St. Peter's Basilica

Vatican City, Vatican

St. Peter's is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and remains one of the largest churches in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Roman Catholic Church nor the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, St. Peter's is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites. It has been described as "holding a unique position in the Christian world" and as "the greatest of all churches of Christendom".

St. Peter's Basilica - Window above Altar

Dove of the Holy Spirit
Photograph by Nils 1

The basilica is cruciform in shape, with an elongated nave in the Latin cross form but the early designs were for a centrally planned structure and this is still in evidence in the architecture. The central space is dominated both externally and internally by one of the largest domes in the world. The entrance is through a narthex, or entrance hall, which stretches across the building. One of the decorated bronze doors leading from the narthex is the Holy Door, only opened in Holy Years.

St. Peter's Basilica

Doors of St. Peter's Basilica
(edited: perspective adjustment)
Photograph by Christopher Chan 2

The entire interior of St. Peter's is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. The basilica contains a large number of tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo's Pietà.

St. Peter's Basilica

Statue of Pope Pius X
(edited: perspective and cropping)
Photograph by Heather Cowper 3

The building itself is truly impressive. The largest church in the world, it has a 211.5 meter long nave (694 ft, including the narthex). The basilica's dome is one of the world's largest measuring 42 meters in diameter and reaching 132.5 meters high (more than 434ft).

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica
Photograph by Ray Garlick 4

One of his main creations invariably draws the immediate attention of visitors: the enormous, twenty-six meter high bronze baldachin over the papal altar. The Baroque masterpiece is crafted from bronze that was taken from the ceiling of the Pantheon. The design of the spiraling columns was inspired by marble columns that originally adorned the crypt of the old basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Longinus at St. Peter's Basilica
Photograph by Ray Garlick 5

The confessio is located right below the majestic dome. Look up and you'll see the impressive colorful vaulting with sixteen ribs that are supported by four massive pillars. The triangular spaces where the pillars meet the dome are decorated with mosaics depicting the evangelists. Light enters through the lantern and the sixteen large windows below the cornice.

Huge niches in the pillars hold five meter tall statues of the saints Andrew, Veronica, Helena and Longinus. The latter was created by Bernini, the others by students and assistants of the master. They stand on pedestals that are almost as tall as the statues that are placed on them. Above the niches are loggias that hold the relics associated with the four saints.

St. Peter's Basilica

Pieta at St. Peter's Basilica
by Michaelangelo
Photographer: Unknown 6

Architectural Summary




Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Rebuilt: 1626


St. Peter's Basilica

Altar View at St. Peter's Basilica
(edited: perspective adjustment)
Photograph by Etch Photo 7

As a work of architecture, it is regarded as the greatest building of its age. St. Peter's is one of the four churches of Rome that hold the rank of Major Basilica. St. Peter's is a church in the Renaissance style located in Rome west of the River Tiber and near the Janiculum Hill and Hadrian's Mausoleum. Its central dome dominates the skyline of Rome.

St. Peter's Basilica

Exterior View at Night
(edited: perspective adjustment and cropping)
Photograph by GMR 8

The interior is of vast dimensions when compared with other churches ... The nave which leads to the central dome is in three bays, with piers supporting a barrel-vault, the highest of any church. The nave is framed by wide aisles which have a number of chapels off them ... At the heart of the basilica, beneath the high altar, is the Confessio or Chapel of the Confession, in reference to the confession of faith by St. Peter, which led to his martyrdom. Two curving marble staircases lead to this underground chapel at the level of the Constantinian church and immediately above the burial place of Saint Peter.

St. Peter's Basilica

Altar at St. Peter's Basilica
(edited: perspective adjustment and cropping)
Photograph by Joan Felip 9

The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sanctuary culminates in a sculptural ensemble, also by Bernini, and containing the symbolic Chair of Saint Peter. There are over 100 tombs within St. Peter's Basilica, many located in the Vatican grotto, beneath the Basilica. These include 91 popes. 1, 2

St. Peter's Basilica

Exterior View at Night
Photograph by Unknown 10

St. Peter's Basilica

Arches and Dome at St. Peter's Basilica
Photograph by Dave Merrett 11

Once inside the nave the enormous size of the church becomes apparent. The basilica has a surface area of 15,160 square meters, enough space to accommodate 60,000 visitors. It is covered by a coffered barrel vault ceiling and a huge central dome.

St. Peter's Basilica

Interior View of St. Peter's Basilica
(edited: perspective adjustment)
Photograph by Graham Spicer 12

In front of the papal altar is the confessio (burial crypt) that marks the presumed grave of St. Peter. It is encircled by a balustrade with ninety-five bronze oil lamps.

St. Peter's Basilica

Interior Dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Photograph by Joël Morin 13

St. Peter's Basilica

The Holy Family
Photograph by Ray Garlick 14

The pillar with the statue of Longinus also provides the backdrop for a bronze statue of St. Peter ... The apse of the basilica is decorated with a bombastic Baroque work that integrates the Cathedra Petri, the supposed chair of St. Peter. The chair is encapsulated in a bronze throne with reliefs that is supported by four church fathers; Athanasius and Johannes represent the Eastern Church while Ambrose and Augustine represent the Western Church. Above the throne is a large oval window surrounded by numerous angels.

The most famous monument in the St. Peter's Basilica is the Pietà, a marble sculpture of a young looking Mary holding the dead body of her son. It was created in 1499-1500 by Michelangelo at the early age of twenty-five. The monument is located in the first chapel on the right. It is the only work of Michelangelo that bears his signature. 1



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