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St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
St. Peter's Basilica history
The history of St. Peter’s Basilica dates back almost 2000 years. The basilica is named after Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and according to the tradition, the first Bishop of Rome. Saint Peter is therefore the first in the line of the papal succession.
After the crucifixion of Jesus in the 1st century, Saint Peter took a leading position among Jesus' followers and was of great importance in the founding of the Christian Church. It is believed that Saint Peter met his martyrdom during a travel to Rome in year 64. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Circus of Nero. This obelisk is the very same one that still stands in the center of the St Peter’s Square.
The first St. Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter was buried near the Circus of Nero, less than 150 meters from the place of his death. A few years later, a small shrine was built on the site to honor him. Almost 300 years later, the shrine was replaced by a basilica on order by the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine the first.
The St. Peter’s Basilica of today
Over the course of time, the basilica more and more fell into a ruinous state. In order to combat this, Pope Nicolas the 5th ordered the restoration and enlargement of the basilica in the 15th century. The work on the new grand basilica didn’t start until after Pope Nicolas death, when then new pope, Julius the second, laid the first stone of the new basilica in 1506. Throughout the project, several noted architects and artists were involved.
The most prominent one was the renowned artist and architect, Michelangelo. He was the chief architect and was responsible for its main design as well as several other features. Michelangelo never got to see his work fully completed, as he died in 1624, two years before the St. Peter's Basilica was dedicated by Pope Urban VIII.
Why visit St. Peter's Basilica ?
Many rate St. Peter’s Basilica and as the most beautiful building ever made. For centuries, this basilica has been the center for the Catholic faith and it is regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites of all.
St. Peter's Basilica is one of the very largest religious structures ever built and it has the largest interior of all Christian churches in the world. It has an impressive total capacity of over 60,000 people.
The building itself is truly massive with its 218 meter long nave. The basilica's dome is the world's largest, measuring 42m in diameter and reaches an impressive 138 meters towards the sky.
St. Peter’s Square
The stunning square in front of the St. Peter’s Basilica was built between year 1656 and 1667. It was designed by the famous Bernini. The centerpiece is the impressive Egyptian obelisk one can see in the center, flanked by two stunning fountains. The obelisk dates back to the 13th century BC and was brought from Egypt to Rome in the 1st century. It was moved to its present location in the 16th century on order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk stands 40 meters tall, including the cross that crowns it.
The square is outlined by an open colonnade, symbolically welcoming the visitors into the Catholic Church with open arms. A little fun fact is that there is a circular stone between the obelisk and each fountain. By standing one of these circular stones while looking towards the colonnade, the rows of columns will line up flawlessly and appear to be just a single row.
As visitors to the St. Peter’s Basilica can see, the colonnade is crowned with not one, not two, but 140 beautiful statues. These statues were sculptured by a number of different artists during the 17th century and depict Christian saints.
The façade of St. Peter’s Basilica was built by Carlo Maderno and stretches almost 120 meters. In the middle of the façade, one can see the classical central balcony. This balcony is called Loggia of the Blessings and is used for the announcement of the new pope. Underneath the balcony, visitors can spot a relief depicting Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.
Above the balcony is a long text inscribed. Translated it means;
The façade is crowned with 13 statues made in beautiful travertine. These statues depict Christ the Redeemer in the center, flanked by the twelve apostles.
The patron statues
By looking at either side of the façade, visitors will see two more statues, significantly larger than the ones on top of the façade. These statues represent the patron saints of Rome; St. Peter and St. Paul. These statues were built on order by Pope Pius IX in mid 19th century, who wanted to replace the existing smaller ones.
Many visitors are impressed with the beauty of the exterior of the St. Peter’s Basilica. However, many rate the interior even more beautiful. The building's interior really displays the wealth of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The interior, which includes 45 altars, is decorated by several famous artists. Some of the most important works is the Pietà by Michelangelo as well as the papal altar and the Throne of St. Peter by Bernini.
One can also find the tombs of several Popes inside the basilica. Tradition and some historical evidence hold that Saint Peter's tomb is locate directly below the main altar of the basilica. This is the reason why many Popes have been interred at St Peter's ever since the Early Christian period. The majority of the tombs are found in the crypt which is well worth a visit as it also contains architectural fragments from the earlier churches.
A stunning site
Today, St. Peter's Basilica is famous as a place of pilgrimage. It is visited by millions of people each year. The basilica is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is considered one of the greatest buildings ever built. It has been described as "holding a unique position in the Christian world" and as "the greatest of all churches of Christendom” - big words, but hardly any exaggerations.
What a lot of people don’t actually know is that it is possible to access the main dome of the basilica. Visitors have the option of taking the elevator or the stairs, the latter being a bit cheaper. From the dome, one will have a magnificent view of Rome in general and of the Saint Peter's square in particular.
St. Peter's Basilica location
St. Peter's Basilica is located in Vatican City,Rome, Italy. The baslica is located in centrl parts of the city, close to Castel Sant'Angelo. For the exact location of St. Peter's Basilica, check out the location map to the right.
St. Peter's Basilica resources
St. Peter's Basilica interior. © Mollye Knox.
St. Peter's Basilica. (GFDL) Flicka.
St. Peter's by night. (GFDL) Andreas Tille.
St. Peter's dome at night. (GFDL) Josegmolina.
Front façade from below. (GFDL) Sumple.
Angel sculpture. © Mollye Knox.
Michelangelo's Pieta. (GFDL) Stanislav Traykov.
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our Italy map.
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