter's, where the body of the Saint (perhaps a descendent of the imperial stock of the Flavi) was originally placed.
It was elected by the French sovereigns, from the Carolingians up to the Valois, as their national church, enriching it with donations and providing for its restoration, until it was demolished, by order of Julius II to make space for the New Basilica.
On its left, on the same wall, is the Monument to Clement X. It was built in precious marble to a design by Mattia de Rossi commissioned by the Pope's adopted nephew, Cardinal Paluzzi Altieri, who had himself portrayed in the bas-relief in the act of raising the Pope's mantle. The white marble statue of the seated Pope, the work of Ferrata, in effect appears a little diminished by those of Mercy by Mazzuoli and Benevolence by Morelli. On the sarcophagus, Reti depicted the opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee of 1675. The putti holding the portfolio and the two allegorical statues supporting the coat of arms are by Ambrogio Parisi and Leonardo Reti. On the whole, the monument can be considered a fine example of the work of Bernini's 18th century followers, successfully based on polychrome marble.
Almost in front of it, under a simple stone set in the floor, lie the remains of Sixtus IV and Julius II and the two cardinals of their family, transferred there in 1926 after the removal of Pollaiolo's funeral bed from the Holy Sacrament Chapel. Thus, the fate of the imperious Julius II, who wished to be buried at the center of the apsidal arm of St. Peter's, according to Michelangelo's project, has instead been to be buried in the most humble of tombs, even though his memory and his image are perpetuated in various masterpieces, from Raphael's portrait to the Cenotaph, surmounted by Michelangelo's famous Moses, in San Pietro in Vincoli.
Facing the tomb is the Tabitha Altar, flanked by two columns in gray granite and consecrated in 1726. The mosaic altarpiece showing the Resurrection of the Widow Tabitha by Peter in the city of Joppe, was executed in 1760 from the original by Costanzi, now in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which had replaced an earlier fresco over the altar by Baglione.
Continuing on we reach the main tribune, which is the same size as the two arms of the transept, but appears larger and more majestic since it seems to be the prolongation of the nave.
Climbing the two porphyry steps which mark the entrance to it, we continue under the spacious vault, decorated with gilded stucco on a white background designed by Luigi Vanvitelli. Above the altar are three round panels containing bas-reliefs sculpted by Maini, the one in the center representing the Redeemer handing over the keys to Peter from Raphael's tapestry, the ones at the sides showing Peter's Crucifixion from the painting by Reni, and the Decollation of St. Paul from a silver relief by Algardi.
Among the statues of the Founders placed here, those from the 18th century deserve mention: St. Benedict by Montauti, St. Elias by Cornacchini, St. Francis of Assisi by Monaldi and St. Dominic by Legros, all from the first half of the century.
At the end of the apse, in the center, is St. Peter's Chair, perfectly visible through Bernini's Canopy even from the entrance. It is a large bronze structure containing the ancient oak Throne decorated with small carved ivory plaques showing the labors of Heracles and some celestial constellations.
An ancient tradition holds that the Apostle himself sat upon it during sermons. However, the archaeologist G.B. De Rossi, who was able to examine the venerable relic during one of the centenary festivities in 1867, the last time that the Chair was put on show, concluded that only the acacia wood skeleton dates from the early age, while the other parts in oak, anchored to the skeleton by strips of iron and the ivory plaques, belong to a re-construction of the Chair made in the Byzantine period.
. The antique relic was held in the monastery of St. Martin, situated where the Veronica pier presently stands. After being moved to various positions, in 1656 Alexander VII decided to place the Chair in a position worthy of its importance, entrusting Bernini with the task. He devised another ingenious solution, in line with that of his Canopy, to position the new work harmoniously in one of the most prominent parts of the Basilica, without altering the previous style impressed upon it by Bramante and Michelangelo.
His son Domenico was thus able to write in his biography of his father "he created the beginning and the end of that great Basilica." Once again, he devised a mobile kind of architecture, which was not superimposed upon the fabric of the building, but was a joyous decoration, of a kind similar to the temporary theater machinery more than once designed by him. In fact, he encased the ancient Chair in gilded bronze, surrounding it with four statues, again in bronze, of the Doctors of the Church, which seem almost as if they are about to lift it and bear it in procession.
The four huge figures, with gilded robes and bronze colored faces and hands, rest on a pedestal of rare marbles (White and Black from France and Jasper from Sicily), bearing the arms of the Chigi family. In the fore are on the left St. Ambrose and on the right St. Augustine for the Latin Church; behind, on the left, St. Athanasius and on the right, St. John Chrysostom for the Greek Church.
The Chair, even though it is of considerable size, is treated like a jewel, completely ornamented with gold arabesques and engravings. It is flanked by two standing angels and surmounted on its back by two putti holding up the tiara and the keys. Above, Bernini employed the light source from the central window of the apse making it the focal point of a swirling glory of angels and putti which, amidst clouds and darting rays, fly around a dove representing the Holy Spirit.
Our eyes find it hard to follow the complicated lines of the composition, remaining enraptured by the joyous intermingling of light, motion and color. The work is one of the heights of Baroque decoration, but at the same time it expresses a high theological conception: the Eastern and Western Churches, "united in the faith of the Catholic Church, pay homage to the Roman Throne, upon which the Holy Spirit pours forth the rays of its wisdom, so that it may, with infallible doctrine, support the Christian world," as Turcio lucidly explained.
This work too, completed in 1665, cost the huge sum of 82,000 scudi, covering the use of 74,000 kg of bronze, and the continuous employment of various artists, craftsmen and workers who, under Bernini's supervision, and, while he was away in Paris, that of his brother and Ferrata, had to solve the various fusion and static problems inherent to the positioning of the various elements of the work, all of considerable size (the statues of the Doctors at the front measure 5.35 meters in height). The size of the work cannot initially be perceived due to the vastness of the surroundings in which it is placed, as already mentioned, with perfect harmony based on a plastic, chromatic and luminaristic, rather than architectural relationship.