Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome cover

Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome


Which building is the most important in the world? One of the contenders for that title is Saint Peter's Basilica. This giant church tells a tale of the limitless power of religion and politics, and above all, about the immense creativity of humans.

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Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome

History: Saint Peter

The history of this church starts at the Sea of Galilee in contemporary Israel.

Local fisherman Simon became one of the first followers of Jesus and Jesus gave him a nickname - Peter ("cliff"). After the death of Jesus he became a leader of Christians and actively spread the faith in Judea, Palestine and Antioch.

It is not known if Saint Peter ever came to Rome, though according to later Christian accounts he did.

Maybe we will never learn the truth - history too often is invented and rewritten. According to the legend, St. Peter was the first leader of Christians in Rome and thus, he was the first Pope in the main metropolis of the ancient world.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Image by Dennis Jarvis, (CC BY-SA 2.0)


According to the story, St. Peter was executed in 64 AD after Christians were blamed for the catastrophe of the Great Fire of Rome.

He was executed at an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Circus of Nero. It is said that the current obelisk in St. Peter's Square bore witness to this tragic event.

His remains were buried (again, according to unproven legends) next to the circus, in an established cemetery on Mons Vaticanus, outside the City of Rome. Here, there many victims of executions were buried, and, due to the burial of St. Peter, numerous local Christians.

Vatican Necropolis

Interior of a Roman tomb a few meters away from the site of (alleged) St Peter's tomb. Image by Blue 439, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Vatican Necropolis

Archaeological excavations took place here in 1939 and fragments of bones were found buried under the church, wrapped in a purple and golden fabric - definitely an important burial. It was decided that these remains belonged to Saint Peter.

The First Basilica

A large rock was placed over the grave initially, and some years later Christians built a small shrine there.

As Christianity became the leading religion in Rome, there arose a need for a major shrine. In the time of Emperor Constantine the Great, in the period between 319 and 333 AD, the so-called Old St. Peter's Basilica was built.

This was an enormous building for its time - it was more than 103.6 m long, with an impressive atrium. This fine building stood for more than 1000 years.

World’s Most Magnificent Church

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 or significant rebuilding of the existing one was needed. Of course, it had to be larger and more splendid than the old one. Some work was even started, but when the pope died, everything stopped.

Pope Julius II (reigned 1503 - 1513) moved the ambitious project further along. He announced a tender for the largest and most splendid structure in the Christian world.


Rendition of St. Peter's Square, Rome, ca. 1600, by an unknown artist.


Many great designs were proposed by the best architects, engineers and artists of the time, with numerous innovations and lots of ambition. After lengthy discussions, the design of Donato Bramante was selected.

It took time to build the world's greatest church, lots of time. Construction work started in 1506 and ended in 1626.


The design of Bramante was modified after the death of Pope Julius II in 1513 - and this was only the first change in plans.

During its construction, St. Peter's Basilica saw many chief architects, including the great Raphael, who introduced a nave with five bays (not realized), and Michelangelo.

Although Michelangelo was not too happy to become an architect, the Basilica, to a large extent was shaped by him. Thus the great painter and sculptor can also be listed among world's greatest architects.

The Reformation

Such an enormous undertaking left an impact on the history of art.

Soon after the start of the construction, it became clear that lots of money would be needed - a lot more than the Church had at the time. The financial geniuses of these times invented many sources of funding, including a trade of “indulgences” in exchange for financial support for the construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica.

Marketing for these indulgences was widespread – the Pope desperately needed as much financing as possible. This caused protests, and inspired Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, starting the Reformation.

The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica

Nevertheless, the work continued. In 1590 the dome was completed - a wonder of structural engineering designed by Michelangelo. He did not live to see it: Michelangelo died in 1564.

Later, in the middle of the 18th century the dome cracked and it was reinforced by heavy iron chains around it. The work continued into the 17th century. After lengthy discussions, it was decided to build the nave and current facade towards St. Peter's Square.

Renaissance and Baroque Combined

The enormous (114.69 m wide and 45.55 m high) facade was designed by Carlo Maderno - and this part of the Basilica has been criticized ever since due to its inharmonious proportions.

There were plans for two bell towers at each side of the facade. One tower was even built, but the ground started to settle and the bell tower was demolished (designer Gian Lorenzo Bernini had to cover the costs of this demolition), and the idea of bell towers was abandoned.

The long building history of St. Peter's Basilica also shows in the architectonic style of its diverse parts. While the dome of the church is one of the highest achievements in Renaissance architecture, the facade and nave represent a slightly different age, with many features of the upcoming Baroque style.



St.Peter's Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world to this day. It is the largest one by area (interior area is 15,160 m²), length (external length - 211.5 m) and volume (5 million m³) which far exceeds any other church in the world).


The church has a cruciform shape with a dome in the center. This giant dome dominates the skyline of Rome. It is one of the largest domes in the world, and also the tallest in the world (136.57 m). The diameter of the dome is 41.47 m - less than the Florence Cathedral, but nonetheless, it remains one of the great domes of the world. In order to make it lighter, the concrete contains numerous pieces of light pumice and tufa (an ancient Roman formula, revived for this project). It is also thin, with vertical and horizontal ribs to reinforce it (like in the Pantheon).

The Lantern In The Dome

Image by Kullez, (CC BY 2.0)

The Lantern In The Dome

The design of the enormous dome was inspired by the Pantheon, but there were significant differences too. The enormous dome rests on four piers and above it rises another, smaller lantern dome.

St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter's Square is a landmark by itself, but to a large extent it forms the strongest impression of the Basilica.

Its present shape was created during 1656 – 1667, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and is one of the masterpieces of the Baroque style. Bernini had to create an urban ensemble focusing the attention of visitors towards the Basilica. Of course, he had to keep the Egyptian obelisk - an important landmark in the history of Saint Peter's Basilica.

The Importance of Shape

Bernini had different options to create the area - square or trapezoid or any other shape.

His solution was different and innovative - he designed a space consisting of two elements: a trapezoid plaza at the basilica and an open space in an elliptical shape further from it, around the obelisk. Thus Bernini managed to decrease the negative effects of the facade, seemingly making it narrower and taller. Impressive colonnades flank both plazas.

View Across St. Peter’s Square

Image by Monitotxi, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

View Across St. Peter’s Square

This ingenious solution was one of the major manifestations of the Baroque style in urban planning, with an intricate, harmonious play of the different existing and newly added elements.


After traversing the magnificent square, one ascends enormous staircases flanked by statues of Saint Peter (to the left) and Saint Paul (to the right) and reaches the main facade of the church.

The northernmost of the five entrance doors is the Holy Door – this ornate (everything here is ornate) door is normally is sealed by mortar and cement, and is opened only on a particular occasion: Jubilee years are announced by Pope for the remission of sins. In early times, these festivities took place every 25 to 33 years, but occasionally more frequently. In the 20th - 21st centuries, Jubilees are more frequent – sit seems, there are many sins to be forgiven.


The interior of the church is... incredibly vast.

There are few buildings in the world with such a spacious and ornate interior. The size and beauty of the premises dwarfs human beings. It is so large it is hard for visitors to get the sense of scale.

The enormous nave is slightly tilted towards the Egyptian obelisk. The barrel vault of the nave is the highest in the world, with numerous impressive chapels to be found on both sides.

Vatican Altar

Image by Patrick Landy, (CC BY 3.0)

Vatican Altar

Behind the high altar, two staircases lead to an underground chapel, the Chapel of the Confession, located above the purported burial site of Saint Peter.

Chair of Saint Peter

Image by Dnalor, via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chair of Saint Peter

The Chair of Saint Peter is located in the apse. This relic, according to legend, was used by Saint Peter, though in reality it was a gift to the Pope in 875 AD), and has been used by many popes. After centuries of use, it became unusable, and thus is now a work of art.

The chair is enclosed in a beautiful gilded casing (Bernini, 1647 - 1653) - an outstanding and innovative example of Baroque art.

Other Relics

In the Basilica there are four precious relics:

the spear of Longinus which pierced Christ (though there are several churches around the world which claim to have the same spear), the veil of Veronica with miraculous face of Christ, a piece of True Cross brought here by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, and relics of St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter.


Image by Erik Drost, (CC BY 2.0)


Above the altar stands another outstanding work of art, the largest piece of bronze on Earth - 30 m tall, the ornate St. Peter’s Baldachin was also created by Bernini.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Image by Stanislav Traykov, Niabot, Edit: Cut out and cropped, (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Michelangelo's Pietà

A number of noteworthy people have been buried in the basilica, including many popes and others, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, Queen Christina of Sweden, and the composer Palestrina. Other popes are buried in the ancient necropolis beneath the Basilica, just like (possibly) Saint Peter. Many niches and chapels are adorned with renowned artwork, such as Michelangelo's Pietà.

Importance and Impact

St. Peter's Basilica has been a destination of pilgrimages for centuries, and continues to attract visitors from all over the world.

Formally it is just one of four Papal Basilicas, but it is by far the best-known and most important one. As it is next to the Papal residence and is very large, most Papal liturgies take place here. These liturgies draw the attention of thousands of believers and tourists, and at times gatherings can have up to 80,000 people.

Dome Interior

Image by Gary Ullah, (CC BY 2.0)

Dome Interior

The architecture and art of St. Peter's Basilica have served as inspiration all over the world, and have influenced the views of art and beauty for numerous generations. The design of St. Peter's Basilica has influenced the design of such magnificent buildings as St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the Pantheon in Paris.