St Peter's Basilica

Brief History

St Peter's Basicila lies in the heart of Vatican City .

In 349 the first St Peter's Basilica was built on the site of the grave of St Peter (1st Pope), who was matyred in c.64 following the Great Fire of Rome . Such was the hatred of the Christians by the Romans, St Peter was crucified with his head down. It is believed his body lies buried in a stadium on the site. Christians had previously built a red wall to mark the grave. St Peter was the head of the apostles and the one who denied knowing Jesus three times. However it was Peter who was the first one to declare "Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God". In 323 Emperor Constantine requested a basilica be built over the burial place of St Peter. Many travelled from around the world to visit the basilica and pay tribute to the founder of the church.

In the early 16th century Pope Julius II (reigned from 1503-13) ordered the first basilica to be demolished after falling into disrepair. In 1506 a new basilica, St Peter's, began construction under architect Bramante. It took 120 years to complete the basilica with contributions from some of Italy's finest Renaissance and Baroque architects: Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini & Della Porta. Michelangelo took over as architect in 1547 and designed the basilica's dome but he never lived to see its completion, the dome was eventually built by Giacomo Della Porta, between 1588-1591.

The Grand Building

The building is high for the period, over 135m (445ft) from floor level to the top of the cross, topped by the famous dome. The dome, which is an important element of the skyline of Rome, is an architectural marvel inside and out. Designed by the great Renaissance artist and chief architect Michaelangelo, it was adapted from a double-shell design by San Gallo. Echoes of the design can be seen in many famous structures, including the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

The dome held fast for two hundred years when stress cracks appeared, prompting the installation of four giant iron chains attached to the interior of the pair of shells. The chains are partly visible by climbing the spiral stairs between the two dome shells.

But there is much more to St. Peter's Basilica than its famous dome. The building is immense, covering almost six acres and capable of holding over 60,000 people. Which it has done on more than one occasion. Many Papal ceremonies have been held there over the centuries.

The facade is almost 115m (377ft) wide and over 45m (148ft) high and there are several statuary adorning the exterior.

Within its walls are over 100 tombs, many of which are occupied by well known historical figures. Not least among them is Queen Christina of Sweden who abdicated her crown in 1654 in order to be free to convert to Catholicism.

Unquestionably, however, one of the most famous and important works in the interior is Michaelangelo's Pieta, walled off by glass after being attacked by a lunatic with an axe in 1972.

Outside, apart from the view of the dome, there are several notable historical works to view.

There are several ancient clocks and one has a bell dating from the late 13th century. An Egyptian obelisk from the 13th century BC which once stood outside Nero's Circus is nearby.

Two fountains occupy the square. The one to the south is a design by the outstanding artist, Bernini, who created it in 1675. Bernini was also responsible for the stellar Triumph of the Chair of Saint Peter at the apse of the church.

The top of the colonnade is lined with 140 statues of saints, designed by , Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1656-1667.

Things You May Not Know About St Peter's Basilica

It is believed Michelangelo drew inspiration from the Basilica Maxentius (AD306) when designing St Peter's Bacilica and most of the marble from the central nave of Basilica Maxentius was re-used for St Peter's.

Some of the marble from the Colosseum was removed to be used on St Peter's and other churches including Palazzo Venezia and Palazzo Farnese.

St Peter's is the largest church in Christendom.

It took seventeen architects a 120 years to complete.

It was Peter to which Christ declared " Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church"