The world’s largest church sprawls in the heart of the world’s smallest country. The Basilica di San Pietro is the pride and joy of the Vatican, and is impressive enough to stun most visitors into an awed silence. The open `arms’ of the church stretch on either side in the form of a colonnade that’s topped with the statues of 140 saints. The central dome soars heavenward; and the piazza in front, paved and vast, is perfect for standing and gaping at the panorama.
A divinity seemed to guide our steps from the very moment we got off the Metro and headed for the Basilica, for we reached at about 11.45 and joined the long queue of people lining up to enter the Basilica. 11.45, as we realised, was the perfect time to visit, because we managed to get a free (and extremely informative and well-organised) tour of the Basilica. A young woman kept urging people in the queue to head for a "man holding a blue file- you’ll find him near the entrance". We were initially hesitant, but then decided we probably didn’t have anything to lose.
Our decision turned out to be a good one. Douglas Schefer, bright blue plastic file in hand, is a student of history and works for an organisation called Icon. Icon organises one-hour guided tours (in English) of the Basilica di San Pietro and the adjoining Musei Vaticani. The tour of the Basilica is free; by then, the tour guide has generally impressed you so much that you’re willing to pay a nominal amount for the museum tour.
Douglas began by leading us (along with about fifteen other people) past an entrance guarded by a Swiss guard clad in the delightfully quaint red, blue and yellow uniforms that Michelangelo had once designed. We walked on, past the ornately the Holy Door, which is built into the wall next to the main door of the Basilica. The Holy Door is covered with ornate bronzework, and is opened with great ceremony by the Pope himself once every 25 years. It’s believed that if you’re present at the time the door is opened, all your sins will be washed away. An interesting aside: earlier, the Holy Door used to be opened once in 50 years; the interval’s been halved only fairly recently. A sign of the times?!
Moving beyond the Holy Door, we entered the Basilica itself- and quite literally stopped in our tracks, awestruck by the utter massiveness of the church.
The Basilica di San Pietro accommodates 95,000 people (a further 70,000 can fit into the piazza in front), and is the size of two football fields. But what’s amazing is the deceptive compactness of the Basilica: every thing's in such perfect proportion that nothing overwhelms you with its sheer size. Douglas gave us a few interesting examples of this. A statue of a saint and a cherub, for instance, was pointed out- and we were told that the cherub, which definitely looked diminutive, was all of six feet tall. At the far end of the church, beyond the bronze baldaquin, is an oval window made of strips of golden-hued alabaster, with the image of a flying dove in the centre. The dove has a wingspan of 6 feet- something you’d never guess looking at it. The baldaquin itself is massive- it’s made from 137 tonnes of bronze, much of the metal gouged out of ancient Roman temples such as the Pantheon.
"Take a look at the letters along the top of the walls," Douglas said, indicating the Latin inscribed near the ceiling in deep blue letters. "Guess how tall those letters are." 2 feet, said some; 3 said others. No, the answer was 7 feet. Taller than any of us- a good bit taller. And these words, like the 11 feet high letters at the base of the dome, are inlaid all the way with lapis lazuli.
The floor of the Basilica is decorated with coloured marble and marked along the centre with the names of the major churches of the world. Along the sides are altars, chapels, and statues of saints. There’s also a chapel where you can, if you so wish it, get married- a priest of the Vatican will perform the ceremony. The only hitch is that you have to send in a request 2 years in advance; the Vatican obviously doesn’t belong to the `Marry in haste’ school of the thought.
As we stood looking towards the far end of the Basilica, Douglas drew our attention to the ornate gilded ceiling of the church. A portion of the ceiling has a thick white line built into it, cutting right across and curving from one wall to the other. The Basilica had originally been built in the shape of a Greek cross (with four arms of equal length); when Michelangelo was hired to finish the building, he decided to extend it and make it a Latin cross, with one arm longer than the rest. The white line across the ceiling marks the boundary beyond which Michelangelo extended the Basilica.
Walking on, we came to what is regarded as one of the miracles of the Basilica di San Pietro. The Basilica was built over a period of 120 years (beginning in 1506), and nobody knew at the time that it was built right on top of the grave of the man to whom it is dedicated- the first of the Popes, St Peter. Only in the 20th century was the grave discovered below the heavy bronze baldaquin that stands right below the dome of the Basilica. Radiocarbon dating proved that the man interred below the baldaquin had died, aged approximately 70 (which was Peter’s age when he was crucified), somewhere around 67 AD, which also coincides with Peter’s death. Equally interesting is the fact that the skeleton’s feet had been chopped off, as would have been done to remove a body hung upside down on a cross. A miracle? Even if you aren’t a devout Catholic, it makes you think a bit.
Even more miraculous is the tale of the Pietà, the immensely famous and poignant statue of Mary cradling her son’s crucified body in her arms. Carved from a single block of marble by Michelangelo, the Pietà has the distinction of being the only signed work of art in the Basilica. The Basilica is replete with statues and paintings created by some of Italy’s most accomplished masters, but since the glory of God was the sole purpose of this work, the artists were not permitted to sign their creations. Michelangelo initially complied, but the story goes that one night, having overheard someone ascribing the Pietà to another sculptor, he crept into the Basilica and carved, in unmistakably clear letters across Mary’s marble sash, the words Michaelangelus Bonarotus Florentinus Faciebat (Michelangelo Buonarotti, Florentine, made this).
The Pietà now stands behind bulletproof glass and a rope that stops people from getting closer than ten feet of the famous statue. The glass and rope haven’t been around for too long; till the 1970’s, you could walk right up to the Pietà. In the 70’s, however, a demented artist attacked the statue with a hammer, screeching "She’s too perfect!" He managed to break off part of Mary’s face and her forearm before he could be stopped, but by then the damage had been done. Worst of all was the fact that Mary’s forearm fell to the floor and the fingers shattered into fragments that were swiftly gathered up by tourists from across the world. In the weeks that followed, the Vatican issued announcements requesting everybody who’d bagged a piece of the Pietà to return it, on the condition that they wouldn’t be charged with stealing it in the first place. Another miracle happened: every single piece came back.
But that is really all part of the spell that the Basilica can work on people. You don’t need to be Catholic- or even a Christian, for that matter; you’ll almost certainly find yourself marvelling at it anyway.
Entry to the Basilica di San Pietro is free. Do note that there’s a very strict dress code in place: you must be modestly attired, which means that shoulders and knees must also be covered. You’ll be turned back and politely asked to go cover up if you aren’t suitably dressed.