In the early 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a church on the burial site of Saint Peter. It was the greatest church in Christianity.
Centuries later, that building was falling apart, so Pope Julius II ordered the construction of a replacement church that would be newer and much bigger.
Learn more about St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’ve done a previous episode about Vatican City, but that episode dealt with how it came to exist as an institution and a country.
In this episode, I just want to focus on the signature building of the Vatican, in fact, the building which makes up an enormous part of the area of the country, Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The current location of St. Peter’s Basilica was originally outside of the Walls of Rome, across the Tiber Riber. The site was known in Latin as the Ager Vaticanus. It was a swampy field that was prone to flooding of the Tiber, and it was known for having a lot of mosquitoes.
As Rome expanded, the area was eventually drained, and it was developed.
For the purposes of this story, it became notable for the being the location of the Circus of Nero. The Circus of Nero, like the Circus Maximus, was the location of chariot races and other events.
It was located roughly where the southern half of St. Peters Square and the Basilica is today, pointing southwest to northeast. Supposedly the circus was the first place where organized executions of early Christians took place in the year 65, and it was also supposed to be the location where Saint Peter was executed in the year 67 or 68.
According to the Acts of Peter, he was crucified between two turning posts in the middle of the track.
After his death, he was then buried in a cemetery that was directly across the Via Cornelia, which was a street on the north side of the circus. The tradition at the time for early Christians was to bury martyrs as close to the location of their martyrdom as possible.
Over time the tomb became a pilgrimage site, but it was never a formal shrine or church as Christianity still wasn’t looked upon favorably by the Roman state in the first few centuries.
That all changed in the early 4th century when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity.
He decided that Rome should have the biggest and greatest church in the world, so he began construction of a church on the site where Peter was buried.
As part of the construction, they leveled the hillside where the cemetery was located and used the soil from the hill to bury the rest of the cemetery. More on that in a bit.
The building is today known as Old Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Here I should note the meaning of the word basilica. Today a basilica is simply a title given to historically or architecturally significant churches.
However, a basilica was originally a style of architecture used for a public Roman building. In particular, it had a long central nave with two side aisles. You can see this architectural style today in various Roman ruins around the Mediterranean and in very old Christian churches.
In Rome, you can still see the style of building at Saint Paul’s Outside the Wall.
Old Saint Peters was an exceptional building for the time, and it became filled with many treasures. Unfortunately, before the 9th century, the church was still outside the walls of Rome, and it was an easy target for groups that were raiding the city.
The basilica grew in importance over time as the Papacy became more powerful. Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor there, as were most popes, and many noteworthy people were buried there.
Over time, the building fell into a dilapidated state. In the 15th century, the architect Bernardo Rossellino noted that one of the walls was very near collapse.
Many popes wanted to do something about the church, starting with Nicholas V in the mid-15th century. He commissioned a major renovation of the St Peter’s and actually dismantled a large part of the colosseum to get marble for the church.
The pope that is most associated with St. Peter’s has to be Julius II. His initial plan was to preserve Old St. Peter’s. However, the plan soon shifted towards demolishing the building and building something newer and grander.
So in 1505, Old St. Peter’s was demolished.
The architect Donato Bramante drew up the initial design for the new St. Peter’s. His design was originally a Greek cross with a massive dome held up by four enormous pillars. The dome was inspired by the dome in the Pantheon in Rome.
The dome and pillars were the only part of the original design which made it to the final building.
A series of eight architects took over the job through the years, and the list includes the artists Raphael and Michelangelo.
The church was eventually concentrated and considered open on November 18, 1626.
I’m kind of rushing through the entire building process because I want to spend more time on the building itself.
Let’s start with the superlatives.
St. Peter’s Basilica is still, after 400 years, the biggest church in the world.
The interior dome is the highest dome in the world at 117.5 meters or 385.5. This record is not just for a church dome but any type of dome.
The interior is 15,160 square meters or 163,180 square feet.
Also, Saint Peter’s is NOT a cathedral. The cathedral for Rome is actually Saint John’s Lateran.
Immediately outside the church is St. Peter’s Square, which Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed.
The square is surrounded by a colonnade that has statues of saints on the top, and it can hold up to 300,000 people.
The square has two fountains, the first of which was designed by Carlo Maderno, and the second was a copy designed by Bernini.
Of special note is the Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square.
The obelisk was actually part of the Circus of Nero. It originally came from Heliopolis, Egypt, but the date it was erected and the pharaoh who erected it are unknown.
The obelisk was moved by order of Augustus to Alexandria. Then in the year 40, it was shipped to Rome for the new Vatican circus by Emperor Caligula.
Moving it and shipping it across the sea was incredibly difficult. A special built ship had to be used to move it, and when the ship arrived in the Roman port of Ostia, they filled it with cement and used it as a breakwater for the harbor.
It was then sailed up the Tiber to the location of the circus, where it was installed in the center of the track. It stood there during the entire time of the Old Basilica.
It was moved in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V to its current location. On the day it was moved, it took a crew of hundreds of men. Erecting an obelisk is a very risky operation, and on the day it was erected, the Pope said that anyone who interrupted by talking would face the death penalty. He even erected gallows in St Peter’s Square just to scare everyone.
The facade of St. Peter’s was also designed by Carlo Maderno, who is one of the eight primary architects.
Written across the front of the facade in Latin is text that says the following: In honor of the Prince of Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate.
Once you enter through the facade, you’ll see several massive doors. One of those doors is the Holy Door. The Holy Door is made of bronze, and it was cast in 1950. It is only opened during Jubilee Years, which takes place once every 25 years, or when the pope proclaims a special jubilee year.
Inside, there are no permanent pews. There are temporary ones that can be moved in if a service is being held. The interior can hold as many as 60,000 people if everyone is standing and 35,000 with seating.
Inside you’ll find several important works of art.
The greatest work has to be Michaelangelo’s Pieta, a sculpture that depicts Mary holding Jesus after he’s been taken off the cross. Michelangelo
In May 1972, a deranged Australian named Laszlo Toth attacked the sculpture with a hammer. He hit it 15 times, removing Mary’s arm and part of her nose.
If you visit St. Peter’s today, this is the reason why you’ll find it behind bulletproof glass.
The other notable work is the sarcophagus cover in the baptistery. It is made of rare Egyptian porphyry, which is a purple rock that was used for kings and emperors.
The cover was used in the tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II but is believed to have originally come from the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian.
The four main pillars which hold up the dome house the basilica’s main holy relics.
One corner is dedicated to St. Helena, and it supposedly contains parts of the true cross and the nails used in the crucifixion.
Another corner is St. Veronica, and it has the cloth supposedly used to wipe the face of Jesus.
Another corner is devoted to Saint Longinus, who was the Roman centurion who pierced the side of Christ. It had the spear tip which was used.
Finally, is a pillar devoted to Saint Andrew the Apostle and part of the cross he was crucified on.
The focus of the church is the altar. The altar is covered by a baldacchino or a canopy. The baldacchino and its spiral pillars were also designed by Bernini. The main altar is the only altar in the basilica which only the pope can use.
Underneath the altar is the reason why the basilica is there in the first place: the tomb of Saint Peter.
After the new basilica was built, the tomb was sort of forgotten. Everyone knew it was down there, but that was about the end of it.
Starting in 1939, the Vatican began to excavate underneath the altar. I mentioned before that Constantine just used the hillside to cover the original Roman cemetery.
In 1942, they found in the old Roman cemetery carved Latin text pointing to Petrus, and then finally text indicating “this is Peter.”
There they found the bones of a man who died about 2000 years ago and who was between the age of 60 and 70.
Surrounding the burial site of Peter is also believed to be the burial sites of several of the very early popes.
The ancient Roman cemetery is called the Scavi, and you can actually go down there if you reserve a tour ahead of time. Spaces are extremely limited, and they only allow 10 people to go on the tour at a time, and you can’t bring your camera.
One other thing I should mention is that few people bother to do it in the other direction: up.
You can actually walk up to the very top of the dome, which will give you one of the best views of St Peter’s Square and of Rome.
In between the wall of the inner and outer domes is a staircase that spirals up the top to an observation deck at the very top. It is a very strange walk as it leans inward and it, spirals around, and it is extremely narrow, but it is well worth the climb.
There is a lot more to Saint Peter’s Basilica than what I mentioned. The entire church is dripping with history. There are at least 148 popes buried in Saint Peter’s, not to mention all the coronations and other artwork which can be found inside.
If you visit Rome, I’d recommend that you give yourself at least a day to visit the Vatican, and the best time to visit St. Peter’s is in the afternoon when most of the tour buses have left.
While there is a security checkpoint, there is no entrance fee, and anyone is welcome regardless of religion.
I’d suggest buying a guidebook or hiring a guide so that you can get a better understanding of the world’s biggest church.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Tryng2findNameNotTaken over at Apple podcasts in the United States. They write:
Pretty great podcast
I’ve learned quite a bit from this podcast. It’s very informative and I recommend it to others frequently.
The only complaint I have is that during the episode about the internal combustion engine, the claim is made that such engines have to have an even number of cylinders.
That is obviously not true. Radial aircraft engines have odd numbers of cylinders.
Having said that this podcast covers a huge scope of topics and I find it pretty credible. 99.9% accurate.
Thanks, Tryng2findNameNotTaken! I’ve previously addressed the great odd-numbered piston incident in another episode. I probably had more comments about that episode than any other….besides, of course, the legendary Bill Buckner error.
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