This article is the first in a series that will take the reader on a tour of the grandest church in Christendom, the St Peters Basilica in the Vatican.
For centuries, countless people journeyed to St Peters Basilica to witness its splendid masterpieces, gorgeous architecture, and significant historical monuments. The church attracted pilgrims on a spiritual mission, seeking strength to be better disciples and those praying for spiritual or physical healing. It also drew anyone wanting to pay their respects at the tomb of St Peter. I encourage you to think of this series as not just a source of information but an invitation to breathe in one of the holiest sites in Christianity and to pray and make your pilgrimage from home.
St Peters Basilica in Rome, A History
Caligula built a stadium in 37 B.C. It was called the Circus Vaticanus or Circus of Caligula, covering the area from the end of the basilica to past the end of the square -it was enormous. Used primarily for public games and races, it was later referred to as the Circus of Nero after he famously competed against the charioteers. At the center of the arena was an obelisk that currently occupies the center of the square today. It was moved there from Heliopolis, Egypt.
There was also a vast necropolis or city of the dead in this area. Romans viewed the dead as sacred, so the law prohibited burials within the city limits. In this way, their bodies would not be desecrated. The once sprawling open-aired complex is only accessible by excavation, as it is now underground.
The year 64 A.D. brought a great fire to Rome, razing much of the city. Soon after, a rumor spread that Emperor Nero had set the fire himself, so he decided to look for a scapegoat. The blame shifted to the Christians, and the first persecution broke out.
The Christians were subject to horrendous punishments in Nero’s Circus. The Romans, for example, would sew sheep hides to the body and face of a victim and then throw them to a ravenous beast to be devoured. They would coat some in pitch, tie them to stakes, and set them on fire to be a human torch so that the games could go on in darkness.
Peter Martyred Near Current St Peters Square
Shortly after he was arrested, in 67 A.D, St Peter was crucified. Tradition has it that, upon being sentenced, Peter protested that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus, so he asked to be crucified upside-down.
Tradition also tells us that he was martyred juxta obeliscum, or near the obelisk, in an unmarked grave with clay tiles to draw no attention. Likely, the obelisk that currently stands in the center of St Peter’s square was the last thing Peter saw before he died.
The Constantinian Version of St Peters Basilica
After his conversion, in the year 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, slowing for the recognition and expansion of Christianity. Later, he decided to construct a large basilica above the tomb of St Peter. An ancient story recounts Constantine starting the foundation himself by digging twelve baskets full of dirt, symbolically representing the twelve apostles.
The foundation of the basilica was laid in 324, and it took five years to complete. Originally, the tomb was open on one side to allow people to venerate the relics of St Peter, but, in the sixth century, it was covered by an altar. In the twelfth century, this was followed by yet another altar.
At this time, the Vatican was not the residence of the Pope – a move that was still one thousand years away. The papacy resided at the Lateran. St Peters Basilica, nonetheless, was an enormous and grand church, measuring around four hundred feet long, looking somewhat like St Paul Outside the Walls looks today.
It was the height of the Roman Empire, so St Peters Basilica would have welcomed people from the ends of the world. Pilgrims would have climbed it thirty-five steps to a portico courtyard, elaborately decorated with mosaics, tapestries, precious stones, and rare marble. Upon entering the basilica, they have walked on a floor covered in silver and gold.
With the decline of the Empire came consequent deterioration of the basilica. Between the Visigoths (410), Vandals (455), Saracens (846), and Normans (1084), almost all the treasures of the original church were stolen. The worst raid was probably that of the Saracens. It was so brutal that, in 852, a protective wall was built to prevent a reoccurrence – it still surrounds part of the Vatican. Things seemed to be at their lowest by 1309 and would not turn around until the Pope returned from Avignon in 1377.
The Current St Peters Basilica
After almost 130 years of trying to repair and update the basilica of Constantine, the decision was to rebuild. Julius II laid the foundation stone for the new St Peters Basilica in 1506. It was the first step in building what would become an architectural wonder of the world.
The first plans for the new church, drawn up by the architect, Donato Bramante, looked quite different from how it looks today. He designed it as a Greek Cross, with four extensions all the same size. After some time, that layout was altered to that of a Latin cross.
Who Worked on St Peter’s Basilica Architecture
- Donato Bramante
- Raphael | (1514-1520)
- Michelangelo Buonarrotti | (1546-1564)
- Giacomo della Porta
- Domenico Fontana
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1629-1667)
- Carlo Maderno built the facade
- Bernini built the piazza
By 1600, the dome of the new church, rising above the skyline, would have been visible far and wide. Thirteen hundred years after building the first St Peters Basilica, in the year 1626, the new one was consecrated – 120 after breaking ground.
The area around the St Peters Basilica would continue to develop in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, growing more urban. In the nineteenth century, with the movement to unify Italy, the Papal States was at war. In 1848, the prime minister of Pope Pius IX was murdered by revolutionaries, forcing the Pope to flee the city. In 1850, he returned with the French army. The Italians, however, would eventually succeed and force the Pope to resign sovereignty over the Papal States.
By the early twentieth century, the area around the St Peters Basilica was in much disrepair, and the plan was to tear it down. The new idea was to construct the Via della Conciliazione, as it is today. Interestingly, it met resistance by some who appreciated the stark contrast between the massive Square and Basilica and the twisting urban alleyways in which it existed. The Pope, despite the opposition, eventually approved and built the new boulevard.
Planing to Visit St Peters Basilica
In part two of this Authoritative Tour of St Peters Basilica, we will take a detailed look at the current square and the facade of the church. Coming soon . . . In the mean time read some of our other great content, or, if you are going to visit St Peters Basilica soon, check out this useful link!