Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (Rome). The exterior

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

„Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) With these famous words, Jesus Christ instituted the Christian Church, changing the name of Simon to Peter (meaning rock in Latin) to mark the new life of the first disciple that acknowledged Him as Messiah, the Son of God. The Church, as a spiritual body headed by Christ, was built on the confession of the apostles and on the bones of numberless martyrs, who were killed for this faith. Many times, a small relic is placed in the altar of churches, other times, the churches are built on top of places of martyrdom, and such is also the case with Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

About thirty years after recognizing Jesus as the Son of God, Apostle Peter reached Rome, where he was crucified for his preaching. Imperial authorities deemed these new ideas as dangerous, for turning the people from the many gods of the ancient world, something that could shake the establishment. The head down crucifixion took place right next to the obelisk brought from Egypt by emperor Caligula. Not far away, the tomb of Peter started to be a place of pilgrimage for Christians. Under the current dome, several tombs with bodies were found, but the exact relics or spot could not be identified. As soon as the three centuries of persecution ended, it was emperor Constantine the Great who commissioned the first church to be built above the tomb of saint Peter.

That construction dating around 320 looked probably like other early Christian churches, a long nave with a flat roof in the shape of an attic, supported by columns. With the construction site behind it, that old church was toppled only a century after the works of the current one began.
The current basilica took 120 years to complete, starting in 1505, becoming a representative building for Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The nave of the church covers the place where once the old church stood, creating a long Latin cross floor plan, instead of a Greek cross plan. The plaza in front of it was later modified, changing its shape from square to round.

The connection to Peter is the most important claim for legitimacy of the Catholic Church. The older of the apostles was viewed as an unofficial leader of the early followers of Christ and as the first bishop of Rome. The promise of Jesus that follows the above quoted verse is interpreted as the institution of priesthood in general: „And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That is why Peter is always represented in paintings and sculptures holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that is why all popes emphasize their apostolic descent from Peter. The symbolism of the cornerstone is found in the Old Testament, connected to the building of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, and in the New Testament, where Jesus talks about His resurrected body, about the Kingdom of Heaven or about a spiritual version of that temple, that could mean the Church. Thus, the Christian Church, either in its spiritual or institutional form, would be an improved replacement of the Temple in Jerusalem, like the Catholic Church replaced the pagan power of the Roman Empire.

This tradition and rich symbolism made the church of Saint Peter the most important church for the catholic world, though it is not the oldest and is no longer the largest in the world. In fact, it is not even a cathedral, a term that designates a church that holds the seat of a bishop. The cathedral of Rome is Saint John in Laterano. But Saint Peter’s is still the largest European church and the church with the largest interior in the world, capable of sheltering inside 60.000 people. These records of size are irrelevant in comparison with the prestige the basilica has as a unique work of art and center of ecclesiastical power. From the tiny balcony on the facade, the Pope gives his blessings and from here the name of the new pope is also announced.

Some of the greatest names of Renaissance were involved in designing and painting this masterpiece, including Raphael Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The first architect of this century old project was Donato Bramante, who designed a version with lower dome, shorter nave and different facade. The initial inspiration for the basilica was the Pantheon, the last standing marvel of ancient architecture. But the raised dome of the Cathedral of Florence, which marked the beginning of Renaissance in architecture, was a groundbreaking point that could no longer be ignored. What started as a reconnection with antiquity, became the most representative monument of Renaissance architecture, later embellished with Baroque elements as this style was born.

The project was started by Pope Julius II, one of the Medici popes, whose lifestyle and practice of selling indulgences to raise money, finally lead to the Reformation movement and the separation of Protestant communities. The name of another pope, Paul V Borghese is visible on the frontispiece, with his dedication to the Apostle.

The most distinctive feature of the basilica is the dome raised on a barrel, that together with the lantern, the open space on top, is 136 m, which makes is the highest dome in the world. It imitates the design idea that Filippo Brunelleschi used for in Florence, with two different domes visible from outside and inside, and a hollow space in between. Though the large square in front, and the boulevard cut by Mussolini offer sufficient space, the dome is still partially hidden by the massive facade. Best views of the splendid dome can be taken either from behind, from the Vatican Gardens, where vegetation is still an obstacle, or from Castle Sant Angelo, the former mausoleum of Hadrian. The terrace of the basilica itself becomes an opportunity to see an aerial view of Rome, for those who climb the stairs or take the elevator. The dome was finished only at the level of the barrel (tamburo) when Michelangelo died, and it was finished by Giacomo Dalla Porta.

The massive facade is the work of Carlo Maderna, who adorned it with a row of gigantic Corinthian columns, on top of which sit the statues of Jesus holding the cross, flanked by John the Baptist and 11 of the Apostles. Missing from this lineup is Peter, represented by a 5,5 m statue in the square, guarding the entrance together with Paul, who was not among the 12 apostles, but is the most influential preacher of the Gospel. The entire facade is 115 m wide, 45 m high, and has clocks and bell towers at its extremes, where higher tower were designed, but could not be accomplished due to land instability.

Another artist that dedicated his life to San Pietro, was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who spent 50 years decorating the interiors and the majestic Peter’s Square in front. The edifice communicates with the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum.

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