St. Peter's seen from the Villa Borghese in Rome.
I've had a very un-Methodist fascination with St. Peter's in Rome since I was a small child. I've always loved that huge beast of a building. I visited it only once on a cloudy summer day in Rome over 20 years ago. I visited with a friend who was a former Quaker. We went all the way to the top of Michelangelo's dome and all the way down to the Grotto and the Confessio. We strolled from the narthex to the Cathedra Petri. We saw Michelangelo's Pieta, Arnolfo di Cambio's St. Peter complete with the worn feet, and the vast Baldachino. We were left speechless. The place is prodigious.
My inner child was not disappointed.
I sometimes watch the midnight Christmas Mass from St. Peter's, not to see some old pope celebrate Mass, or to listen to the Sistine Choir struggle through Palestrina, but to see the building, and to see it being used. My one visit has in no way diminished by fascination with the place.
Those old video tapes of Pope John XXIII's 1958 coronation bring it all back.
So, I think I will do a few posts on this largest of all churches and one of the largest religious structures ever built.
Let's begin with the basic information.
This is the most important church in Roman Catholicism, and arguably the most important historically in the West. The site of the church has attracted pilgrims since at least the 2nd century. A church in one form or another has stood here since the 4th century.
Tradition says that Peter, one of the original Twelve Apostles and the most vocal in the Gospel accounts, rests under the high altar of the church. I won't go into the revisionist historical studies that question whether or not Peter was ever in Rome, nor the inconclusive excavations in the mid 20th century that revealed a chaos of human and animal bones beneath the Confessio (it seems to me to indicate the disturbed remains of a crowded ancient cemetery for the poor).
For many centuries, this was the most important pilgrimage destination in Europe, and people came to see Peter.
The present day church was the biggest construction project ever in the city of Rome (no small matter in a city that already has the Colosseum and the Pantheon), and one of the largest in history; up there with such prodigies as the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Great Wall of China.
Construction began in 1506 and was completed in 1667 with the construction of the Piazza San Pietro and its colonnades. Almost every major Italian architect of the Renaissance and the Baroque eras had a hand in it. Twenty-two popes oversaw its construction. Structural concrete, first invented by the Romans, was reinvented after a thousand years for this project. The ongoing expense of this project was so great that the schemes to raise revenues for it helped to spark the Protestant Reformation.
From the narthex to the apse, the interior of the church is over 1/8 of a mile long. It can hold over 60,000 people. The dome from pavement to cross is 452 feet high, still unchallenged as the tallest dome in the world. The dome of the Pantheon remains a little wider. The design of the dome has always been enthusiastically admired, and frequently copied or adapted in buildings built from the 17th century into the late 20th century. The bronze Baldachino, at 98 feet high, is the largest work of bronze casting in history.
The popes, cardinals, and bishops who initiated and oversaw the construction were a largely unattractive collection of Renaissance and Baroque clerics. The real heroes of this project are the architects and artists who produced it, and the thousands upon thousands of craftsmen who toiled to build it for over 160 years. The elderly Michelangelo seized this project (literally) and made it his last and greatest work. Bernini would spend most of his life working on this building, surviving decades of intrigues by jealous artists and fickle prelates. The scheming architect Bramante first put the idea of rebuilding the church into the mind of the megalomaniac Pope Julius II, and came up with a bold and revolutionary design that would shape all the later designs and construction. Untold numbers of masons, stonecutters, sculptors, carpenters, cabinet-makers, glass makers, metal-smiths, bronze casters, mosaic makers, etc., etc. etc. worked on this building for generations. In the end, they built a prodigy that continues to delight legions of people, and we hope, glorifies God.