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Europe Visit Church #7: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy

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.

You can appreciate the scale of the Basilica to the size of the crowd in front of it.
The central aisle is fenced off and you walk around the church in a counter-clockwise direction.The middle aisle is fenced off and you move around the church in a counterclockwise direction.
View of St. Peter's Square with Bernini's famous columns on the right and chairs set up for a special Mass.View of St. Peter’s Square with Bernini’s famous columns on the right and chairs set up for a special Mass.
These cherubs sculpted in solid marble are really great.These cherubs sculpted in solid marble are really big in size.

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.

The empty piazza at midnight.The empty square at midnight.
Detail of the golden arches.Detail of the golden arches.
At any time of the day there are many people inside.At any time of the day there’s a lot of people inside.
One of the chapels cordoned off to visitors.One of the chapels cordoned off to visitors.

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.

Detail of the ceiling above the high altar.Detail of the ceiling over the high altar.
A Swiss guard by one of the entrances. Michelangelo designed their uniforms.A Swiss guard next to one of the entrances. Michelangelo designed his uniforms.
The apse in all its baroque splendor.The apse in all its baroque splendor.
The funerary monument of Pope Alexander VII, by Bernini. Note the skeleton under the drapery holding an hourglass which tells him that his time has come.Bernini’s funerary monument of Pope Alexander VII. Observe the skeleton under the canvases holding an hourglass telling you that your time has come.

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.

The interior of the dome with gilded tiles and riveted artwork. There is a Latin saying that means. "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church."Each letter is almost 10 feet tall!The interior of the dome with gilded tiles and riveted artwork. A Latin saying that means: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. Each letter is nearly 10 feet tall.
The masterpiece of the Pieta.The masterpiece of the Pieta.
The tomb of Pope John Paul II.Tomb of Pope John Paul II.
From the top of the dome, which can be climbed by a narrow winding staircase, there is a breathtaking view of the square and Rome.From the top of the dome, which can be climbed up a narrow winding staircase, you get a breathtaking view of the square and of Rome.

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.

This is the inner vestibule once you enter through the great doors.This is the inner lobby once you enter through the large doors.
Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys with one hand and blessing visitors with the other.Bronze statue of St. Peter holding keys with one hand and blessing visitors with the other.
Dome over canopy and barrel vaults radiating left and right.The dome over the canopy and the barrel vaults radiating to the left and right.
This is the Baldacchino, 28 metres high, where the Pope says Mass at the high altar.This is the 28-meter high Baldacchino where the Pope says Mass at the high altar.

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.

Some masses are celebrated in the chapels at intervals.Some Masses are celebrated in the chapels at intervals.
Horse-drawn carriages await tourists in St. Peter's Square.Horse-drawn carriages await tourists in St. Peter’s Square.
You have to crane your neck very often to see and appreciate the beauty of the ceiling.You have to crane your neck very often to see and appreciate the beauty of the ceiling.

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.

One of the chapels.One of the chapels.
The dome near the roof of the Basilica.The dome near the roof of the Basilica.

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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