Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
, surrounded by the city of Rome
, is a sight that delights the eye and captures wonder and beauty from every angle. With a dome that may have helped to inspire Saint Paul's Cathedral in London among others, Saint Peter's rises over Vatican City like a shining star.
The Saint Peter's Basilica, also known as the Basilica of Saint Peter, is the foremost place of worship of His Holiness, the Pope, who is the religious leader of the Catholic people. Public religious ceremonies officiated by the Pope are often performed within the Cathedral. This is primarily due to the size of the Cathedral, which can hold about 60,000 people, as well as the proximity of the Cathedral to the Papal Residence within Vatican City.
The Saint in question was Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome. Legend has it that Saint Peter himself is buried under the altar stone, although there are no biblical references to Peter having been in Rome or having been martyred there. Nonetheless, many of the popes that followed him have chosen to be buried in the Cathedral as well, laying themselves to rest near his holy bones.
To be more exact, there are 91 popes buried beneath the basilica, Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, being the most recent interment. The most famous woman entombed in the Cathedral is Christina of Sweden, who abdicated her throne to convert to the Catholic faith. Queen Christina is one of only four women who have been given the honor of being buried within the cathedral, and is buried near the English Royal Stuarts who also lost their thrones because of their Catholicism.
The construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter began on April 18, 1506, and it was not completed until over 100 years later in 1626. It was built up over the Constantinian basilica that was there before. The altar of the Cathedral supposedly holds a relic of the Cathedra Petri, the episcopal throne of Saint Peter himself from when he led the Roman church. The piece of cathedra (meaning "chair") is supposed to have been contained within the altarpiece designed by Bernini.
Michelangelo was one of the chief architects who worked on Saint Peter's Cathedral, among other famous and brilliant architects. Michelangelo's design called for a spherical dome, which was an improvement over his predecessor's design. After his death in 1564, however, another architect redesigned the dome and built it with the help of Domenico Fontana, the best engineer of the day. The dome is actually a double dome, and is made of brick. Visitors can climb the spiral stairs within the dome and look out over Vatican City. The inner diameter of the dome is 138.8 feet, which makes it almost as large as the Roman Pantheon. The dome rises 394 feet above the floor of the Cathedral. Visitors climbing the dome might notice four iron chains around the inner dome. These were placed there in the mid-18th century to stop cracks that were appearing in the inner dome. The chains are supposed to bind the dome like rings on a barrel.
Everything about the basilica seems larger than life including the grandiose interior of the Cathedral itself, Michelangelo's sculpture, Pietà, being only one of these. Statues look down on you from everywhere within the Cathedral representing various saints and Popes. There are several chapels and many altars in addition to the main altar. The Basilica of Saint Peter is an amazing place to see if you are in Rome, and a good reason to come to Rome if you are not.