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St Peter’s Basilica: highlights and impressions

by Silke Elzner

Visiting St Peter’s Basilica I realised once again that I have a crazy addiction to churches. I just love their harmony, their solemnity and their grace. I appreciate the fact that there are people who dedicate time and money to building something for a bigger purpose. One cannot help but admire their dedication and their strong will. And I am not even a Christian.

One of the most beautiful churches I was able to visit is St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all about size. Smaller chapels can have equal appeal to me. It’s also not about splendour and riches. I actually find the outside of St Peter’s Basilica rather boring.

But it’s about the symbolism, the composition of elements, and the atmosphere that you can grasp once inside that makes St Peter’s Basilica one of the most spectacular churches in the world.

The Biggest Church in the World

There is of course even more claim to fame here. St Peter’s Basilica is the biggest church in the world. You can check that by walking down the nave. Nave markers will show you where other church buildings will end. Cologne Cathedral, the first Milan Cathedral, Speyer Cathedral, they will all fit easily inside St Peter’s.

And it shows: In the height of the pillars, the oversized statues, the giant baldachin by Bernini in the centre. Visitors visiting St Peter’s Basilica are dwarfed within the light and airy confines of this building.

Length of other churches

Precious Artworks From Famous Artists

When visiting St Peter’s Basilica you get the chance of seeing some of the best European art. There are statues, dozens of them, standing tall in niches high above the stream of visitors. Saints and founders of orders, popes and virtues. All carved in white stone and simply stunning in their lifelike appearance.

No wonder that St Peter’s is known for a number of masterpieces by some of the best artists in the world. Most notably you will find here the Pietà by Michelangelo.

Not just an image sealed in stone but also an appealing, attractive composition of human forms and facial features. You cannot help but stop and study it in more detail. In 1972, a madman damaged the statue with an axe. This is why it is today placed behind safety glass.

Michelangelo's Pietà

We came to the basilica completely unprepared. This actually helped us in talking in the beauty of this building without any preconceptions and expectations. I just photographed whatever I found stunning, not what has been included in the accepted canon of artwork for St Peter’s Basilica.

This is why a photo like this one below came to end up in the blog. A picture of a beautiful young lady with a quill and a book in her hand. Check out the features of the little man next to her. He is so full of life you expect him to break out in a giggle in the very next second!

Statue with quill and book

Sacred Sites not Just for Pilgrims

Many visitors come to see the statue of St Peter Enthroned. A sacred site within the basilica. Pilgrims will queue up here to kiss or touch the foot of the statue. This is one of the most popular things to do in St Peter’s Basilica. So much so that the original foot had to be replaced as it had worn away by the pilgrims’ touches.

I am always fascinated by these superstitious rituals, having witnessed a similar procession at the Black Madonna in Montserrat, Spain.

Pilgrims touching the statue of St Peter

Another great attraction you can see while visiting St Peter’s Basilica is the tomb of the second last pope, John Paul II.

I find this particularly fascinating as John Paul II has been the pope of my childhood. It doesn’t mean that I must agree with his doctrine. But getting so close to a historic figure after all these years is quite astonishing.

Tomb of John Paul II

The Holy Doors of St Peter

And there’s an oddity to discover that I had never heard of: the Holy Door, or Porta Sancta. It’s a cunning marketing act by the church. The popes of the Middle Ages had decided to offer the pious public a set of sealed doors which would be opened only every 25 years or so.

This was the call for all pilgrims to travel to Rome to walk through the opened doors. It was supposed to be an act to symbolise the passing into the presence of God. What a pressure!

Fortunately, the current pope Pope Francis broke with this tradition. While he opened up the Holy Door in December 2015 at St Peter’s Basilica he also allowed the bishops around the world to dedicate their own sets of doors. The result is that pilgrims will now find Holy Doors all around the world. This probably saves them a lot of money as they are no longer required to travel to Rome.

Fun fact: Since the doors are basically transformed into a solid wall due to the use of concrete, workers first need to break down the seal before the Pope can start the ceremonious act of giving the doors the last push. Imagine what would happen if a common Roman tradie would accidentally go a little bit too far!

Holy Door

The Baldachin by Bernini and What’s Underneath

And this is the centrepiece of St Peter’s Basilica if you can speak of centrepieces in churches: The baldachin by Bernini. A black canopy construct on top of St Peter’s tomb underneath. It’s a pretty thing if it wasn’t so black. What makes up for it is the beautiful painting of the Holy Spirit in form of a dove. You can see it when you stand very close.

It’s quite a spectacular setting. The way that you cannot actually see down the nave all the way to the choir and the altar as your view is blocked by the baldachin.

Bernini's Baldachin

Underneath is St Peter’s tomb. Or at least there is something that the church believes is St Peter’s tomb. But it cannot really be confirmed in a scientific way. After all, animal bones could be also found in the grave – overall not a very saintly setting. But does it really matter? I don’t think so.

When you visit St Peter’s Basilica do make sure you descent down the stairs to the tomb, if only for the shivers that will ultimately go down your spine. Peek into ancient niches and the tombs of previous popes who wanted to be buried as close to St Peter as possible.

The Catholic fascination with bones and death and relics is coming to an all-time high in this basement chamber.

Down to the crypt

A Visit to St Peter’s Basilica is a Must When you are in Rome

St Peter’s Basilica is a fascinating church which really shouldn’t be missing in any Rome itinerary. There is of course much more to see here, so I will let the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy your virtual walk through the cathedral with my photos to the bottom of this post.

Enormous size of the basilicaCuppolaAltarStatue of a monk with a crossDown the naveStatue of a popeVisitors inside the churchDetail looking up the domeSt Peter's Basilica