Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
St. Peter's Basilica
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica (Italian San Pietro in Vaticano) is a Catholic major basilica in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. This building is often described as the largest church ever built (it covers an area of 23,000 m² and has a capacity of over 60,000) and one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Construction on St. Peter's was begun in 1506 and finished in 1626.

Tradition says it was built at the place where St. Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ and considered the first pope, was crucified or buried. The church, it is said, hosts the tomb of St. Peter under the main altar. The other popes are also buried in the basilica.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Details
3 Misc.
4 See also:


The current location is undisputedly the site of the Circus of Nero in the first century AD. After Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity he started construction in 324 of a great basilica in this exact spot, which had previously been a cemetery for pagans as well as Christians.

In the mid-15th century it was decided that the old basilica should be rebuilt. Pope Nicholas V asked architect Bernardo Rossellino to start adding to the old church. This was abandoned after a short while. In the late 15th century Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel started nearby.

The basilica in itself is an artwork composed of many artistic elements of value, starting with its elements. Construction started under Pope Julius II in 1506 and was completed in 1615 under Pope Paul V. Donato Bramante was to be the first chief architect. Many famous artists worked on the "Fabbrica di San Pietro" (as the complex of building operations were officially called). Michelangelo, who served as main architect for a while, designed the dome. After the death of Julius II building was halted until Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to design the rest of the church. After Michelangelo's death his student Giacomo della Porta continued with the unfinished portions of the church. Carlo Maderno became the chief architect later on, and designed the entrance.


Directly to the east of the church is the elliptical Square of St. Peter (Piazza San Pietro), built between 1656 and 1667, in the center of which is a 25.5 meter tall obelisk. The obelisk was moved to its present location in 1585 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk dates back to the 13th century BC in Egypt, and was moved to Rome in the 1st century to stand in Nero's Circus some 275 yards away. Including the cross on top and the base the obelisk reaches 40m. On top of the obelisk there used to be a large bronze globe allegedly containing the ashes of Julius Caesar, this was removed as the obelisk was erected in St. Peter's Square. There are also two fountains in the square, the south one by Maderno (1613) and the northern one by Bernini (1675).

The dome or cupola was designed by Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546. At the time of his death (1564), the dome was finished as far as the drum, the base on which domes sit. The dome was vaulted between 1585 and 1590 by the architect Giacomo della Porta with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day. Fontana built the lantern the following year, and the ball was placed in 1593.

As built, the double dome is brick, 42.3 metres in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), rising to 120 metres above the floor. In the early 18th century cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, like the rings that keep a barrel from bursting. (Visitors who climb the spiral stairs between the dome shells can glimpse them.) The four piers of the crossing that support it are each 60 feet (18 meters) across. It is not simply its vast scale (136.57 meters from from the floor of the church to the top of the added cross) that makes it extraordinary. Michelangelo's dome is not a hemisphere, but a parabola: it has a vertical thrust, which is made more emphatic by the bold ribbing that springs from the paired Corinthian columns, which appear to be part of the drum, but which stand away from it like buttresses, to absorb the outward thrust of the dome's weight. The grand arched openings just visible in the illustration but normally invisible to viewers below, enable access (not to the public) all around the base of the drum; they are dwarfed by the monumental scale of their surroundings. Above, the vaulted dome rises to Fontana's two-stage lantern, capped with a spire. The egg-shaped dome exerts less outward thrust than a lower hemispheric one (like Mansart's at Les Invalides) would have done. The dome conceived by Donato Bramante at the outset in 1503, was planned to be carried out with a single masonry shell, a plan that was discovered not to be feasible. San Gallo came up with the double shell, and Michelangelo improved on it. The piers at the crossing which were the first masonry to be laid, which were intended to support the original dome, were a constant concern, too slender in Bramante's plan, they were redesigned several times as the dome plans evolved.

Other domes around the world built since, are always compared to this one: St Paul's Cathedral in London, Les Invalides in Paris, United States Capitol in Washington, DC, and the more literal reproduction at the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire.

Above the main entrance is the inscription IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII (In honor of the prince of apostles; Paul V Borghese, pope, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate). The fašade is 114,69 metres wide and 45,55 m high. On top are statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and eleven of the apostles, St. Peter's statue is inside. Two clocks are on either side of the top, the one on the left is electrically operated since 1931, with its oldest bell dating to 1288.


Between the fašade and the interior is the portico. Mainly designed by Maderno, it contains an 18th century statue of Charlemagne by Cornacchini to the south, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini (1670) to the north. Entering the church are three doors. The southernmost door is called the "Door of the Dead" by Giacomo Manz¨. The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455) taken from the original basilica.

The northernmost door is the "Holy Door" in bronze by Vico Consorti (1950). Above it are four inscriptions. The top reads PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, the one just above the door reads GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. Inbetween are two white slabs reading:



Walking along right aisle of the basilica, there are several noteworthy monuments and memorials. The first is Michelangelo's PietÓ, located immediately to the right of the entrance. The famous sculpture was completed for the chapel of the French nation in the old St Peter's, so it was here, on a throne erected for the occasion that Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor. Now, after an incident in the 1980s, the sculpture is protected behind glass. Up the aisle is the sarcophagus of Christina of Sweden, who abdicated in 1654 in order to convert to Catholicism. Further up are the monuments of popes Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as the altar of St Sebastian. Even further up is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. This is only open for actual religious service, and thus cameras are banned. Inside it is a tabernacle on the altar resembling Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio. Bernini sculpted this gilded bronze tabernacle in 1674. The two kneeling angels were added later. Further still are the monuments of popes Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Carlo Rusconi) and Gregory XIV.

In the northwestern corner of the nave sits the statue of St. Peter Enthroned, attributed to late 13th century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (with some scholars dating it back to the 5th century). The foot of the statue has been kissed by pilgrims for centuries, leading to it practically being worn out. Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance (not an original detail). Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of various saints.

Walking down the left aisle there is the Altar of Transfiguration. Walking down towards the entrance are the monuments to Leo XI and Innocent XI followed by the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. After that come the monuments to Pius X and Innocent VIII, then the monuments to John XXIII and Benedict XV, and the Chapel of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. After that comes the Monument to the Royal Stuarts, directly opposite the one to Queen Christina. Symmetrically, the two monarchs who gave up their thrones for their [Catholic] faith in the 17th century, are honored side by side in the most important church in Catholicism. Finally, right before the end of the church, is the Baptistry.

The right transept contains three altars, of St Wenceslas, St. Processo and St. Martiniano, and St. Erasmus. The left transept also contains three altars, that of St. Peter's Crucifixon, St. Joseph and St. Thomas. West of the left transept is the monument to Alexander VII by Bernini. A skeleton lifts a fold of red marble drapery and holds an hourglass symbolising the inevitability of death. He is flanked on the right by a statue representing religion, who holds her foot atop a globe, right upon the British Isles, symbolizing the pope's problems with the Church of England.

The main altar is covered by a 29m tall baldachin held by four immense pillars, all designed by Bernini between 1624 and 1632. The baldachin was made to fill the space beneath the cupola. Underneath the baldachin is the traditional "Tomb of St. Peter". In the four corners surrounding the baldachin are statues of St Helena (northwest, holding a large cross in her right hand), St Longinus (northeast, holding his spear in his right hand), St Andrew (southeast, spread upon the cross which bears his name) and St Veronica (southwest, holding her veil). The statue of Longinus is by Bernini (1639) and the others are by his followers. Each of these statues contains a relic associated with the person, respectively, a piece of The Cross, the Spear of Destiny, St Andrew's head (as well as part of his cross) and Veronica's Veil. It should be noted that the Vatican makes no claims as to the authenticity of several of these relics, and in fact other Catholic churches also possess "the same" relics. Along the base of the inside of the dome is written, in almost 2m high letters, TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM (Vulgate, Matthew 16:18-19; "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven"). This quote has often been held as a justification for the papacy in Christianity, and it's very fitting to find it above the traditional tomb of Peter, in a church to his honor, in one of the bastions of Catholic faith. Near the top of the dome is another, smaller, circular inscription; S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V.. Beneath the altar are also the tombs of all the popes.

At the far end of the church is the Cattedra of St. Peter (1666) by Bernini. It is topped by a yellow window in which is a dove, portraying the Holy Spirit, surrounded by twelve rays, symbolising the apostles. Beneath it is the chair of St. Peter, given to the Vatican from Charles the Bald in 875. To the right of the chair are St Ambrose and St Augustine (fathers of the Latin church), and to the left are St Athanasius and St John Chrysostom (fathers of the Greek church). Further to the right is the monument to Urban VIII and further to the left is the monument to Paul III.


Few are aware that St. Peter's is not, in fact, a cathedral, i.e. the seat of a bishop. The pope is also the bishop of Rome, but the diocese is traditionally based in the cathedral of St. John Lateran.

Despite a frequent confusion due to the similar names, the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (famous for hosting the precious Michelangelo's "Moses") is a different church, situated on the other side of the Tiber river.

The Guinness Book of Records currently lists Notre-Dame de la Paix in Yamoussoukro as the largest church, surpassing St. Peter's when it was completed in 1989.

See also: