Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
This week is the Catholic Church’s Holy Week – the prelude to Easter. Thousands of visitors and pilgrims will descend into Vatican City to participate in various events leading up to the blessed event. So, this week’s photo post is a look at the symbol of the Vatican and one of the holiest places in Christianity – San Pietro in Vaticano or St. Peter’s Basilica.
The site’s history dates back to 40 AD where it once was a chariot racing stadium. Construction on the current basilica began in 1506 involving many prominent artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini. It took 150 years to complete the basilica and went through many architects and various redesigns. Named after St. Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles and considered the first pope, this was the traditional site where he was considered crucified and buried.
Piazza San Pietro or St Peter’s Square is actually an elliptical space created by Bernini that marks the entrance and largely used for masses and ceremonies. An open colonnade enclosed the piazza which was supposed to symbolize the Catholic Church welcoming visitors. It was particularly imposing with 284 columns and 140 saint statues on top of it.
The obelisk with a cross on top is the centerpiece of the piazza. It was brought to Rome from Egypt by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD and moved here in 1586. It also serves as a sun dial where its shadow positioning determines time and date.
The basilica’s facade of huge columns and windows looked more like a museum or a palace than a church. On top were travertine statues of Christ the Redeemer at the center, St. John the Baptist and 11 of the apostles. The right clock next to them showed the European mean time and the left showed Rome time. A memorial inscription translated into English as “Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, [erected] in honour of the Prince of the Apostles” stretched across it.
The magnificent dome designed by Michelangelo can be accessed for a rooftop tour and 323 steps to the top for a panoramic view of Rome. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to go up.
This was some of the crowd after the papal audience let out on a Wednesday afternoon. Imagine a crowd twice as much or more this week there. Behind were the group of buildings known as the Apostolic Palaces which include the Papal apartment at the top floor. The pope can be seen from his wondow on Sundays at noon to bless the crowd.
While its exterior was vey impressive, its interior was even more awe-inspiring. One needed to pause upon entering this holy place just to take in everything. Our first thoughts were “Wow, where do we begin“. Its magnificence, size and historic importance took my breath away. This is what we first saw as we entered.
The basilica was shaped like a cross with the center positioned over St. Peter’s tomb. It is said to have the largest interior of all Christian churches in the world with a total capacity of 60,000 people.
The focal point of the papal altar is the huge canopy with four twisted marble columns known as the baldachin or baldacchino. Standing at 90 feet (30 m) tall, each column is decorated with gold vine leaves. Created by Bernini, it took nine years to make. It was truly spectacular. Fringes and tassels on top made it almost look like a tapestry even though it was cast in bronze.
Behind the altar is the Cathedra Petri or Throne of St. Peter. This extravagant sculpture of a larger gold and bronze chair encloses the relic of St. Peter’s chair he used for teaching. It is crowned with gold angelic sculptures and a stained glass window with a dove in the center symbolizing the Holy Spirit, the Church’s soul, in the midst of bright sun rays. It was simply stunning.
Soaring above the baldacchino is the world’s largest dome. Looking up at the various mosaics and saying it was magnificent almost seemed like an understatement. It was definitely worth the neck strain wandering through here.
Long considered as the center of the Catholic faith, it also doubles as a museum for masterpieces of artwork. Michelangelo’s famous Pieta lies behind a thick, protective glass by the entrance. It was a very poignant sculpture conveying a sense of serenity. Carved in marble, this is the only one Michelangelo signed and represents the lifeless body of Christ in the arms of his mother after his crucifixion.
The bronzed Statue of St. Peter Enthroned is also quite famous. Its one extended foot has been worn away by faithful pilgrims who have kissed/caressed the foot to show their devotion to the saint.
It almost made me wish I took European Art History or Religious Studies classes in college to fully appreciate everything in here. The next best things are getting an audio tour or hiring a guide. Huge statues and mosaics were everywhere so it was a bit overwhelming.
Even the holy water holder was extravagant in here. This was one of a few throughout the church.
As a side note, we highly recommend the Scavi (excavations) tour. It goes through the Vatican Necropolis (City of the Dead) – a small city of crypts, mausoleums, alleys and even an ornate chapel. It was far too interesting to be morbid. We learned the fascinating history of the tombs, the Vatican and how St. Peter’s remains came to be stored here – all underneath the Basilica. This 90-minute tour of archaeological wonders was one of the highlights of our trip.
Due to its small spaces and fragility, only 250 people are allowed to go through per day. There were tours in different languages in groups of 12 people or less. We reserved four months in advance of our trip. No one under 15 years old is admitted. No photography or bulky items were allowed so the tickets and picture above are my only tangible reminders of this tour.
We went to mass inside the basilica during one of their evening services and choir students from England were singing. We didn’t understand a single Italian word during the mass but the rituals were the same that we were able to follow along. It was a lovely service with the angelic voices echoing through the church combined with the beauty of the Italian language.
As Catholics, it was a profound and unforgettable experience that almost felt surreal too. What an incredible place to sit through any type of service. Regardless of what faith one believes in, St. Peter’s Basilica is a memorable and worthwhile site to visit and to marvel at the architecture, art and the history behind this extraordinary church.
*Have you visited St. Peter’s Basilica? Which was the most impressive to you? What is your favorite church to visit?
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