I am not, and never have been, Roman Catholic. And yet, I have always loved St. Peter’s since the days I first laid eyes on it in the pages of Time/Life Books when I was a small boy. My one and only visit there in 1988 only deepened the ardor of that love. I am struck by the fact that so few of my overwhelmingly Catholic students have ever heard of Saint Peter’s. I’m not sure what that means, if anything. My Methodist relatives frown on the size and extravagance of St. Peter’s, a prodigious work of vain-glory that brought on the Reformation. Asking if all that money could have been better spent is a fair question. It was asked at the time.
And yet, the construction of Saint Peter’s employed a lot of people for generations. Has any Papal encyclical or Reformer’s screed made as many people so happy as the work of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini on Saint Peter’s? “What a feast day you have made for the people! You have brought so much joy and here you are crying!” says the monk Andrei to the despondent young bell maker after he rings his newly made great bell for the first time at the conclusion of Tarkovsky’s movie Andrei Rublev.
It is hard to look at Saint Peter’s without mixed feelings. It is an imperial monument to the Papacy. Most of the inscriptions, including the one on the façade, are not Scriptural passages. They announce which Pope was responsible for the completion of each part of the great building to all of history. They all include the title “Pontifex Maximus” which began, not with Peter, but with the Emperor Augustus. Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque popes claimed to be heirs to the Roman Empire and keepers of Roman culture. It is hard to remember sometimes that where Saint Peter’s now stands began as a poor man’s cemetery on the city’s outer margins. If Saint Peter’s bones rest beneath the church, they do so in a pauper’s grave.
There was never anything quite like Saint Peter’s before, and there likely will never be anything like it again. The only thing remotely comparable that comes to my mind is the great temple of Ammon at Karnak in ancient Egypt. So far as I know, the Karnak Temple was the largest religious monument ever built. Like Saint Peter’s, it was built over many centuries in a series of stages. Unlike Saint Peter’s, the “mansion of the god” was mostly inaccessible to the public. Over half of the temple was exclusive to the Pharaoh and the Temple’s priests.
Of the great religious monuments of the world, Saint Peter’s is one of the most open and accessible. There is no restriction to believers or to “members in good standing.” There is no segregation by gender or any other status. The church’s most sacred places, the high altar and the Confessio beneath, may not be approachable to visitors, but they are entirely visible to them. Only the Pope may celebrate Mass at the high altar, but anyone can look at it. Visitors are welcome to come in and pray, or to gawk.
What was once an exclusive privilege of the noble and the wealthy is now possible for multitudes from around the world in an age of mass travel and reproduction. The great works of Michelangelo and Bernini that once delighted Very Important Guests now belong to millions around the world. I traveled there over 20 years ago as a poor graduate student in order to gawk. One of my best papers this year came from a young Nigerian Catholic who plans eventually to go to Rome to see Saint Peter’s. He probably will, and before I do so again. The Vatican may be notoriously secretive, but Saint Peter’s remains wide open even in the age of the suicide bomber.
And what do people really come to see? The religious come for the same reason that they have always come to St. Peter’s, to see Peter. They stay with the rest to marvel, not at the philanthropy or taste of certain past popes, but at the genius and skill of the people who built the place. The marvel of the place is not simply that it is so big, but that it is so excellent. It is hard to imagine a more exhilarating dome in all the world than the one Michelangelo designed and built for Saint Peter’s. I seriously doubt there was ever one that fine before it (not even the Pantheon), and there will never be its like again. The great bronze and marble prodigies that Bernini built have lost none of their power to thrill spectators after all these centuries, even in an age of special effects entertainment.
And then there is this caution from the Gospel of St. Luke:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
Great monuments, like their builders, are mortal. I’m sure that, in the eyes of God and the Saints, St. Peter’s is but a trifling thing. Only God is eternal. And yet I hope I never see the end of St. Peter's. We mortals want our buildings to be at least a little less mortal than we are. We are delighted to inherit great things from the past and to hand them on to our children. The durability of our monuments consoles us in the ever changing and perishable world of ten thousand things. Our monuments mark our path through time, and the paths of all those who came before and will come after. They challenge us to add to their number; “Future generations shall wonder at us…” They assure us that our ends are not the end of the story.
Now large magnificent and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will,
And to the growing and the weak
Your final transformations speak,
Saying to dreaming “I am deed.”
To striving “Courage. I succeed”
To mourning “I remain, Forgive.”
And to becoming “I am. Live.”
--W.H. Auden from “New Year Letter” 1939
A Note on Sources, and for Further Reading
-The most complete history of Saint Peter's in English for a wide audience that I'm aware of is probably long out of print. It is Saint Peter's: The Story of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, by James Lees-Milne from 1967. It is very much an official history complete with an Official Primatur from the Vicar General of Westminster. With that in mind, it is a very detailed, entertaining, and useful history of the building. At this point in time, some of the information has become a little dated by recent discoveries and revisions in scholarship.
-A good source for the history of ancient and medieval Saint Peter's is James Snyder's Medieval Art. It is a survey book, but one that spends a lot of time on the art and architecture of Early Christian Rome, and on Saint Peter's in particular.
-For the decision to rebuild the church and the development of Renaissance St. Peter's there's The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance by Peter Murray.
-The best account of Michelangelo's contribution to Saint Peter's is James Ackerman's The Architecture of Michelangelo, already mentioned twice in these postings.
-Another fine account is in Howard Hibbard's Michelangelo.
-The classic account of Bernini's work on Saint Peter's is Rudolph Wittkower's Bernini.
-Wittkower's Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 put's Bernini's work into its larger context.
-Howard Hibbard's Bernini is also a very good source for Baroque Saint Peter's with lots of anecdotes from Bernini's operatic life story.
-My old professor, William Wallace, has a whole new book out on Michelangelo; The Artist, The Man, and His Times. A lot of my account of Michelangelo's role in the building of Saint Peter's is based on memories of Dr. Wallace's lectures.