We begin with the total destruction of the Old St. Peter’s and then visit the center of the Renaissance and Baroque Basilica that replaced it. We find there the Confessio, the high altar, and Bernini’s soaring Baldacchino. Surrounding these central elements Bernini placed four huge statues and four associated relics, and nearby he situated a massive “Chair of St. Peter,” so important as a defense of papal authority, and matched statues of two powerful popes.


Show Notes

For background, see Christian Rome, and Rome Art Lover. See also Rome Art Lover II.

In our last visit to Christian Rome, we discussed the main elements of the piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Today we will enter the basilica itself. But remember, the church we will visit, though it seems old to us, is the new St. Peter’s. The first St. Peter’s, which was begun under Constantine the Great in the fourth century, lasted 1,200 years and was torn down to make way for the church we see today.

Let’s not miss the point that the destruction of the old, Constantinian basilica was a bold and controversial measure. It was the most venerable church in the world, and it contained not only prized works of art but also tombs of countless Christians, for in fact the old basilica was a covered cemetery as well as a church, and it had additional mausoleums attached to it. Everyone wanted to be buried near the Apostle. Not all the popes who supported the building of the new St. Peter’s were comfortable with the complete destruction of the old one, so as work advanced slowly on the new St. Peter’s, religious services continued to be held in the mostly intact nave of the old church. Only a century after work had begun, did Pope Paul V finally decide to completely destroy the old basilica. Some art from the old church was carried over into the new one, but much was lost, and the same was true of the tombs.

Old St. Peter’s shortly before its demolition (wikicommons)

I have in past episodes mentioned the destruction of other monuments in Rome, both actual and proposed, but these cases involve new political thinking, such as that the sacking of Jerusalem was unjust and shameful, so the Arch of Titus should come down. It was more destructive to level the Old St. Peter’s than it would be to do the same with the Arch of Titus, and yet it was not carried out by a foreign army or motivated by political discord. It was the popes themselves who decided to destroy the venerable old basilica.

It may have been necessary that they do so, for no building can last forever. But other considerations may have played a role in the decisions of the several popes most responsible for tearing down the old basilica. One is that the Renaissance popes and artists—and Pope Julius II in particular—may have been so taken by the renaissance of classical art and architecture that they may have felt a burning need to rebuild the basilica in keeping with new canons of beauty. It is illustrative of this attitude that soon after several rooms in the Vatican had been painted by such great artists as Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli, Pope Julius commissioned Raphael to redo them all. A similar passion is reflected in the many big projects that were regularly assigned to the great artists of Renaissance and Baroque Rome.

Julius II, the pope who took the first step in building the new basilica, also had a contract with Michelangelo to build a funeral monument so big it would not fit in the old basilica. Right down the street from St. Peter’s and even connected to the Vatican by a protected corridor is the vast tomb of Hadrian, now known as Castel St. Angelo. Could Julius, who named himself after the ancient Roman leader with the most vast ambitions, have felt that the Old St. Peter’s was not adequate for his own tomb? True enough, the project for his vast tomb was later scaled way back, but it is hard not to think that Julius’s personal ambition had something to do with his decision to start the project for a new St. Peter’s.

Michelangelo’s much-reduced funeral monument for Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli (Blake’s photo)

A third consideration is that the Catholic Church had concluded that magnificent celebrations and processions were an essential part of the effort to stop Protestantism in its tracks, and these processions required a long nave. So Michelangelo’s earlier plan for the new church was enlarged and altered by the addition of a long nave, and this required that what was left of the Old St. Peter’s be removed.

Having recalled the old basilica, let’s turn now to the new one. Its most important characteristic is that it is a church, not a museum. Its function is to serve the Roman Catholic Church, and in this capacity, it helped to guide the lives of countless men and women during the centuries in which Christianity was the official religion and moral authority for all of Europe and beyond. Even now that Catholicism must compete for attention with radically different ways of answering life’s great questions, the basilica’s purpose remains unchanged. It is certainly hard to know when and where the Church’s guidance is for the better, so we usually decline to face the question directly, but how good can our answers be to questions we don’t even ask?

A second theme, almost as vast and unwieldy as the first, is the relationship between St. Peter’s and the Protestant Reformation, which fractured Christianity and sparked more than a century of wars in Europe. In general terms, St. Peter’s was both a cause of, and a response to, these world-changing events. It was a cause because of the outrageous way funds were raised to build the new basilica—namely, by the selling of indulgences, which taught people that their deceased loved ones would be released from the pains of purgatory if they just handed over some cold cash. This abuse is what provoked Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses soon after the building of St. Peter’s began. Later, after the Reformation was in full swing, the Catholic Church used art and architecture to deepen the appeal of Catholicism over and against the emerging Protestant sects, some of which even denounced religious art as idolatry and did their best to destroy it. The final design and decoration of St. Peter’s countered the Protestants’ simple austerity and highlighted some of the doctrines that distinguished Catholics from Protestants. These included the emphasis on saints and martyrs, holy relics, the authority of the pope, and the miracle of the Eucharist.

Both the original Basilica of the fourth century and this newer one of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were built to honor a saint of special importance. St. Peter was understood to be the leader of Christ’s closest followers, the successor to Christ as the leader of the Christian community, and a martyr who died for the faith. And since Peter was in effect the first pope, the papacy as an institution has further reason to honor his memory. Early Christians believed they knew where St. Peter was buried after his martyrdom, and his presumed tomb is now at the center or crossing of the basilica and is marked in a grand way by the papal altar and vast dome that rise above it, on whose drum it is inscribed that Peter is the Rock on whom Christ built his church. The great art of Michelangelo or Bernini is a sufficient reason to visit St. Peter’s, but art is not the principal reason that pilgrims have flocked to this location for 1,500 years. Let us thus begin our tour at the beginning, at the center of the Basilica.

The crossing of the nave and transept give the church its center, and this is marked by a high altar and an altar canopy, called a “baldacchino,” that is almost 100 feet high. Just in front of the altar there are stairs—closed to the public—that descend from the main floor to the visible “Confessio” just below. Carlo Maderno, the main architect for the façade and the narthex of St. Peter’s, was also responsible for the Confessio.

In church architecture, a “Confessio” has nothing to do with the confession of sins; it refers rather to a martyr’s profession of his faith, a profession confirmed by his dying for it. Thus the heart of a Confessio is a martyr’s tomb, and just behind and below the open part of the Confessio in Saint Peter’s is the place believed to have been the tomb of the saint. An accident sparked an archeological excavation of this area during World War II, and it is now possible to visit it, though one arrives from below, not from the main floor. We will do just this in a later episode dedicated to the Vatican Necropolis.

To pilgrims, at least, the tomb of St. Peter has been the main attraction over the centuries, first at the old St. Peter’s, now at this one. The relics of saints were held to be a powerful aid to prayer, and it would be surprising if the relics of the Prince of the Apostles had not prompted dramatic stories and great hopes. Gregory of Tours, who lived a century after St. Augustine, left a remarkable reminder of such beliefs in his account of how devout pilgrims to the old St. Peter’s would lower cloths into the Confessio so they would come closer to the saint’s relics.

“If [the pilgrim] wishes to take away some talisman, he lowers a bit of cloth that he has weighed before. Then keeping vigil and fasting, he prays most earnestly that the apostolic power may assist his devotion. Wonderful to relate! If his faith prevails, the cloth emerges from the tomb so imbued with divine power that its weight is increased beyond what it weighed before. Then he who lowered it knows that together with it he has raised the grace he sought.” [Glory of the Martyrs, 28]

If Gregory’s report is hard to believe, consider the pallia. The pallia are strips of wool worn by the pope and ceremoniously bestowed as signs of authority upon metropolitan bishops and patriarchs, and they were in medieval times routinely lowered to spend a night in the company of the saint’s relics. In fact, this practice continues, whether out of deference to a long tradition or sincere conviction that it will help win supernatural support for the challenging task of presiding over the Catholic Church.

Modern tourists come to St. Peter’s for its art, but Medieval pilgrims came because of the apostle’s relics. Constantinople went hunting for relics of other apostles so it could better compete with Rome as a religious center, and Venice boosted its status by sneaking the body of St. Mark out of Alexandria. The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon does not hesitate to call the cult of relics superstitious and in his 28th chapter of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire even asserts that it “insensibly extinguished the light of history and of reason in the Christian world.” I can see his point, but I’m hoping these podcasts help to show that Reason faces many threats, not just one.

The holiest part of St. Peter’s is thus the Confessio that contains the tomb, and possibly some relics, of St. Peter. Then Gian Lorenzo Bernini—who was chief architect of St. Peter’s for the middle fifty years of the 17th century—surrounded the Confessio by four important relics, each associated with a particular saint of whom there is a large statue. The saints are Veronica, Helen, Andrew, and Longinus, whose statue Bernini carved. The relics are fragments that are said to have belonged to Veronica’s veil, which preserved Christ’s image; the cross on which he was crucified, which Helen brought back from the Holy Lands; Longinus’ spear, which drew Christ’s blood, which in turn cured Longinus’s blindness; and the head of St. Andrew, St. Peter’s brother and an apostle who was crucified for his faith in Patras, Greece. In 1964 Pope Paul VI sent St. Andrew’s head back to the Church of St. Andrew in Patras in the hope of improved friendship with the Greek Orthodox Church.

On these four statues, and especially St. Andrew, see Rome Art Lover.

In the foreground is Bernini’s Baldacchino; looking through it is the statue of St. Helen (Blake’s photo)

Bernini selected three of these relics from among the many collected in the Old St. Peter’s and acquired the fourth from the Church of Santa Croce, which has an especially large collection of relics. It appears that Bernini wanted relics closely related to Christ and to his Passion, that is, to his suffering leading up to and including his crucifixion, a theme suitable to associate with an altar, for an altar is the place in which Christ’s sacrifice is reenacted. Bernini then placed the High Altar of the Basilica right over the Confessio and surrounded it by the four relics and four associated statues.

These statues are about 30 feet high, and to house them, Bernini dug four large niches in the four piers that surround the high altar and support the drum and dome of the church. Some critics naturally wondered whether it was a good idea to weaken the piers by digging so deeply into them. Then, above each statue is a smaller niche with a balcony formed with two helical or Solomonic columns that spiral like DNA molecules. These had been around St. Peter’s tomb in the basilica, and Bernini granted them the same honor in the new church as well. Below each statue, in the Grottoes under the main floor of the church, is a chapel dedicated to that saint.

Bernini thus used his artistic and architectural gifts to surround the tomb of St. Peter with relics selected to take the faithful back to Christ’s sacrifice and the miracles that accompanied it, and these help the Confessio identify the center and central importance of the Basilica. But the church’s center is visually marked even more strikingly by another of Bernini’s masterpieces, the bronze altar canopy that rises up almost 100 feet over the Confessio and High Altar.

The Baldacchino is made of 70 tons of bronze and consists of four helical columns joined at the top with a sort of crown, which may suggest the crown of martyrdom, for Peter’s tomb is directly below. The helical columns are inspired by the smaller ones preserved from the old St. Peter’s. Above the crown is a globe surmounted with a cross, which suggests the universal domination of Christianity. An angel stands on each of the columns, reminding the faithful that God is active in this world: in the Christian view, heaven and earth are joined, and our lives have a heavenly purpose.

From a more narrowly artistic point of view, the baldacchino is a massive evocation of the much lighter canopies that were carried in processions to cover dignitaries. It does have columns instead of wooden staves, but the top is made to look like drapery. The altar canopy in other Roman churches is generally called a “Ciborium,” and it is much stockier, more architectural. I can’t call 70 tons of bronze “light,” but Bernini designed his baldacchino so that it is mostly open beneath its crowning top.

The Baldacchino and, looking through it, the Chair of St. Peter. (Blakes’s photo)

It now seems obvious that the crossing is the most honored part of St. Peter’s, but before Bernini got to work, the main altar was in the apse, which was generally the holiest part of a Christian basilica. So when Bernini added a high altar and baldacchino at the church’s crossing, he made the latter tall and open enough so that people in the nave could still look through it and see the apse behind it. He thus honored the center of the church without obscuring the importance of the apse.

What we see in the apse are more of Bernini’s carefully chosen elements of the church. Most important, especially in view of the Protestant Reformation then raging, is the Chair of St. Peter, a massive sculpture and reliquary that serves as the altarpiece for the large altar in the apse. Not only an energetic and lavish display of gold and bronze, the Chair also includes within it another chair, a smaller wooden one which a tradition claims was the chair from which Peter himself presided as Bishop of Rome. Like a scepter, a chair—or throne or cathedra—is a symbol of legitimate ruling authority, and this Chair seeks to certify that the Church is a divinely ordained institution stretching back to Peter.

Included in this sculptural group are also four Doctors of the Church, two from the East (Athanasias and John Chrysostom) and two from the West (Ambrose and Augustine). They at first seem to hold the chair aloft, but on a second look it seems that both they and the Chair itself are raised by a divine power associated with the light streaming in from the window above, a window with the dove representing the Holy Spirit in its center. It is not the doctors who establish the Church’s authority: they merely recognize it through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The choice of the Chair for the apse, and of Augustine for the Chair, may have been made easy by the Church’s celebration of a holy day dedicated to the Chair of St. Peter and by a comment made by Augustine on this occasion. Way back in the fifth century, well before the Church had become a unifying institution for all of Europe, he said, “. . . the Lord names Peter as the foundation of the Church, and so the Church rightly celebrates this foundation on which the whole lofty structure rises up.” The Church still celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

Another of Bernini’s contributions to the apse was the positioning of a statue and tomb of one pope on either side of the altar. He moved in the tomb of Paul III and then balanced it with one he carved himself, that of Urban VIII, who had first appointed Bernini as the chief architect for St. Peter’s. The balance is evident in their similar size and subjects, and they also have the same main elements: a statue of a seated pope in bronze, two female allegories of virtues in marble, and a sarcophagus.

Bernini’s “Chair of St. Peter” flanked by matched statues of popes Paul III and Urban VIII (© 2006 – 2020 Paesaggio Italiano – Fotografie di Leonardo Bellotti)

The allegories of Bernini’s statue are Charity and Justice. Charity is shown with two infants: one who seems to be napping after Charity has nursed him, the other protesting at her feet. Equipped with infinite patience, Charity smiles at his tantrum. Justice, on right side of the sarcophagus, is more meditative and has around her the balance, sword, book, and fasces, which together suggest the care, learning, patience, and enforcement that Justice requires. In combining Charity with Justice, Bernini suggests that Urban, or perhaps the papacy as an institution, looks up not only to the chief cardinal virtue of a good ruler, Justice, but also to the theological virtue of Charity: justice does not go far enough, and Christianity demands more. Recall the “Angels Unawares” statue in the Piazza, which also exalted the Christian virtue of Charity, which it wants to be shown to refugees.

The tomb of Paul III includes allegories of Justice and Prudence, both of which are virtues important for political rule and neither of which is a theological virtue. Perhaps such political virtues were chosen for him because he was such an active ruler. It was he who called for the Council of Trent, which organized the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. His efforts to suppress or pacify the Protestant uprising might also be reflected in his gesture: he does not raise his hand as if blessing a crowd but is lowering it as if saying, “Down Boy.”

We have now reviewed the main features at the holy centers of the Basilica, and we have begun to see how important Bernini was for organizing and creating the art in the church’s interior, as he also was for the piazza out front. Let’s now step back from the church’s centers and start again with a survey of the main floor in general. It is so large and so packed with art that a complete discussion would take forever, but here is an overview. In later podcasts we will return to some of the church’s elements we identify here.

In its basic layout, St. Peter’s is similar to many other Roman churches and can be classified as a basilica in the form of a Latin Cross, which means it has a nave longer than the transept that crosses it, and an apse at the end opposite the entrance of the church. Aisles flank the nave, and their outer sides are lined with individual chapels, as is the transept. St. Peter’s also has a huge dome over the crossing of the nave and transept, and there are additional domes over ten of its chapels. Light streams in from these domes and also through clerestory windows high above the nave, and there are lots of mosaics. What most distinguishes St. Peter’s is not its basic shape but its vastly greater size, richer materials, and extensive decorative details. It also enjoys a surprising degree of unity of artistic style, for its artwork was mostly done during the Baroque period, in the 17th century, and much of it was even designed by one man, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Nor have later architects come along and made radical changes to what he did.

The barrel-vaulted ceiling over the nave of St. Peter’s (Blake’s photo)

I hope this suffices as an introduction: I have tried to indicate some of the ways the church is distinctly Catholic and papal, without losing sight of its extraordinary art and architecture. I’ll keep these themes on the floor in future visits, but the historical and political references of the church’s art are also worth taking up. Why, for example, do we have Constantine and Charlemagne on horseback in the narthex of the Church, and why does Attila the Hun turn up in a wonderful relief?

But in the meantime, we will return next to Garibaldi and the Modern secular principles he fought for, and then it’s back to the Colosseum and further thoughts on the bloody games the pagans so enjoyed.

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