St. Peter’s Basilica (Italian San Pietro in Vaticano) is a major basilica in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. St. Peter’s was until recently the largest church ever built (it covers an area of 23,000 m² and has a capacity of over 60,000), and it remains one of the holiest sites in Christendom.
Ancient tradition has it that St. Peter’s Basilica was built at the place where Peter, the apostle who is considered the first pope, was crucified and buried; his tomb is under the main altar. Other popes are also buried in and below the basilica. Contrary to what one might reasonably assume, St. Peter’s is not a cathedral – the pope’s cathedral is St. John Lateran.
The current location of St. Peter’s Basilica is the site of the Circus of Nero in the first century AD. After Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity he started construction (in 324) of a great basilica in this exact spot, which had previously been a cemetery for pagans as well as Christians.
In the mid-15th century it was decided that the old basilica should be rebuilt. Pope Nicholas V asked architect Bernardo Rossellino to start adding to the old church. This was abandoned after a short while, but in the late 15th century Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel started nearby.
Construction on the current building began under Pope Julius II in 1506 and was completed in 1615 under Pope Paul V. Donato Bramante was to be the first chief architect. Many famous artists worked on the “Fabbrica di San Pietro” (as the complex of building operations were officially called). Michelangelo, who served as main architect for a while, designed the dome, and Bernini designed the great St. Peter’s Square.
What to See
The following description is a virtual tour that follows this basic path: views from afar; St. Peter’s Square; exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica; nave; right aisle and transept; dome area with baldacchino; cathedra of St. Peter; left transept and aisle; and crypt/grottoes. See our St. Peter’s Basilica Photo Gallery for a visual tour.
St. Peter’s Square
Providing a fitting approach to the great church is the huge, elliptical St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro), designed by Bernini and built between 1656 and 1667. There are two beautiful fountains in the square, the south/left one by Carlo Maderno (1613) and the northern/right one by Bernini (1675).
In the center of the square is a 25.5-meter-tall obelisk, which dates from 13th-century BC Egypt and was brought to Rome in the 1st century to stand in Nero’s Circus some 275 yards away. It was moved to its present location in 1585 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The task took four months and is said to have been done in complete silence on pain of death. If you include the cross on top and the base, the obelisk reaches 40m.
The square is outlined by a monumental colonnade by Bernini, its open arms symbolically welcoming the world into the Catholic Church. Between the obelisk and each fountain is a circular stone that marks the focal points of an ellipse. If you stand on one of these points, the two rows columns of the colonnade line up perfectly and appear to be just a single row.
On top of the colonnade are 140 statues of saints, crafted by a number of sculptors between 1662 and 1703. To the right of the southern gate of the colonnade is St. Macrina, grandmother of the Cappadocian fathers, followed by some founders of religious orders: St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Bernard, St. Benedict, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Some of the apostles are at the far end of the colonnade, outside the square and down the street: look for Paul and John on the south side (on the left as you walk to the square). More details here.
Near the stairs to the basilica at the front of the square are colossal statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. These were ordered by Pope Pius IX on Easter 1847, who wanted to replace the existing smaller ones. The new statues had been commissioned by the previous pope for St. Paul Outside the Walls. Peter was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris in 1838-40 and stands 5.55m in height, on a pedestal 4.91m high. Paul was sculpted in 1838 by Adamo Tadolini, and is also 5.55m in height, on a pedestal 4.91m high.
The dome of St. Peter’s was designed by Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546. At the time of his death (1564), the dome was finished as far as the drum, the base on which domes sit. The dome was vaulted between 1585 and 1590 by the architect Giacomo della Porta with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day. Fontana built the lantern the following year, and the ball was placed in 1593.
The great double dome is made of brick and is 42.3 metres in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), rising to 120 metres above the floor. In the early 18th century cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it. The four piers of the crossing that support the dome are each 60 feet (18 meters) across.
Uniquely, Michelangelo’s dome is not a hemisphere, but a parabola: it has a vertical thrust, which is made more emphatic by the bold ribbing that springs from the paired Corinthian columns, which appear to be part of the drum, but which stand away from it like buttresses, to absorb the outward thrust of the dome’s weight. Above, the vaulted dome rises to Fontana’s two-stage lantern, capped with a spire.
The grand façade is 116 m wide and 53 m high. Built from 1608 to 1614, it was designed by Carlo Modeno. The central balcony is called the Loggia of the Blessings, and is used for the announcement of the new pope with “Habemus Papum” and his Urbi et Orbi blessing. The relief under the balcony, by Buonvicino, represents Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.
The facade is topped by 13 statues in travertine. From left, the statues represent: Thaddeus, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, James the Elder, John the Baptist, Christ the Redeemer (in the center), Andrew, John the Evangelist, James the Younger, Bartholomew, Simon and Matthias. St. Peter’s statue in this set is inside.
Two clocks are on either side; the one on the left is electrically operated since 1931, with its oldest bell dating to 1288. Stretching across the facade is the dedicatory inscription: IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII (In honor of the prince of apostles; Paul V Borghese, pope, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate)
Between the façade and the interior is the portico. Mainly designed by Maderno, it contains an 18th century statue of Charlemagne by Cornacchini to the south, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini (1670) to the north.
The northernmost door is the Holy Door, in bronze by Vico Consorti (1950), which is by tradition only opened for great celebrations such as Jubilee years. Above it are inscriptions. The top reads PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, the one just above the door reads GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. In between are white slabs commemorating the most recent openings. Pope John Paul II opened the holy door in the jubilee years of 1983-84 and 2000-01.
The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455), and was preserved from the old basilica. It was too small for its new space, so panels were added at the top and bottom. Known as the Filarete Door after the artist’s nickname, it has six panels that depict: Jesus and Mary enthroned; St. Paul with the sword; St. Peter giving the keys to the kneeling Pope Eugene IV; St. Paul sentenced by Nero; martyrdom of St. Paul; martyrdom of St. Peter on Vatican Hill; St. Paul appearing to Plautilla, to give her back the veil she had lent him to blindfold his eyes. The bas-reliefs between the framed panels show scenes from the pontificate of Eugene IV, and representatives at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, summoned in 1438 to reunite the Churches of the East and of the West.
The Door of Death is the far left door into the basilica. Its name derives from its traditional use as the exit for funeral processions as well as its subject matter. In preparation for the Holy Year of 1950, Pope Pius XII held a competition for three new bronze doors. This one was sculpted by Giacomo Manzù in 1961-64. Large relief panels depict the death of Jesus (top right), death of Mary (top left); violent death of Abel, serene death of Joseph, death of first pope, death of Pope John XXIII, death of first martyr Stephen, death of Gregory VII (in exile defending the Church), death improvised in space and death of a mother at home.
“The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome; is a sensation never to be forgotten.” – Charles Dickens, 1846
To say the interior of St. Peter’s is impressive would be an obvious understatement, given that it is perhaps the largest church in the world (the new Basilica of Yamoussoukro may have surpassed it) – it covers an area of 23,000 m² (5.7 acres) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people.
And every bit of space is used to display the finest Renaissance monuments and decoration money could buy, employing the talents of such greats as Michelangelo and Bernini.
The following “tour” follows the rough plan of looking at the nave, walking up the right aisle, looking at the central dome and baldacchino, walking to the end for the cathedra of Peter, then heading back down the left aisle.
Immediately inside the central doors, a large round porphyry slab is set into the floor. Here Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Emperors knelt for their coronation in front of the high altar of the old basilica.
Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance. Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of various saints.
The insides of the pilasters that separate the nave from the side aisles have niches filled with statues of saints who founded religious orders. There are 39 of these in total throughout the church, spaced evenly in the nave and two transepts. Just to your right as you enter the basilica is St. Teresa of Avila, a beloved Spanish saint who founded the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
In the northwestern (right front) corner of the nave is the bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned, now attributed to late 13th-century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (some still date it back to the 5th century). It is robed and crowned on high festivals, and its outstretched foot is smoothed down due to centuries of pilgrims’ caresses.
Right Aisle and Right Transept
In the right aisle, the first major sight is Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, located immediately to the right of the entrance. The sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus in her lap after the crucifixion, and was completed when Michelangelo was just 24. After it was vandalized with an axe in 1972, the sculpture was placed behind protective glass.
Up the aisle is the monument of Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated in 1654 in order to convert to Catholicism. Further up are the monuments of popes Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as the altar of St Sebastian.
Halfway to the transept is the large Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, entered through a Baroque wrought-iron grill designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Here the Blessed Sacrament (consecrated bread and wine) is exposed for the continuous adoration of the faithful. A notice reads: “Only those who wish to pray may enter.” It is a rare place of silence and stillness in the tourist-filled basilica, and for many Catholics it is their favorite space.
Inside the chapel, the sacrament is enshrined in a tabernacle of gilded bronze designed by Bernini (1674) and based on a more famous work by Bramante. It has statuettes of the twelve Apostles on the cornice and one of Jesus on the miniature dome. It is encrusted with deep blue lapis lazuli and is flanked by two angels in gilded bronze (added later), kneeling in reverent prayer. Behind the altar is an oil painting by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) of the Trinity, the only canvas painting in the whole basilica.
Further down the right aisle are the monuments of Pope Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Carlo Rusconi) and Gregory XIV. The right transept contains three altars, of St Wenceslas, St. Processo and St. Martiniano, and St. Erasmus.
Where the right aisle runs into the Pier of St. Longinus is the body of Pope John XXIII (d. 1963), displayed in a glass case beneath the Altar of St. Jerome. The pope was beatified (a step towards sainthood) in 2000. When the tomb was opened in order to move his body to the basilica in 2001, it was found to be incorrupt and was therefore placed in a glass case. This location was chosen because the pope was a specialist in the church fathers and a devotee of St. Jerome in particular.
At the crossing of the transepts is the central focus of the interior, the baldacchino. This monumental canopy shelters the papal altar and the holy relics of St. Peter. Artistically, it also serves to fill the vertical space under Michelangelo’s great dome.
Made of 927 tons of dark bronze (removed from the Pantheon’s roof in 1633) accented with gold vine leaves, the baldacchino stands 90 feet (30 meters) tall. The baldacchino was created by Lorenzo Bernini from 1624 to 1633 under the direction of Barberini pope Urban VIII, who added Baroque embellishment to much of Rome.
The spiral columns derive their shapes from the columns of the baldacchino in the original St. Peter’s Basilica built by Constantine, which legend has it came from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Cherubs are repeated throughout the monument, giving an overall effect of the Ark of the Covenant.
Symbols of the Barberini family can be seen throughout, including a golden sun and bees. Thus, in addition to being a beautiful work of art, the baldacchinio symbolizes the union of the Old Testament wisdom of Solomon, the Christian tradition of Constantine, and the rebirth of a triumphal church under the guidance of the Barberini family.
At the foot of the baldacchino and papal altar is the sunken Confessio, a 17th-century chapel named in honor of the confession of St. Peter that led to his martyrdom here. The Confessio is better seen from the crypt (or Grottoes) below, where there is a glass wall looking into it.
Although the baldacchino and papal altar stand over Peter’s tomb, the tomb itself cannot be seen either from here on in the crypt. Peter’s tomb is on the other side of the Niche of the Pallium at the back of the Confessio, and can only be seen in the special Scavi tour of the ancient necropolis.
The niche contains a silver coffer that seems like a good place for Peter’s relics, but actually contains fabrics (each known as a “pallium”) woven from the wool of lambs blessed on the feast of St. Agnes (Jan 21) and given to patriarchs and metropolitans as a reminder of the Church’s unity.
Behind the coffer is an early 8th-century mosaic of Christ, placed here by Pope Leo III (795-816). In his left hand Christ holds a Bible open at the Gospel of John, which bears the Latin inscription, “I am the way the truth and the life, the one who believes in me shall live.”
Surrounding the baldacchino are four great piers that support the huge dome. Each pier has a large niche at its base, which is filled with a colossal statue of a saint representing each of the basilica’s four major relics (Reliquae Maggiori):
NW pier – St Helena, Constantine’s mother, holding a large cross (representing the relic of the True Cross found by the saint in Jerusalem)
NE pier – St Longinus, the Roman soldier who thrust a spear in the side of Christ at the crucifixion, converted, and was later martyred (the relic is the spear)
SE pier – St Andrew, with his trademark diagonal cross upon which he was martyred (the relic is Andrew’s head, which was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1964)
SW pier – St Veronica, with the veil Christ used to wipe his face on the way to Calvary, leaving his image imprinted on it (epresenting the relic of Veronica’s veil)
The statue of Longinus is by Bernini (in 1639) and the others are by his followers. The relics themselves are kept in the podium of the Pier of St. Veronica and are displayed only during Holy Week. The Vatican makes no official claims as to the authenticity of these relics -and in fact other Catholic churches claim to possess the same ones.
The balconies above the niches are flanked by the 4th-century spiral columns of the baldacchino in the Constantinian St. Peter’s, and contain reliefs depicting the relics.
Cupola and Inscriptions
Along the base of the inside of the dome is the inscription of Matthew 16:18-19, in letters 8 ft. (2.5m) high:
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM (You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.)
Near the top of the dome is another, smaller, circular inscription:
S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V. (To the glory of St. Peter; Sixtus V, pope, in the year 1590 and the fifth year of his pontificate.)
Cathedra of St. Peter
At the far west end of the basilica is the tribune, which centers on the Cathedra of St. Peter. The enormous gilded bronze monument was designed by Bernini in 1666 to enclose an oak throne donated by Carolingian ruler Charles the Bald upon his coronation in St. Peter’s in 875. The legs of the throne are decorated with finely pierced ivory bands made in the School at Tours. The 18 ivory plaques on the front of the chair were added slightly later, and show the 12 Labors of Hercules and six monsters.
Bernini’s monument is topped by a yellow window featuring the Holy Spirit as a dove surrounded by 12 rays, symbolising the apostles. To the right of the chair are St Ambrose and St Augustine (fathers of the Latin church), and to the left are St Athanasius and St John Chrysostom (fathers of the Greek church). On the right wall of the chapel is the monument to Pope Urban VIII by Bernini and the left wall has the monument to Paul III.
Left Transept and Left Aisle
At the end of the left aisle, west of the transept, is the Chapel of the Column. This contains the Altar of Our Lady of the Column on the south side. The altarpiece is an ancient image of the Virgin Mary that was painted on a marble column in the central nave of the original basilica. In 1607 it was placed on this altar designed by Giacomo Della Porta, framed by the marble and alabaster columns. In 1981, John Paul II had a mosaic reproduction of it set on the external wall of the palazzo facing St. Peter’s Square, which is illuminated at night. Under the altar is a 4th-century sarcophagus that holds the remains of Popes Leo II (682-83), Leo III (795-816), and Leo IV (847-55).
To the left of the altar in the same chapel is the Altar of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-61) by Alessandro Algardi, 1645-53. This is the only altarpiece of marble relief in the basilica. Leo was a highly influential pope and was the first to be buried in St. Peter’s. The marble bas-relief depicts Leo’s famous meeting with Attila the Hun, who was going to attack Rome until Leo convinced him otherwise, with St. Paul supporting him in the sky.
Heading back towards the entrance, between the Chapel of the Column and the left transept is the monument to Pope Alexander (Chigi) VII (d. 1667) by Bernini, 1671-78. The door below symbolizes the Gate of Death, above which a skeleton lifts a fold of red marble drapery and holds an hourglass. He is flanked on the right by a statue representing Truth or religion, who rests her foot on a globe – specifically placed upon the British Isles, symbolizing the pope’s problems with the Church of England. Three other figures represent Charity, Prudence and Justice.
The left transept contains the altars of St. Peter’s Crucifixion, St. Joseph (pictured at right) and St. Thomas.
Just beyond the left transept as you head back to the entrance is the monument to Pope Pius VIII (1829-30) by Pietro Tenerani, 1866. This pope was imprisoned in 1808 during the French domination of Italy for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Napoleon. On a happier note, he approved the decrees of the Council of Baltimore (October 1829), the first formal meeting of US bishops. The Pope is shown kneeling in prayer, accompanied by a statue of Christ enthroned and statues of Sts. Peter and Paul. The allegories are Prudence and Justice. The door under the monument is the entrance to the Sacristy and Treasury Museum. In front of the monument is a mass schedule for the basilica.
East of the left transept is the Clementine Chapel, which contains the Altar of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604). The altarpiece, a mosaic reproduction of a 1625 painting by Sacchi, depicts a miracle in which St. Gregory used a knife to cause blood to flow from a corporal cloth. Beneath the altar is the tomb of Gregory, which can be seen through a grille.
The last chapel before you leave is the Presentation Chapel, which centers on the Altar of the Presentation of Mary. The altarpiece, which shows the young Mary being presented in the Temple by her parents, is a mosaic by Cristofari of 1726-28, based on a painting by Romaneli done in 1638-42. Below the altar is the body of Pope St. Pius X (1904-1914), the last pope to be canonized. His face and hands are covered in silver. Pius X is known for his emphasis on religious education, and for his opposition to modernism. He allowed children to take communion, and encouraged the sacrament to be practiced daily.
After the chapel and on your right is the monument to Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) by Pietro Canonica, 1928. The Pope is shown in fervent prayer, kneeling on a tomb which commemorates the First World War, which he described as a “useless massacre.” The tomb is covered in olive branches, symbols of peace. Above the statue is Mary, presenting Jesus, Prince of Peace, to the world in flames.
On your left as you leave is the Monument to the Royal Stuarts, a pyramidal masterpiece by Antonio Canova. It commemorates King James III, the “Old Pretender” to the English throne who lived in exile in Rome. Also commemorated are his two sons, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Henry. It marks the spot in the grottoes below where the three last members of the royal House of Stuart lie buried.
Next to this is the tomb of Maria Clementina Sobieska (by Pietro Bracci, 1739), a princess who received the rare honor of burial in St. Peter’s normally reserved for popes and saints. The wife of James Stuart, she earned this honor through her crusade for the Catholic faith. The main statue is the personification of Charity (or Love of God), and an angel holds a portrait of the deceased in mosaic.
On the left just inside the entrance is the baptistery, where a porphyry cover from a 4th-century sarcophagus is used as the baptismal font. It previously covered the tomb of emperor Otho II (973-983) in the Vatican Grottoes.
The crypt underneath the church is well worth a visit. It contains architectural fragments from earlier churches on the site and the tombs of many popes, including the simple tomb of John Paul II.
But the focus of pilgrims and tourists alike is the tomb of the very first pope: St. Peter. These prized relics have been the goal of millions of pilgrims since the early centuries of Christianity, and have a good likelihood of authenticity. A glass wall at the end of the crypt provides a view of the reliquary below the altar, which may well contain the actual bones of St. Peter. A chapel stretches out behind the shrine into the crypt for services at this holiest of shrines.
Dome and Roof
On your way out as you exit from the crypt is the entrance to the dome and roof, in the northern courtyard between the church and Vatican Palace. There is an admission charge and often a line, but it is a very worthwhile experience. There is an elevator option as far as the dome (for an extra euro), and from there on it is stairs only.
The views from the gallery around the cupola of Michelangelo’s dome provide an impressive sense of the enormity of the church, a look at the top of the baldacchino, and a closer view of the cupolola’s inscriptions and medallions.
From the gallery, stairs continue to the roof, where you step out on the east side of the dome. This provides a sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square and Vatican City from behind the huge statues on the facade.
More stairs lead up to the lantern at the top of the dome, which provides even more impressive views.
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