Friday, 21 June 2013

Preview: St Peter's Basilica

In the Bible, Peter was a pretty straightforward man. Any other time, he would no doubt have played out his years as a humble fisherman on the sea of Galilee, but having a key role in what was to become one of the world's major religions kind of changed things. One of Jesus's disciples, he is described in one chapter as "unlearned and ignorant", and committed a number of faux pas. Despite this, Jesus seems to have quite liked him. In the Gospels, he is mentioned 195 times, with all the other disciples managing only 130 between them. Poor old Thaddeus gets only four mentions - I reckon even I could have done better than that. A very "human" disciple, with a wife and probably a daughter, Peter seems like he'd make a reliable figure to have a pint with down the pub. Jesus recognised this and in fact gave him his name (he was previously called Simon), which means "rock", saying to him "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."

It became uncannily true. After Jesus's death, the rest of Peter's life was spent spreading the word, and although precise documentary evidence is sketchy, early Catholic tradition has him ending up in Rome, the capital of the then dominant Roman Empire. He helped found what could be described as a small rebel Christian movement against the large pagan empire, and for his troubles Nero had him crucified. His followers retrieved his body, hanging upside-down from a cross, and secretly buried it in an area then just outside of Rome called Mons Vaticanus, and a small chapel was later built. It became a place of worship. A few hundred years later, in the 4th Century, Emperor Constantine had a vision and decided that the Roman Empire would become Christian. The small chapel became a basilica. 1700 years and some very substantial overhauls later, that place of worship still remains, in somewhat grander form: St Peter's Basilica.

St Peter's is not a cathedral. Every diocese (kind of like a town or city catchment area for worshippers) is only allowed one cathedral, and the much smaller, and slightly ambiguously-named Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is it. Think of New York compared to Washington, or Sydney compared to Canberra, and you've got an idea of St Peter's status: technically not the official big boy, but it's the boy with all the swagger. St Peter's is the one with the history, the substance, and the star quality. It's the one that attracts the crowds - Rome attracts up to 10 million visitors a year, and you can bet a lot of them give St Peter's at least a glance. And it's also the one that the Catholic Church uses for most of the public ceremonies featuring the Pope, due to its size, space for public gathering, and just good old-fashioned in-your-face glory.

As such, the Church has given it the special status of Major Basilica, along with three other churches in Rome, which basically just means it's a very important church (there are hundreds of Minor Basilicas, but only four Major ones). This isn't anything new - this was done back in 1300. In whatever form it's taken over the centuries, St Peter's has been a hit from the moment poor old Peter's body was sneaked from his crucifix and buried on a hill.

The version we see now is a 16th and 17th Century construction, built upon the rubble of the old. The basilica built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century and added to over the years was falling to pieces by the 16th Century. Attempts at restoration had been made, but it was a losing battle. Rome had not exactly been stable, with the old St Peter's used as a fortress, subjected to sieges, and suffering the consequences of earthquakes and neglect. Eventually, in the mid-15th Century, Pope Nicholas V said that he was sick and tired of this battered old basilica, and decided to tear the whole thing down and start again. Plans were drawn, and he even apparently ordered the Colosseum to be demolished for building materials! Over 2500 cartloads of stone were taken from the ancient Roman amphitheatre - but then Nicholas V died and everything stopped. Phew.

The cause was again taken up half a century later, by Pope Julius II. This time he didn't die just as things were getting going, and fortunately neither did he regard the Colosseum as a quarry. The first stone of the new basilica was laid in 1506, even as the shell of the old one was still standing. It began over 120 years of construction, spanning the papacies of 21 popes, involving ten architects, and in some ways kicking off the biggest crisis the Church has ever seen.

I'll cover the crisis in my eventual review, but for now let's concentrate on the building. It is not a single coordinated work as with its domed contemporary St Paul's Cathedral by Christopher Wren, rather it is a sprawling series of plans and constructions by successive architects, overseen by different popes with very different ideas as to what the centre of Christendom should be like. There was never a fixed plan for St Peter's, it was a constantly evolving beast that would change abruptly upon the death of an architect or pope. Fortunately, one thing worked strongly in its favour - Italy in the 16th and 17th Century had some of the best artists of all time. Thus the likes of Bramante, Maderno, and Bernini had keys roles, as well as names still popularly known today, Raphael and Michelangelo (although I grant, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had a helping hand). Between them, they built a huge and exquisite interior, a powerful facade, the tallest dome in the world, all set in front of St Peter's Square with its twin lines of columns, as though arms reaching out to embrace mankind. Immense in all sense of the word, the new St Peter's was a no-holds-barred show of the Church's magnificence.


Incidentally, St Peter's Square is often known by the native Italian version, Piazza San Pietro. Doesn't that sound so much better? I wonder if it's the same for Italians, or do they think the English "St Peter's Square" sounds awfully exotic. Somehow I doubt it.

With so many world-class artists involved, you can bet there's plenty of top-notch sculpture and decor, but it's the sheer size of St Peter's that makes it notable. It has the largest interior of any church in the world, and its overall size is probably the largest too. It takes up 5.7 acres - you could fit four Notre-Dames in that space - and is 137 metres high, around twice the height of the Taj Mahal. 60,000 people can fit inside, the number goes well into six figures when you include the Square... sorry, the Piazza. You can rack the stats up anyway you want - it's big.

Ultimately though, for all its ostentatious grandeur, St Peter's is a shrine for a fisherman who died spreading the word of his new religion. And curiously, in 1937 excavations were permitted in the grottoes directly below St Peter's, where ancient Christian burials were said to be. The Pope even gave permission for the area directly under the altar, allegedly the scene of St Peter's tomb. And they found quite a lot. Bones, tombs, even old Christian graffiti, but all dating from just a little after Peter's time. But then - albeit in slightly confused circumstances - remains were found wrapped in purple cloth with gold embroidery. Remains of an old man, without feet (hacked off by followers when removing him from his upside-down crucifix), and part of the skull, that date to the 1st Century AD. Of course, it could just be anybody, but the evidence was very suggestive. And on June 26, 1968, Pope Paul VI publically announced that the relics of St Peter had been discovered.

This necropolis under the basilica can be visited these days as part of a pre-arranged tour, and so I hope to make this part of my visit to St Peter's. By the time I visit, I'll be officially married to a Catholic, and one that has already visited Rome and St Peter's, so perhaps I'll feel less of an intruder than I usually do when visiting sacred religious spots. Plus, there will be hundreds of gurning tourists posing for photos, with bumbags strapped around their waist, so I don't think the Pope and his Swiss Guard are going to bar my entry. I expect to visit next spring, and will give a fuller account of St Peter's and its history, plus my own impression, then.

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