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October 31st, 2008

Vailankanni Shrine – Tamil Nadu, India

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Last week, I made a pilgrimage to Vailankanni Shrine, Tamil Nadu, India. I took some snaps, the best among those are given here…..Click on any thumbnail for the original image.

About:-

The historic Marian Shrine at Vailankanni stands out as a light in darkness to many, who make their way from countries far and near to obtain blessing and healing from their Mother. Pilgrims belonging to every religion, caste and creed flock to the Shrine of Our Lady who meets their every need. As one family, they gather sinking every trace of disparity, a living example of unity in diversity.

Location:-

Amid the calm surroundings of palm groves on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, nestles the magnificent Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Health, Vailankanni. This Marian Shrine which has acquired international repute is popularly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East.’

The place which Our Blessed Mother chose to make her apparition, Vailankanni, was once a tiny insignificant village on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Now it resembles a flourishing town and accommodates countless pilgrims who visit the Shrine daily. It lies 10km south of Nagapattinam, a port town. Vailankanni itself was once a port and people here had commercial dealings with Rome and Greece, the ancient commercial centres of the World. However, in course of time, while Nagapattinam continued to flourish as a commercial town, Vailankanni lost its importance in this sphere. The canal which was dug for navigation between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam, lies to the west of Vailankanni.

The Marian Shrine:-

Vailankanni which has developed beyond all recognition in the past twenty five years, has a population of approximately 12000 people. But this number keeps on increasing day by day due to the influx of new settlers. The place has all the facilities found in a flourishing town, such as a post office, banks, hospitals, Higher Secondary Schools, Home for the Aged and Disabled, Medical Stores, Bus Station, Telephone Exchange and all other conceivable facilities.

When one sets foot on the sacred soil of Vailankanni, there is an instinctive feeling that one is on holy ground. It is an unassailable fact that the entire place throbs with the all pervading presence of Mary. Her’s is truly a silent presence that reflects God’s presence in the world through the ages. And it is to experience this silent but powerful presence of Mary that millions of her devotees, irrespective of caste or creed, flock to her hallowed Shrine at Vailankanni. Wherever they come from, their one cherished desire is to have a dharshan (vision) of the ‘holy land’ of Vailankanni, and more so, that of the Miraculous Mother of Good Health.

Apparitions of Our Lady at Vailankanni:-

It is an indisputable fact that God has always been eager to intervene in human history, especially during turbulent times, in a motherly way and so He comes to us through Mary. Mary is not only the Mother of Jesus; she is the Mother of us all. Even in Her glory in heaven, she is still profoundly concerned about the welfare of her children, and that is why she leaves her eternal throne to come down to man to alert him to the dangers to which he is rushing headlong. When we reflect on the apparitions of Our Lady, one obvious fact is that the recipients of the overwhelming favour of her apparitions are children of homes in grip of poverty, children bereft of great talents and intimately acquainted with suffering, children of no consequence in the eyes of the world. Just as in the cities of Lourdes and Fatima, in Vailankanni too, Mary appeared to lowly shepherds of tender age, the only difference being, the two youths who were privileged to have the vision of Our Lady, were Hindus, not Christians. There are very strong and compelling traditional evidences that point to the apparitions of Our Blessed Mother in this village. Among those, there are three outstanding incidents. They are

1) Our Lady’s vision to a shepherd boy
2) Our Lady’s vision to a lame buttermilk vendor
3) Our Lady rescuing Portuguese sailors from shipwreck

1) Our Lady’s vision to a shepherd boy

Approximately 400 years ago, alongside a street known as Anna Pillai Street, there was a small pond and on its bank was a huge banyan tree. Passersby would slake their thirst with the water from the pond. A shepherd boy from Vailankanni used to carry milk everyday to a rich man in Nagapattinam which is 10km away. On an unusually hot summer day, the boy, after quenching his thirst with water from the pond, rested for a while in the shade of the banyan tree. Soon the boy fell into a deep slumber.

Suddenly he was startled by the vision of a lady of celestial beauty holding a lovely child in her arms. Never had he seen such an awe inspiring yet so captivating a vision. With child-like innocence he folded his hands and reverently paid obeisance to the Mother and Child of such breathtaking beauty. The Lady greeted him with a motherly smile and condescended to ask him for some milk for her child. For a moment the thought flashed through his mind as to how he could part with a portion of the milk he was carrying for his master without incurring his ire, yet it was impossible for him to refuse the request of so noble a Lady. He joyfully gave her some milk for her child and seeing a bewitching smile spread over the face of the heavenly baby, the boy experienced deep satisfaction.

When he reached the home of the rich man he begged to be excused for his unusual delay and for the shortage of milk. But when the lid of the milk pot was lifted, it was brimming over with milk. The boy narrated to the rich man all about the apparition he had of a lady of uncommon beauty with a cherubic child. The master was fascinated by the extraordinary phenomenon witnessed by the boy and hastened to the spot where the Lady had appeared with the child. This whole thing spread like wild fire throughout the neighbourhood. The Christians in Nagapattinam were convinced that the vision was that of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. From that day onwards the tank at Anna Pillai Street has come to be known as ‘Matha Kulam’ (Our Lady’s Tank). Innumerable miracles are taking place even today by drinking the water from the Matha Kulam or by applying it on diseased persons. A chapel now stands at the place where Mary appeared to the shepherd boy.

2) Our Lady’s vision to a lame buttermilk vendor

At the close of the 16th century, there was a poor widow in the village of Vailankanni with a son who was congenitally lame. The lame boy would sell buttermilk at a place known as ‘Nadu Thittu’. It was a slightly elevated spot where there was a huge banyan tree with outstretched branches. The widow would carry the lame boy and leave him at Nadu Thittu with a pot of buttermilk. The boy sold the buttermilk to weary way-farers who would take shelter from the sweltering heat under the banyan tree.

On an extremely hot day, the boy was waiting for his customers, but as no one turned up, he was a little disappointed. But then, in the twinkling of an eye, he saw a Lady of stunning beauty standing before him, holding a baby of dazzling beauty in her arms. The Mother and Child were attired in impeccable white garments. The Lady looked at the boy with a charming smile and asked him for a cup of buttermilk for the child. Without a moment’s hesitation the lad gave her a cup of buttermilk as he considered it a great honour and privilege to render a little hospitality to his seemingly ethereal visitors. With a sense of deep satisfaction the boy saw the Lady feeding her child with the buttermilk he had offered. The Lady then cast a benevolent look at the lame boy and turned towards her Divine Child in her arms as if entreating him to heal the crippled lad. The Mother’s silent request was instantaneously answered. Without the boy realizing it, a miracle had been wrought on him.

The lady gratefully acknowledged the youth’s generosity and requested another favour of him. The lad was to go to Nagapattinam and apprise a certain rich Catholic gentleman of the Lady’s appearance to him and to inform him of her desire to have a chapel built at Vailankanni in her honour. The boy told the Lady that while he was eager to carry out the mission entrusted to him, his physical impairment rendered him incapable of carrying out the mission. But the Lady bade him get up and walk as he was no longer a cripple. Immediately the lad leaped to his feet. His joy knew no bounds when he realised he could walk. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him, all the 10km to Nagapattinam. On reaching there, with youthful exuberance he narrated all this to the gentleman. The gentleman had little doubt in believing the lad as he himself had a similar vision of Our Lady in his sleep the previous night, bidding him build a chapel in her honour. Besides, he could see that the lad, whom he had all along known as a cripple, has been miraculously healed.

With the cooperation of the people of that locality whose enthusiasm had been kindled by the miraculous healing of the widow’s crippled son, the Catholic gentleman of Nagapattinam soon put up a small thatched chapel at Vailankanni. An altar was erected in the chapel and a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Vailankanni holding the Infant Jesus in her arms, was placed on the altar. That marked the humble beginning of the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. The news of the new chapel of Our Lady of Vailankanni spread far and wide, and Christians as well as Non-Christians flocked to the chapel. So many cures were taking place to those who prayed at the humble Shrine of Our Lady, that the statue of the miraculous Mother with her Divine Infant came to be known as Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni (Vailankanni Arokia Matha). A chapel has been recently built at Nadu Thittu where Our Lady appeared to the lame buttermilk vendor.

3) Our Lady rescuing Portuguese sailors from shipwreck

In the 17th century a Portuguese merchant vessel was sailing from Macao in China to Colombo in Sri Lanka. While it was cruising towards the west to reach the Bay of Bengal, it was caught in a violent storm. The waves rose high and lashed violently at the ship and the fate of the vessel with everyone on board was all but sealed. The helpless sailors instinctively fell on their knees and with all the fervour, their sinking souls could muster, besought Mary’s help. They vowed to build a Church in her honour wherever she helped them land safely. Their earnest petition was instantly heard, for all of a sudden, there was a miraculous lull in the winds; the waves subsided and the sea became calm. Soon the battered ship was pushed to safety to the shores of Vailankanni.

On landing, the first thing the sailors did was to fall on their knees and thank God and the Blessed Virgin Mary for having saved their lives. Local fishermen at Vailankanni led the stranded sea men to the chapel built by the Catholic gentleman of Nagapattinam. The Portuguese sailors being devout clients of Virgin Mary lost no time in planning to fulfill their vow in the best possible manner. They set about immediately to remodel the thatched chapel into a modest brick and mortar construction, stopping by every time at Vailankanni to make further modifications to the chapel. Especially, the Chinese porcelain plates they had brought to adorn the altar, illustrating scenes from the Bible, can be seen even today inlaid in the altar of the Shrine Basilica.

Liturgical Timings in the Shrine:-

Everyday Mass:

05.40 a.m. Kaalai Puhazhl (Morning Prayer)

06.00 a.m. Mass in Tamil

07.00 a.m. Mass in Tamil

09.00 a.m. Mass in Malayalam

10.00 a.m. Mass in English

12.00 noon Mass in Tamil

06.00 p.m. Rosary, Novena Prayer and Mass in Tamil

Sunday Mass:

05.40 a.m. Kaalai Puhazhl (Morning Prayer)

06.00 a.m. Mass in Tamil

07.30 a.m. Mass in Tamil

09.00 a.m. Mass in Malayalam

10.00 a.m. Mass in English

12.00 noon Mass in Tamil

05.00 p.m. Mass in Tamil for the Parishioners

06.00 p.m. Rosary, Novena Prayer, Benediction and Mass in Tamil

Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Health

Oh! Most Holy Virgin! You were chosen by the Most Adorable Trinity from all eternity to be the most pure Mother of Jesus. Permit me, your humble and devoted client, to remind you of the joy you received at the instant of the Most Sacred Incarnation of our Divine Lord and during the nine months you carried Him in your chaste womb. I wish most sincerely that I could renew, or even increase that joy, by the fervour of my prayers.

Oh! Tender Mother of the afflicted! Grant me in my present necessities that special protection you have promised to those who devoutly commemorate this ineffable joy. Relying on the infinite mercies of your Divine Son, trusting in that promise which He has made that those who ask would receive, and penetrated with confidence in your powerful prayer, I most humbly entreat you to intercede for me. I beg you to obtain for me the favours which I petition for in this novena, if it be the holy will of God, to grant them and to ask for me whatever graces I stand most in need of.

(Specify Your Requests Here)

I desire by this novena, which I now offer in your honour, to prove the great confidence I have in your intercession. Accept it, I beseech you, in honour of that supernatural love and joy, with which your Immaculate Heart was replenished during the most privileged stay of your divine Son in your womb: in veneration of which, I offer you the sentiments of my heart.

(Recite the Hail Mary nine times and then say the following prayer)

Oh! Mother of God! Accept these salutations in union with the respect and veneration with which the Angel Gabriel first hailed you, “Full of Grace”. I wish most sincerely that they may become so many gems in the crown of your glory, which will increase in brightness to the end of the world.

I beseech you, Oh! Comfort of the afflicted, by the joy you received, when the Word was made flesh, to obtain for me the favours and graces, which I have now implored through your powerful intercession. For this end I offer you all the good works which have ever been performed in your honour. I most humbly entreat you for the love of the amiable Heart of Jesus, with which your heart was ever so inflamed, to hear my humble prayers and to obtain my requests. Amen.

Tamil Catholic Songs

August 16th, 2008

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – Tomb of St.James

Baroque altar Cloisters of Santiago Cathedral Adam and Eve on the Puerta Platerias Crowds leave from a side door after Mass

Nave Orbradoiro facade (1750) and entrance Plaza and facade at sunset Relics of St. James under the high altar

Splendid Baroque facade of Santiago Cathedral Statues of prophets on the Portico de la Gloria The celebrated Portico de la Gloria

Medieval pilgrims walked the Way of St. James for months to arrive at Santiago Cathedral, home of the relics of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway to rest their weary bones that a groove has been worn in the stone.

This Basilica Cathedral is one of three Basilicas built over the tombs of apostles of Jesus Christ. The other two are the Basilica of St. Peter, built over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome (St.Peter’s Basilica) and Santhome Basilica Cathedral built over the tomb of St. Thomas at Chennai, India.

 

History

A small church was first built over the tomb of St. James shortly after it was discovered in 819 AD. This was destroyed by al-Mansur’s Moorish army in 997, though Almansor left the relics of the Apostle undisturbed. He did, however, force Santiago’s citizens to carry the bells of the tower to the mosque in Cordoba (they have since been returned).

Despite its Baroque facade, the present cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is predominantly Romanesque; in fact, one of the finest Romanesque churches in Spain. Construction began in 1060 in the reign of Alfonso VI and was completed in 1211.

Various elements were added in later centuries, culminating in the dramatic Baroque transformation of the exterior in the 16th-18th centuries. The interior of the cathedral, however, retains its pure Early Romanesque style.

The remains of St. James, the raison d’être of the cathedral, were lost in 1700 after being hidden before an English invasion. Fortunately, they were rediscovered during building work in 1879.

Actually, three skeletons were found, presumed to be James and two of his disciples. The one belonging to the Apostle was identified thanks to a church in Tuscany, which possessed a piece of his skull that exactly fitted a gap in one of the discovered skulls. The identity was confirmed in 1884 by Pope Leo XIII and reinforced by John Paul II’s visit in 1982.

What to See

The cathedral’s façade forms part of an extended architectural composition on the Plaza del Obradoiro, a grand square surrounded by public buildings.

To the north and south, and in a line with the west front, are dependent buildings of the 18th century, grouping well with it. Those to the south contain a light and elegant arcade to the upper windows, serving as a screen to the late Gothic cloisters. Built in 1533 by the future archbishop of Toledo, the cloisters are said to be the largest in Spain.

The spectacular Baroque facade of the cathedral, known as the Obradoiro facade, was added between 1738 and 1750 by an obscure local architect, Fernando de Casas. Made of granite, it is flanked by huge bell towers and adorned everywhere with statues of St. James as the pilgrim, with staff, broad hat and scallop-shell badge.

The ground rises to the cathedral, which is reached by a magnificent quadruple flight of steps, flanked by statues of David and Solomon. Access to the staircase is through fine wrought-iron gates marked with a seashell.

In the centre, on the level of the Plaza, is the entrance to a Romanesque chapel, the Iglesia Baja (Lower Church), constructed under the portico and contemporary with the cathedral.

Entrance to the cathedral is through the magnificent Pórtico de la Gloria, carved in 1188 by Maestro Mateo and considered one of the finest works of medieval art. Originally the exterior west door, it now stands just inside, behind the newer Baroque facade.

The shafts, tympana and archivolts of the three doorways are a mass of strong and nervous sculpture representing the Last Judgment. On either side of the portal are Prophets of the Old Testament, including Daniel, who seems to smile at Esther on the other side. Faint traces of color remain on some of the carvings, which represent both the culmination of Romanesque sculpture and a precursor of the new Gothic realism.

The arches over the side doors represent Purgatory and the Last Judgment, with Christ in glory presiding in the center. He is flanked by the Four Evangelists and surrounded by the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse playing medieval musical instruments. The string instrument at the top center is an organistrum, an example of which can be seen in the crypt.

Below the Christ figure on the central column is a statue of St. James and, at the bottom, a self-portrait of Maestro Mateo. Since the Middle Ages it has been the custom of pilgrims to pray with their fingers pressed into the roots of the Tree of Jesse below Saint James, and five deep indentations have been worn into the marble as a result. Finally, pilgrims touch foreheads with Mateo for wisdom.

On the south side of the cathedral is the 12th-century Romanesque Puerta de las Platerias (Goldsmiths’ Doorway), featuring a variety of worn stone carvings.

The cathedral’s interior is pure Early Romanesque, with a cruciform shape, barrel-vaulted ceilings, two side aisles along the nave, and several chapels.

The altar is an impressive blend of Gothic simplicity and 18th-century Churrigueresque exuberance. A bejeweled medieval statue of the saint stands at the altar, which pilgrims greet wth a hug upon arrival at the shrine. Those who have travelled over 100km on foot are handed a certificate in Latin called a Compostela.

The sacred relics of St. James lie beneath the cathedral’s high altar in a silver coffer; they can be viewed from the crypt.

In the cathedral’s Capilla del Relicario (Chapel of the Reliquary) is a gold crucifix, dated 874, containing a piece of the True Cross. A cathedral museum displays tapestries and archaeological fragments.

The Late Gothic cloisters are well worth a look particularly for their view of the cathedral exterior, crawling with pagodas, pawns, domes, obelisks, battlements, scallop shells and cornucopias. Underneath the cloister is the Bucheria (Archaeological Museum), housed in Mateo’s original stone choir and the remains of the 13th-century cloister.

August 15th, 2008

St.Peter’s Basilica

Transept crossing, with baldacchino on the left Bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned Church fathers on the Cathedra of Peter Entrance to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament

Facing the Confessio and tomb of St. Peter is a crypt chapel fountain in St. Peter\'s Square designed by Bernini Inscription in the cupola The beautiful Pieta, sculpted by a young Michaelangelo

St. Peter\'s Square by night Satellite view of St. Peter\'s Basilica and Square St.Peter new statue St.peters basilica over the rooftops of vatican city

First pillar built St.Peters basilica - face Statue of St. Longinus Statue of St. Veronica in the southwest pier

Bernini\'s monumental colonnade, topped with statues of saints St.Peters nativity dome St.Peters work in progress The Altar of St. Joseph, consecrated by Pope John XXIII

the baldacchino, a monumental canopy base of the right aisle into the central nave Body of Pope John XXIII under the Altar of St. Jerome Central nave from the entrance down to the Baldacchino

The Confessio - A 17th century sunken chapel The dome of St.Peters The monumental facade of St. Peter\'s BasilicaDetail of monument of Pope Alexander VII

Monument to Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) by Pietro Canonica Humble tomb of Pope John Paul II The Cathedra of St. Peter, designed by Bernini in 1666 View of St. Peter\'s Basilica over the rooftops of Vatican City

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.

History

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.

Exterior

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.

Interior

“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.

Nave

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.

Bernini’s Baldacchino

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.

The Confessio

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.”

Four Piers

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.

Crypt

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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