St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy
It’s no wonder that, when the Vatican is mentioned, only one thing comes to mind: St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the largest church in Christendom in terms of size, its 15,000 square metres of interior space can accommodate 60,000 visitors (no kidding!), and its massive 136-metre-high dome soars above the skyline. By way of comparison, the entire Statue of Liberty, including its base and two or three jumbo jets, can easily fit inside.
The construction of this huge church with a plan based on a Greek cross began in 1506 and was completed more than a hundred years later, in 1615. The architects and designers involved in this work represented the cream of Renaissance talent: Bramante, Raffaello, Giocondo, da Sangallo, Maderno, Bernini, Michelangelo, who designed the huge dome that crowns the building.
As you enter the tall portals, your head will automatically tilt upwards. And it will remain that way for the entire tour, as you won’t be able to avoid focusing your gaze on the arches and ceiling containing amazing works of art, be they paintings or sculptures. And when you look down, you’ll also be amazed by the intricate marble patterns on the floor. There is not a single space inside where your eyes can rest from so much beauty to marvel at.
The piece de resistance is Michelangelo’s masterpiece: the Pietà is on the right side just after you enter and is always crowded with people who have to jostle their way to get to the front. For a moment, as you gaze at it intently, it doesn’t seem to you that it’s all marble because the folds of the drapery, the Madonna’s pained expression and Christ’s outstretched limbs seem so real that you expect them to move at any moment.
There are several chapels along the sides of the long nave, one of them for Pope John Paul II, who is now a saint. His tomb is also there, and many people pray in front of it, attesting to his more recent popularity. There is also a long line of people in front of a black statue, and you wonder who it is until you recognize him holding the keys with one hand and giving a blessing with the other: it’s St. Peter. It is customary for pilgrims visiting the church to touch or kiss St. Peter’s feet, especially the right one, and ask for a blessing, so much so that it now seems flat after millions and millions of kisses from the faithful.
Once you reach the end of the nave, you will find a huge spiral Baroque style canopy supported by huge spiral columns just below the dome. This is the Baldacchino (pavilion), which is the central point of the church, where only the Pope can celebrate Mass, and is meant to highlight the high altar. Under it is the tomb of St. Peter, and there is a staircase leading down.
The apse at the back of the church is another Baroque creation with gilded cherubs and angels and sculpted clouds and rays of light emanating from a stained glass panel. In front is a huge bronze chair symbolizing the throne of St. Peter, and the whole thing is meant to radiate a heavenly aura and enrapture the viewer. You can kneel in front of it and pray, but try as I might on the three times I’ve been there, I’ve been unable to concentrate because my mind was so terribly busy digesting the whole panoply of design before me.
With its exceptional height and beautiful design, the dome of the Basilica unmistakably marks the skyline of Rome. But even from the inside, it is a great beauty because of its gleaming golden mosaics and illustrations of many sacred figures. I decided to climb the 551 steps to the top of the dome, where it ends at an open terrace with 360-degree views. It’s quite tiring, and I was out of breath when I got to the top, but the reward was worth it because you get an unparalleled view of St. Peter’s Square below, as well as a spectacular panorama of the Eternal City.
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