Peter's Basilica - A Brief History
St. Peter's now stands was once a chariot racing stadium,
built in the time of the Emperor Caligula, Claudius and Nero
(40-65). That was the first century of our era. Nero was the
Emperor who began the first great persecution of Christians
in Rome. Under his rule of terror, many Christians were imprisoned
and put to death here in the newly completed stadium ("Circus"
those first Christians to be rounded up by Nero's soldiers
was the leader of the Christian community in Rome, St. Peter
the Apostle. He had probably come to Rome about the year 40
and was therefore about 25 years in the city preaching the
Good News and obviously making many converts to Christianity
- to many for Nero's liking.
of these Christians were thrown to the wild animals as part
of the entertainment in the stadium. Many, however, were crucified.
A low wall divided the arena of the stadium so that the chariot
races took place around them. Some, we are told by Tacitus,
the chronicler of the Roman Empire, had oil and tar poured
over their bodies and they were set alight to illuminate the
stadium in the late Summer evenings.
about six hundred yards long, stretched from about the end
of the Western wing of the Colonnade to well beyond the apse
of the present basilica. St. Peter's place of crucifixion
is traditionally marked as corresponding to the left hand
wing of the basilica, more or less where the altar of St.
Joseph is today.
some of his friends took Pete's body and buried it in the
nearest cemetery. That was just outside and to the right of
the stadium. The tomb of Peter
is still there, underneath the front of the Papal Altar and
about 20 ft. below the floor level of the basilica.
Christians were eventually given their freedom (313), under
the Emperor Constantine, after more than two hundred years
of persecution, it was decided to build a basilica above the
tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Many things had changed
in those two hundred years. Christians had become so numerous
in Rome that persecution was judged counter productive. Contrary
to pagan practice, Christians assembled frequently for worship.
They needed increasingly large buildings - much larger than
the tiny pagan temples of the past. Constantine saw to the
building of a number of these "Basilicas" and especially to
the largest of them which was erected above the tomb of Peter
on the slope of the Vatican hill.
building lasted throughout the centuries until 1500. It was
then in such a state of disrepair that Pope Julius II decided
to replace it with a new and more magnificent structure. Work
began in April 1506. Many great artists were involved in its
construction and decoration: Bramante, Sangallo, Raphael,
Michelangelo, Maderno, Della Porta, Bernini, Fontana. The
most notable contributions, however, are those of Michelangelo,
Maderno and Bernini. At the age of 72, in 1546, Michelangelo
was obliged to undertake the building of the present Basilica
by Pope Paul III. When he died, the construction of the Greek
Cross section surrounding the Papal altar and the tomb of
Peter had been completed only as far as the top of the drum:
the large windows which are underneath the upturned bowl of
the dome. The bowl itself, changed in shape from the half
rounded shape of Michelangelo's design to the half oval shape
of today, was completed by Della Porta in May 1590. The Pope
was Sixtus V.
Paul V, in the beginning of the 1600's, decided that the Greek
Cross design was too small. He obliged his architect, Maderno,
to pull down the front wall of Michelangelo's building and
extend the eastern end of the basilica by 116 yards. That
was completed in 1626, and in the following 30 years Gian
Lorenzo Bernini added the Colonnade.
ten-acre spread of Bernini's Colonnade is the pilgrim's introduction
to St. Peter's. Its design incorporates a sun-dial, a calendar,
and the welcoming arms of God's embrace as He stretches out
to receive all who come to pay their respects at the tomb
of the first Pope. The obelisk in the center, as well as determining
the time and the date by its shadow, takes us back in the
millennia through the history of the old basilica, the Circus
of Nero, the ship-building skills of the Romans who transported
it across the sea from Alexandria in Egypt during the first
century of the Christian era. It also takes us back through
the centuries of the Pharaohs, perhaps to the Egyptian captivity
of Israel. Did Moses see it before he led his people to freedom?
the balcony above the central door, the Pope comes to address
the peoples of the world after his election and on the feasts
of Christmas and Easter when he gives his Blessing "Urbi et
Orbi" (to the City of Rome and to the world).
five artistic bronze doors leading from the entrance to the
basilica, each have their own history. The best known is the
smallest one, on the right, the Holy
Door. It is sealed by a wall on the inside and is opened
during the Jubilee Years (the Holy Years), which are times
of spiritual renewal in the Church. The present bronze Holy
Door is the work of Vico Consorti (1950), while the other
doors, from right to left, are by Crocetti
(1963). Above the central gateway is the mosaic
by Giotto, the Gospel scene of Peter faltering as he walks
on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, while beyond the glass
door at the northern end is Bernini's horseback sculpture
of the emperor Constantine.
the basilica, usually by the door of Sacraments (by Crocetti),
we see the Pieta in
the chapel on the right. Moving as close as possible to the
rear of the central door it is possible to have an overall
view of the building (204 yards long and covering an area
of almost six acres). The space is large enough to hold about
90,000 people. However, the seating installed for ceremonies
at which the Pope presides consists of 11,500 chairs. These
are placed in the areas within view of the central altar.
The huge statues represent 39 of the Founders and Foundresses
of various religious Orders and Congregations.
thirty yards from the rear of the central door is the circular,
red porphyry stone
on which Charlemagne
knelt to be crowned by Pope Leo III on Christmas night of
the year 800.
the Pieta chapel, on the left hand side, is the Baptistry.
The picture on the rear wall is a mosaic reproduction of the
painting by Maratta. The subject is the Baptism of Christ.
The Baptismal Font (monumental structure) is in two parts.
The upper part is gilded bronze depicting the Lamb of God.
It is by Domenico Fontana. The basin, symbol of the spiritual
cleansing of Baptism, was the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto
II in the Constantinian basilica. In the dome the mosaic represents
the three forms of Baptism: by water, by blood, by desire.
The triangles beneath the dome represent the peoples of the
four continents (before the discovery of Australia) coming
to receive Baptism.
the archway beyond the Baptistry are the Stuart monuments:
to the right the
monument (by Canova) of Cardinal Henry Stuart and his
brother (Bonnie Prince Charlie) together with their father.
To the left, the picture of Maria
Clementina Sobieska, mother of the cardinal and prince.
in the next chapel is dedicated to Mary, under the title of
(one of the many representations of Mary in St. Peter's).
Beneath the altar is the casket containing the body of Pope
St. Pius X (d. 1914). To the right the monument to Pope
John XXIII (d. 1963) by Emilio Greco, and to the left
that of Benedict
XV (d.1923) by Canonica.
next archway, the monument to the right is to Pope
Innocent VIII (d. 1942) by Pollaiolo from the old basilica
and to the left the monument to St. Pius X.
on the left is the Choir
Chapel. The mosaic commemorates the Definition of Mary's
Conception (8.XII.1854). The Choir benches are the work
of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
over to the center of the basilica, we may try to imagine
that the end wall of Michelangelo's Greek Cross design was
here, immediately after the Choir Chapel. The theme of the
Greek Cross design is written in the 5 ½ high letters in the
base of the dome: You are Peter and on this rock I will build
my Church and I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of
Heaven. These are the words of Christ (Mt 16:17-18; Jn 1:42).
Christ built a Church, not of bricks and mortar, but a society.
Simon, renamed Cephas (the rock), is the foundation of that
Church. His tomb is the center of Michelangelo's Greek Cross.
Within that Church (building or society) are the followers
of Peter (and Christ). Around them are the monuments which
remind them of the centuries of Christian tradition. Today
they are themselves part of that tradition. They have come
to pay their respects at Peter's tomb and the home of his
successor (the Pope).
beneath the dome, we see the four huge statues around the
altar: St. Helena
(4th cent.) represented with the Cross of Christ which she
brought from Jerusalem to Rome, St.
Veronica with the towel which, according to pious tradition,
she presented to Christ on his way to Calvary and on which
He left the imprint of his face, St.
Longinus with the spear with which as a Roman soldier
he pierced the lifeless body of Christ on the Cross. The fourth
statue is of St.
Andrew, the first of the Twelve Apostles to accept Christ's
invitation: "Come follow me" (Jn 1), and later martyred by
crucifixion on an X-shaped cross in Greece. He represents
all those who have been prepared to accept Christ's invitation
and who have proved their sincerity by accepting martyrdom.
dome, the mosaics
represent the inhabitants of Heaven: Christ, Mary, St. John
the Baptist, the Apostles, the angels carrying the instruments
of Christ's Passion and Death towards the center. Finally
the mosaic in the ceiling of the lantern, 390 feet above the
floor, represents God the Father, presiding over Heaven.
(the dome) and earth (the floor level) are brought together
by the circular mosaics at the base of the dome, representing
the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). They have
written the story of Christ: God become one of us to show
us the way to heaven.
the area near the central
altar can be seen many of the works of Bernini: the canopy
above the altar, the alabaster window with the Dove representing
the Holy Spirit guiding the teaching of the Pope as head of
the Church (represented by the Chair-Cathedra
supported by the four bishops), the four balconies around
the altar, the statue of St. Longinus and (forward and far
to the left) the monument of Pope
Alexander VII (d. 1617).
central altar of St.
Joseph, in the left transept, is supposedly above the
place where St. Peter was put to death in the Circus of Nero.
to the right of the papal altar (right
transept with chapel of Sts.
Processus and Martinianus) was the site of Vatican Council
1 (1869), while the sessions of the Second Vatican Council
(1962-65) took place in the main aisle of the Basilica.
the Choir Chapel is the Blessed
Sacrament Chapel, the principal place of prayer and devotion
in St. Peter's. Christ, present under the form of the Bread
consecrated in Mass, is in the tabernacle. That tabernacle
with the bronze angels kneeling in adoration is the work of
Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, towards the entrance, is the
Chapel of St.
Sebastian. The casket beneath the altar contains the remains
of Blessed Innocent XI (d.1689).
the chapel nearest the Holy
Door has the Pieta
by Michelangelo on the altar. A youthful Mary, whose expression
is one of deep sorrow, but of serenity rather than anguish,
as she gazes, not so much at the body but over the lifeless
body of her Son, at the place where we as onlookers should
be standing, just beyond the step of the altar. The dying
Christ gave Mary to John as his Mother. We are the brothers
and sisters of John, the new family of Mary, and so it is
at us, her children, that Mary is looking.