St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica is an Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City (a papal enclave located within the city of Rome), designed principally by Donato Bramante, Carlo Maderno, Bernini, and Michelangelo. It is the largest church in the world and the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture. The term “basilica” refers to the architectural style, typically cruciform in shape with a central nave and an apse at one or both ends, the most common style for churches in Europe and the Americas. St. Peter’s is one of four churches in the world (all of which are in Rome) that hold the rank of Major Basilica. The others are the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). It is not a cathedral, contrary to popular belief, because it is not the seat of a bishop, which in Rome is actually located in St. John Lateran.

Catholic tradition holds that St. Peter’s is the burial site of Saint Peter, chief among Jesus’s Apostles and the first Bishop of Rome (rendering him the first Pope), whose tomb is supposedly directly below the high altar. For this reason, 91 Popes have been interred here (the most recent being Pope John Paul II in 2005) and there has been a church on this site since the time of the Roman emperor Constantine. It is also a popular place of pilgrimage and the Pope presides at a number of liturgies here throughout the year.

Construction of the present basilica began in 1506 and was completed in 1626, being solemnly dedicated by Pope Urban VIII. One method employed to finance the building was the granting of indulgences in return for contributions. The German priest, Martin Luther, later argued against this practice in his famous 95 Theses,  which became a major factor in starting the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. The entire interior of St. Peter’s is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. There are also a number of renowned sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo’s Pietà. The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (below).

  • Visited: May 1988, Apr 2016
  • UNESCO: 1984

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