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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

What is St Peter’s Basilica?

St Peter’s Basilica is a Vast Roman Catholic church dating back to the 4th century AD that was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries, and dedicated to St Peter who was crucified and buried nearby.

view of St Peter’s Basilica

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St Peter’s Basilica History

Originally conceived in the early 16th century by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, the modern St Peter’s Basilica was finally completed in 1626 under the watchful eye of Carlo Maderno, one of the fathers of Baroque architecture. Its grandiose design and opulent interior reflect many centuries of Christian history and draw millions of pilgrims and tourists alike each year from across the world.

Early Christian tradition claims that Simon, named ‘Peter’ by Jesus and the leader of his Twelve Apostles, was one of many Christians persecuted during the reign of Emperor Nero in the years after Jesus’ death. When condemned for crucifixion himself, Peter asked to be nailed to the cross upside down with his head towards the ground, for he saw himself as unworthy to die in the same manner as his divine saviour. Peter’s unconventional crucifixion and subsequent burial took place on this site, besides what was then an ancient racing stadium. A sanctuary was built over the tomb of St Peter in the 4th century AD, following the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity, and this became the original church of St Peter.

St Peter’s Basilica interior

By the end of the 15th century, however, Constantine’s basilica was in disrepair and so Pope Julius II, in a move widely denounced at the time due to the reverence attached to the site, devised a plan to replace it with a bold new structure. As was common for such projects a competition was held to determine the design, with the architect Donato Bramante’s eventually selected, in which he proposed the church be shaped in the form of a Greek cross (like a plus sign) and then topped with an enormous dome inspired by the ancient Pantheon. Over the next hundred years, Bramante’s plans were altered by a number of other architects, including Raphael and Michelangelo. The final design took the shape of a Latin cross, the type you’ll see in churches across the city, since by the 17th century this was considered to be a truer symbol of Christianity.

At present, around 150 popes are buried in the basilica. Just off the south transept you’ll find the tomb of Alexander VII. Rich in coloured marbles, this magnificent late work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini shows the Pope kneeling in prayer above two allegorical figures of Charity and Truth. Look closely, and you’ll notice that from beneath the folds of patterned marble, winged Death – holding an hourglass to symbolize the passing of time and the inevitability of death – rears his head to claim Alexander.

You wouldn’t want to travel all the way to St Peter’s and not see Michelangelo’s Pietà. The world-famous statue can be found in the first chapel on the north side. This is Michelangelo’s only sculpture to which he added his signature, which you can find on the ribbon falling from the Virgin’s left shoulder. The work has been protected by a transparent bullet-proof panel ever since a visitor attacked and damaged it with a hammer in 1972.

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