St Peter’s Basilica, Catholicism’s largest religious monument

Rome, Vatican City

The only certainty about St. Peter’s arrival in Rome is that it took place after the year 50. Likewise, the date of his martyrdom is unknown. We only know that he was crucified near the Vatican between 64 and 67, during the persecutions organized by Nero after the fire that ravaged the city. What is certain, however, is that the site quickly took on considerable importance for the followers of the brand-new Christian religion.

The background to the creation of the basilica

At the beginning of the 4th century, Emperor Constantine, anxious to support the Christian religion to which he had converted, ordered the construction of the first basilica on the presumed site of the apostle’s tomb. Consecrated on November 18, 326 by Pope Sylvester I, it is preceded by a vast atrium and decorated with refinement. However, when the popes returned from their exile in Avignon and decided to stay at the Vatican rather than in the old Lateran palace, they found the old basilica in a sorry state, almost on the point of collapse. In 1452, Nicholas V decided to build a new sanctuary, but his death in 1455 interrupted the project.

Half a century later, right at the start of his pontificate, Jules II (1503-1513) asked Bramante to work on a basilica project, the first stone of which was laid in 1506. Nevertheless, it would be over a century before this colossal monument was completed. On November 18, 1626, the new St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) finally opened its doors, 1300 years after the first building erected by Constantine.

St. Peter’s Basilica was built over such a long period of time that the preservation of its overall homogeneity is miraculous. The first problem was to decide whether the plan should be a Greek cross (four equal branches inscribed in a square) or a Latin cross (a long nave with a shorter transept).

Bramante, whose model was the Basilica of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, chose the Greek cross, as did his successor Baldassare Peruzzi. Michelangelo, who was entrusted with the continuation of the work in 1546, was of the same opinion, but barely had time to complete the drum of the giant dome that today dominates the city skyline. In the meantime, Raphael and then Antonio Sangallo opted for the Latin cross, but did not have the time to complete their project. Finally, Pope Paul V (1605-1621) opted for a Latin cross plan and, in 1607, commissioned Carlo Maderno to extend the existing nave.

At the time, the Catholic Church was in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, determined to ride out the Protestant wave. For political as well as liturgical reasons, Paul V wanted a larger basilica than the previous one. The nave had to be long enough (187 m) to accommodate grand ceremonies and organize spectacular processions capable of striking the spirit. The original plans were therefore modified, and Michelangelo’s dome was concealed by the façade. Nevertheless, Michelangelo’s influence on the structure of the basilica is undeniable, as witnessed by the majesty of the monumental pillars of the transept crossing.

There’s no doubt who designed the Piazza San Pietro. Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) commissioned Bernini, who chose an elliptical plan defined by two arched porticoes, each composed of four rows of columns.

A unique and truly majestic building

The result is spectacular: this solemn space provides theatrical access to the basilica, which appears like a jewel in a jewel box. The colonnade features 284 Doric columns, 88 pilasters and 140 statues on the entablature. In the center of the square, an Egyptian obelisk is flanked by two fountains, one by Maderno, the other by Bernini. Halfway between the obelisk and each fountain is a stone disc that reads "center of the colonnade". Stand on one of these to admire one of the quadruple colonnades, whose columns line up in a majestic portico.

A handsome three-flight staircase by Bernini, framed by statues of St. Peter and St. Paul, precedes the basilica’s travertine façade. The latter repeats the motif of columns and pilasters. The balustrade above the attic is adorned with statues of Christ, St. John the Baptist and the apostles.

The white and ochre hue of the façade is enlivened by the red and green tones of the Loggia della Benedizione. The latter is the work of Maderno. Despite its monumental size (110 m wide and two storeys high), it has never met with unanimous approval. Henri Matisse, for example, compared it to a railway station. From the loggia, the Pope blesses urbi et orbi (the city and the whole world) at Christmas, Easter and when a new Pope is elected (Habemus Papam).

The porch has five entrances. Its stucco ceiling is also by Maderno. On either side of the portico, two equestrian statues (of Constantine and Charlemagne) represent the temporal power of the Church: the one on the right is by Bernini. In the center of the portico, Giotto’s famous Navicella mosaic (Christ walking on water) has been restored.

It adorned the atrium of Constantine’s basilica. The bronze leaves of the central door also come from the former basilica, and were made in the 15th century by the Florentine Filarete (Antonio di Petro Averlino). On the right, the Porta Santa (Holy Door) is open only during the Holy Years.

Practical info

  • Basilica visited on April 26, 2010
  • Open daily (please allow 1-2 hours for entry)
  • Transport: Rome, Metro A, Ottaviano
  • Duration of visit: 45 minutes

Photo Gallery

St. Peter’s Basilica and the Egyptian obelisk

Obélisque devant la basilique Saint-Pierre

The nave of the basilica

Nef de la basilique Saint-Pierre

One of the fountains in front of the basilica

Fontaine du Bernin devant la basilique St-Pierre

Statue of Saint Teresa of Avila

Statue de Sainte-Thérèse d'Avila

“But it’s not so much its size that impresses us, accustomed as we are to large monumental constructions, but rather the profusion and richness of its decoration, where the greatest names of the Renaissance succeeded one another to offer us the best of their era.”

Let’s enter St. Peter’s Basilica!

The interior of the basilica, largely designed by le Bernin, is overwhelmingly Baroque. At the entrance, a large porphyry disk marks the spot where Charlemagne was crowned emperor, and where his successors knelt at their coronation. Proceed to the transept. The bronze bands on the nave’s pavement indicate the dimensions of other famous cathedrals, albeit more modest. As Bernini intended, the eye is immediately drawn to the enormous baldacchino above the altar, made from bronze taken from the portico of the Pantheon.

The bases of its columns are adorned with marble bas-reliefs, one of which evokes childbirth, with a woman with an astonishing expression and a smiling child. The confession below is by Maderno. It marks the tomb of Saint Peter, located below. Its balustrade is surrounded by 95 permanently lit lamps. Move on to the glòria in the apse. This typically Baroque gilded stucco representation of the heavens forms the upper part of the extraordinary Cattedra Petri (St. Peter’s pulpit), designed by Bernini to contain a 4th-century episcopal see. On either side of the pulpit, admire the funerary monuments of Popes Paul III (left) and Urban VIII (right).

Naturally, look up to the cupola, Michelangelo’s architectural masterpiece, completed after his death by Giacomo della Porta. It is warmly lit by sixteen windows, extended by as many compartments that meet at the top. The latter is topped by a lantern featuring God the Father. Four enormous pillars support the dome.

Note the mosaics in the four medallions at the pendentives (the triangular spaces where the pillars meet the cap). Each represents one of the four evangelists. Their proportions are gigantic (8 m in diameter; St. Mark’s pencil, for example, measures 1.5 m). The Latin inscription around the base of the dome, taken from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, affirms the importance of the pontificate: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven"

Pope Urban VII commissioned Bernini to decorate the four pillars of the dome with large niches (aedicolae) to house giant statues (nearly 5 m tall) of the saints whose relics were kept in the basilica: St. Andrew, St. Veronica, St. Helena and St. Longinus (the latter by Bernini, the other three by his pupils). The relics – Saint Longin’s Holy Lance, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side, fragments of the Cross brought back by Saint Helena, the veil of the Holy Face belonging to Saint Veronica and Saint Andrew’s head – are kept in small chapels above the statues. Against the pillar of St. Longin is a bronze statue of St. Peter by Arnolfo de Cambio, dating from the early 13th century.

Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, sheltered behind a bullet-proof transparent panel, draws crowds to the first chapel on the right aisle.

In the basilica, 147 popes are buried, and some of the tombs are remarkable. That of Alexander VII, in the passageway to the left transept, is one of Bernini’s last creations (1678). His treatment of the material (marble) and polychromy is exceptional. The Pope in prayer, unperturbed, faces Death, who holds an hourglass in his hand. In the left nave, the tomb of Innocent VIII is the work of Antonio del Pollaiolo. C’est le seul monument provenant de l’ancienne basilique. Its beautiful bas-reliefs represent the cardinal virtues. With two exceptions (a fresco on the ceiling above the Pietà and a painting by Pietro da Cortona in the Cappella del Santo Sacramento), all the decorations here are mosaic copies of famous originals found in other churches or in the Vatican Museums.

Only three monuments are dedicated to women: Queen Christine of Sweden, who abdicated to convert to Catholicism; Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who was an ally of the Pope in the 11th century during the Investiture Dispute; and Maria Clementina Sobieski, mother of the last Stuart pretender to the English throne.

The Treasure Museum, behind the left transept (expect a small entrance fee), exhibits magnificent priestly vestments, numerous pieces of silverware and the tmbeau of Sixtus IV, also by Pollaiolo (1493).

A staircase near the first pillar on the right leads to the grottoes housing the tombs of the popes. St. Peter’s tomb is located in the pagan necropolis (guided tours only).

The coupole can be visited, offering a breathtaking view of the basilica’s interior (entrance fee payable outside, to the right of the portico, elevator). Afterwards, a steep staircase takes you to the terrace at the top of the dome, where you can enjoy a superb panoramic view of the city. Make sure you’re in good physical condition and not claustrophobic. This staircase is located inside the walls of the dome, is one-way, often low-ceilinged, and you won’t be able to change your mind once you’ve started.

Map of Saint Peter’s Square

360° general view

Photo Gallery

The Holy Spirit stained glass window

Vitrail du Saint-Esprit de Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Inside view of the dome

La coupole de la basilique Saint-Pierre


With a passion for travel and discovery, we invite you to discover original photos that will inspire you to get away from it all. Visit museums and hiking trails, big capitals and small villages, and marvel at the beauty of our world. Plan your trip and set off to meet warm, welcoming people, witnesses of different yet enriching cultures.

Go top