We return today, on this Passion Sunday, to Saint Peter’s Basilica. The last time we were here we concentrated on the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, Constantine’s Basilica. This time we’ll look at some treasures of the new church.
This church was built to replace the old basilica which was falling into ruin. Construction began in 1506 and in just 120 years, the new church was complete. This new basilica was actually built around the old one. As the new basilica was being built, the old was being dismantled.
Books can be, and have been, written about this massive basilica. As this is Lent, I will concentrate on just a few points of interest that pertain to the season and the look ahead to the Passion.
First, I must point out the size. Saint Peter’s Basilica is big. Really big. However, the church was designed to feel smaller and much more intimate than it actually is. For example, two rows of statues line the nave. Those on the bottom row are 15 feet tall, those on the top are 21 feet tall. But they appear to be the same size. Bernini’s baldacchino over the high altar is seven stories tall. This makes the dome, which rises 150 yards, seem much smaller.
More numbers. The distance from the entrance to the back wall is over 200 yards. The church has 44 altars, 11 domes, 778 columns, 395 statues and 135 mosaics. On the outside, the façade is 50 by 120 yards, that’s the size of a football field, including both end zones.
This basilica, of course, is built over the tomb of Saint Peter. His tomb is located directly beneath the main dome, Michelangelo’s dome, about 23 feet below the marble floor.
The Four Relics
Surrounding the main altar on the four columns that support the dome are four niches containing statues of saints. Above each statue is a relic chapel built to contain a relic attributed to that saint. Saint Veronica is below the chapel of Veronica’s veil. Saint Helena is below the chapel of the True Cross, which she brought back from Jerusalem. Saint Longinus is below the chapel of the lance which pierced Jesus’ side at the crucifixion. Saint Andrew the Apostle is below the chapel of his skull. His skull has since been given to the Greek Church at Patras. The other three relics are now kept in the chapel above Veronica. All are on display during Holy Week.
Michelangelo was just 24 years old when he finished one of his greatest works, the Pietà. This is one of the most recognizable sculptures in all the world. It features Mary cradling her son after the crucifixion. Christ’s lifeless body hangs heavily across his Mother’s lap. She tilts her head down looking sadly at her son, yet she almost has a look of peaceful acceptance. Hardly noticeable is the fact that Mary, the mother of a 33 year old man, looks very young. Michelangelo said he did this deliberately because the effects of time could not mar the virginal features of this, the most blessed of women.
Gregory the Great
We cannot forget Pope Saint Gregory the Great. It was he who, in A.D. 590, arranged the order of churches to visit and rituals to follow throughout the season of Lent. His tomb is here. The mosaic above his altar depicts the saint holding up a cloth stained with the blood of martyrs. He is telling the Christians to remain faithful. Remember, the martyrs were very important to Saint Gregory. The practice of visiting these station churches throughout Lent was not only to strengthen a sense of community, but to honor the holy martyrs of Rome.