The interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

As a Christian, I failed to sense the spiritual power of this place, but the impression of force and artistic achievement is overwhelming. Probably because Saint Peter’s Basilica is rather a museum, than a place of worship. It is the largest interior space any church has on the face of the Earth. And is the most prestigious of the Catholic world, a place where history was made. Where art and architecture were reinvented by giants like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante or Bernini. The balanced proportions are representative for classical Renaissance, while the abundant decorations of gilded stucco and angelic statues are typical of Baroque exuberance.

On the shining marble floors of this cathedral emperors and popes have stepped. And it’s not only the history, but the sheer size of the columns supporting the construction, with a nave who’s other end you can barely see, that make you feel small and crushed by the surroundings. Before actually entering the basilica, after the usual standing in line outside in Saint Peter’s Square, the airport-like security checking and some body search, you enter an intermediary room, called the narthex. This stretches for the entire width of the facade, has much better balanced decorations than the rest, being the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. From here, five massive doors allow the visitor entrance to the actual basilica, to the main nave.

The eyes are inevitably attracted by the high altar, on the other end of the church. As this church is not “oriented”, that is, not facing East (the Orient) as usual churches, but rather facing West, that altar, sitting above the presumed tomb of Apostle Peter, is closer to the western wing, right under the enormous dome, drawn by Michelangelo Buonarroti and finished by Giacomo della Porta. The high altar, or the baldaquin is a mysterious cult object, with fascinating spiraling columns, that imitate the columns of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, and look like columns of smoke rising up. There are several names for this work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini: baldachin (Italian, baldacchino) canopy, or ciborium. Older marble columns, said to have been from the actual temple, are now incorporate in the construction of the church, on some form of balcony, but they are of much smaller size than the contemporary canopy. Today’s bronze columns are 20 meters high, with a roof with a painted dove, the symbol of the Holy Ghost, on the background of a radiant sun.

Though San Pietro is not actually a cathedral, meaning it does not host the “cathedra”, the chair of a bishop (as is the case with the Lateran church), it still has some important relics of this sort. One is an old chair, that was once thought to be the actual chair of the Apostle Peter. It was encapsulated in a large sculpture of bronze and gold by Bernini, and it is known as Cathedra Petri. This altar also includes statues of the Doctors of the Church, the Orthodox theologians: Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustin, Saint Athanasius and Saint John Chrysostom.

Another approach to this theme is an actual bronze statue of the Apostle Peter, sitting on an alabaster throne. The statue by Arnolfo di Cambio is one of the last surviving bronze statues from Antiquity and has some interesting color contrasts, between its dark, almost black, color, the white stone throne and the golden aura.

Inside there are over one hundred statues, some of munumental size, often incorporated in niches. The most famous of all is Michelangelo’s Pieta, a statuary group protected by a bulletproof glass.

A sited marble statue of Jesus Christ is part of the tomb of Pope Pius the 8th. The Son of God has open arms, with apostles Paul and Peter on each side and the pope, knelled in front. They are all works of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Some other elaborate monuments are the statuary groups that honor Pope Innocent 12, flanked by allegorical figures of Charity and Justice. The statue of Gregory 13 is by Camillo Rusconi

Among the holy characters represented in the basilica is Saint Longinus the Roman, the legionnaire who speared the body of Christ on the cross, and was canonized by the Catholic church. The legend was he converted to Christianity after seeing the darkness that followed the death of Jesus.

There are over 15 chapels, apses and altars inside the cathedral, allowing for parallel religious services to take place. Often, the chorus is also heard from the underground level, through ventilation holes, giving an amazing feeling.
The basilica is not only a museum, with statues of Popes, of Constantine the Great and Charlemagne, but also an unofficial cemetery, with tombs of over 100 popes and personalities. The last one to be buried in Saint Peter’s was Pope John Paul II.

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