St. Peter’s Basilica. The very centre of religion for Roman Catholics around the world. Charles comes from a very Catholic family. So this was in a way a big, big deal. All the things he’d heard and read about over the years, would finally be before him. I, of course, couldn’t wait for my exclusive guided tour (this is one of the many topics about which Charles knows far more than necessary) into this religion that I still know very little about.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Guarded by funnily dressed Swiss guards, sitting at the very centre of Vatican City (that teeny tiny country that requires no separate visa), St. Peter’s Basilica and the square are on the site of what was once Nero’s circus. It’s ironic that this Roman chariot course, where among other things, Christians were once killed for entertainment, is now the centre of the religion they were persecuted for. Today, pilgrims flock here by the thousands (as was very evident on this morning in May) for sightings, blessings and more. St. Peter was revered as a Pope (the first one) long before Christianity was legalised by the Romans, and this, his final resting place was where the church was finally constructed, years after followers secretly held on to his relics. The opulent church we were looking at now though, had been built around the original one that had to be demolished and work was carried out bit by bit (to not disturb religious goings on).
Standing in the centre of St. Peter’s Square, at the Obelisk (Romans used to put these up everywhere as a symbol of their triumph) to our right were the Pope’s Chambers. We peeled our eyes for a sight, a curtain moving, anything. Nothing. Behind it, closer to the church was the Vatican Museum from where we had just emerged. The main dome of the church was designed by Michelangelo, but is now barely visible thanks to the extended nave. We looked up, at the famous balcony where so many times on TV I’d seen Popes come out and address the people. Did you know that the Pope is the “King” of this tiny country? We stepped up to the atrium, which alone could dwarf so many churches we’ve seen. We look in awe at the closed bronze door in the middle, Rome’s first piece of Renaissance art. Several doors to the right, sat another closed door. It’s opened only once every 25 years. There’s a seal on it and all.
I stepped in and it took me a while to get my bearings. There was this beautiful golden glow all over. I looked ahead, and I had to be reminded that the church covers 6 acres. It just didn’t look that big. It was only when I looked straight ahead, and compared pillars to people, did I really get a sense of the sheer size of this mammoth structure. Everything was vying for my attention. The now rare purple marble at my feet, the golden mosaic and shine all around, the marble statues, and beautiful lettering (7 feet tall apparently), just everything. These Baroque style interiors were a way of giving followers a glimpse of heaven (excellent enticement to get the wealthy but sinful citizens to finance this extremely expensive project).
Dome, Canopy & Altar
The main dome, has an inscription from the Bible, where Jesus instructs Peter to build the church here, for which he will grant him the keys to heaven. The theme continues around the church, with every word from Jesus to Peter inscribed all over. Right under the dome sits the bronze canopy. Several feet below, are rumoured to be the remains of St. Peter. The main altar is only used when the Pope himself conducts mass.
The dove window by Bernini is absolutely magical to see in person. It’s a bit of a theatrical element, very Baroque in style, the sunlight passing through the window takes on a magical golden shade, literally turning everything in sight into gold!
Statue of St. Peter
To the side of the nave, we saw loads of people lining up to take selfies touching a statue. We ventured closer. This was the bronze statue of Peter himself. Dressed in a toga like a Roman, holding those “keys to heaven” and blessing the selfie takers.
We made our way back towards the entrance doors, and tried to squeeze between the crowds to catch a glimpse of the masterpiece. There is sat, behind bulletproof glass, in marble splendour. Mary, holding Christ just removed from the cross, looks at him in absolute heartbroken despair. His limp, lifeless body dangling heavily from her grasp. I’d heard about Michelangelo spending some time studying corpses and how this was supposed to be a great example of his expertise. Definitely showed. Staring from behind the glass, trying to get a decent photo, we cursed the visitor who tried to hack away at the marble.
Silently, we stepped out of the building, awed by the greatest church in the world. Have you been to St. Peter’s Basilica? Share your experience with us! If not, what’s been your favourite European church so far?