Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, is the center of Christianity. The church is built on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber river from the historic center of Rome. The location is highly symbolic: this was the site where Saint Peter, the chief apostle, died a martyr and where he was buried in 64 AD.
In the early fourth century Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, decided to build a basilica on Vatican Hill at the site of small shrine that marked the likely location of the tomb of Saint Peter. Construction of the basilica started between 319 and 322. It was consecrated in 326 AD and finally completed around 349 AD. To facilitate the construction, a part of the terrain was leveled and the necropolis where Saint Peter was originally buried was demolished.
The basilica had an eighty-five meter (279 ft) long nave with four aisles and a spacious atrium with a central cantharus (fountain), enclosed by a colonnade. A bell tower stood at the front of the atrium. Visitors entered the atrium through a triple-arched portico.
In the middle of the fifteenth century, the basilica was falling into ruin and Pope Nicolas V ordered the restoration and enlargement of the church after plans by Bernardo Rossellino. After Nicolas V died, works were halted.
No progress was made for half a century until Pope Julius II decided to build a completely new church. He appointed Donato Bramante as chief architect. Bramante designed a structure with a high dome on a Greek cross plan (all sides have equal lengths). In 1506, Julius II laid the first stone of the new basilica which was to become the largest in the world.
After Bramante’s death in 1514, he was succeeded by a number of different architects, all of whom made changes to the design, most notably Michelangelo Buonarroti, who became chief architect in 1547, at the age of seventy-two. He conceived the imposing dome and made further alterations to the plans.
At the time of Michelangelo’s death in 1564, only the drum of the dome was built. The dome was finally completed in 1590 by Giacomo della Porta. On request of Pope Paul V the imposing edifice was extended further into a true Latin cross plan by Carlo Maderno, who completed the main facade in 1614. The church was finally reconsecrated in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII, exactly 1300 years after the consecration of the first church.
The building itself is truly impressive. The largest church in the world, it has a 211.5 meter (694 ft) long nave, including the narthex. The basilica’s dome is one of the world’s largest measuring 42 meters in diameter and reaching 132.5 meters high (more than 434 ft).
Once inside the nave the enormous size of the church becomes apparent. The basilica has a surface area of 15,160 square meters, enough space to accommodate 60,000 visitors. It is covered by a coffered barrel vault ceiling and a huge central dome. The opulence of the interior bears testimony to the wealth of the Catholic church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is decorated with large monuments, many of which were created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest artists of all time. One of his main creations invariably draws the immediate attention of visitors: the enormous, twenty-six meter high bronze baldachin over the papal altar. The Baroque masterpiece is crafted from bronze that was taken from the ceiling and pediment of the Pantheon. The design of the spiraling columns was inspired by marble columns that originally adorned the crypt of the old basilica.
In front of the papal altar is the confessio (burial crypt) that marks the presumed grave of St. Peter. It is encircled by a balustrade with ninety-five bronze oil lamps. The confessio is located right below the majestic dome. Look up and you’ll see the impressive colorful vaulting with sixteen ribs that are supported by four massive pillars. The triangular spaces where the pillars meet the dome are decorated with mosaics depicting the evangelists. Light enters through the lantern and the sixteen large windows below the cornice.
Huge niches in the pillars hold five-meter tall statues of Saints Andrew, Veronica, Helena and Longinus. The latter was created by Bernini, the others by students and assistants of the master. They stand on pedestals that are almost as tall as the statues that are placed on them. Above the niches are loggias that hold the relics associated with the four saints.
The most famous monument in the St. Peter’s Basilica is the Pietà, a marble sculpture of a young looking Mary holding the dead body of her son. It was created in 1499- 1500 by Michelangelo at the early age of twenty-five. The monument is located in the first chapel on the right. It is the only work of Michelangelo that bears his signature. He etched his name on the ribbon that runs across Mary’s chest, allegedly after he heard that people attributed his work to another artist. The sculpture was heavily damaged in 1972, when a deranged visitor hit it with a hammer; it is now protected by a bulletproof glass screen.
Ever since its inception, St. Peter’s Basilica has been the center of Christianity, drawing pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums originated as a group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and placed in what today is the Cortile Ottagono within the museum complex. The popes were among the first sovereigns who opened the art collections of their palaces to the public thus promoting knowledge of art history and culture. As seen today, the Vatican Museums are a complex of different pontifical museums and galleries that began under the patronage of Popes Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799). In fact, the Pio-Clementine Museum was named after these two popes, who set up this first major curatorial section. Later, Pius VII (1800-1823) considerably expanded the collections of Classical Antiquities, to which he added the Chiaromonti Museum and the Braccio Nuovo gallery. He also enriched the Epigraphic Collection, which was conserved in the Lapidary Gallery.
Gregory XVI (1831-1846) founded the Etruscan Museum (1837) with archaeological finds discovered during excavations carried out from 1828 onwards in southern Etruria. Later, he established the Egyptian Museum (1839), which houses ancient artifacts from explorations in Egypt, together with other pieces already conserved in the Vatican and in the Museo Capitolino and the Lateran Profane Museum (1844), with statues, bas-relief sculptures and mosaics of the Roman era, which could not be adequately placed in the Vatican Palace. The Lateran Profane Museum was expanded in 1854 under Pius IX (1846-1878) with the addition of the Pio Christian Museum. This museum is comprised of ancient sculptures (especially sarcophagi) and inscriptions with ancient Christian content. In 1910, under the pontificate of Saint Pius X (1903-1914), the Hebrew Lapidary was established. This section of the museum contains 137 inscriptions from ancient Hebrew cemeteries in Rome mostly from via Portuense and donated by the Marquisate Pellegrini-Quarantotti. These last collections (Gregorian Profane Museum, Pio Christian Museum and the Hebrew Lapidary) were transferred, under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), from the Lateran Palace to their present building within the Vatican and inaugurated in 1970.
The Museums also include the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of various 15th and 17th century tapestries; the Gallery of Maps, decorated under the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-1585) and restored by Urban VIII (1623-1644); the Sobieski Room and the Room of the Immaculate Conception; the Raphael Stanze and the Loggia, which were decorated by order of Julius II and Leo X (1513-1521); the Chapel of Nicholas V (1447-1455), painted by Fra Angelico; the Sistine Chapel, which takes the name of its founder, Pope Sixtus IV; the Borgia Apartment, where Pope Alexander VI lived until his death (1492-1503); the Vatican Pinacoteca, created under Pius XI (1922-1932) in a special building near the new entrance to the Museums; and the Missionary-Ethnological Museum, which was founded by Pius XI in 1926, arranged on the upper floors of the Lateran Palace and later transferred, under Pope John XXIII, to the Vatican where it has been opened again to the public in the same building which housed the former Lateran collections. In 1973, the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Religious Art was added and inaugurated by Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) in the Borgia Apartment. The Vatican Historical Museum, founded in 1973 and transferred in 1987 to the Papal Apartment in the Lateran Palace, houses a series of papal portraits along with objects of the past Pontifical Military Corps and of the Pontifical Chapel and Family and historic ceremonial objects no longer in use. The Carriage and Automobile Museum is a section of the Vatican Historical Museum. In the year 2000, the Vatican Museums opened a new large entrance that provides visitor information and other services; on display are many new artworks, two of which were specially created for this grand entrance hall.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City. Originally known as the Cappella Magna, it takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere who had the old Cappella Magna restored between 1477 and 1480. The 15th century decoration of the walls includes: the false drapes, the Stories of Moses and of Christ and the portraits of the Popes. It was executed by a team of painters made up initially of Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, assisted by their respective shops and by some closer assistants among whom Biagio di Antonio, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Luca Signorelli stand out. The work on the frescoes began in 1481 and was concluded in 1482. On August 15, 1483, Sixtus IV consecrated the new chapel dedicating it to Our Lady of the Assumption. Julius II della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV, decided to partly alter the decoration, entrusting the work in 1508 to Michelangelo Buonarroti, who painted the ceiling and, on the upper part of the walls, the lunettes. The work was finished in October 1512. The nine central panels show the Stories of Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of man, to the Flood and the subsequent rebirth of mankind with the family of Noah. Towards the end of 1533, Clement VII de’Medici gave Michelangelo the task of further altering the decoration of the Sistine Chapel by painting the “Last Judgement” on the altar wall.
The conclave for the election of the Pope is held in the chapel. The words of the Homily pronounced by His Holiness John Paul II underline the primary importance of the Sistine Chapel in the life of the Church: “The Sistine Chapel is the place that, for each Pope, holds the memory of a special day in his life. … Precisely here, in this sacred space, the Cardinals gather, awaiting the manifestation of the will of Christ with regard to the person of the Successor of St. Peter […]. And here, in a spirit of obedience to Christ and trusting in his Mother, I accepted the election that sprung from the Conclave, declaring […] my readiness to serve the Church. Thus therefore the Sistine Chapel became once again before the whole Catholic Community the place of the action of the Holy Spirit that nominates the Bishops in the church, and nominates especially he who must be the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter.”