Our second day was a very very busy one! We had Saint Peter’s Basilica first, then the Vatican Museum which lead to the Sistine Chapel. And the day didn’t end there… but in order to streamline this process a little for both me (easier to organize) and for you (easier to read), I’m going to break down these posts into sections. This one for St. Peter’s Basilica as well as the where popes of yesterday are laid to rest in their tombs.
Let’s start with a little history of St. Peter’s Basilica. Before entering the Basilica we first must cross the Piazza San Pietro. This plaza was designed in the 1630s by Bernini and is supposed to be representative of a human embrace and is at the gateway to the church. St. Peter’s Basilica is actually the largest church in the world and can hold up to 60,000 people. To take from my guide book regarding the Piazza, “In the center stands an Egyptian obelisk that once marked the center of Nero’s Circus, where St. Peter was martyred in A.D. 64.”
According to Wikipedia, “In Catholic tradition, the basilica is the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to tradition, first Bishop of Rome and therefore first in the line of the papal succession. Tradition and some historical evidence hold that Saint Peter’s tomb is directly below the altar of the basilica. For this reason, many Popes have been interred at St Peter’s since the Early Christian period. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century. Construction of the present basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed on November 18, 1626.” For more specific details check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter%27s_Basilica
Essentially everything inside the Basilica is made of marble, bronze and gold. The interior was built from 1506-1626, an astonishing 120 years from start to completion (not unlike our Sagrada Familia here in Spain which has been under construction for over 100 years now). This is not surprising given the intricate detail of the mosaics on the walls and ceiling of the Basilica. One of the most famous pieces of art that lies in the Basilica is Pieta by Michelangelo – this amazing sculpture was made using just one piece of marble. The dome is was designed by Michelangelo to “crown” the Roman skyline.
The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini. The sanctuary culminates in a sculptural ensemble, also by Bernini, and containing the symbolic Chair of St Peter.
Under St. Peter’s lies the Vatican grotto which holds over 100 tombs. Of these tombs, apparently 91 of them were popes. I was unaware that I wasn’t supposed to take pictures down there until I had taken a bunch already – I suppose a bit sacrilegious of me!! The most recent interment was Pope John Paul II whom there were a number of people praying in front of – but what was weird is they were praying on the opposite side of the aisle from the tomb so in order to move on to the next one we had to actually cross in front of these people which just didn’t feel quite right…
According to my tour book, the dress code was very strict at both Saint Peter’s as well as the Vatican Museum / Sistine Chapel, however, on the day we went, the fashion guards must have been on vacation because they were letting everyone in. Sad in a way that even the Vatican must cave to the pressures of modern day and come to the realization that if they want the money that comes with the tourism that
they need to bend to society instead of the other way around. Just one more tradition out the door I suppose.
On the way out we actually saw some of the famous Pontifical Swiss Guard!!