St. Peter’s Basilica History

St. Peter’s Basilica history dates back about 2,000 years. This basilica was named after Saint Peter who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and the first Bishop of Rome. In essence Saint Peter became the first line of the papal succession.

The land where the basilica stands today originally was a chariot racing stadium. The stadium was built by the then Emperors Caligula , Nero and Claudius. The stadium was initially to imprison and prosecute Christians under the rule of Claudius. Among the Christians that were put to death in that era was St. Peter the Apostle. Many of the Christian converts were thrown to the animals to serve as entertainment in the stadium while a good number of them were crucified. There was a low wall that separated the arena from the stadium so that the chariot races could take place around them.

This stadium, which was about six hundred yards in length, stretched from the apse of the present day basilica to the Western wing of the Colonnade. The place where St. Peter was crucified is traditionally marked to correspond with the left hand wing of the church and is located at the altar of St. Joseph.

After the crucifixion of Peter, his friends buried his body in the nearest cemetery which was found outside to the right of the chariot stadium. Even today the tomb of Peter is still found about 20 feet beneath the papal altar in the basilica.

The Constantine Basilica

Eventually the Christians were given freedom to worship in the year 313 by the Emperor Constantine. After 2 centuries of prosecution, the Emperor decided to build a basilica on top of the Prince of Apostles’ tomb. The two hundred years saw a change of many things in Rome and the number of Christians increased to a point where persecution was judged counter-productive. Unlike the pagans, the Christians would assemble more frequent to worship. They therefore needed large building to converge in. Constantine therefore saw the need to build one large building that could hold all the Christians, leading to the construction of the Basilica on top of The Tomb of Peter.

Michelangelo’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica from the Tiber river
Photo by: Sébastien Bertrand Creative Commons

The basilica built by Constantine lasted for many centuries until the year 1500. By then it was in such disrepair that Pope Julius II saw the need to replace it with a new one. The construction started officially in April, 1506. Being a huge endeavor, the building attracted a number of well-renowned artists of that time. They included Fontana, Bernini, Giacomo della Porta, Maderno, Michelangelo, Raphael, Sangallo and Bramante. However, Bernini, Maderno and Michelangelo made the most notable contributions.

In 1546, when Michelangelo was 72 years of age, he was obliged by Pope Paul III to undertake the construction of the present-day basilica. By the time he was dying, the building of the Greek cross had already surrounded the Tomb of Peter and the papal altar. Furthermore the top drum had been completed with the large windows placed below the upturned bowl of the dome. On May 1590, della Porta completed the shape of the bowl completely changing the shape of the bowl from semi-sphere as Michelangelo had designed to a half oval shape.

Later in 1600, Pope Paul V saw that the Greek cross was too small. He obliged Maderno, who was his architect, to remove the front wall of the Michelangelo construction and extend it to the Eastern side of the Basilica by a distance of 116 yards. This project was completed by 1626 and Gian Bernini spent the next 30 years adding the Colonnade.

Visiting St. Peter’s basilica

The gigantic Bernini Colonnade, which spreads for ten acres, is the pilgrim’s introduction to the basilica. It is designed to incorporate a calendar, a sun-dial and the arms of God which stretches to welcome any person that wishes to pay respect to the Tomb of Peter. At the center of the basilica is an obelisk. The design tries to remind people of the ship building skills that the Romans used to transport goods across the sea in the first century of the Christian epoch. In addition the design also takes one back to the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt and the times of captivity for the Israelites.

It is at the balcony of the central door that the Pope comes out to address the people. This is usually after the elections of a new Pope, the feasts of Easter as well as Christmas. It is also at the same door that the pope gives his Blessing termed as Orbi or Urbi to the people of the City of Rome and to the whole world at large.

When you enter the basilica, you will find five artistic bronze doors each with its own history. The smallest one to the right of the entrance is known as the Holy door. This door is sealed from the inside to the wall and is opened only in the Jubilee years to usher in the spiritual renewal of the church. This door was designed and made by Vico Consorti in 1950 while the other doors from the left to the right are the works of Manzù, Minguzzi, Filarete and Crocetti.

When arriving at the central getaway one will see the mosaic by Giotto which is a Gospel scene of Peter when he tried to walk on the waters of Galilee. Further there is Bernini’s horseback sculpture that symbolizes the Emperor Constantine.

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