1. Take in the whole. Stand at those large bronze central processional doors by Filarete and let the 650-foot nave unfold before you. You are standing in the result of 120 years of work, and the efforts of 12 architects and 20 popes, begun on April 11, 1506 when Pope Julius II broke ground on Bramante’s ambitious plan to destroy the 1,200-year-old church on this site built by none other than Emperor Constantine, replacing it with a new design uniting the Basilica of Maxentius from the Forum to the dome of the Pantheon. Endless setbacks plagued the work: the Protestant Reformation, the sack of Rome, not to mention corruption, conflicts and a Church council, but when Pope Urban VIII Barberini consecrated the church in 1626 and got Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s foot in the door to decorate the largest covered space of any church in the world – he guaranteed that St Peter’s basilica would become the “game face” of the Catholic church. Red marble warms the space, symmetry gives it focus, and suddenly the trials and tribulations of 2,000 years seem a lot more bearable.
2. Michelangelo’s world debut – The Pietà – Imagine that you’re a 23-year-old sculptor and you have just landed your first public commission. It’s for St Peter’s Basilica, the parish church of the whole world, for the Jubilee Year of 1500 when the entire parish is expected to come to the church. No pressure. Granted, Michelangelo’s work was destined for a smaller chapel in the old Constantinian basilica, rather than the first thing you see when you walk in the door, but still he was given a single block of marble (meaning no mistakes), a year time limit (meaning work fast), and last but not least, a subject matter never executed by an Italian before and not even cited in scripture. The Pietà was a German invention of the 14th century to evoke pity (pietà) for Mother and Son on Good Friday. The French and Germans vied to produce stiff, gory renderings of Christ’s tortured body, which Michelangelo, as a Florentine addicted to beauty, could not imitate. So the young sculptor chose to unite the mother and son in a compositional triangle featuring the breathtakingly beautiful body of Jesus slumped heavily in His mother’s arms. This exquisitely carved body, drawn from images of the Greek gods, deviated from the ancients in one respect. The poignant rendering of lifelessness – whether the shoulder bunched under the ear with the fold of flesh pushed up by Mary’s fingers or the heaviness of the drooping muscles in the thigh, this body, cradled by Mary so often in infancy, now lies lifeless. We look to Mary, she who always knew who her Son was, a daughter of Israel in expectation of salvation, and a mother who has poured her entire life into her son, whom she must now bury. But no furrow crosses her brow, no frown, no violent outpouring of grief. Her face, eyes downcast, youthful, bears the same expression as in her Annunciation “Fiat” when she said to the angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Michelangelo’s deep carving of her drapery shows darkness, the heavy burden of her “Yes.” But as we are tempted to give into the pathos of the scene, the sculptor takes us again by surprise--- look at the light that emanates from Jesus’ body. He is carved in smooth surfaces and polished to the highest degree- -- from darkness comes light! Mary still cradles her son with one hand, but the other opens towards us in a gesture of offering. And... despite the immense girth of her lower body, Christ looks like he will soon slip off
her lap and onto the altar – just like the Jonah of the Sistine chapel. Think of the Masses celebrated here for centuries when the priest lifted the host and said “This is my Body which will be given up for you” – there above the white disk of the Eucharist shines the Body of Christ and emerging from the shadows of the original niche was Mary bringing her Son to the altar. Michelangelo broke the barrier of space and time in the work—no wonder it is the only work he ever signed. You won’t be able to see it; it is on the sash that crosses the virgin’s chest, but a crazy guy hit the work with a hammer in 1972 so we can no longer get close to see it.
3. Strolling with the saints. Walk past the chapel of the Pietà and you will happen upon the chapel of St. Sebastian, although the early martyr now has to share the spotlight with the newly sainted superstar John Paul II. From his death in 2005, his tomb was surrounded daily by pilgrims, tourists
and even the people who live and work in the Vatican, dropping by to pray for his intercession. Now he has his own altar--- a space for everyone to confide in this pontiff who touched so many lives. But JPII is just one of a spectacular array of saints in the basilica - keep your eyes open and you will see St. John XXIII at the end of the hall, his body visible under the altar as are the bodies of St. Pius X and Blessed Innocent XI. The indestructible St. Josaphat, whose martyrdom was the stuff of pulp fiction, the relics of St. John Chrysostom, the “golden- mouthed” theologian, as well as those of Leo I and Gregory I, both known as Greats, who rest here. And, of course, St. Peter. The grandeur we admire here is the fruit of the suffering, study, witness and faith of these saints.
4. Mosaics a go-go. In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII founded the Vatican Mosaic studio to decorate the basilica with the inlaid tiles that Christian churches have been using since the time of Constantine. Every cupola from Michelangelo’s grand dome to the small ovals that cap the side chapels sparkle with the skins of bright mosaics. But in 1727, the Vatican mosaics artists were given a new task. Look closely at each of the altarpieces – it may seem like Raphael’s Transfiguration or Domenichino’s Last Communion of St. Jerome but these aren’t paintings but mosaic copies. Amazing, no?
5. Michelangelo’s Crowning Glory. Although Bramante and Julius II broke ground in 1506, the project came to a halt in 1514 when Bramante died. Raphael served a short stint as architect, as did several others, but the church remained unfinished well into the Reformation era. It would take a formidable architect to get it done and an even more formidable pope to make him do it. Enter Pope Paul III Farnese, who between approving the Jesuit order and calling the Council of Trent, persuaded the 70-year-old Michelangelo to take on the job of completing the basilica. Starting in 1545, Michelangelo worked on the project until his death 19 years later for no money, but rather, in his own words “for the glory of God, the honor of St. Peter and the salvation of my own soul.” This dome is what consumed his final years. While admiring the daring of Bramante for choosing a Pantheon-type dome for the church, he also saw the pitfall of choosing a monument that had been constructed to celebrate how men become gods. The Pantheon dome, as high off the ground as it was wide, and firmly fixed to the concrete drum below, bespeaks of a world where men see themselves as equals to gods. Michelangelo knew better. He spent the last years of his life recalculating the supports so as to lift the dome onto a drum pierced with massive windows that make the 137-foot span of brick and concrete appear weightless. Seeming to hover over the tomb of St. Peter, it reminds the pilgrim that it is not man who fuses heaven to earth, but that heaven that chooses to hover over the grave of St. Peter.
6. Relics as Sentinels – It’s easy to be distracted by the opulence of the basilica, but before the bronze canopy, before the inlaid marbles, before the shimmering mosaics, there was the wood, iron and blood of the Passion of Christ. Inside the massive piers that support Michelangelo’s dome, four enormous statues stand watch around Peter’s tomb. They were executed by four of the most celebrated artists of the 17th century. St. Andrew by Duquesnoy gazes loving at his X- shaped cross, overjoyed to bear witness in the same way as his Lord. Francesco Mocchi’s St. Veronica stands amid a swirl of drapery as she brandishes the Veronica, the cloth she used to wipe Christ’s face. That cloth is kept in the chapel above and shown to the faithful on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Next comes St. Helena, mother of Constantine who journeyed to the Holy Land to find Christ’s Cross, a fragment of which is also in the basilica. She was carved by Andrea Bolgi. Finally comes Bernini’s St. Longinus, arms akimbo, standing in utter shock after he pierces Christ’s side and sees blood and water flow out and exclaiming: “This truly was the Son of God.” That lance, still kept in the Church, has reminded the faithful over the centuries that when we take our orders from only the wisdom of this world, we are easily led astray.
7. Excellence or Eyesore? Bernini’s Canopy. In 1601, Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini ordered the extension of the basilica. You can see the cutoff point in the vault where you find the word conversus written in black letters against the golden cornice. It is also at the point of the two major side chapels, the Blessed Sacrament chapel—always reserved for prayer—and the so-called
wedding chapel, where private ceremonies are held. Carlo Maderno extended the church a final three bays, making a Latin cross instead of Greek cross and creating a space that was unparalleled by any other religious building in the world. In this vast expanse, twenty-five year old Gian Lorenzo Bernini was given his first assignment in the basilica, to make something to draw attention to Peter’s tomb, now that the dome was no longer visible from the entrance. Bernini designed a 95-foot tall, 175,000-pound canopy to connect the soaring height of the dome with the altar above Peter’s grave. It was one obstacle after another – Bernini ran out of bronze, he couldn’t make it stand up, and it ate up 10 years of his life– but when he finally finished in 1634, instead of being hailed as the heir to Michelangelo, he was berated for choosing those twisting columns. Therein lies the rub. St. Peter’s tomb, from the time of Constantine, was decorated with twisting columns – the first versions, now 1700 years old, are in the balconies above the statues of Longinus, Helena and company, framing the relic chapels. As you can see, those 15-foot columns look like toothpicks in the new basilica, but they are the same design as the grand bronze ones before you. That style comes from the East, as did St. Peter, and they didn’t fit in with Constantine’s architecture any better than they do with Michelangelo’s, but then, when has the exotic, challenging message of Christianity ever fit in with man’s plans and designs?
8. Extreme Team Spirit: The Altar of the Chair. Look through the canopy and see the handiwork of Bernini’s maturity. Twenty years after he finished the canopy, Bernini was called back to execute the decoration around the altar where the principal Mass would be celebrated every evening. After 30 years of working in the shadow of a Michelangelo who had died 40 years before he was born, Bernini was ready for his own limelight. Michelangelo had filled the Vatican with images of First and Second persons—just think of “Terminator Jesus” in the Last Judgment or that extreme sports God rolling around the Sistine ceiling—and now Bernini gave the faithful a vision of the Third and most visually elusive person: The Holy Spirit. Recreating Pentecost in the apse of the basilica, Bernini united all the arts, not just painting or sculpture or architecture, but all three working under his direction as if he were conducting an orchestra. The solid wall of the apse opens to an oval window, just as the Holy Spirit appeared in the closed upper room. At the end of the day, the sun sets behind that window turning it into a blaze of golden light, reminiscent of the tongues of flame. Clouds of gilt stucco pour from the opening as little angels romp among the billows. At the core of the monument, a giant bronze throne (the reliquary containing Peter’s chair as Bishop of Rome) floats in midair—the equivalent to a 21st-century special effect in film. It is obviously heavy, but has no visible support. Below, four founding fathers of the Church—two Greek and two Latin—stand with their robes rustling in the winds of the Spirit (no matter that bronze doesn’t rustle!)
...now imagine being there during Mass, the sound of the choir like the song of the angels, the scent of the incense, the majesty of the liturgy, all coming together to help us imagine being one of the team as the Holy Spirit swept among the first disciples, setting them on fire for the faith. This was a technical achievement as much as an artistic one—the dove from wingtip to wingtip is 5’6” and the miters on the bishops are each 5’10”!
9. Death Becomes Him – The Funerary monument of Pope Alexander VII Chigi. Think about the modern idea of a “good death” and many will tell you in the age of euthanasia and assisted suicide, that being able to choose the moment of one’s passing in the best way to die. Ask Bernini and his peers and they would tell you that being ready for death whenever and however it comes is the secret to a good life and a good death. Pope Alexander VII Chigi was Bernini’s lifelong friend, and in this, the artist’s last monument in the church, executed when he was between the ages of 73 and 80, Bernini illustrated the 17th-century idea of the art of dying well. Pope Alexander shared Bernini’s concern about being ready for the end of his life, and hoped to be brought to heaven as soon as he left this world. To that end, he asked Bernini to make him a small wooden coffin which he kept on his desk to remind him that “we know not the day nor the hour.” Looking at the monument, we see the Pope carved in white stone, not seated in a throne or lying in state, but praying. He kneels humbly with head uncovered (his papal tiara tucked under the voluminous robes) in a space colored in gold and white, signaling a lightness of spirit. Underneath this effigy, everything is clad in colored marbles, the rich, heady colors of the distractions of this world. The four female figures in white represent the principal virtues of this pontiff: Charity, Prudence, Fortitude and Truth. Bernini, who died a textbook good death himself two years after completing the monument, decorated the work with the greatest metaphor for the human existence of his age: a swath of theater curtain made of red marble. For Bernini was of the age of Shakespeare who gave the world the metaphor of the stage. The last moments of the “performance” of Alexander VII Chigi were caught up in talking to God, so when Death swept in, as seen by the bronze skeleton holding up an hourglass under the curtain, he didn’t seize the Pope for condemnation, but freed him for Heaven. This Baroque theatricality was designed to ask every visitor: When the curtain drops, will you end on a high note?
10. The Man Behind the Magic: St. Peter. Awed, dazzled and delighted, we make our way back to the main altar, where we have one person to thank for all that surrounds us. The simple fisherman of Galilee never knew backdrops such as these. He slept on the ground, walked on dirt and lived in hovels. At the end of his 1600-mile journey from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome, he was brought a few feet from here and crucified upside down with many of his companions for a crime he didn’t commit. His lifeless body was carried to a hastily dug hole and covered with a bit of dirt and a few bricks. That June 29th, it must have seemed like the brief run of the Christians was over as the “Prince of the Apostles” was tossed into a pauper’s grave. But the Romans inadvertently planted a seed that day, as this Basilica and the city of Rome itself proudly proclaims. From that hole in the ground, monument upon monument has emerged, from simple Roman plaster to imperial porphyry to the three altars stacked one above the other, and we are reminded of the continuous succession of popes from the time of St. Peter, despite adversity from within and without. The altar we see today, the altar of the reigning Vicar of Christ on earth, is the focal point of the church. Crowned by Bernini’s canopy and Michelangelo’s dome, this is where we watch the Pope step into the footsteps of St. Peter and take on the role of Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge builder, between Heaven and Earth. To the left of the papal altar there is a 700-year-old statue of St. Peter cast in bronze by Florentine master sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in 1300. Before we leave, it might be nice to follow in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims that have come before us and leave a prayer, petition or a word of thanks at the feet of the apostle.