St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. The church is located within the Vatican City, west of Tiber River and next to the Hadrian’s Mausoleum and Janiculum Hill. Visitors can approach the Basilica through the St. Peter’s Piazza.
It is officially called Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and considered to be the largest Catholic Church in the world. It covers an area of 2.3 hectares and the interior can hold 60,000 people simultaneously. According to the Catholic tradition, St. Peter is the first Bishop of Rome and the first Pope, the Basilica is named after him. Also, based from historical evidence, the remains of the Saint can be found underneath the altar. The Basilica is also a famous pilgrimage site and host for liturgical functions. As such, it holds a special place in the hearts of Catholics, being one of the holiest Catholic sites and it is often referred to as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom.”
The Basilica was originally constructed under the rule of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century in the area where St. Peter and other Christians had been martyred, close to the Circus of Nero. The old basilica has a typical Latin cross structure with an apsidal end at the chancel, a wide nave and two aisles on the sides. It was built over a shrine believed to be St. Peter’s tomb. Neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy and by the end of the 15th century, the old basilica was in need of repair. The construction began on April 18, 1506 and the Basilica as we see it today was completed on November 18, 1626.
The architectural styles of St. Peter’s Basilica were Renaissance and Baroque. It was built under the designs of Donato Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno and Gianlorenzo Bernini. The Basilica’s interior, its aisles, naves, towers and narthex are equally fascinating. It has huge mosaics and world famous artworks which include Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s Baldachin among many others. The Basilica also has twenty five richly decorated altars, thirty nine statues of Saints who founded a religious order, paintings and sculpture of angels which were made by notable artists of the period which includes Michelangelo, Bernini, Fontana, Muziano, Costanzi and Caravaggio among others.
Aside from the magnificent works of art, St Peter’s Basilica is home to many tombs and relics. Many of the tombs are located in the Vatican grottoes which are located below the Basilica. There 91 Popes buried in the grotto which includes Pope Paul VI (1978), Pope John Paul II (2005) and the holiest place is that of St. Peter’s tomb. Also buried in the grotto are: St. Ignatius of Antioch, Emperor Otto II, Giovanni da Palestrina, James Stuart, his wife and his two sons, Queen Christina of Sweden and Countess Matilda of Tuscany among many others. Underneath the crypt, are the recently discovered Tomb of Julii, which has a mosaic said to be dated to the 3rd century or 4th century, and other pagan tombs from the 2nd century.
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica is an experience of a lifetime. Prepare to be overwhelmed with the Basilica’s façade, piazza, columns, niches, paintings and sculpture, because it is a monument for artistry. Please note that if you wish to get inside the Basilica, you should dress appropriately, which means no shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders, it being a holy site for Catholics.