17. A First Visit to Vatican City and Saint Peter’s Basilica
We here survey and introduce the main sites of Vatican City and Saint Peter’s Basilica. These include the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and other parts of the Vatican Museums; the Vatican Necropolis, an ancient cemetery in which St. Peter may have been buried; the Vatican Gardens; the Apostolic Palace; and the Grottoes, main floor, and dome of St. Peters.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is probably Rome’s single greatest attraction. Tourists and pilgrims both flock to it, some for its art and architecture, others to pray in the most venerated Catholic Church in the world. The reputations of Michelangelo and Bernini draw some; reverence for Saint Peter and the papacy draw others.
Saint Peter’s is more than just an architectural product of the popes: it is the physical expression of Roman Catholicism’s claim to represent Christianity properly understood. Because Christ had called Peter the rock on which he built his church, the Catholic Church reasoned that Peter was Christ’s successor as the head of the Christian community. And if Peter became the first Bishop of Rome, then on his death, his authority—that is Christ’s authority—would pass to the subsequent Bishops of Rome, who would serve as the leaders of the Church in their day. Many centuries after Peter’s death, the Bishops of Rome came to be referred to as “Popes,” a verbal sign of their claim to be bishops of a higher rank. St. Peter’s Basilica thus aspires to tie the papacy closely to the saint it understands to have been Christ’s successor as head of the Christian Community.
St. Peter’s Basilica (Charlie Wheeler Photo)
As the successors to Christ’s successor, the popes have for ages maintained a presence near the Basilica of St. Peter. Starting in the fifth century and continuing to the present, popes have often had their tombs placed in the Basilica near the saint’s burial place; and their living quarters and offices have been adjacent to the Basilica since the Renaissance. Thus St. Peter’s and the Vatican have come to represent a complex set of beliefs, namely, those of the Roman Catholic Church, its papacy, and the culture or civilization over which it presided for centuries, long referred to as “Christendom.” And what gave Europe its main identity up to the time of Martin Luther if not the Christianity led by the Catholic Church?
St. Peter’s is thus intimately tied to the headquarters of an organization of world historic importance that has over one billion members. The ruling authority is technically called the “Holy See,” which is from the Latin for “Holy Seat or Holy Chair,” and its jurisdiction includes the entire Catholic Church. The pope presides over the Holy See and has done so for the better part of 2,000 years.
Vatican City, as we have seen, is a political body created relatively recently, in 1929. Although we often speak of “the Vatican” as having pursued one policy or another, we usually mean the Holy See, which governs not only Vatican City but also an international religious organization. Vatican City is tiny; the Catholic Church is huge!
St. Peter’s Basilica and the headquarters of the Holy See are not part of Italy. They are both in Vatican City, which is even smaller for an independent state than the Basilica is large for a church. A short list of the sites of this tiny state begins with the Basilica of St. Peter and includes the Vatican Museums; the Vatican Gardens; and, if you are good friends with the pope, his residence, offices, and various chapels that are mostly private. Both the Basilica and the Museums are complex and include many different elements. In addition to its main floor, the Basilica has a basement called the Grottoes, a treasury, and a dome. Beneath the church, and accessible only by a separate entrance, is an ancient burial place called the Vatican Necropolis. The Vatican Museums include the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, the great sculptures of the Octagonal Courtyard, a gallery of extraordinary paintings, an Egyptian Museum, and much more.
In addition, and thanks again to the Lateran Pact of 1929, Vatican City also has possessions in and out of Rome. These include the three Major Basilicas besides St. Peter’s, a hospital, a seminary, a cemetery, and several large buildings. As I’ve mentioned in a previous minipod, they also include the extensive gardens and papal palace in the little town of Castelgandolfo about 20 miles to the southeast.
Having surveyed Vatican City, let’s take a first look at St. Peter’s Basilica.
It appears that early Christians believed they knew where St. Peter was buried after his death around 64 BC. Two and a half centuries later, the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and he is almost always credited with building the first huge church over Peter’s burial place, though the evidence is murky. Thus the first reason that the Basilica is so important for the Catholic Church is that early and powerful Christians revered St. Peter and venerated a tomb they believed to be his.
St. Peter was one of Christ’s disciples and was in some respects their leader. When the New Testament mentions the names of the twelve apostles, Peter’s always comes first. Even after Peter denied that he knew Christ, for he feared the authorities would punish him if he did, Jesus honored him with the charge of feeding and shepherding his flock. And in the Book of Matthew, Christ says, “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. . . . I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This is quite a powerful grant of authority, and the Catholic Church understands it to mean that Christ himself chose Peter to succeed him as the head of the Christian Church and intended that subsequent leaders of the Church would be those who succeeded Peter as Bishop of Rome. It thus makes sense that this passage from Matthew is inscribed in large letters, in Latin, around the inside of the dome of San Pietro, for it provides the biblical foundation for Peter’s authority.
Peter’s authority was further enhanced by the belief that he died for his faith. The old Roman historian Tacitus reported that Nero killed a large number of Christians on the false charge that they were responsible for the Great Fire that destroyed much of Rome in 64 AD. A long Christian tradition adds that St. Peter was one of this group and thus was a martyr. So Peter won the reputation of being an Apostle, 2) the leader or prince of the Apostles, 3) Christ’s chosen successor as leader of the Christian community, 4) and a martyr for the faith. These are powerful claims to authority, and help explain why a great Basilica was built in his honor almost as soon as it was legally possible to build one, about 250 years after his death. Later, much later, Martin Luther and other Protestants charge that several of these traditional claims were false. They went so far as to contend that Peter was not the clear leader of the early Church and that he never even went to Rome, for example.
To my embarrassment, I visited St. Peter’s once or twice before I realized that it is the second such basilica to have been built on this site. It is an old church, a century and a half older than the United States Constitution, but it is a new church when compared to the St. Peter’s built in the first century of legalized Christianity. That first basilica dedicated to St. Peter lasted throughout the entirety of the long period we call the Middle Ages. After having encouraged the veneration of Peter for 1200 years, the original St. Peter’s was torn down by Renaissance popes and architects, as they began to build the basilica we see today.
We are often shocked to read that the new St. Peter’s was built in part with stone taken from the Colosseum and with bronze looted from the Pantheon. It’s fair to note that the popes did not limit their scavenging to old pagan structures; they also demolished the most venerated church in Rome, including many of the tombs it contained. Hence, the first architect of St. Peter’s got himself nicknamed, “il Ruinante,” the Destroyer.
Some of what we see in the new St. Peter’s was carried over from the old church, including several of the papal tombs in the Grottoes and various sculptures and architectural elements on the main floor. The best known example is the bronze statue of St. Peter sitting on a marble throne and holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The central bronze doors to the basilica also came from the old church and were crafted by the artist with my favorite name, Filarete, which means “Lover of Virtue” in Greek. More later on these and other borrowings from the old St. Peter’s.
Left: Arnolfo di Cambio’s Statue of St. Peter brought over from the Old St. Peter’s Basilica to the New St. Peter’s (Charlie)
Right: The central doors entering the New St. Peter’s, by Filarete, brought over from the Old St. Peter’s (Blake)
Impressive though they both have been, neither the first nor the second St. Peter’s has ever been the Cathedral of Rome. The word “cathedral” comes from the Greek word for “chair,” and it refers to the chair, or throne, near the center of a cathedral, from which bishops preside over their diocese. The chair is thus the symbol of a bishop’s authority. A cathedral is not merely a big church: it is the official church of the bishop.
Since we tend to think of St. Peter’s as being the papacy’s most important church, it seems a little weird that the cathedral church for the Bishop of Rome is not St. Peter’s. It is St. John Lateran, a short walk southeast from the Colosseum. Its full name is the “Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran,” whose length conveys its ecclesiastical importance much better than its familiar name does. It ranks not only as a Basilica but as the Catholic Church’s only Archbasilica.
The Bishop’s Chair at the Cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran (Wikimedia)
There is a lesson to be relearned from the fact that the Lateran, not St. Peter’s, is the Cathedral of Rome: it is to guard against the tendency to underestimate Rome’s longevity and the changes it has witnessed. Yes, St. Peter’s has now been the principal residence and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church for four or five centuries, but this is only 25% of the time that Rome has been the capital city of the Church. For much of this time, for at least a thousand years, the main papal palace and the main offices of the popes were at the Lateran. Neglected maintenance and fires badly damaged the Lateran Palace in the 14th century, during which time the papacy had actually left Rome and taken up residence in Avignon, and they are the usual reasons given to explain why the popes moved their operations and residence from the Lateran to the Vatican when they finally returned to Rome.
My suspicion is that the presence of St. Peter’s tomb contributed mightily to the move, for it helps support papal authority even more than the chair or throne at the Lateran does. I do not mean that a saint’s body can confer authority in any legal or rational way, but pilgrims streamed to Rome to pray at the tomb of the martyrs, not at the bishop’s throne. And as for a throne, St. Peter’s made sure that it got one of its own, or rather two, as if by so doing it could elevate itself above the Lateran. Neither of the two is the official chair of the Bishop, which remains at St. John Lateran, but Gian Lorenzo Bernini created a huge representation of a chair in gilded bronze and positioned it in the apse of the New St. Peter’s. Enclosed within Bernini’s sculpted chair are the remains of a wooden chair that tradition says was the official throne of St. Peter when he was the Bishop of Rome, even though this relic arrived at St. Peter’s only in the ninth century. The two chairs tighten the bonds that tie the Vatican to St. Peter, which in turn strengthens the perceived authority of the popes who reside there.
Looking down from the drum into the apse, where Bernini placed his Gilded Bronze “Chair of St. Peter. (Blake Photo)
Now that we have established a context, let’s look at the various parts of the New Basilica of Saint Peter. I’ll start at the very bottom.
Also called the Scavi, or “Excavations,” the Vatican Necropolis is a short and narrow street of mausoleums. It runs underneath the western part of the nave of St. Peter’s, from east to west, and comes to a halt directly under the dome. Before the Basilica was built, this street of tombs was above ground, and the mausoleums were like small houses on both sides of it. In some of them, there are niches where there used to be urns containing the ashes of the deceased. In others, generally further to the west, there are sarcophagi, which contained whole bodies: inhumation gradually replaced cremation, perhaps in the second century, and not only for Christians. In some cases, the ancient art that decorated the mausoleums is still visible. Scholars find the art and architecture especially important for recording elements in the transition from pagan to Christian burial and the way Romans thought about death, but the hot questions for most visitors are whether Peter was really buried here and whether some fragments of his bones have been found.
A second element of St. Peter’s is just above the Vatican Necropolis and just below the main floor of the church. It is a basement crypt called the Vatican Grottoes. It was during some digging to deepen and expand the burial space in the Grottoes that the Necropolis was discovered below it. The Grottoes contain numerous papal tombs and several chapels where mass is celebrated. Some of these tombs were brought over from the old St. Peter’s when it was being torn down; others are more recent, including that of John Paul II. The Grottoes also include a few architectural remnants from the first St. Peter’s.
As the Necropolis and Grottoes are below the main floor, so the dome is high above it. The cross on top of the lantern or cupola of the dome is just under 450 feet high, a vertical football field and a half, and I believe this this makes it the tallest dome in the world. This vast height is achieved by construction on four main levels. At the bottom are four huge piers, which extend 25 feet down beneath the floor of the basilica, in search of solid ground. Digging is hard, and as with the foundations and drainage canals of the Colosseum, I find it staggering to think that these foundations were dug without the benefit of modern machinery. But building the higher elements of the dome posed challenges of even more mind-boggling difficulty, in both design and execution.
On the main floor, these piers form the corners of a square around the papal altar, which is located at the point where the two arms of St. Peter’s cross. At their tops, 150 feet above the main floor of the basilica, the four vertical piers are joined together by four barrel vaults, like arches with depth. Then these vaults support a vast cylinder quite aptly called the drum, which is about 120 feet in diameter and features a walkway so visitors can look down into the church and up into the dome. Both views give one a good sense of just how big the basilica is and how high it soars upward. It is also possible from this point to walk out onto the roof and look down on Piazza San Pietro; and since Rome knows the importance of coffee shops, you can enjoy a cappuccino while on the roof. Above the drum is the dome proper, which is crowned by the cupola at the very top.
One hundred fifty feet high, a barrel vault stretches from a pier on the left of the nave to one on the right, and it supports the drum whose windows are visible just above the inscription in which Christ identifies Peter as the Rock on which he builds his church. In the center is Bernini’s altar canopy (or baldacchino) and, looking through it, is Bernini’s “Chair of St. Peter.” (Charlie Photo)
Like the Necropolis, the Vatican Gardens require a separate reservation and ticket. Hidden from view by the massive basilica in front of them, the gardens are beautifully laid out and maintained. With an area of 57 acres, they make up about half of the total land area of the sovereign state of Vatican City. In fact, they were partly designed by the same architect who initiated the design of the Basilica, Donato Bramante. Apart from their attraction as gardens, they include medieval fortifications, religious sites, assorted architectural features, and a wonderful view of the dome of St. Peter’s.
Another important part of Vatican City is the Vatican Museums, whose entrance is on the north side of the Vatican Walls, a fifteen-minute walk from Piazza San Pietro. Note the plural in the name, for there are several very different museums that share the same main entrance. Later podcasts will take up the Sistine Chapel and other of these several museums.
The main floor of the basilica includes a portico or narthex, a nave flanked by two aisles, a transept that, of course, crosses the nave, and an apse at the end of the nave. At the crossing of the nave and transept is the towering altar canopy or “baldachino” made of gilded bronze, and above it is the dome. In the apse is the massive Chair of St. Peter, also of gilded bronze.
Its main floor has at least eleven chapels, twenty-five altars, fifty statues, and other works of art. These and other features of the Basilica are illustrated on the GetReadyforRome website. Many artists and architects contributed to this vast project, but it is amazing how many features of the church were the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was the chief architect for a half a century, and he came last, which adds visibility to his work.
Outside, we should notice the walls and fortifications that are in and around the Vatican, for they are a powerful reminder of the turbulent political life of Rome throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.And while making your way uphill to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, note the high walls all along your left. You won’t fail to note that the Vatican is connected by walls and a protected corridor to Castel St. Angelo, Rome’s most fortified position. Although this corridor and fortress saved the life of Pope Clement VII in 1527, they offered only temporary protection, and he escaped in disguise to Orvieto while Rome was brutally sacked. The interior of St. Peter’s testifies to the high aspirations of the Catholic Church; the walls of the Vatican show its vulnerability to physical attack. On second thought, the interior of St. Peter’s also attempts reduce its vulnerability by bolstering papal authority.