Basilica of St. Peter
The present Church of St. Peter stands upon the site where at the beginning of the first century the gardens of Agrippina lay. Her son, Caius Caligula, built a circus there, in the spina of which he erected the celebrated obelisk without hieroglyphics which was brought from Heliopolis and now stands in the Piazza di S. Pietro. The Emperor Nero was especially fond of this circus and arranged many spectacles in it, among which the martyrdoms of the Christians (Tacitus, “Annal.”, XV, 44) obtained a dreadful notoriety. The exact spot in the circus of the crucifixion of St. Peter was preserved by tradition through out the centuries, and in the present Church of St. Peter is marked by an altar. Directly past the circus of Nero ran the Via Cornelia which, like all Roman highways, was bordered with sepulchral monuments. In Christian times a small city of churches and hospices gradually arose here, but without this part of Rome being included in the city limits. When in the year 847 the Saracens pillaged the Basilica of St. Peter and all the sanctuaries and establishments there, Leo IV decided to surround the extensive suburb with a wall, interrupted at intervals by exceedingly strong and well-fortified towers. Two of these towers, as well as a fragment of the wall, are still preserved in the Vatican gardens and afford an interesting picture of the manner of fortification. Owing to this circumvallation by Pope Leo the Vatican portion of the city received the name Civitas Leonina, which it has preserved to the present day (Leonine City). The Vatican Hill rises in close proximity to the river Tiber. Between it, the river, and the Mausoleum of Hadrian (Castle of Sant’ Angelo) lies a small plain which was not filled with houses until the early Middle Ages. The Vatican territory did not assume a throughly urban character until the end of the fifteenth century.
Basilica of Constantine
The simple sanctuary of the Prince of the Apostles gave place under Constantine the Great to a magnificent basilica, begun in the year 323 but not completed until after his death. The southern side of the ancient basilica was erected upon the northern side of the circus, which in the Middle Ages bore the name Palatium Neronis. It was built in the form of a cross and divided into five naves by four rows of twenty-two columns each. Vast treasures were collected in the course of centuries in this principal sanctuary of Western Christendom: precious mosaic decoration internally and externally, offerings of great value surrounding the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, magnificent vestments in the wardrobes of the sacristy, richly decorated entablature, and bright but harmoniously coloured pavements, paintings, and whatever else the love and veneration of high and low could conceive in the way of adornment. Connecting the basilica with the Porta di S. Pietro at the Castle of Sant’ Angelo was a covered colonnade, through which innumerable pilgrims passed. Provision was made in the Vatican territory for their shelter, and the necessity soon arose of building a palace near the basilica in which the pope could live and receive visitors when sojourning at St. Peter’s. Churches and monasteries, cemeteries and hospices arose in great numbers around the tomb of the “fisher of men”.
Twelve centuries elapsed between the building of St. Peter’s and the first demolition of an important part of the basilica. Its rebuilding during the Early Renaissance is to be regretted, for the plan of the new church became the plaything of artistic humours. It is due to Michelangelo, who saved all that was possible of Bramante’s original plan, that something aesthetically satisfactory was created.
History of the building
Owing to the neglect of the churches at Rome during the papal residence at Avignon, by the fifteenth century the decay of Saint Peter’s had progressed to an alarming extent. Nicholas V, an enthusiastic Humanist, therefore conceived the plan of levelling the old church and erecting a new structure in its place. Bernardo Rossellini of Florence was intrusted with the undertaking and in accordance with his plans the new basilica was to completely surround the choir and transept of the old, and to have the ground plan of a Latin cross with an elongated nave. But with the exception of the tribune begun in 1450 and the foundations of the wall surrounding the transept nothing further was built, as the pope died in 1455. Julius II, adopting the idea of reconstructing the basilica, instituted a competition in which Bramante, as is related, gained the prize. His unlimited enthusiasm for the mighty conception of the impetuous pope is attested by his numerous plans and drawings, which are still preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Bramante wished to pile the Pantheon upon the Constantinian basilica, so that a mighty dome would rise upon a building in the form of a Greek cross. In the spring of the year 1506 Julius, in the presence of thirty-five cardinals, laid the foundations of this imposing structure, which posterity has spoiled and changed for the worse in an inexcusable manner. Bramante died in 1514. Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giacondo da Verona, who together with Raphael continued his work, died in 1516 and 1515 respectively. Raphael, yielding to all manner of influences, undertook changes but did not promote the building to any considerable extent. After his death in 1520 a sharp conflict arose whether the church should remain in the form of a Greek cross, or the nave be extended so as to form a Latin cross.
Antonio da Sangallo, who was appointed architect in 1518, and Baldassari Peruzzi, appointed in 1520, were without fixed plans and attempted all manner of experiments, of which Michelangelo, when he received control in 1548, made an end so far as this was still possible. Bramante’s plan seemed to him so excellent that he built in accordance with it. By strengthening the central piers he made it possible for them to bear a dome. He did not live to see the completion of his artistic conception, since only the drum was completed when he died. But in the years which followed the present dome, a sublime masterpiece of unsurpassed beauty, was constructed in accordance with his designs. The faithfulness with which, after the great master’s death (1564), Giacomo della Porta continued the building of the dome in accordance with Michelangelo’s intentions should be especially emphasized. The building might have been completed at the beginning of the following century if in 1606 Paul V had not decided to carry out the form of the Latin cross. During the twenty years which followed Carlo Maderna constructed the present by no means unobjectionable façade and Bernini wasted time and money in adorning the front with bell-towers, which for artistic reasons had to be removed, in so far as he had completed them. At length on 18 November, 1626, Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the church, of which the actual construction, excepting certain unimportant details, may be considered as completed. Three clearly defined stages in the construction of St. Peter’s must therefore be distinguished: (1) Bramante’s Greek cross with the dome; (2) Michelangelo, a Greek cross with dome, and in addition a vestibule with a portico of columns; (3) Paul V, a Latin cross with Baroque façade. The longer they built the more they spoiled the original magnificent plans, so that the effect of the exterior as a whole is unsatisfactory. The principle mistake lies naturally in the fact that the unsuitable extension of the nave conceals the dome from one observing the basilica from a near point of view. Only at a considerable distance is Michelangelo’s genial creation in its pure and beautiful design revealed to the astonished observer. All the external walls are constructed of splendid travertine, now become gold in colour, which even in bright sunlight gives a quiet, harmonious effect.
The construction of St. Peter’s, in so far as the church itself is concerned, was concluded within a period of 176 years (1450-1626). The cost of construction including all the additions of the seventeenth century amounted to about $48,000,000. The yearly cost of maintenance of the gigantic building, including the annexes (sacristy and colonnades), amounts to $39,500, a sum that is only exceeded when actual renewals of the artistic features (such as gilding, repairing the pavement, and extensive marble work on the pilasters) becomes necessary. The basilica is endowed with extensive properties at Rome, wide landed possessions in Middle Italy, and other capital from the income of which the entire support of the Divine Service, the clergy, and the large number of employees, as well as the costs of the building requirements are derived. In accordance with the most reliable contemporary calculations, those of Carlo Fontana, the proportions of the building are as follows: height of the nave, 151.5 feet; width of the same at the entrance, 90.2 feet; at the tribune, 78.7 feet; length of the transepts in interior, 451 feet; entire length of the basilica including the vestibule, 693.8 feet. From the pavement of the church (measured from the Confession) to the oculus of the lantern resting upon the dome the height is 404.8 feet, to the summit of the cross surmounting the lantern, 434.7 feet. The measurements of the interior diameter of the dome vary somewhat, being generally computed at 137.7 feet, thus exceeding the dome of the Pantheon by a span of 4.9 feet. The surface area of St. Peter’s is 163,182.2 sq. feet.
Comparative measurements (length):
Length of St. Paul’s, London, 520.3 feet;
Cathedral of Florence, 490.4;
Cathedral of Milan, 444.2;
Basilica of St. Paul, Rome, 419.2;
St. Sophia, Constantinople, 354.
Comparative measurements (surface area):
Milan, 90,482 sq. ft.;
St. Paul’s, London, 84,766.5;
St. Sophia, 74,163;
The vestibule of the basilica is 232.9 feet wide, 44.2 deep, and 91.8 high. On the façade are five portals; in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a door which leads directly into the Apostolic Palace; in the choir chapel and in the vestibule of the left transept are doors leading to the sacristy, besides which there are four others generally used for building and administrative purposes. Besides the two low galleries for the singers in the choir chapel, there are four others of restricted size in the piers of the dome. In addition to the principal altar in the tribune and the four altars in the crypts, the basilica contains twenty-nine altars, under most of which bodies of saints, including several of the Apostles, repose.
The colonnades which enclose the most beautiful public place in the world, the Piazza di S. Pietro, form an organic part of the basilica. Constructed in 1667 by Bernini, they surround the piazza in elliptical form, the major axis 1115.4 feet, the minor axis 787.3 feet. For the construction of the colonnades and the equipment of the Piazza di S. Pietro about a million dollars were expended. The covered colonnades which consist of four rows of columns in the Doric style form three passages, the central one of which is the width of an ordinary wagon road. The 248 columns and 88 pilasters are entirely of travertine. Adjoining the elliptical place is a square one which diminishes in extent towards the church. Its sides consist of extensive corridors, of which the one on the right belongs to the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The colonnades and corridors are surmounted by 162 figures of saints after designs by Bernini. In the middle of the ellipse towers the celebrated obelisk of Heliopolis. Its removal to the present site took place in 1586. On both sides of the obelisk are two beautiful fountains 45.9 feet in height. The obelisk is 83.6 feet high, and weighs 360.2 tons. Its apex is adorned with a bronze cross containing a fragment of the True Cross. The irregular quadrangle between the ellipse and the basilica is for the most part occupied by the monumental stairway and its approach, which lead pilgrims to the higher level of the church. The area of this approach alone is greater than that of most churches of Christendom. The sacristy of St. Peter’s, the house of the canons and beneficiaries, as well as the papal hospice of Santa Marta are connected with the basilica by two covered passages. The sacristy, which contains very remarkable art treasures, was built in 1775 under Pius VI by Carlo Marchione. The Palazzina, which stands on the Piazza di Santa Marta behind the basilica, belongs directly to St. Peter’s. It is for the time being the official residence of the archpriest of St. Peter’s, who is always a cardinal.
Description of the basilica
As may be seen in the accompanying plan, the four principal divisions of the basilica extend from the dome and are connected with each other by passages behind the dome piers. To the right and the left of the nave lie the smaller and lower aisles, the right of which is bordered by four lateral chapels, the left by three chapels and the passage to the roof. The general decoration consists of coloured marble incrustations, stucco figures, rich gilding, mosaic decoration, and marble figures on the pilasters, ceiling, and walls. The panelling of the pavement in geometric figures is of coloured marble after the designs of Giacomo della Porta and Bernini. The extremely long sweep of the nave is closed by the precious bronze baldacchino 95 feet high, which Urban VIII caused to be erected by Bernini in 1633. Beneath it is the Confession of St. Peter, where the body of the Prince of Apostles reposes. No chairs or pews obstruct the view; the eye roves freely over the glittering surface of the marble pavement, where there is room for thousands of people.
The centre of the entire structure is the tomb of St. Peter (see Confession; Saint Peter, Tomb of). Very interesting also are the high altar in the tribune, enclosing the chair of the Prince of Apostles, and the mighty slab of porphyry upon which the German emperors were formerly crowned. The magnificent holy water basins to the right and to the left, well known from numerous illustrations, are supported by gigantic putti. The barrel vaulting reposes in a beautiful curve upon the pillars and the arches connecting them. Proceeding forwards we also perceive the marble reliefs of many popes on the piers while many of the pier niches contain heroic statues of the founders of the orders, a decoration which extends also over the transepts and the nave of the tribune. At the fourth pier to the right is a very important sitting statue of St. Peter, which has been erroneously ascribed to the thirteenth century, but in truth dates from the fourth or fifth. This is no adaptation of another statue, but was intended to be a statue of the Prince of the Apostles. In the left transept the confessionals of the penitentiaries of St. Peter’s reveal in the most beautiful manner the unity of the Faith, by offering the opportunity for confession in the most important civilized tongues of the world. Facing the Confession there stand obliquely before the dome piers the colossal marble statues of Sts. Longinus, Helena, Veronica, and Andrew. From the gallery above the statue of St. Helena the so-called great relics are displayed several times during the year. The most important of these is a large fragment of the True Cross. Above the four galleries of the dome the four Evangelists are depicted in magnificent mosaics after the designs of Cavaliere d’Arpino. In the frieze above stand the proud Latin inscription, the letters of which are six feet high: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and I will give thee the keys of Heaven”.
In the tribune of the left transept are three altars of which the middle one is particularly noteworthy because, in the first place, the tomb of the immortal composer Pierluigi da Palestrina lies before it; secondly, because the bodies of the two Apostles Simeon and Judas Thaddeus repose in a stone sarcophagus beneath the altar; and thirdly, because, as the altar-piece of Guido Reni records, the altar marks the spot in the circus of Nero where the cross stood upon which St. Peter breathed his last. The right transept has attained a special importance in most recent ecclesiastical history because in 1870 the Vatican Council held its sessions here until dispersed by the march of the crowned revolution upon Rome. Returning to the entrance we find in the first lateral chapel of the right aisle the place made famous by Michelangelo’s “Pietà” (1498). Beside it in the chapel of St. Nicholas is the treasury of the relics of St. Peter, then follows the chapel of St. Sebastian, and finally the roomy chapel of the Sacrament. Among the art treasures here is the tomb of Sixtus IV, a thoroughly simple and impressive bronze monument by Antonio Pollajuolo. From the multitude of sepulchral monuments which adorn the right transept, those of Leo XII, of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, the powerful friend of Gregory VII, and of Gregory XIII, the reformer of the calendar, deserve special mention. Against the dome pier, directly in front of us, stands an altar with the “Communion of St. Jerome” after Domenichino. The passage around the dome to the right is called the Gregorian chapel, because it was decorated under Gregory XIII after the designs of Michelangelo. Next to the monument of Gregory XVI is the altar of the Madonna dell Soccorso, whose picture is from the ancient church of St. Peter. Under the altar-piece reposes the body of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and adjoining it is the colossal tomb of Benedict XIV.
In the opposite passage of the dome pier are Canova’s masterpiece, the monument of Clement XIII, and the altar-piece after Guido Reni, representing the Archangel Michael. In the same division on the left side of the church, the monument of Alexander VIII gleams in the distance, and under the altar of the Madonna della Colonna, in an early Christian sarcophagus the mortal remains of Sts. Leo II, Leo III, and Leo IV repose. The altar of St. Leo I is surmounted by the colossal marble relief by Algardi, the “Retreat of Attila from Rome”, the proportions of which seem too large, even for the Basilica of Saint Peter. Farther on is the monument of Alexander VII, and opposite this is the only oil-painted altar-piece — one by Vareni—of St. Peter’s. All the remaining altar-pieces within the church are of mosaic. Passing through the left transept we approach the passage around the fourth dome pier, where on the right, under the monument of Pius VIII, is the entrance to the sacristy, and directly in front, under the monument of Pius VII by Thorwaldsen, is the stairway to the gallery of the singers in the choir chapel. Here the left transept begins, the first lateral chapel of which is used for the prayers of the canons, while the last serves as a baptistery. Adjoining the choir chapel beyond the entrance, at a height of fifteen feet above the pavement, is an enclosed niche in which each deceased pope is interred until his body can be taken to the sepulchre definitively assigned for it. At the present time the body of Leo XIII still reposes here, although his sepulchre in the Lateran has long been finished. The uncertainty of conditions at Rome has rendered it inadvisable as yet to undertake the removal of the body. On the tomb of Leo XI our attention is attracted by an excellent marble relief representing King Henry IV of France abjuring Protestantism. Of similar importance is another relief here upon the monument of Innocent XI, relating to the raising of the Turkish siege of Vienna by John Sobieski, King of Poland. Among the most beautiful funeral monuments of the entire basilica is that of Innocent VIII by Antonio and Pietro Pollajuolo. Adjoining these are the two important tombs of Urban VIII by Bernini and Paul III by Guglielmo della Porta.
Sagre Grotte Vaticane is the name applied to the extended chambers under the pavement of St. Peter’s. They are distinguished as the old and the new crypts. The former lie principally under the nave, and are 59 feet wide and 147.6 feet long. They represent the pavement of the old Basilica of St Peter. Numerous graves of popes and emperors, which were in the Basilica of Constantine, are here, so that the low and extended place, 11.4 feet in height, is of the greatest historic interest. Among many others are the graves of the popes: Nicholas I, Gregory V, a German, Adrian IV, an Englishman, Boniface VIII, Nicholas V, Paul II, Alexander VI, and the Emperor Otto II. The heart of Pius IX also reposes here in the simple urn. The new crypts extend about the tomb of the Apostle and lie under the dome. Adjoining the horse-shoe-shaped passage are a number of chapels in which very remarkable antiquities and works of art from the old basilica are preserved. In the middle of the passage just mentioned is the most magnificent of all the early Christian sarcophagi, that of Junius Bassus, to which Waal has dedicated a detailed and richly illustrated monograph, sympathetic in treatment. Two altars are placed here in the closest possible proximity to the sarcophagus in which the body of St. Peter reposes. Admission to the crypts and to Holy Mass at the altar of the Confession which was formerly very difficult, especially to women, is now easy to obtain.
The ascent of the dome
It was the former custom to ascend an easy stairway to the roof of the church, but now a spacious elevator carries visitors to the heights. From the roof, which is enlivened with many small cupolas and a few guards’ houses, there is a fine panorama and a view of the Eternal City. The great dome has a circumference of about one hundred paces, and if one wishes to mount higher, a stairway between the inner and outer casing of the dome, 308.3 feet in height, leads into the lantern. Entering the external gallery of the lantern, the beholder is astonished by the view that greets the eye. It looks down into the gardens of the Vatican Palace, in which the people walking about seem like dwarfs. The panorama of the city unfolds itself in plastic forms. To the left tower the Sabine mountains; and beyond the extensive sun-bathed Campagna are the beautiful Alban hills with their highest peak, Monte Cavo. On the slope of this chain lie the attractive suburban towns Frascati, Marino, Albano etc., and on the right gleams a silver streak—the sea. Encircling the gallery towards the west, the Vatican gardens lie beneath us, rich and varied in plan, although not artistically laid out. The entire panorama is one of greatest interest.
Divine service in St. Peter’s
Although the Lateran Basilica bears the honorary title of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, mother and head of all the churches of the earth, this basilica, as Waal correctly observes, has for a thousand years been an isolated church which played a very modest part in the devotions of the Roman pilgrims. It is very different with St. Peter’s. The great wealth of the basilica has always made it possible to maintain most magnificent ritual; and its proximity to the inner city, its great size, and its art treasures have always attracted everyone. Besides numerous canons, beneficiaries, and chaplains, the church has at its disposal the Vatican Seminary, the students of which always assist in the church in the celebration of Divine Service. The performances of their vocal choirs, the Capella Giulia, are of a very high artistic order. One liturgical celebration takes place only in St. Peter’s and in no other church in the whole world: the Washing of the Altar on Maundy Thursday. At the close of the Matins on this day the so-called papal altar under the great bronze baldacchino is sprinkled with oil and wine. In an extended procession the archpriest, his vicar, the canons, the beneficiaries, the chaplains, and the entire clergy approach in order, and symbolically wash the altar with a sprinkler. A solemn benediction with the great relics from the gallery of St. Helena terminates this very impressive ceremony.
The great papal functions which Leo XIII was the first to resume after the sad year of 1870 have since then taken place in St. Peter’s with a few exceptions, when the Sistine Chapel or the Sala Ducale were used. Jubilees, canonizations, coronations, and other events in which the pope solemnly presides assemble 40,000 to 50,000 people in the gigantic halls of St. Peter’s. They wait patiently for hours until at the appointed time the Vicar of Christ, loftily enthroned upon the sedia gestatoria, blesses the worshipping throng, while in measured steps he is born to the papal altar. A perfect silence prevails, when after long preparations the pope in full pontifical attire begins the actual service. Suddenly the magnificent tones of the Kyrie are intoned by the choir of the Sistine Chapel, who alone have the privilege of singing in the presence of the pope, and always without the accompaniment of an organ. Then the pope turns for the first time to the faithful and chants “Pax vobis” (Peace be with you). At the Elevation silver trumpets resound from Michelangelo’s dome.
Chimes of St. Peter’s
As in many cathedral churches, the bells of St. Peter’s possess an ample endowment of their own. This serves for their maintenance and to defray the cost of the complicated programme of the chimes. The usual daily service is simple but far more complicated are the chimes for Sundays, fast days, feast days, ember days, feasts with octaves, the anniversary of the death, election, and coronation of the present and the preceding pope, and finally, as a climax, the feast of St. Peter with its chimes seven days before and during its octave. Different chimes are prescribed at the death of a canon than at that of the pope.
The maintenance of the basilica
A building of such colossal extent requires a corps of architects, who conduct the ordinary, as well as the unusual, works on the basilica. They are directed by a head architect, who in conjunction with the economist of St. Peter’s, a canon, discusses and arranges everything as far as no special question requires the vote of the chapter. A staff of selected artisans of all kinds, who are in permanent service and are called sampietrini, is directed by a head master, and there are few great institutions in the world which have such a chosen body of clever, reliable, and fearless workmen. Only in the rarest cases is the management of St. Peter’s compelled to seek assistance of artisans or workmen who do not belong to the sampietrini. The maintenance of the mighty building is exemplary throughout.
About this page
APA citation. Baumgarten, P.M. (1912). Basilica of St. Peter. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company
MLA citation. Baumgarten, Paul Maria. “Basilica of St. Peter.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.