on December 2, 2009
St Peter's is, arguably, the mother of all Christian churches. The Protestants or Orthodox might disagree, but St Peter's, albeit in a different physical guise, was standing at its site over a thousand years before Luther nailed his theses to the door in Wittenberg, and seven hundred years before the great East-West schism. It was originally founded at what was believed to be the site of St Peter's burial and in the centuries of its existence developed almost organically, though with many periods of careful (and less careful) planning to become a locus of stupendous symbolic, spiritual, social and historical meaning. **The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter , commonly known as St. Peter's Basilica, is located in the Vatican City and is the most significant landmark of Rome as a whole. It is situated at the head of Bernini's monumental Piazza San Pietro and is internally the largest Christian interior in the world, capable of holding 60,000 people. The scale of the building is difficult to imagine: it overwhelms, but also, rather strangely, provides space for all those differing agendas of the visitors: people pray, look, meditate, sit on the floor by the pillars, even eat (albeit discreetly) in this vast interior. The current Basilica was built on the site of the old church which had been erected in the times of Constantine (the same one who declared Christianity the state religion) in the begging of the 4th century. The core of the building was initially designed by Bramante and developed by Michelangelo on the plan of a Greek (symmetrical) cross, Michelangelo is generally held to have the most input into the current building (and he designed the dome crowning the Basilica). The original Greek cross was extended into the plan of Latin cross by the addition of a long nave designed by Carlo Maderno, who is also responsible for the facade and portico. The dome of St. Peter's rises to a total height of 136.57 metres (448.1 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross, which makes it the tallest dome in the world. It's possible to climb the dome, and although the 490 steps make for an arduous and often claustrophobically terrifying climb, it's eminently worth it, firstly because it gives another impression of the scale of the work, allows for unusual perspective on the building itself but also, and foremostly, because of the excellent views it affords of the key-hole shaped piazza and Bernini's colonnade below and the whole Rome. St Peter's is filled with a bewildering collection of furnishings and art. Michelangelo’s Pieta is arguably the best artwork at St. Peter’s and one of unquestionable masterpieces of renaissance sculpture. Unutterably sad but strangely serene Mary is holding the body of Jesus in her arms, her half-closed eyes cast down. The composition of the sculpture is perfect, with Mary's head forming the top and the drapery of clothes sides of the pyramid shape. Mary's face is that of a very young woman, as if she was a young mother holding a baby and only the viewer could see the reality of the death. The sculpture has been housed in a case of bulletproof glass since it was severely damaged (it has been painstakingly restored since) in an attack by a madman in 1972. The Basilica contains over 100 tombs, including those of over 90 popes as well as of the Scottish Stuarts (including James III, the Old Pretender, his wife Clementina Sobieska and Bonnie Prince Charlie). The monument to Pope Alexander VII by Bernini features four Virtues, of which Truth has her foot placed on a globe, strategically trampling Britain, where Alexander tried (in vain, as we all know) to quell the growth of Protestantism. The focal point of the Basilica is Bernini's Baldacchio, over the Papal Altar. Allegedly, St Peter's tomb lies directly below the altar (on which only the Pope himself can celebrate the Mass) and the Baldacchio is as good example of the triumphal Baroque, seamlessly mixing sculpture and architecture, as they get. Four 20m high, twisted pillars, adorned linear, botanical decorations, topped by Corinthian capitals, support the fringed four-ribbed canopy with multiple angels and cherubs, a dove in a burst of golden rays. The whole ensemble, dripping with gold, is topped by a cross on a golden globe.**As it stands today, St Peter's Basilica is undoubtedly as much a testament and witness to the worldly power of the Papacy as to the spiritual power of the of the Church. To unbelievers, the crowds of faithful are nothing short of astonishing, to the faithful the tourists and gapers are a sacrilegious nuisance, to some of the non-Catholic Christians it's a shameless seat of the Whore of Babylon. Whatever it is, it leaves very few unmoved.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009