The history of St.Peter’s Basilica dates back to the 4th Century, while the modern day one we know was constructed in the 16th century. It is the largest Basilica in the world, and houses some of the world’s most famed historical artworks. Read on to discover the fascinating history behind the building.
St Peter’s Basilica is a church built in the Renaissance style located in Vatican City: the papal enclave within the city of Rome, Italy. Designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture. If you’ve ever been, you know just how truly stunning it is to enter its massive cavernous walls and experience the intricacy of craftsmanship and ornate splendour. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the space, and the simultaneous gorgeous detail. If you do ever go to Rome, the basilica is an essential building to visit!
The Original Basilica
Did you know that a million cubic meters of soil had to be removed to complete the excavation necessary for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica? The construction of the present St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius II (1503-1513), but before that, there was the original basilica built by Constantine in 319. At that time the newly converted emperor put an end to the persecution of the Christians and ordered the construction of a basilica that would bear the name of the first pope. The ideal place for this construction was the great circus of Nero but Constantine ordered that the basilica was constructed in the place where Saint Peter had been buried.
Emperor Constantine decided to build a basilica where the apostle had been buried. In 329 the construction of the basilica was completed. The church was used for the celebration of the cult, as a covered cemetery and as a funeral banquet room. During the High Middle Ages it was the main pilgrimage site in the West. After the crucifixion of Jesus, it is recorded in the Biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles that one of his twelve disciples, Simon (known as Saint Peter), a fisherman from Galilee, took a leadership position among Jesus’ followers and was of great importance in the founding of the Christian Church. The name Peter is “Petrus” in Latin and “Petros” in Greek, deriving from “petra” which means “stone” or “rock” in Greek, and is the literal translation of the Aramaic “Kepa”, the name given to Simon by Jesus.
Catholic tradition holds that Peter, after a ministry of thirty-four years, travelled to Rome and met his martyrdom there along with Paul on 13 October 64 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. His execution was one of the many martyrdoms of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome. Around 64 C.E., Rome burned in a fire that lasted 6 days. When the fire had run its course, 70% of the city lay in ruins. Historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio believed that Nero had been behind it all, hoping to clear the area for a building project he wished to call Neropolis. The displaced citizens also blamed Nero for the fire, so he found a convenient scapegoat in the relatively unknown sect of Christianity. Nero blamed the fire on the refusal of the Christians to worship the Roman gods. Thus began a terrible chapter in history- where people were persecuted for their beliefs and killed for entertainment. It was convenient for Nero to host these executions at the Circus, since most of the victims of the fire had been relocated in that vicinity. He hoped to appease them by avenging their losses with the death of Christians.
According to Jerome, Peter was crucified head downwards, by his own request because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Circus of Nero. The obelisk now stands in St. Peter’s Square and is revered as a “witness” to Peter’s death. It is one of several ancient Obelisks of Rome.
According to tradition, Peter’s remains were buried just outside the Circus, on the Mons Vaticanus less than 150 metres (490 ft) from his place of death. The Via Cornelia was a road which ran east-to-west along the north wall of the Circus on land now covered by the southern portions of the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square. A shrine was built on this site some years later. As time went on, more and more Christians came to worship at the site of Peter’s tomb. Around the year 150 CE, members of the Church decided to build a better marker to assist the pilgrims. This monument became known as The Trophy of Gaius. The Trophy of Gaius was intentionally built to resemble a pagan monument, a shrine known during Roman times as aedicula. Aediculae were household shrines dedicated to the Lares, the deities protecting the house and family. The aediculae looked like a niche, surrounded by two columns and topped by a pediment. In the case of The Trophy of Gaius, the structure was large enough to accommodate a platform for a man to climb and preach mass while, at the same time, having a view of the road. The area surrounding the platform was used to perform baptisms.
In the year 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge. By the end of 324 CE, he emerged as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine ascribed his victory to the intervention of the Christian God. Tradition holds that Constantine had received a vision of the Christian sign Chi Rho during one of his campaigns, and heard a voice that told him, “In this sign, conquer.”
To show his devotion, Constantine began the construction of a church in Rome, the Basilica Constantiniana, now San Giovanni in Laterano. However, when he noticed that believers continued to worship at the site of Peter’s tomb, he decided to begin construction of a new building on the very spot where The Trophy of Gaius stood.
Finally, Old St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed over this site. In 1939, in the reign of Pope Pius XII, 10 years of archaeological research began under the crypt of the basilica in an area inaccessible since the ninth century. It contained a very large number of burials and memorials, including those of most of the popes from St. Peter to the 15th century. The excavations revealed the remains of shrines of different periods at different levels, from Clement VIII (1594) to Callixtus II (1123) and Gregory I (590–604), built over an aedicula containing fragments of bones that were folded in a tissue with gold decorations. Although it could not be determined with certainty that the bones were those of Peter, the rare vestments suggested a burial of great importance. On 23 December 1950, in his pre-Christmas radio broadcast to the world, Pope Pius XII announced the discovery of Saint Peter’s tomb. Visitors to St Peter’s Basilica can still see the shrine in his honour.
Old St. Peter’s Basilica was the fourth-century church begun by the Emperor Constantine the Great between 319 and 333 AD. It was created in typical basilical form, with a wide nave and two aisles on each side and an apsidal end, with the addition of a transept, giving the building the shape of a tau cross. It was over 340 ft long, and the entrance was preceded by a large colonnaded atrium. Like all of the earliest churches in Rome, both this church and its successor had the entrance to the east and the apse at the west end of the building. Since the construction of the current basilica, the name Old St. Peter’s Basilica has been used for its predecessor to distinguish the two buildings.
The New Basilica
The current St Peter’s Basilica began to form in the 15th century and was expanded and added to by various popes and architects over the 16th and 17th centuries, transforming it into the largest church in the world. Inside St Peter’s Basilica, visitors can view a wealth of historical art, mostly Renaissance-era, and the tombs of popes such as Pope Pius XI (d.1939), Pope John XXIII (d. 1963) and Pope John Paul II (d. 2005). Many of their tombs are located in the basilica’s Grottoes. Some of the highlights in terms of the artistic masterpieces at St Peter’s Basilica include Michelangelo’s statue Pieta, Arnolfo di Cambio’s Statue of St. Peter Enthroned, the foot of which pilgrims traditionally touch, and Bernini’s golden Monument to Pope Alexander VII.
Rome is not called “The Eternal City” for nothing. It seems like everywhere you go, the excitement of the ages is always there. It connects you to the past—where so many others walked before you—and to the future—where you yourself will go, leaving something to those who come after you. Archaeology is one tool that helps us connect all these intersecting points between past, present, and future. One of the world’s most famous examples of this intersection is the history of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican.
By the end of the 15th century, the old basilica had fallen into disrepair, particularly during the period of the Avignon Papacy. It seems that the first Pope to consider rebuilding Old St. Peter’s was Nicholas V. He commissioned repairs from Leone Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino, and, at the same time, had Rossellino develop a design for an entirely new church in the shape of a domed Latin cross. However, when Nicholas V died, not much had been done in the way of construction. It was Pope Julius II who envisioned a more radical plan for the new St. Peter’s, which called for a complete redesign and demolition of the ancient basilica. To that end, he promoted a competition, with many of the designs still housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The author of the winner design was Donato Bramante. His plan was to create a church in the form of a Greek cross, with a dome inspired by the dome at the Pantheon and Brunelleschi’s dome at Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence. Michelangelo came on board in 1547, becoming the principal designer of a large part of the building—mainly the chancel (the space about the altar) with its dome. He truly brought the construction to a point where it could be carried through, consolidating the many changes the project had undergone throughout the years, and bringing them into cohesion using Bramante’s original plan as a guide. The dome was completed in 1590 by Giacomo Della Porta and Domenico Fontana.
In 1626, under the patronage of Pope Urban VIII, Gian Lorenzo Bernini began work on the embellishments of the Basilica, and he continued to do so for the next 50 years. Bernini worked on many projects for St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the most notable was his design of the Baldacchino, which is the bronze pavilion that stands beneath the dome and above the altar. This design is based on the ciborium, or freestanding canopies in the sanctuary of a church, whose purpose is to create a holy space surrounding the table on which the sacrament is laid for the Eucharist. Bernini was also inspired by the canopy that goes above the head of the Pope in processions and, particularly, by the eight ancient columns of the altar at Old St. Peter’s Basilica—the ones believed to have been brought by Constantine from the Temple of Solomon.
The Art of The Basilica
1. Pieta, Michelangelo
Michelangelo’s Pieta is a truly incredible work of art, that has moved people from the time of its inception to present day. It famously uses proportion to allow the impossible to occur: an adult form of Jesus to lay across Mary’s lap, which otherwise would appear bulky and uncomfortable. Mary’s body is impossibly larger than Christ’s, yet when it meets the eye, the entire composition appears natural. To assist in this matter, Michelangelo has amassed the garments on her lap into a sea of folded drapery to make her look larger. While this drapery serves this practical purpose, it also allowed Michelangelo to display his virtuosity and superb technique when using a drill to cut deeply into the marble. After his work on the marble was complete, the marble looked less like stone and more like actual cloth because of its multiplicity of natural-looking folds, curves, and deep recesses. It is said that onlookers at first burst into tears when they viewed the sculpture, because it appeared so real.
Michelangelo claimed that the block of Carrara marble he used to work on this was the most “perfect” block he ever used, and he would go on to polish and refine this work more than any other statue he created. The scene of the Pieta shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross, but before he was placed in the tomb. This is one of the key events from the life of the Virgin, known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were the subject of Catholic devotional prayers. The subject matter was one which would have probably been known by many people, but in the late fifteenth century it was depicted in artworks more commonly in France and Germany than in Italy. This was a special work of art even in the Renaissance because at the time, multi-figured sculptures were rare. These two figures are carved so as to appear in a unified composition which forms the shape of a pyramid, something that other Renaissance artists (e.g. Leonardo) also favored.
Around the time the work was finished, there was a complaint against Michelangelo because of the way he depicted the Virgin. She appears rather young – so young, in fact, that she could scarcely be the mother of a thirty-three-year-old son. Michelangelo’s answer to this criticism was simply that women who are chaste retain their beauty longer, which meant that the Virgin would not have aged like other women usually do.
2. The Mosaic of the Transfiguration
One of the most beautiful mosaics in St. Peter’s, this altarpiece is a reproduction of Raphael’s ‘deathbed’ painting, now in the Vatican Museum. Giulio de’ Medici commissioned the painting for the the French Cathedral of Narbonne, but it remained in Rome in San Pietro in Montorio after 1523. Napoleon had it taken to Paris in 1797, and it was brought back to the Vatican in 1815. A team of six artists took nine years to execute the mosaic, finishing in 1767. Underneath the altar lie the mortal remains of Pope Innocent XI (r. 1676-89), who was beatified on October 7th, 1956.
Jesus, bathed in light, is borne aloft between Moses and Elijah, also in ecstasy, while the Apostles Peter, James and John, prostrate, contemplate this glimpse of paradise. On the left, almost hidden, are Sts. Felicissimus and Agapitus, who are commemorated on 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration. In the lower part, the healing of the young man who was “possessed” is portrayed, giving the scene a sense of agitation, while in the upper part of the picture, profound peace is contemplated. In the center, a kneeling woman represents the Church which brings peace and hope and invites us to await them as gifts from above. While photos of it may convey just how magnificent this piece of art is, seeing it in person reveals the true scale. The figures depicted are life-size, which seen in person is truly overwhelming.
3. Statue of St. Peter Enthroned, Arnolfo di Cambio
This statue of Apostle Peter, seated on a throne, is one of the few surviving monumental bronze statues from the Middle Ages. The antique elements of the work, such as the drapery, make this figure one of the outstanding examples of classicising tendencies of thirteenth-century European sculpture. The majestic figure looks grave and solemn, with dense curls in the hair and beard, and is dressed, antique style, with tunic, heavy mantle, and sandals, while holding the symbolic keys of St Peter in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right. The statue was originally made for the apse of the oratory of San Martino situated externally, near the right side of the apse of Constantinian basilica. From 1605 onward, it has been placed in front of the first column on the right of the dome in St Peter’s.
4. Monument to Pope Alexander VII, Bernini
The Tomb of Pope Alexander VII is a sculptural monument designed and partially executed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is located in the south transept of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. The piece was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII himself. However, construction of the monument didn’t start until 1671 and was completed in 1678, eleven years after the Pope’s death. At the age of 81, this would be Bernini’s last major sculptural commission before his death in 1680. There are six significant figures in the monument. At the apex is Alexander kneeling in prayer. Below him are four female statues representing virtues practiced by the Pontiff. On the foreground is Charity with a child in her arms. To the right of that is Truth, whose foot rests on a globe. On the second level are Prudence and Justice. These statues were carved in white marble. Most dramatically, below Alexander, the figure of Death is represented in gilded bronze, shrouded in a billowing drapery of Sicilian jasper. In situations where Bernini needed a great mass of material, he could not depend just on marble recovered from ancient buildings and chose to work with a more modern marble. Thus he chose the Sicilian red jasper, the coloring rich in red tones with green streamed in. Even though the decision was based upon need, you can see Bernini’s artistry throughout the tomb.
St Peter’s Basilica is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Historic Centre of Rome. Constantine’s Basilica stood for almost 1200 years, and the new Basilica is over 500 years old. With any luck, it will last for another 1000 years and more. Whether you have any connection to religious history, or any interest in Italian Renaissance art, the St Peter’s Basilica is a marvel to see. The rich history behind its creation makes it have so much depth. You can read so much in depth analysis of the art as well as social, political, and religious history that formed what it is today.