St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter was the first pope and crucified near where the Basilica now stands. The first basilica was built in the 4th century. By the beginning of the 16th century (circa 1506 - 1667), the old basilica was so dilapidated that it was completely torn down and replaced.

There are five entrances to the basilica - the one on the extreme right is the Holy Door and is only opened at the beginning of a Holy Year, which only happens every 25 years.

The main nave is the main corridor with all the niches along the sides. It is almost 700 feet long and 150 feet high. Along the floor are carved the names of other large churches with the relative lengths of their nave - all are small by comparison. On the walls of the main nave (over70 feet up) are gigantic sculptures of the founders of the monastic orders.

Just inside the front door is Michelangelo's statue named "Pieta" (Christ dying on Mary's lap). Michelangelo is said to have returned to the statue after it was completed to carve his name on it because he had heard rumors that people were attributing it to other artists (this is his only signed sculpture). At the front doors, on either side of the church are sets of cherubs that support the bowls of holy water. The cherubs are taller than most visitors to the church.

The transept is the left to right corridor (intersecting the nave at right angles) forming the basic shape of a cross. The transept at St. Peter's is about 450 feet across. In the center over the Tomb of St. Peter is a giant bronze "canopy" designed by Bernini. This pontifical altar with its twisted columns stands approximately 95 feet high. Bronze ornaments were stripped from the Pantheon in order to build it.

The Apse is the domed area at the head of the basilica usually behind the choir or may contain it. Niches were built here to help support the dome. They contain four statues of the saints and their relics: the head of St. Andrew, the handkerchief of St. Veronica, a piece of the Cross brought by St. Helena and the lance of St. Longinus which pierced Christ's side at the Crucifixion.

The Dome is actually a doubled dome built to keep the harmony of proportions both inside and outside the basilica. The space between the two is the area used for the stairs to the middle, inside section of the dome and the outside platform. The dome itself stands approximately 400 feet high and is 138 feet in diameter (slightly smaller than the dome of the Pantheon at 142 feet which is the largest vault ever constructed in masonry).

After taking an elevator to the main ring of the inside of the dome, one may also walk the 320 steps up to the exterior ledge around the outer dome of Saint Peter's Basilica. The view of Rome is spectacular!

Below the basilica are catacombs in which various popes lay entombed.