St. Peter’s Basilica – The seat of the Holy See


St. Peter's Basilica as seen from the River Tiber

St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the River Tiber

When I recently went through some of my older travel photos I came across my Rome pictures. I went to Rome with a colleague of mine back in November 2004, so the photos were taken with a small Canon PowerShot pocket camera. I thought I would use the next few weeks to share some of my favourite shots and places from that trip – starting this week with the most recognizable Basilica in the world, St. Peter’s in Vatican City.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of the world’s smallest independent state and is the epicenter of a religion with an estimated 1.2 billion followers worldwide. It is where religion, history, culture and politics have a great significance and has been the seat of the Holy See since the 5th Century (although one could argue that it has been the seat of the popes since St. Peter arrived in Rome).

The Basilica stands partially where the Roman Emperor Nero and some of his predecessors had built a circus. According to the Vatican’s website (www.vaticanstate.va) this is where some Christian martyrs were buried; among them St. Peter, who had travelled from Palestine and was crucified in 64 A.D (or 67 A. D, depending on your research sources).

Emperor Constantine, after having converted to Christianity, started to have a church built in 324 on this spot in order to protect St. Peter’s tomb, placing it at the center of the apse. Nero’s circus during this time was falling into ruin, as much of the building stone for the new church came from the circus. The new church was consecrated in 329.

In 1305 the papal court moved to Avignon and did not return to Rome for over a century, during which time the Basilica, which was already 1,000 years old, started to fall into disrepair. As an aside, contrary to popular believe, Avignon did not belong to France at that time, the city belonged to the Kingdom of Naples and was therefore not French territory.

Eventually the old Basilica needed to be rebuilt, which started under Pope Julius II in 1506. In 1547 Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to propose a new design. Michelangelo decided to keep the original plan, but improving it by thickening the pilasters and external walls, and creating niches and ledges by chiseling out the walls. He also designed the cupola, but never saw it finished; Michelangelo died at the age of 89 in 1564, at which point the build had reached the drum of the copula. The dome in time became a model for many other domes in the western world. St. Paul’s in London (1675), the Invalides in Paris (1680-91) and the Capital in Washington (1794-1817).

Invalides in Paris

Invalides in Paris

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

The famous piazza, St. Peter’s Square, in front of the Basilica was designed by Bernini to connect the place of prayer with the rest of the city. The portico has 284 columns, each 15m high and along its balustrade are 140 statues of saints, each over 3m high, which were executed by followers of Bernini. At the center of the piazza stands an obelisk which functions as a sun-dial and used to stand in Nero’s circus. The fountain on the right was built by Maderno in 1614 and the one on left by Bernini in 1675.

One of the colonnaded arms surrounding the Piazza S. Pietro

One of the colonnaded arms surrounding the Piazza S. Pietro

The staircase in front of the Basilica was built rather late, between 1662 and 1666. It only measures 60m, but the progressive narrowing of the width and a reduced distance between the columns towards the top make it look much longer.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

The inside of the Basilica is breath-taking. I remember walking through the doors into the dark interior, my eyes taking a little time to adjust from the bright sun light I had just left behind, looking around to get my bearings and being speechless for once in my life. The vastness of the Basilica just floored me, not to mention the ornateness of it all. To give you a sense of its size, the Basilica can hold up to 60,000 people – yes, 60,000!!

The Basilica contains a large number of statues, but my favourite (as for most people who visit St. Peter’s) has to be Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is in the first chapel on the right and is shielded by thick glass. Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he created this masterpiece in 1499. Apart from the obvious beautiful work of the Madonna’s drapery and her delicate features, this piece stands out from all the other pieces Michelangelo created, as it is the only piece of work he ever signed. According to one book I read this work was signed by the young Michelangelo because he had overheard a couple of travelers one day discussing the statue and attributing the work to a third-rate artist from Lombardy. So incensed was Michelangelo that he went one night into the Basilica and carved the following into the diagonal band crossing the Madonna’s torso: MICHAEL. ANGELUS. BONAROTUS. FLORENT. FACIEBAT. Which translates as Michaelangelo Buonarotti. Florentine. Made This. He apparently later regretted having done this and vowed never again to sign his own work. This statue, more than any other works, launched his career. Almost instantly after this sculpture was finished it became famous.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

My other favourite statue in St. Peter’s is St. Peter Enthroned, which has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. If you look at his feet you will notice that they are very shiny and worn down. Faithful pilgrims and those seeking good fortunes line up at this statue to kiss and/or touch St. Peter’s feet. Given that St. Peter’s Basilica has had pilgrims visiting since the 14th century, that’s a lot of kissing and touching of feet, it’s a miracle that there is anything left of his feet to be honest.

St. Peter Enthroned

St. Peter Enthroned

There are so many more important items I could mention, the Papal Altar, the Chair of St. Peter for instance, but the above are my favourites.

However, one more needs to be mentioned, that did not exist when I visited in 2004. The tomb of Pope John Paul II, which is in the Nave of the Epistle in the Chapel of St. Sebastian, the second chapel on the right from the entrance of St. Peter’s. This has been the resting place of the enigmatic pope since May 2011. It is now the most popular place visited in the Basilica and is unofficially known as the “John Paul II Chapel”. John Paul II shares this chapel with Queen Matilda of Tuscany, Christina Queen of Sweden, Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII.

Underneath the Basilica are the Vatican Grottos. These contain chapels dedicated to various saints and tombs of kings, queens and popes, dating as far back as the 10th century. This is also where you will find the holiest place in the Basilica, St. Peter’s tomb, which contains a 4th century shrine built by the Emperor Constantine on what was thought to be the apostles’ tomb.

St. Peter outside the Basilica

St. Peter outside the Basilica

There is a lot to see and take in in this Basilica, so much so that I ended up visiting it twice whilst I was there. Back then it was busy with tourists and pilgrims, but no doubt if I went back now (which I hope to do in the next 5 years) I would find it even more crowded than in 2004.

Unbelievably, admission to St. Peter’s is free (which might explain the crowds to some extent), however, the cupola and treasury do charge an entry fee. There is always a line of people to get into the Basilica, but it moves faster than the line at the Vatican Museum. The Basilica is open daily between 07:00-19:00 from April to September and 07:00-18:00 from October to March.  Please note that there is a dress code: no bare shoulders, shorts or short skirts/dresses. Longer shorts may be allowed during the heat of the summer, but that is really up the guard on duty at the time, so my advice, dress appropriately to avoid being turned away (which could happen even if you have passed security).

Approaching the Basilica from Castle S. Angelo

Approaching the Basilica from Castle S. Angelo

Getting to St. Peter’s is easy enough; the hop on hop off buses stop near Castle S. Angelo and if you arrive by Metro it only takes a 5 minute walk  until you come into St. Peter’s Square directly from the North. Join the queue which will take you through the airport style scanners and security. Once you have cleared security there is a visitor center (with a cloakroom and toilets) and it is also where you can hire an audio guide (which is only 5 Euros, and well worth the money). Please note that strollers are not allowed inside the Basilica and so must be handed in at the cloakroom.

Photography is allowed almost everywhere, exceptions are areas where Mass is being held, and the Vatican Grottos are also off-limits. Make sure you adhere to the “No Photography” signs when you encounter them as the guards are swift and fluent in at least a dozen languages to tell you “no camera”.

A few queue busting tips: if you absolutely have to visit in the morning, get there really early and try to avoid Wednesdays and Sundays. The Pope holds his general audience on Wednesdays and on Sundays gives the Angelus prayer where he will appear at the window of the Papal Apartments, at the end of which he bestows a general blessing on those in St. Peter’s Square. So, once you have picked your day of the week it is time to think about timing. The tourist busses get to the piazza around 09:00, so whatever you do, either arrive before that time or in the early afternoon, around 14:30.

Another thing to remember when visiting Rome is that August is the hottest month of the year and that most Romans who do not own a business relying on tourists, escape the hot city during that month and head for cooler climes. If you are able to visit outside of the main holiday season I would recommend March, April, May, September, October or even November. We were lucky with the weather in November, it was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and sit outside for coffee or lunch.

One of the mosaics inside the copula

One of the mosaics inside the copula

If you want to see Rome from atop the cupola you can do so by following the signs at the steps of St. Peter’s. The dome opens at 08:00 and you have two options, take the stairs, all 551 of them, for 5 Euros or take the lift for 7 Euros, which will take you up most of the way but still requires you to climb 320 stairs to get to the top. My advice, spent the extra 2 Euros for the lift, there is nothing to see on the stairs on the way up and you save your energy. Be warned though, the stairs to the very top get very narrow and steep and the sides of the building come in, so that the very tall will end up climbing these stairs in a rather odd-looking fashion! The view however, is worth all of this.

The view from the copula

The view from the copula

Next week I will be looking at the Vatican museum, its history, its treasures and some practical tips on surviving this tourist magnet.

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Categories: Europe Trip 2014, European History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “St. Peter’s Basilica – The seat of the Holy See

  1. Great photos and commentary, looking forward to the next instalment.

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  2. How did your audience with the Pope go? Did he behave himself?

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  3. I do remember standing in many of those spots in 1976. I was just a young kid not appreciating the beauty. You’ve brought it back to me and I hope to get there some day!

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  4. Wonderful photos and information.

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  5. Tammy

    Keep traveling and sharing! Always before clicking on your web site I wonder where I will be going to in the next moment! LOVE your pics and your descriptions!

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    • Thank you Tammy, I quite enjoy looking into my archive to see where we have been and find that I haven’t written about it yet – takes me back to some great memories.

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  6. Pingback: Bernini’s Angels | My Journey

  7. Pingback: UNESCO World Heritage Sites – how many have you visited? | My Journey

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