St Peter's Basilica 500th anniversary

St Peter's basilica, the largest and most important church in the Catholic world, marks its 500th anniversary yesterday.

Although it is the centre of liturgical life at the Vatican, St Peter's is not a cathedral. St Peter's holds pre-eminent place because it is built on the tomb of St Peter, at the site where the first Pontiff's martyrdom.

According to Catholic World News, Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, authorised construction of the first basilica in 319; the building was completed in 349.

By the middle of the 15th century the Constantinian structure was in danger of collapse, and Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino to begin drawing up plans for a new basilica.

It was Pope Julius II (1503-1513) who had the old basilica razed, and asked Donato Bramante to design a massive new building in the shape of a Greek cross. The first stone was laid on 18 April 1506, at the site of the old transept. Four pillars and an arc to support the cupola were completed by 1514.

Raphael, taking up the work that Bramante had begun, chose the form of a Latin cross, with one arm longer than the three others. Antonio da Sangallo then became director of the project, followed by Michelangelo, who was appointed by Pope Paul III.

Michelangelo returned to the plan for a building shaped as Greek cross, and by the time of his death in 1564 the construction of the dome was well underway. The great dome was completed in 1590 by Giacomo della Porta.

A spire topped by a cross was finished three years later. Carlo Maderno then won a competition under Pope Paul V (11605-1621) to complete the nave of the basilica and design the enormous fašade. That project was completed on Palm Sunday, 1614 and the new basilica was consecrated in 1626.

Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) supervised the design of the interior. Bernini designed much of the interior, notably including the enormous bronze baldachino above the altar. That work continued through the end of the 17th century, with sculptures and mosaics added throughout the 18th century.

The vault of the basilica is decorated with the words (in Latin and in Greek) that Christ said to St. Peter: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build by Church ..."

St Peter's Square, with its colonnade (also designed by Bernini) defining the plaza outside the basilica, was completed during the same period, topped by 140 statues. The granite obelisk in the centre of the square was set up in 1585: a massive task that required 800 men and 150 horses.

St Peter's Square can easily accommodate 50,000 people. The basilica itself, with its huge central nave, can also accommodate thousands of worshippers, and is the central site for papal liturgical celebrations. From 1962 to 1965 the basilica was the site of plenary sessions of the Second Vatican Council.

While it is a busy functioning church, the Vatican basilica is also a monument to the history of Catholicism, and a magnet for tourists as well as pilgrims. The daunting task of maintaining the basilica is entrusted to the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the same institution that was established to underwrite construction of the building.

The unending work of repair, restoration, and renovation is carried out by a small army of dedicated artisans employed by the Fabbrica di San Pietro, from their offices and workshops concealed from the public in the basement and massive walls of St Peter's.

500th anniversary of St. Peter's basilica (Catholic World News 18/4/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)


Pope marks 500th anniversary of building of Basilica (Irish Times 17/4/06)
Pope points toward 500th anniversary of St. Peter's (Catholic World News 17/4/06)
Celebrating the Fifth Centenary of St. Peter's Basilica (Vatican Information Service 11/4/06 - temporary url)
Vatican prepares to celebrate 500th birthday of St. Peter's Basilica (Catholic News Agency 11/4/06)

19 Apr 2006