St. Peter’s Basilica: the most iconic landmark of the Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica: the most iconic landmark of the Vatican

What is the most important building in the world? One of the contenders for this title is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. This gigantic church tells stories of the limitless power of religion and politics and, above all, the immeasurable creativity of men.


The story of St. Peter’s begins on the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel. Simon, a local fisherman, became one of Jesus’ first followers, and Jesus gave him the name Peter (“cliff”). After Jesus’ death he became a Christian leader and actively spread the faith in Judea, Palestine, and Antioch.

It is not known if St. Peter ever came to Rome … but according to later Christian accounts, he was there. People may never know the truth anymore – too often history is made up and rewritten – but according to church lore, St. Peter was the first Christian leader in Rome and, therefore, became the first pope in the main metropolis of the ancient world.

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According to legend, St. Peter was executed in 64 A.D. after the Great Fire of Rome, when Christians were blamed for the disaster . He was executed at the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Circus of Nero. It is believed that it is the present obelisk in St. Peter’s Square that witnessed these tragic events . Its remains were buried (again, according to unconfirmed legends) near the circus, in the established cemetery at Mons Vatican, near the city of Rome . Numerous victims of executions are buried here, and because of the burial of St. Peter, numerous local Christians are buried here.

Archaeological excavations were carried out here in 1939, and fragments of bones wrapped in purple and gold cloth were discovered under the church – definitely an important burial site. It was decided that these remains belonged to St. Peter.

First Basilica.

Originally a large stone was placed over the tomb, and a few years later Christians built a small shrine there.

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First Basilica.

As Christianity became the leading religion in Rome, the need arose for a main sanctuary, and in the time of Emperor Constantine the Great between 319 and 333 AD the so-called Old Basilica of St Peter was built. It was an enormous building for its time, over 103.6 m long, with an impressive atrium . This beautiful building stood there for more than 1,000 years. Nevertheless, by the end of the 15th century the ancient basilica was in dire need of reconstruction.

During the reign of Pope Nicholas V (1447 – 1455), it was decided that a new church was needed or an essential rebuilding of the existing one. Of course, it had to be bigger and more beautiful than the old one. They even began to carry out some work, but when the pope died, everything stopped.

Pope Julius II (reigned 1503-1513) took the ambitious project a step further. He announced a tender for the largest and most magnificent structure in Christendom. The best architects, engineers and artists of the time proposed many magnificent designs with many innovations and many unprecedented ambitions. After much discussion, the design by Donato Bramante was chosen .

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First Basilica.

Building the Basilica

It took a long time to build the greatest church in the world. Construction began in 1506 and ended… in 1626. Bramante’s design was changed after the death of Pope Julius II in 1513 – and that was only the first change of plans. There were many major architects during the history of the church, including the great Raphael, who envisioned a nave with five bays (not realized) and Michelangelo. Although Michelangelo was not thrilled to be an architect for the time being, the Basilica was largely shaped by him, so the great painter and sculptor can also be ranked as one of the greatest architects of the world.

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Such a grandiose construction had an impact not only on the history of art. Soon after the construction of the church began, it became clear that a lot of money would be required – far more than was provided at the time. The financial geniuses of the time invented many sources of financing, one of which was the trade in indulgences in exchange for financial support for the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica.

The marketing of these indulgences was ubiquitous – the Pope desperately needed as much finance as possible . This provoked protest and inspired Martin Luther to write 95 Theses in 1517, launching the Reformation. Nevertheless, work continued. In 1590 the dome, a marvel of structural engineering designed by Michelangelo, was completed. He did not live to see it: Michelangelo died in 1564. Later, in the mid-18th century, the dome cracked and was reinforced with heavy iron chains.

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Building the Basilica

Work continued into the 17th century. After much discussion, it was decided to build a nave and the current façade towards St. Peter’s Square. The huge (114.69 m wide and 45.55 m high) façade was designed by Carlo Maderno – and this part of the basilica was criticized because of its disharmonious proportions.

Two towers were also planned on each side of the façade. One tower was even built, but the ground began to settle and thus the bell tower was demolished (the designer Gian Lorenzo Bernini had to cover the cost of this demolition) and the idea of the bell tower was abandoned.

The long history of the construction of the church is also evident in the architectural style of the various parts . While the dome of the church is one of the highest achievements in Renaissance architecture, the façade and nave represent a slightly different era with many features of the future Baroque style.

Description of the Basilica

Size . St. Peter’s Basilica is still one of the largest churches in the world today. It is the largest in terms of area (internal area 15,160 m), length (external length – 211.5 m) and volume (5 million m, which far surpasses any other church in the world).

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Description of the Basilica

The Basilica is a cruciform church with a dome in the center. This gigantic dome towers over the skyline of Rome. It is one of the largest domes in the world and the tallest (136.57 m). The diameter of the dome is 41.47 meters – smaller than that of Florence Cathedral, but nonetheless it is one of the greatest domes in the world. To make it lighter, many pieces of light pumice and tufa were mixed into the concrete (an ancient Roman formula rediscovered for this occasion), it is also thin, with vertical and horizontal ribs for sound reinforcement (as in the Pantheon).

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The design of the huge dome was inspired by the Pantheon, but there were significant differences. The huge dome rests on four pillars, with another smaller lantern dome towering above it.

St. Peter’s Square . It is a landmark in itself, but largely gives the impression of the basilica.

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Description of the Basilica

In its present form the square was built in 1656-1667. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and is one of the masterpieces of the Baroque style . Bernini had to create an urban ensemble that would draw the attention of visitors to the basilica. Of course, he had to keep the Egyptian obelisk, an important landmark in the history of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Bernini had various options for the layout of the square – a square, a trapezoid, and several other forms. His solution was different and innovative – he designed a space consisting of two elements: a trapezoidal square at the basilica and an open elliptical space further away, around the obelisk. In this way Bernini was able to reduce the negative impact of the façade, making it seem narrower and taller. Both squares are surrounded by impressive colonnades. This original solution was one of the main manifestations of the Baroque style in town planning, with a complex harmonic play of different existing and newly added elements.

Entrance . After passing through the magnificent square, one ascends the huge staircase located between the statues of St. Peter (left) and St. Paul (right) and reaches the main façade of the church .

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Description of the Basilica

The northernmost of the five entrance doors is the Sacred Door, an ornate (everything here is ornate) door that is usually bricked up with mortar and cement. It is only opened on special occasions: the Jubilee years, which the Pope declares for the absolution of sins. Such celebrations used to be held every 33-25 years, but sometimes more often. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Jubilees happen more often – apparently there are more sins and they need to be absolved.

Interior . The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica is… incredibly expansive. There are few buildings in the world with such a spacious interior and few with such an ornate interior . The size and beauty of the room outshine people. It is so large that it is difficult for visitors to grasp the scale.

The huge nave tilts slightly toward the Egyptian obelisk. The barrel-shaped vault of the nave is the highest in the world, with numerous impressive chapels on either side.

Behind the main altar are two stairs leading up to an underground chapel, the Chapel of Confession, which is located above the place where St. Peter is said to have been buried.

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Description of the Basilica

St. Peter’s Chair . In the apse is St. Peter’s Chair, a relic, a legendary chair that legend says was used by St. Peter (actually a gift to the Pope in 875 A.D.). It was later used by many popes. After use over the centuries, it fell into disrepair – so, it was turned into a work of art. The chair is now encased in a beautiful gilded casing (Bernini, 1647 – 1653) – an outstanding and innovative (for its time) piece of Baroque art.

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Other Relics . In the basilica are four precious relics – the spear of Longinus that pierced Christ (although there are several other churches around the world that claim to have the same spear), the veil of Veronica with the miraculous face of Christ, the cross brought by the mother of Emperor Constantine – Helena and the relics of Saint Andrew, brother of Saint Peter. Above the altar rises another outstanding work of art – the largest piece of bronze on Earth – 30 m high, richly decorated with a baldachino, also created by Bernini.

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Description of the Basilica


Many notable people have been buried in the basilica-many popes and others, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, Queen Christina of Sweden, and the composer Palestrina. Many popes are buried in the ancient necropolis beneath the basilica, as is (perhaps) St. Peter. Many burials are decorated with famous works of art, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Importance and influence

The Basilica has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and continues to attract visitors from all over the world. Technically it is only one of the four Papal Basilicas, but it is by far the most famous and most important of them all. Because it is near the papal residence and is so large, most of the papal liturgies take place here. The liturgies draw the attention of thousands of worshippers and tourists, and at times gather up to 80,000 people.

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Importance and influence

The architecture and art of this extraordinary and impressive basilica has served as a source of inspiration the world over, influencing the view of art and beauty for generations. The design of the basilica has influenced the design of such magnificent buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Pantheon in Paris.

St. Peter’s Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral, the center of the Roman Catholic religion, is the second largest Christian church in the world. It is one of the most revered shrines and the most popular object of worship for pilgrims from all over Europe. It is located in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.

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General Information

Over the course of a century and a half, many architects took part in the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral, often radically changing the designs of their predecessors. Still, the temple creates a surprisingly coherent impression, radiating incredible dignity throughout its architecture and interior. The ensemble of the cathedral and St. Peter’s Square forms a magnificent stage for the exit of the Pope and the representation of Christianity.

To reduce the significance of St. Peter’s Cathedral solely to its architectural merits is to forget its status as a Christian shrine and the role it played in the momentous turn that marked a new stage in the development of Western art, architecture, and culture in general. This temple is not just a historical and architectural monument. Within the walls of the main sanctuary of the Roman Catholic Church, the world’s art, history and spiritual development have all shown themselves in full measure.

The cathedral is dedicated to the Apostle Peter, the first bishop of Rome, whose successors are considered to be all popes. Until the early 1990s, when an even larger church was built in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, St. Peter’s Cathedral was the largest Christian sacred building.

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Opening hours: daily. Opening hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.; admission free.


The first church of St. Peter’s was built under Emperor Constantine, a five-nave basilica with a square framed by columns in front. The basilica was erected over the tomb of the Apostle Peter and consecrated in 326.

The first cathedral of St. Peter’s was built in 324, when Emperor Constantine moved the remains of the apostle Simon Peter to Mount Vatican City. To commemorate the sanctity of the site, he ordered a basilica with five altars to be erected here, just a pitiful predecessor of the colossus that now stands in its place.

In the XV century the basilica, which had already existed for eleven centuries, threatened to collapse, and under Nicolas IV it began to be expanded and rebuilt. Julius II radically solved this problem by ordering to build a huge new cathedral on the place of the ancient basilica, which had to outshine both pagan temples and existing Christian churches, thus strengthening the papal state and expand the influence of the Catholic Church. The foundation stone was laid on April 18, 1506. The funds for the construction of the cathedral were raised through a generous trade in indulgences and levies from the territories subject to the church, called the “St. Peter’s Mite”.

Bramante was the first “Renaissance man” to attempt drawings of this new, unusually monumental house of God. After his death in 1514, Raphael (died 1520) followed by Da Sangallo and Peruzzi. The work remained at a standstill until 1546, when over-ambitious architects could not find a common language. Each was only interested in leaving his or her mark on the structure, and the endless changes in plans almost halted construction.

In 1547, Pope Paul III entrusted the 72-year-old Michelangelo with directing the works. Simply put, he simply commanded the stubborn master to finish the construction. Michelangelo was forced to bow to such a firm will of the pope and set to work. He labored on St. Peter’s until his death in 1564.

St. Peter’s Basilica was completely finished on November 18, 1623, when Pope Urban VII solemnly consecrated the temple. All in all it took almost 120 years to erect the cathedral – during this time it took the turn of 20 popes from Julius II to Urban VII, and each of them, in one way or another, tried to expand and make even more grandiose the monumental house of God. The list of masters, architects and artists whose skill and talent contributed to the glory of the magnificent temple includes such names as Bramante, Raphael, Bernini and of course Michelangelo.

The interior of the cathedral

Inside St. Peter’s cathedral is astonishing in its scale: the length is 186 meters, the height in the central nave is 45 meters, and with the dome – all 119 meters. In the center of the main aisle the floor plates contain the dimensions of the most significant cathedrals in the world, allowing us to compare them to the size of the cathedral. On the red porphyry slab of the main portal, where the former altar was located, Pope Leo III placed the Roman Emperor’s crown on the head of Charlemagne in Christmas 800. At the fourth pillar on the right is a bronze statue of a seated St. Peter (13th century), whose right foot is polished with the kisses of the faithful.

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In addition to the main dome and eight side domes, the interior of St. Peter’s cathedral is decorated by 800 columns and 390 colossal statues of tuff, marble, plaster and bronze. There are 45 separate altars. Visitors enter the basilica through massive bronze doors. Nearby there are “Holy Doors,” which are only opened for the pope to proclaim a holiday or holy year.

The dome of the cathedral

The cathedral’s double dome, 42, 2 m in diameter over the papal altar, rests on powerful pillars, and between them in niches are statues of St. Helen, St. Veronica, St. Longinus and St. Andrew. On the ring of the dome is a Latin inscription: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Above the gallery inside the vestibule between the two layers of the dome, stairs lead up to the lantern, which offers a grand view of St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican and Rome (entrance in the left side nave or right in the narthex).

Papal Altar

Above the Pontifical or Main Altar, on four twisted gilded columns, is a huge bronze canopy (ciborium), created in 1633 by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII. In front of the altar, a double staircase leads down to the Confessio, the place where the tomb of the Apostle Peter is supposedly located. Another masterpiece by Bernini is the pulpit of St. Peter in the apse. The four Fathers of the Church support Peter’s bishop’s chair, above the back of which two putti hold the keys and the tiara, symbols of papal authority, and above them the symbol of the Holy Spirit hovers.

The apse

The first chapel of the right side aisle contains Michelangelo’s great creation – the sculptural group Pietà, commissioned by the French cardinal Jean Bilard de Lagrola (then 24 years old) for his future tombstone (1498-1499). The young Mary is holding in her lap the Christ taken down from the cross. Michelangelo left his signature on the ribbon on Mary’s chest. Of the many papal tombstones in the side aisles, the baroque tombstone of Pope Alexander VII, Bernini’s (1672-1678) greatest dramatic creation, is particularly impressive. Surrounded by four figures of virtues, the pope looks on as he dies.

Vatican Grottoes

The Vatican Grotte (Sacre Grotte Vaticane), there descends from the columns at the intersection of the longitudinal and transverse aisles; it is a crypt built during the construction of the new basilica. The floor level was then raised by 3.5 m. Under the main altar is a reliquary with holy relics; Pope Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I are buried here. These grottos are to the Vatican German Cemetery, which is to the left of the cathedral.


No shorts, open-shouldered clothing or miniskirts are allowed. The rules are equally strict for both men and women. Even if you have passed through security at St. Peter’s Square, you may not be allowed inside the museums and the Cathedral.

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