Cathedrals: St Peter’s Basilica

I just finished an excellent book called A Pilgrimage to Eternity, a memoir about one pilgrim’s walk along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury Cathedral in England to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The book is just my kind of thing, a mix of history, theology, travel writing, and personal memoir, all by a fellow Cascadian to boot.

In the spirit of the pilgrimage, then, let’s take a trip to Rome and go on a tour of St. Peter’s.

The church is named after the St. Peter, the disciple and apostle, whom we consider to be the first pope. But it’s not just the name that bears significance; the chosen location is also important, because it’s the traditional site of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in 67 AD.

The Vatican is situated on the outskirts of ancient Rome, outside the walls, in what began as a mosquito- and malaria-ridden marsh. None other than Caligula built a circus stadium here. It was in this circus that Nero martyred many Christians after the Great Fire in 65 AD.

Our best evidence has it that St Peter and St Paul were both martyred here by Nero in 67. St Peter, famously, was crucified upside-down, considering himself unworthy to die in the same way Jesus did. His body was buried alongside other undesirables in the nearby graveyard. St. Peter’s Basilica is built exactly here, on the traditional site of St. Peter’s tomb.

Here’s a sketch showing the possible outlines of Nero’s Circus overlaid onto a map of Old St Peter’s (black lines) and the current basilica (dotted lines):

Skeptical? Many are. But recent archaeological digs actually support the tradition!

In 1939, Pope Pius XII opened the ground beneath the crypt of the basilica to archaeologists. Amid the remains of several early popes they found a small shrine (pictures to come, keep reading!) which contained several bone fragments, wrapped in expensive purple cloth and decked out in gold. This would indicate someone of great importance, buried in a graveyard for convicts and rejects. Archaeologists who analyzed the bones think they belong to a man who was in his 60s, about the right age for St. Peter.

Good enough for me—and good enough for the Catholic Church, who proclaimed them to be authentic relics of our first pope.

At the top of the page you can see St Peter’s as it’s approached from the east, along the Via della Conciliazione. The basilica looms larger as you walk west, and then, all of a sudden, the space opens out onto St Peter’s Square. The piazza is, according to travel geeks, the best public square in all of Europe.

A view from above, atop the basilica:

A panorama from ground level, looking toward the basilica:

In both images you can see a large obelisk at the center of the square. I had always wondered what this was when I’d seen pictures. As it turns out, the Roman Emperor Caligula had the obelisk shipped to Rome all the way from Egypt (where it had stood since the orders of an unknown pharaoh). It’s called “The Witness” because Caligula had it erected in the Circus of Nero, which makes it quite likely that it “witnessed” St Peter’s crucifixion in the year 67! The obelisk was moved here after the current basilica was constructed in the 16th century.

By the way: the construction of the basilica took place in the same century as the Protestant Reformation, and that’s no coincidence. The two are historically linked! The building was expensive to build, and much of the funds came through the sale of indulgences: basically, the deal was, you give a little money to help build St. Peter’s, and that buys you or your loved one a ticket out of purgatory and into heaven. The practice was the cause of enormous scandal, and it was against the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther directed his famous 95 theses in 1517.

So as grand as St. Peter’s is, it’s hard not to remember that it was financed by simony. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to just renovate the old building, rather than lose half of Europe to scandal and revolt.

Here’s a closer view of the building’s facade and front entrance. At the top, in the middle, is Christ carrying his Cross, and around him are eleven apostles. But St. Peter is missing: you can find him to the left of the stairs in the bottom left-hand corner. St. Paul (also martyred in Rome) is opposite him on the right:

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A couple years ago I heard a priest describe St. Peter’s as the architectural equivalent of a flexed bicep, and that’s certainly true from this angle. The basilica is a testament to the power and primacy (and, certainly at that time especially, the ego) of the papacy. The inscription in the center reads:

In Honor of the Prince of the Apostles, Paul the Fifth Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the Year 1612, the 7th of His Pontificate

Like I said, ego.

Let’s take a look inside. Here’s a photo of the nave, the central part of the church where the congregation usually gathers:

By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5,

The nave guides you forward to the central dome, designed by Michelangelo himself:

Encircling the dome are Christ’s famous words to St Peter: “You are Peter (Latin petrus), and on this Rock (petram) I will build my Church . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The keys of the kingdom are symbols of authority. Peter (and by extension, the each pope) is like the man in the parable who is left in charge while the master goes out on a journey. His job is to take care of the master’s territory until the master’s return.

That’s also why the papal insignia features two crossed keys (one for loosing, one for binding):

The keys of the kingdom also show up in a bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s (I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but am I the only one seeing this?):

Maybe this is just my imagination, but doesn’t that kind of look like an old-fashioned key, pointing upward? The round piazza is where the user would hold the key, and it’s also where the building “holds” its visitors upon entry. And the basilica itself is the locking mechanism that opens the doors of the kingdom, of God’s mercy.

Sorry for that brief diversion—let’s head back inside and look underneath Michelangelo’s dome. The central altar is placed underneath a solid bronze baldacchino, which sets apart the altar as a canopied, boundaried, holy space. I like the twisted columns, which are modeled after those of the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The whole thing is nearly 100 feet tall and it’s thought to be the biggest chunk of bronze on the planet (for scale, you can see the altar at the bottom of the picture):

This is the absolute center of the basilica, the axis around which everything else was planned and constructed.

Now I’d like to head to the very back of the church, to the Chair of St. Peter. The chair (Latin cathedra, where we get the word cathedral) is a symbol of the pope’s authority to teach. It’s odd: I think we usually think of someone standing to teach, like a professor or preacher, but I noticed in reading the Gospels that Jesus typically sits down in order to teach—probably cross-legged on the floor, but perhaps using a chair. When I used to teach and preach as part of my job at a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle, I started sitting to do so. For some reason I found that I was much more effective this way. I felt more grounded, and being closer to the earth also put me closer to eye-level with the people who had gathered for chapel every evening. Maybe there’s something to it.

As with many (but not all!) relics, the authenticity of this one is debatable, but we do quite possibly have the chair of St. Peter. Most scholars date parts of the relic to the 6th century at the earliest; on the other hand, the Catholic Encyclopedia sees no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The chair is, of course, elaborately enshrined. This was done by the Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a contemporary of Michelangelo who also built the baldacchino we just saw over the altar. Check it out:

The chair itself is hidden inside Bernini’s reliquary. Here’s a photo, from the last time it was taken out:

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives more description:

[T]he oldest portion . . . is a perfectly plain oaken arm-chair with four legs connected by cross-bars. The wood is much worm-eaten, and pieces have been cut from various spots at different times, evidently for relics. To the right and left of the seat four strong iron rings, intended for carrying-poles, are set into the legs.

The original chair was elaborated and decorated over the centuries until Bernini finally placed it inside his sculpture, where it remains to this day.

A note about the rings for carrying poles: before the dawn of the “popemobile”, the tradition was to carry the pope during formal processions in a chair not unlike St. Peter’s original. It looked like this:

Pope John Paul II discontinued the practice, part of an ongoing emphasis, beginning with Vatican II, of showing a more humble papacy. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pope Francis being carried around like this. He can’t even be convinced to wear fancy shoes (and good for him!).

Having seen the nave, the altar, the dome, and the chair, we’ll take one look at the tomb of St. Peter, in the crypt of the church, directly beneath the dome and the altar:

It’s quite likely—as we discussed above—that this is the burial site of St. Peter.

Clearly, there’s a lot to see at the Vatican! Finally, we will head up and outside for some fresh air, to get a good look at the church at night:

Come to think of it, this post has been a pretty good introduction to the papacy, from its humble origins in the fisherman from Galilee and his plain wooden chair, to the ancient veneration of his tomb in the early years of the Church, through all the prestige and hubris of the papacy in the medieval era, and finally to this man, the Successor of Peter, still wearing his orthotics as he trudges around the Vatican: