St. Peter’s Cathedral is one of the holy sites of the Vatican, Italy

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

St. Peter’s Cathedral, located in the Vatican (Basilica di San Pietro), is one of the most visited attractions in Rome. The history of the famous cathedral dates back to the 4th century: just imagine how many masterpieces of art are stored within its walls.

And don’t let the huge line that usually gathers in front of the cathedral scare you: you should visit it by all means. It’s the most important Catholic church in the world!

History of St. Peter’s Cathedral

Originally a Roman basilica was built at the site of today’s cathedral: its construction refers to the 4th century. At that time the empire was ruled by Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus).

It was dedicated to the Apostle Peter, who was martyred in AD 64-67. – It was over his tomb that the first altar was created.

Architects and construction of the cathedral

During its existence the church had more than one reconstruction, but by the 16th century it had already partially collapsed. Then by decision of pontiff Julius II (Iulius II) work was begun to restore the ancient temple.

The architect was appointed Donato Bramante, who planned to rebuild a small basilica in the form of a large cross with a huge dome.

But the famous architect failed to complete the plan: he died in 1514. He was succeeded by Raphael Santi, who worked on the cathedral with his assistant Fra Giocondo and later with Giuliano da Sangallo.

After Raphael’s death, the architect Antonio da Sangallo supervised the construction, proposing to build the basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. He also failed to turn his idea into reality.

When da Sangallo died (in 1546) Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo chief architect: he decided to return to Bramante’s original architectural plan.

Michelangelo did a colossal job, but it was Giacomo Della Porta who finished the temple, after Michelangelo died in 1564.

It was then that the decorative fragments of proto-Baroque appeared in the cathedral. The famous architect, along with Domenico Fontana, carried out work on the dome and the main vault of the cathedral.

Opening of the cathedral and the subsequent reconstruction

St. Peter’s Cathedral opened in 1590, when Pope Sixtus V celebrated the first mass. However, work continued on the exterior of the temple: a colonnade of 36 columns, a massive cross over the dome, and a golden lantern were erected.

When Pope Paul V came to power, it was decided to lengthen part of the building and also to add side aisles, as a result, the cathedral received the form of a Latin cross. Works on change of the temple were headed by Carlo Maderno in the 17th century.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Vladimir Mucibabic / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter’s Square

The construction of the square in front of the cathedral (Piazza San Petro) was undertaken by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667.

The large-scale square was intended to accommodate a huge number of the faithful who wanted to receive the blessing of the Pope or participate in religious events.

Today, it can hold up to 400,000 people at a time.

The oval-shaped square is surrounded by two galleries of columns: there are a total of 284 Doric columns as well as 80 pillars.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: SF photo / Shutterstock.com

Directly on the attic, with which the colonnade is topped, are 140 sculptures of saints. When viewed from above, the square resembles a key.

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Architecture

When looking at St. Peter’s Cathedral, the first thing that impresses is its scale. The building with the dome reaches a height of about 132 meters, and the total area is equal to 23 thousand square meters. The height of Baroque facade is 48 meters, width – 118 meters.

Facade

The facade of the cathedral is decorated with classical columns, behind which there are five portals. These are the Gates of Good and Evil (Porta del Bene del Male), the Gates of Death (Porta della Morte), the Filaret Gates (Porta del Filarete), the Holy Gates (Porta Santa) and the Sacramenti (Porta dei Sacramenti).

The Death Gate has a very interesting appearance: it was created in the 20th century by Giacomo Manzu.

Above the columns is an attic with statues of Christ, the 11 apostles and John the Baptist. The main statue is 5 meters long.

The central portal of the temple is framed by equestrian statues of Emperor Constantine, made in 1670 by Bernini, and Charlemagne, created in the 18th century by Augustino Cornaccini.

On the façade of the building you can also admire a wonderful 18th century clock by Giuseppe Veledier and the Navicella degli Apostoli painted in the 13th century by Giotto di Bondone.

What to see inside

Upon entering the cathedral, one is struck by the enormous interior, richly decorated with decorative elements. Just imagine: The arches separating the central nave and the two side naves are 23 meters high and 13 meters wide.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Mirec / Shutterstock.com

This design creates a sense of infinite depth of space – the total area is about 2,500 square meters.

Note the amazing marble floors – some elements are partially preserved from the original basilica.

The internal decoration of the cathedral was mainly done by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – it was he who created the famous statue of the Roman centurion Longinus. By the way, the original tip of the centurion’s spear is preserved in the cathedral.

Cathedral

Bernini’s main masterpiece in the cathedral is the enormous canopy with four pillars, the cévory, at its base.

Immediately above the canopy is a pulpit by the same master, created in honor of St. Peter. It includes an armchair of St. Peter, supported by statues of saints – above them the symbol of the Holy Spirit hovers.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

On the right side of the pulpit is the tombstone of Pope Urban VIII (also by Bernini), and on the left is the tombstone of Paul III, which was created by Guglielmo della Porta in the 16th century.

Statue of St. Peter

If you walk through the entire gallery, in the last arch you will see a bronze statue of St. Peter, to which many worshippers come to worship. There is usually a line gathered near the statue, but people pass fairly quickly.

It is believed that you need to touch it and pray, and then your prayers will be heard. In the left hand of St. Peter are the keys to paradise.

The central part

Walk through the central nave of the church: in niches are statues of the saints Helena-Sophia Barat, Teresa, Vincenzo de Paoli, John Bosco, Philippe Neri, John, and John Battista de la Salle.

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In the very center of the temple one can see numerous mosaic paintings created from sketches by Domenichino.

Note the memorial to Pius VII, by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Here are also the tombs of the pontiffs and exquisitely decorated chapels.

Right aisle

The central sculptural group in the right aisle is the Pietà, executed in 1499 by Michelangelo himself. The title of the masterpiece translates as “Weeping of Christ”.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Vitaly Minko / Shutterstock.com

Nearby is the monument to Pope Leo XII, created in the 19th century by Giuseppe de Fabrisa, and the monument to Princess Christina by Carlo Fontana (17th century).

Nearby is the tomb of Margravine Matilda of Canossa, one of Bernini’s masterpieces. She was the first woman to be buried in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

In the small Chapel of the Crucifixion is a very beautiful wooden crucifix: it is believed to have been made by Pietro Cavallini in the 13th century.

St. Sebastian Chapel

Amazing mosaics are located in the Capelle di San Sebastiano, the work of Pier Paolo Cristofari.

By the way, the sketches of the mosaics belong to Domenichino. Looking at the vault, one can admire the fascinating mosaics by Pietro da Cortona.

The Chapel of the Holy Communion

The Capella del Santissimo Sacramento was decorated by Carlo Maderno and Francesco Borromini. Particular attention in the Chapel is attracted by the amazing decorative grid.

Nearby is the tombstone of Gregory III, with its bas-relief symbolizing the Pope’s reform. It was he who introduced the new (Gregorian) calendar.

A little further away is the tombstone of Clement XIII, designed by sculptor Antonio Canova.

Left aisle

In the left aisle you can admire the memorial to the Stuarts, made in the 19th century by Antonio Canova. Also worthy of admiration are the beautifully decorated 18th century tomb of Maria Clementina Sobeski by Pietro Bracci and the tomb of Pope Innocent VIII by the 15th century master Antonio Pollaiolo.

See the tomb of Alexander VII, decorated by Bernini himself. The bronze-marble ensemble includes a sculpture of a praying pontiff surrounded by statues of Truth, Mercy, Prudence and Justice. In the foreground is a skeleton symbolizing death: in his hands you can see an hourglass.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: VDV / Shutterstock.com

Chapel of the Baptism

Walking down the left aisle, look out for the Chapel of Baptism (Capella del Battesimo) – it was designed by Carlo Fontana and mosaicked by Baciccio.

The dome

The grandiose dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral, visible from far away, weighs 14,000 tons. Its inner diameter is about 41 meters and its height is about 117 meters.

The dome was created according to the architectural plan of Michelangelo: originally the construction had to have the diameter of a perfect sphere.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Daniel M. Silva / Shutterstock.com

The dome was built by Giacomo della Porta, who made the necessary changes to ensure its stability. However, by the 18th century the structure was already falling apart: massive chains helped save the dome – they were used to tighten the vault.

In the dome there are 16 windows, which share the double columns, and inside the construction is supported by four massive columns. While in the cathedral, you can admire the fascinating mosaics by Giovanni De Vecchi.

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How to reach St. Peter’s Basilica

The cathedral is located on Piazza San Retro. How to reach it:

  • By subway (line A) with a stop on San Pietro or Ottaviano: the exit from the first station is closer to the square, and from the second, closer to the museums;
  • buses #11, 23, 32, 81, 590, 982: get off at the Risorgimento stop;
  • If you plan to go straight to St. Peter’s Basilica and museums on arrival at Termini station, buses nos. 40 and 64 will do;
  • Streetcar 19, which stops close to the cathedral at San Pietro.

Hours of Operation

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome can be visited daily from 7.00 am to 6.30 pm.

Climb the dome every day from 7.30 am to 5 pm.

Ticket prices

You can enter the cathedral itself for free (as of 2022).

The cost of climbing the dome depends on how many steps you are willing to climb:

  • First option: you take the elevator and climb the 320 stairs. Ticket price: 10 Euro.
  • Second option: you go up on foot and pass 551 stairs. Ticket price: 8 Euros.

Note that the width of the aisle at the top is only 50 cm – it is not very comfortable to walk up. In total, the ascent and descent will take you about 1 hour.

Information about prices and opening hours are subject to change – check the official website www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/it/cupola/orari.htm.

Vatican tours

To avoid being confused by the many masterpieces of the Vatican, take a special tour by a knowledgeable guide: he will guide you through the small state, showing St. Peter’s Basilica and the famous museums. That way you won’t miss anything important and listen to the guide’s fascinating tales of Vatican history and art.

Check out the tour program for you and your company on Tripster.

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 site 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 been in full display.

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.

History

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 was consecrated in 326.

The first St. Peter’s Cathedral was built in 324 when Emperor Constantine transferred the remains of the apostle Simon Peter to Mount Vatican City. To mark the sanctity of the site, he ordered the construction of a basilica with five altars, merely the 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 monumental 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 – and 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 the 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 is decorated with 800 columns and 390 colossal statues of tufa, 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.

Cathedral Dome

The double dome of the cathedral with a diameter of 42, 2 meters above the papal altar rests on powerful pillars; between them in niches are the 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.

Clothing:

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

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