Eternal Ark of Worship

Author: June Hager


by June Hager

Any visitor arriving for the first time before St. Peter's immediately feels a sense of overwhelming power and grandeur. For this is Western Christendom's largest basilica and most important shrine. The immense proportions, wealth of artistic treasures, and timeless quality of the superb architecture aim to inspire awe and joy in all Christian believers. This majestic church, built over the tomb of the Apostle chosen by Christ to be the visible head of his Church, triumphantly proclaims the continuity and preeminence of the Pope and the papacy.

Even the British nineteenth-century poet, Lord Byron-who was not particularly known for his piety-was moved enough to write of St. Peter's (in ): "Majesty, Strength and Beauty all are aisled, in this eternal ark of worship undefiled."

The two-millennia tradition of the Catholic Church tells us that Peter, the first Apostle, came to Rome, capital of the Empire, to preach the Gospel, that under Nero he suffered martyrdom in the area known as the and that later the Emperor Constantine built over his tomb the first church in his honor, demolished in the sixteenth century to give rise to the present basilica.


What would be the reaction of Simon, the simple fisherman from Galilee, were he to stand under the vast dome and classical portico of the basilica built in his name, dwarfed by a statue of himself more than twice his lifetime size?

The New Testament tells us that Simon was a native of a small village (Bethsaida) on the Sea of Galilee, earning his living by fishing with his brother Andrew. From the Gospels, we can sense his amazement and reverence, as Jesus summoned him along with Andrew, James and John - from his humble boat on the Judaean shore, to follow Him in His spiritual mission. His warm-hearted and impetuous nature prompted Peter to disagree with the necessity of his beloved Master's rejection and death. In fact, it is Peter's very human qualities, his alternating weakness (denial of Jesus during the Passion) and spiritual strength (recognition of Christ as the Messiah, Son of the living God) which endear him to us, and make him the ideal leader of the visible Church.

Upon Peter, Christ himself bestowed the Aramaic title of , Peter in Greek, meaning "rock," with the words: "And on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." According to St. John, Peter received from the Lord three times the pastoral charge to be the shepherd of his sheep.

It was in fulfillment of this mission that Peter came to Rome. Reliable historical sources relate that he was martyred during Nero's persecutions after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD in Nero's Circus in the Vatican. (Declaring himself unworthy of suffering Christ's same martyrdom, the apostle was crucified upside down.) He was apparently buried by pious Christians in an area-already used as a pagan and Christian necropolis- just beyond the arena.

According to tradition, Peter had a simple earthen grave. The site was the object of special care and veneration from the beginning, and around the saint's tomb an extensive Christian burial ground sprang up in the second and third centuries. It seems that a small funerary monument-consisting of walls, niches, small columns and a red wall covered with pious graffiti-was built around Peter's grave in the second century. The "trophy," or "glorious tomb," was described around the year 200 by a Christian presbyter called Gaius, in reply to a heretic's refutation of early Church teaching. Furthermore, St. Jerome wrote that the saint's relics were "transferred" to the catacombs outside Rome in the early fourth century, for safekeeping during a period of persecutions, and returned in 336, when Constantine restored peace to the city.

Excavations carried out beneath St. Peter's Basilica between 1939-1951 uncovered first a pagan, then Christian graveyard, and finally a semi-circle of graves surrounding a central cavity-directly below the present altar. The central grave was covered with coins and other votives from the first and second centuries, and the wall above was engraved with graffiti-surnames and funeral invocations to Christ. In the grave, human bones, encrusted with Roman dirt and possibly from the early years AD, suggested a male of 60-70 years, broad shouldered and short of stature. No great leap of faith was needed to convince the diggers-or those of us who visit the (excavations) today-that this was the burial place of Peter of Galilee, the Prince of Apostles.

A continuous historical tradition thus establishes the link between St. Peter and his successors, the Roman Popes, who carry out their divinely mandated service above the very burial place of the First Apostle. And any visitor who glimpses the red wall and remains of "Gaius' trophy" behind a grating below the main altar, or descends to the evocative underground , will be profoundly touched by the spiritual memories of this site.


Continuity. On the eve of the third millennium, we are struck by the Basilica's unbroken link with its spiritual past.

In 312 Constantine became Roman Emperor, legalized Christianity, and decided to build a great church on St. Peter's burial site. First, a marble, porphyry and bronze "memorial" was constructed around the saint's grave. Next? Constantine's workers filled in a large area of the Vatican necropolis. Finally, around 320-329 the Constantinian basilica was raised, with its great nave and four aisles. "The basilica was a source of inspiration to pilgrims for its sacred character and its wealth of decoration, with its pavement of colored marble slabs, stained glass windows, hanging lamps of gold and silver, bas-reliefs and statues, oriental draperies and Flemish tapestries" (, "Introduction to St. Peter's"). Some of these decorations and monuments can still be seen in the Vatican grottoes, one level below the present church.

In the following centuries, three new altars were built over Constantine's memorial to St. Peter: by Gregory the Great (590-604), Calixtus II (1119-1124), and Clement VIII (1592-1605). In the Middle Ages, pilgrims flocked to the basilica, sometimes seeking indulgences by climbing the front 35 stairs on their knees. The Pope crowned kings and emperors before St. Peter's altar, notably Charlemagne on Christmas Eve in the year 800. The church was sacked by Goths, Vandals and Saracens, and finally declared unfit, due to serious decay and disintegration, and torn down in the early sixteenth century.

The new St. Peter's, without skipping a beat, continued to be a protagonist in every era of Church history -and a showpiece for the artistic genius of each age. It was the great Renaissance Pope Julius II who laid the first stone in 1506. "His" church, conceived by the father of Renaissance architecture, Bramante, was continued by-among other artists- the age's premier painter, Raphael. The original Greek cross design (with nave and transept of equal length) was later modified, but the classical harmony and humanist symmetry, so admired in the Renaissance, are prevalent even today.

By the time the 72-year old Michelangelo had taken over construction of St. Peter's under Paul III in 1546, Luther had launched the Reform Movement in 1519, and in 1527 the Emperor's Protestant soldiers had sacked Rome. Returning to the plan of a Latin Cross, with the longer nave riveting attention on the altar and the presiding Pope, and insisting on the concept of the dominant dome, the church of St. Peter joined the battle ranks of the Counter Reformation.

With Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who lavishly decorated St. Peter's inside and out under the seventeenth-century Barberini, Chigi and Pamphili papacies, we find the Baroque in full swing. Bernini and his contemporaries did not hesitate to appeal to all the senses in order to attract followers from the somber and narrow paths of Protestantism.

A mournful tomb and monument to the "last of the Stuarts" attests to the sad exile and end of this family of eighteenth-century Pretenders to the British throne. Lifelike portraits and funerary memorials to twentieth-century pontiffs such as Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII, remind of us the important role played by the Popes in our own era.


We reach St. Peter's by Mussolini's broad thoroughfare, Via della Conciliazione. The avenue, named after the "conciliation" between Church and State achieved in 1929, is anything but conciliatory in its coldly pompous sweep.

To build this, tore down much of the Vatican's picturesque , that is the "village" of shops, inns and cottages which had grown up around the Vatican since the Middle Ages.

The off-putting effect of this first approach is soon overcome by the welcoming "embrace" of Bernini's graceful curved colonnade. Two arms of classical columns (four rows on each side) enclose the spacious piazza. In one of Bernini's architectural sketches, he portrayed God the Father rising from the basilica dome, with his arms extended along the parapet (where now perch 140 statues of gesticulating saints and martyrs) of both branches of the colonnade. Bernini's clear intent is realized almost every Sunday, when the Pope addresses from his window in the Apostolic Palace the crowds of faithful in the square below.

The centerpiece of the piazza, a lofty obelisk first raised in Heliopolis by the Egyptian Pharaohs, was later dragged to Rome by the imperial legions, and set in the middle of Nero's Circus. Constantine topped it with a relic from the True Cross brought from the Holy Land by his mother, St. Helena. Finally, as part of a great urban renewal scheme, Sixtus V moved it to the square in 1586. Before this obelisk, we are again overwhelmed by that sense of historical and spiritual continuity. As the Vatican guidebook notes: "The very obelisk which looks down on us today, witnessed the martyrdom of St. Peter, and in all probability, the exodus of Moses and the Jews, as they fled Pharaohs Egypt."

The basilica's massive classical facade is a monumental example of human vanity. Although many Popes patronized St. Peter's construction and decoration, it was the Counter Reformation Pope, Paul V Borghese (1605-28), who emblazoned his name in huge letters across the entrance architrave.


Upon entering St. Peter's, we are first struck by the "classical" harmony of the colors, proportions and light, just as the original Renaissance architects intended us to be. The immense structure is yet pure and simple in design. The colors are few-marbled whites, and gleaming gold and bronze. A central light source spreads an even luminosity over the vast interior. Between the nave's Corinthian columns, or under Michelangelo's dome, we sense the influence of imperial Roman monuments, such as the Pantheon, or the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine.

Yet, because of the splendor of Bernini's decorations, St. Peter's is known as a Baroque church. And perhaps no other monuments of the period can match the lavish exuberance of Bernini's bronze (taken from the Pantheon) Baldacchino, towering over the altar and St. Peter's grave, and of the Papal Throne, upheld by huge saints and angels beneath a great golden sunburst. Bernini and his contemporaries were products of the Counter Reformation spirit. They used all their theatrical talents to impart Catholic doctrine-and all their sensual gifts to stir impassioned devotion.

Volumes have been written on the art and architectural treasures of St. Peter's. Here, just a few comments. Michelangelo's most beautiful statue, the Pieta (now behind glass to the right of the entrance), was carved when the artist was only 24 years old, and is the only sculpture he ever signed.

Tradition has it that the Barberini Pope Urban VIII commissioned Bernini's Baldacchino as a thanksgiving offering for the safe childbirth of his favorite niece. Close inspection of the plaques on the canopy columns show the face of a women in various stages of labor, and finally, a tiny baby's head.

Perhaps the Basilica's most moving monument is the bronze statue of St. Peter. in the nave near the main altar. Although created by Arnolfo di Cambio in the thirteenth century, the work breathes the spirit of an even earlier age. Peter, seated upon a simple throne, is solemnly imparting his blessing, and his right foot has been worn smooth by the kisses of pilgrims down through the centuries. There is something so appealing and so humble about this figure, that we immediately conjure the image of Galilean fisherman buried below, in whose honor this magnificent temple has been built and enriched throughout two millennia of Church history.

This article was taken from the December 1994 issue of "Inside the Vatican."

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