Europe Visita Iglesia #7: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy

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St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy

It’s not surprising that when the Vatican is mentioned, only one thing comes to mind, and that is St. Peter’s Basilica. The largest church in Christendom in terms of size, its 15,000 sqm. of interior space can accommodate 60,000 visitors (no kidding!), and its huge soaring dome at 136 meters high towers over the skyline. Just for the sake of comparison, the whole Statue of Liberty, including its base and 2 or three jumbo jets, can easily fit inside.

You can appreciate the scale of the Basilica to the size of the crowd standing in front of it.
You can appreciate the scale of the Basilica to the size of the crowd standing in front of it.
The middle corridor is fenced off and you move around the church in a counterclockwise direction.
The middle corridor is fenced off, and you move around the church in a counterclockwise direction.
The view of Piazza San Pietro with the famous Bernini columns on the right and chairs being laid out for a special Mass.
Piazza San Pietro’s view with the famous Bernini columns on the right and chairs being laid out for a special Mass.
These cherubs sculpted in solid marble sure are large!
These cherubs sculpted in solid marble sure are large!

Construction of this massive church with a plan based on a Greek Cross started in 1506 and was completed over a hundred years later in 1615. The architects and designers in this undertaking represented the creme de la creme of talent during the Renaissance period: Bramante, Raphael, Giocondo, da Sangallo, Maderno, Bernini, Michelangelo, who designed the massive dome that is the crowning glory of the edifice.

The empty square at midnight.
The empty square at midnight.
Detail of the golden arches.
Detail of the golden arches.
You get quite a big crowd inside any time of the day.
You get quite a big crowd inside any time of the day.
One of the chapels cordoned off from visitors.
One of the chapels cordoned off from visitors.

As you enter the tall portals, your head will automatically tilt upwards. It will remain that way all throughout since you can’t help but focus your eyes on the arches and ceiling that contain jaw-dropping artwork, either they be paintings or sculptures! And when you look down, you will likewise be amazed by the intricate marble patterns on the floor. There isn’t a single space inside where your eyes can take a rest from too much beauty to marvel at.

Ceiling detail above the main altar.
Ceiling detail above the main altar.
A Swiss Guard standing by one of the entrances. Michelangelo designed their uniforms.
A Swiss Guard standing by one of the entrances. Michelangelo designed their uniforms.
The apse in all its Baroque glory.
The apse in all its Baroque glory.
The funeral monument of Pope Alexander VII by Bernini. Note the skeleton underneath the fabrics holding an hourglass telling you that your time has come.
The funeral monument of Pope Alexander VII by Bernini. Note the skeleton underneath the fabrics holding an hourglass telling you that your time has come.

The piece de resistance is Michelangelo’s masterpiece – the Pieta is on the right side just after you enter and is always crowded that you have to jostle your way through to get to the front. For a minute, as you gawk intently at it, you don’t feel that it’s all made of marble because the folds of the fabrics, the Virgin’s sorrowful expression, and Christ’s splayed limbs all look too real that you expect them to move at any second.

The inside of the dome with gold tiles and riveting artwork. There is a Latin saying that means "You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church". Each letter is almost 3 meters tall!
The inside of the dome with gold tiles and riveting artwork. A Latin is saying that means, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Each letter is almost 3 meters tall!
The Pieta masterpiece.
The Pieta masterpiece.
Pope John Paul II's tomb.
Pope John Paul II’s tomb.
You get an awesome view of the piazza as well as that of Rome from the top of the dome which you can climb via a winding, narrow staircase.
You get an awesome view of the piazza and that of Rome from the top of the dome, which you can climb via a winding, narrow staircase.

There are several chapels on the sides of the long aisle, one of them for Pope John Paul II, who’s now a saint. His tomb is also there, and many people pray in front of it, attesting to his most recent popularity. There is also a long queue 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 – he’s St. Peter. It is customary for pilgrims visiting the church to touch or kiss Saint Peter’s feet, particularly the right one, and ask for a blessing so much that it looks flat now after millions upon millions of kisses by the faithful!

This is the interior vestibule once you enter the large doors.
This is the interior vestibule once you enter the large doors.
Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys with one hand and blessing the visitors with the other hand.
Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys with one hand and blessing the visitors with the other hand.
The dome above the canopy and the barrel vaults radiating left and right.
The dome above the canopy and the barrel vaults radiating left and right.
This is the 28-meter high Baldacchino where the pope says mass at the main altar.
This is the 28-meter high Baldacchino where the pope says mass at the main altar.

Once you reach the end of the nave, there before you is a huge canopy in swirling Baroque style held up by huge spiraling columns directly beneath the dome. This is the Baldacchino (pavilion), which is the church’s focal point where only the pope can say Mass and is meant to highlight the main altar. St. Peter’s tomb is located beneath it, and there’s a staircase leading down.

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

The apse at the rear of the church is another Baroque creation with gilded cherubs and angels and sculpted clouds and rays of light emanating from a pane of the stained glass window. There is a huge bronze chair in front symbolizing St. Peter’s throne, and the entire setting 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 in the three times I’ve been there; I couldn’t concentrate because my mind was terribly busy digesting the whole panoply of design right in front of me.

One of the chapels.
One of the chapels.
The dome up close to the Basilica's roof.
The dome up close to the Basilica’s roof.
Been there, done that shot.
Been there, done that shot.

With its exceptional height and beautiful design, the Basilica dome unmistakably marks the skyline of Rome. But even from the inside, it’s a great beauty due to its shiny golden mosaics and illustrations of many holy figures. I decided to climb the 551 steps to the top of the dome, where you end up on 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 well worth it because you get an unparalleled view of St. Peter’s Square below as well as a spectacular panorama of the Eternal City.

Europe Visita Iglesia Series

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About the Author

Al P. Manlangit is a Filipino architect based in Kuwait who loves to travel and take photos everytime he gets the chance to do so. The genres that he explores are landscape, architecture, and street photography which come in handy wherever he goes. He blogs at designerq8.com, focusing on interesting places he visited with short stories to tell behind each frame.





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