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The Basilica of Saint Petrus, officially known in Italian as the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano and coloquially called Saint Peter's Basilica, is one of four major basilicas of Rome (St. John Lateran, St. Peter's, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the Walls). It is the most prominent building inside the Vatican City. Its dome is also a dominant feature of the Roman skyline. Saint Peter's is also incidentally the patriarchal basilica of Constantinople whereas the Lateran Basilica is the patriarchal basilica of Rome. Possibly the largest church building in Christianity, it covers an area of 5.7 acres (2.3 ha) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people. One of the holiest sites of Christendom in the Catholic tradition, it is traditionally the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter's presence or martyrdom in Rome, ancient tradition holds that his tomb is below the baldachin and altar; for this reason, many Popes, starting with the first ones, have been buried there. Construction on the current basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed in 1626.

Although the Vatican basilica is not the Pope's official ecclesiastical seat (Saint John Lateran), it is most certainly his principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place at St. Peter's due to its size, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. The basilica also holds a relic of the Cathedra Petri, the episcopal throne of the basilica's namesake when he led the Roman church, but which is no longer used as the Papal cathedra. It is believed that a piece of this cathedra, or chair, is contained within the altarpiece, designed by Bernini.


Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome.

Burial site of St Peter[]

Main article: Saint Peter's tomb

Old St. Peter's[]

Main article: Old Saint Peter's Basilica

Other burials[]

There are over 100 tombs located within St. Peter's Basilica. These include 91 popes, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Exiled Catholic British royalty James Francis Edward Stuart and his two sons, Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Benedict Stuart, are buried here, due to being granted asylum by Pope Clement XI. The most prominent woman entombed is Christina of Sweden, who abdicated her throne in order to convert to Catholicism. The most recent interment was Pope John Paul II, on April 8 2005. Beneath, near the crypt, is the recently-discovered vaulted fourth-century "Tomb of the Julii".

St Peter's Square[]

Main article: Saint Peter's Square

Directly to the east of the church is St Peter's Square (Piazza di San Pietro), built by Gianlorenzo Bernini between 1656 and 1667. It is surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with two pairs of Doric columns which form its breadth, each bearing Ionic entablatures. The colonnade wraps around the square, embracing the faithful in "the motherly arms of the church". This is an excellent example of Baroque architecture, where creativity is coupled with flexible guidelines. In the center of the colonnade is a 25.5 metre (83.6 ft) tall obelisk. Domenico Fontana finished moving the obelisk to its present location on September 28, 1586 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk dates back to the 13th century BC in Egypt, and was moved to Rome in AD 37 to stand in the Circus of Nero some 250 metres (820 ft) away. Including the cross on top and its base, the obelisk reaches 40 metres (131 ft). The Vatican obelisk is notable for being the second largest standing obelisk and the only one that remained standing since it was erected during the Roman Empire. An original bronze globe on top of the structure was removed when the obelisk was re-erected in St Peter's Square by Domenico Fontana. There are also two fountains in the square, the north one by Maderno (1613) and the southern one by Bernini (1675). The square is reached mainly through the Via della Conciliazione built by Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties.


There is a widespread assumption that the dome, or cupola, as it presently stands, was designed by Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546. In fact, Michelangelo's design called for a spherical dome. At the time of his death (1564), only the drum set, the base on which a dome rests, had been completed. The dome proper was redesigned and vaulted 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 finial was placed in 1593. Many are fascinated by the ability of the artist of who created it.

As built, the double dome is brick, 42.3 meters (138.8 ft) in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), rising to 120 meters (394 ft) above the floor. In the mid-18th century, cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, like the rings that keep a barrel from bursting. (Visitors who climb the spiral stairs between the dome shells can glimpse them.) The four piers of the crossing that support it are each 18 metres (59 ft) across. It is not simply its vast scale (136.57 m or 448.06 ft from the floor of the church to the top of the added cross) that makes it extraordinary. Della Porta's dome is not a hemisphere, but a paraboloid: 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. The grand arched openings just visible in the illustration but normally invisible to viewers below, enable access (but not to the public) all around the base of the drum; they are dwarfed by the monumental scale of their surroundings. Above, the vaulted dome rises to Fontana's two-stage lantern, capped with a spire.

The egg-shaped dome exerts less outward thrust than a lower hemispheric one (such as Mansart's at Les Invalides) would have done. The dome conceived by Donato Bramante at the outset in 1503 was planned to be carried out with a single masonry shell, a plan discovered to be infeasible. Antonio da Sangallo the Younger came up with the double shell, and Michelangelo improved upon it. The piers at the crossing, which were the first masonry to be laid, and which were intended to support the original dome, were a constant concern, too slender in Bramante's plan, they were redesigned several times as the dome plans evolved. Other domes around the world, built since, are generally compared to this one or contrasted with it.


Above the main entrance is the inscription,

(In honor of the prince of apostles; by Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate).

The façade is 114.69 metres (376.28 ft) wide and 45.55 metres (149.44 ft) high. On top are statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and eleven of the apostles; The statues of St Peter and St Paul are in front of the parish. Two clocks are on either side of the top, the one on the left has been operated electrically since 1931, its oldest bell dating to 1288.

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 Constantine I by Bernini (1670) to the north. The southernmost door, designed by Giacomo Manzù, is called the "Door of the Dead". The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455), and preserved from the previous basilica.

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 reading PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, and the one just above the door reading GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. In between are white slabs commemorating the most recent openings.




In the jubilee year of human redemption 1983-4, John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed again the holy door closed and set apart by Paul VI in 1976.

John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, again opened and closed the holy door in the year of the great jubilee, from the incarnation of the Lord 2000-2001.

Paul VI, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed the holy door of this patriarchal Vatican basilica in the jubilee year of 1975.


Walking along the right aisle of the basilica, there are several noteworthy monuments and memorials. The first is Michelangelo's Pietà, located immediately to the right of the entrance. After an incident in 1972 when an individual damaged it with an axe, 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. Even further up is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is open during religious services only. Inside it is a tabernacle on the altar resembling Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio. Bernini sculpted this gilded bronze tabernacle in 1674. The two kneeling angels were added later. Further still are the monuments of popes Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Rusconi) and Gregory XIV.

In the northwestern corner of the nave sits the statue of St. Peter Enthroned, attributed to late 13th century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (with some scholars dating it back to the 5th century). The foot of the statue is eroded due to centuries of pilgrims kissing it. Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance (not an original detail). Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of saints who founded religious orders.

Walking down the left aisle there is the Altar of Transfiguration. Walking down towards the entrance are the monuments to Leo XI and Innocent XI followed by the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. After that come the monuments to Pius X and Innocent VIII, then the monuments to John XXIII and Benedict XV, and the Chapel of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. After that comes the Monument to the Royal Stuarts, directly opposite the one to Maria Clementina Sobieska. Symmetrically, the two monarchs who gave up their thrones for their Catholic faith in the 17th century, are honored side by side in the most important church in Catholicism. Finally, right before the end of the church, is the Baptistry.

The right transept contains three altars, of St. Wenceslas, St. Processus and St. Martinian, and St. Erasmus. The left transept also contains three altars, that of St Peter's Crucifixion, St. Joseph and St. Thomas. West of the left transept is the monument to Alexander VII by Bernini. A skeleton lifts a fold of red marble drapery and holds an hourglass symbolising the inevitability of death. He is flanked on the right by a statue representing religion, who holds her foot atop a globe, with a thorn piercing her toe from the British Isles, symbolizing the pope's problems with the Church of England.

Over the main altar stands a 30 metres (98 ft) tall baldachin held by four immense pillars, all designed by Bernini between 1624 and 1632. The baldachin was built to fill the space beneath the cupola, and it is said that the bronze used to make it was taken from the Pantheon. The representation of a chair, part of the sculpture, is said to contain the remnants of the chair belonging to Saint Peter (It is also said that it is the largest bronze piece in the world.) Underneath the baldachin is the traditional tomb of St. Peter. In the four corners surrounding the baldachin are statues of St. Helena (northwest, holding a large cross in her right hand, by Andrea Bolgi), St. Longinus (northeast, holding his spear in his right hand, by Bernini in 1639), St. Andrew (southeast, spread upon the cross which bears his name, by Francois Duquesnoy) and St. Veronica (southwest, holding her veil, by Francesco Mochi). Each of these statues represents a relic associated with the person, respectively, a piece of The Cross, the Spear of Destiny, The Spear of Longinus, St Andrew's head (as well as part of his cross) and Veronica's Veil. In 1964, St Andrew's head was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church by the Pope. It should be noted that the Vatican makes no claims as to the authenticity of several of these relics, and in fact other Catholic churches also possess "the same" relics.

Along the base of the inside of the dome is written, in letters 2 metres (6.5 ft) high, TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM (Vulgate, from Matthew 16:18-19; " 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). The Burial of St Petronilla is an altarpiece painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino) in 1623. It simultaneously depicts the burial and the welcoming to heaven of the martyred St. Petronilla. The altar is dedicated to the saint, and contains her relics.

At the apse of the church is the Triumph of the Chair of Saint Peter (1666) by Bernini, a focus of the Feast of Cathedra Petri celebrated annually on February 22 in accordance to the calendar of saints. The triumph is topped by a yellow window (made of finely cut alabaster)in with the image of a dove, portraying the Holy Spirit, surrounded by twelve rays, symbolising the apostles. The rays protruding from the window also symbolize the grace of God, supporting the Chair of Peter to show the source of the authority. The Chair is made of a bronze encasing, which is a relic of the chair of St Peter, given to the Vatican from Charles the Bald in 875. 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). Further to the right is the monument to Urban VIII, by Bernini, and further to the left is the monument to Paul III.

Archpriests of Saint Peter’s Basilica since 1820[]



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External links[]

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