Description of St. Peter’s Cathedral, history and architecture

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome – the heart of the Vatican and the largest Christian church

St. Peter's Cathedral

Vatican is the smallest state in the world with area of 0,44 square kilometers and 3,2 km long borders. Vatican City – the seat of the highest spiritual leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, a state with a population of 1,000 people. The form of government is an absolute monarchy which is headed by the Pope who is elected by cardinals for life term. The Vatican gained its independence from Italy on February 11, 1929. It is home to St. Peter’s Cathedral, the central building of the Vatican and the largest Christian church in the world.

Construction history

In the first century A.D. on the site of the cathedral grew the circus gardens of the ancient Roman ruler Nero, next to the circus – the cemetery where the victims of the emperor’s cruel amusements were buried. The imperious lord used to hold bloody gladiatorial fights in the arena. It was also here, in the arena, that Christians were brutally tortured by order of Nero.

During the time of the persecution of Christianity the governor enjoyed the martyrdom of the followers of Christ, who were torn apart by the sword of gladiators or by the claws of animals.

View of the Cathedral

Once Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, was brought here, and Nero ordered him to be crucified upside down on a cross after a bloody contest. The body of the saint was buried in the cemetery near the circus.

In 326 the Christian emperor Constantine, at the burial site of St. Peter ordered the construction of a basilica in honor of the first Christians who suffered for the faith, and called the structure after the apostle. Basilica is an honorary title for a temple given by the pope. The basilica is built as a rectangular building with two longitudinal rows of columns inside.

The huge new cathedral was ordered to build by Julius II, wishing for a grandiose temple to outshine all churches. The temple was built for 120 years (1506-1626) by the most famous sculptors of the Renaissance – Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante. The Roman architect Carlo Maderna had completed the construction.

Description of St. Peter’s Basilica

The Basilica is built in the form of a Latin cross, at the intersection of which in the center is the Pontifical Altar, so named because only the Pope has the right to hold services here. The building is 48 m high, 211.6 m long, 118.6 m wide and 23 thousand square meters, crowned with a huge dome, 138 m high. The Cathedral accommodates 60,000 parishioners.

Facade and portals

The rich Baroque façade with 27 metres high columns, a graceful attic and two clocks adorn the temple. The Italian master Carlo Maderna arranged thirteen 5-meter statues of the apostles along the attic, with John the Baptist and Jesus Christ in the center of the composition. On either side of the facade are statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. In the left hand of St. Peter are the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Baroque facade

There are 9 balconies on the facade; the middle one is the Loggia of Blessing – from this point the Pope speaks a blessing to the faithful, gathered on St. Peter’s Square. Above the main gate – a marble bas-relief “Jesus entrusts Peter with the keys to the kingdom of heaven”. Behind the colonnade – 5 portals, architecturally designed entrances to the temple.

The main portal of St. Philaret, on the upper panel of which are Christ on the throne, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and St. Paul. On the lower panel are the “Beheading of St. Paul” and “Crucifixion on the inverted cross of St. Peter”. The entrance to the cathedral is decorated with two equestrian statues: an equestrian statue of Charlemagne and an equestrian statue of Emperor Constantine.

The holy portal is bricked up with masonry on the inside of the temple. The gateway is opened once every 25 years, in the Holy Jubilee year. In the year of the Jubilee, on Christmas Day, the Pope smashes with a hammer the concrete masonry at the door, where the cross and the box with the key to the cathedral are immured. The pope enters first, kneeling three times. If in the Jubilee year one passes through the Holy Gate, one’s sins are written off and one becomes sinless. The gate is then bricked up for the next 25 years.

The Portal of Death is used only for the funeral processions of pontiffs. On the gate are images of the “Death of Jesus Christ,” “Death of the Virgin Mary,” “The Violent Death of Abel,” “Death of Joseph,” and “Martyrdom of St. Peter.”

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The Good and Evil Portal, made of bronze, depicts biblical scenes of good, violence and evil.

The portal of the 7 sacraments depicts scenes of the sacraments and rites performed in the church.

Features of the dome

The dome, the main structure of the temple, rises above the ground to 138 meters. The cross on the dome has the relics of St. Andrew and a piece of the holy cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The drum of the structure rests on 4 powerful columns 18 meters thick. The columns are decorated with niches, in which sculptures of saints are installed. The 14,000-ton structure is divided into 16 sectors and 6 horizontal levels.

The height of the dome inside is 119 m, diameter – 42, to the basement there are stairs and the elevator. The walls of the stairway are decorated with autographs of crowned heads. The stairs lead to an inner balcony from which the altar part of the cathedral is visible. Inside the dome, the figures of the four Evangelists with the animals that surround the throne of God adorn the dome. These are Mark and the lion, John and the eagle, Luke and the ox, and only Matthew is depicted with an angel.

The dome is the main structure of the temple

Along the frieze of the dome is a mosaic inscription in Latin with the words of Christ: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church; and the enemies of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In the center of the dome is God the Father, below is the image of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, and the apostles. Angels hold the instruments of the Lord’s Passion. In round medallions there are cherubim and seraphim. There are also angels guarding the tomb of St. Peter. In the lower part of the dome are images of 16 popes buried in the cathedral.

Interior and interior furnishings

The interior of the cathedral, where graceful details blend effortlessly and naturally, is striking in its beauty and sophistication. The images presented in the cathedral are in mosaics, there are no paintings.

Sculptures and frescoes, icons and fine gold painting, walls decorated with stucco, silver, multicolored marble, altars and tombstones create a unique color of the temple. The interior was created by Italian architect Lorenzo Bernini, who spent 50 years of his life decorating the temple.

Inside the Cathedral

In the center of the cathedral – the symbol of St. Peter, an inverted cross, a wooden two-meter crucifix. Arched arches 23 meters high and 13 meters wide separate three naves – elongated inner rooms, separated by columns. Between an input and an altar there is a gallery 90 meters long with the valuable works of art of the outstanding masters.

The central nave

The central nave is 211 m long and the floor is paved with colorful porphyry and marble. Above the entrance to the nave is a fresco of Jesus rescuing the sinking Peter. In the back is a silver statue of the Apostle Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio.

Pilgrims claim the statue is miraculous. By touching the foot of the saint with your hand, you can ask for the fulfillment of a wish. If the wish is good, it will definitely come true. The statue’s feet have been erased by the touches of believers.

Here, in the niche of the column that supports the dome of the cathedral, is a 5-meter statue of St. Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierced Christ with a spear to confirm the death of God’s son. Christ’s blood splashed on the eyes of the legionary, who was very visually impaired, and he was able to see.

Statue of St. Longinus

Longinus soon converted to Christianity, preached the teachings of Christ, and is revered as a Christian saint. The creator of the statue, Lorenzo Bernini, worked on the sculpture for half a century.

The main altar, surrounded by 44 unquenchable lamps, is made of a single piece of marble. A unique work by Bernini is the canopy over the central altar. The luxurious 30-meter-high bronze canopy is supported by four pillars with figures of angels.


The top of the altar is crowned with a bronze ball with a cross, and under the canopy is a gilded dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. In front of the altar is a staircase leading down to St. Peter’s tomb, which can also be seen through a “window” in the floor at the altar.

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Through the canopy can be seen St. Peter’s pulpit, the chair of St. Peter supported by four statues of the church fathers. The church fathers are an honorary title for prominent church figures with authority in church life: John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Athanasius the Great.

Right aisle

  • The sculptural group “Pieta” or “Mourning of Christ”, 1.74 m high, made of marble. The Virgin Mary is holding her dead son in her arms, suffering and mourning. The sculpture is kept in a glass bulletproof box after being attacked by an intruder.
  • A wooden crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
  • St. Sebastian’s Chapel.
  • Gilded bronze monstrance.
  • Tombstone of Gregory XIII, who introduced the new Gregorian calendar.
  • Monument to the pontiff Leo XII.
  • The tomb of Margravine Matilda of Canossa.
  • The Chapel of the Holy Communion.

Luxury decoration

Left nave

  • Sculptural ensemble of the tomb of Alexander VII kneeling pontiff surrounded by statues of Mercy, Truth, Justice, Prudence
  • The Chapel of the Baptism, decorated with mosaics.
  • The tomb of Maria Clementina Sobieski.
  • Memorial of the Scottish Royal Family.
  • Tombstone of Pope Innocent VIII, the pope holds in his left hand the spearhead with which centurion Longinus pierced the crucified Christ.
  • The altar of the Transfiguration by Raphael.

Saint Helen

The basilica contains Christian relics:

  • Portions of the crucifixion of the cross.
  • The Veronica plate on which the face of Jesus Christ appeared.
  • The relics of Saint Longinus, the legionary who pierced the body of Jesus Christ with his spear.
  • The relics of St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter.

In the niches are statues:

  • St. Helena, holding the True Cross.
  • Saint Longinus with a spear.
  • St. Veronica with a handkerchief.
  • St. Andrew with the Cross of St. Andrew. St. Andrew’s Cross in the shape of the letter X, on such a cross they crucified the Apostle Andrew, brother of St. Peter.

On the lower tier of the cathedral is the Vatican Necropolis with 100 tombs, 91 are the tombs of the popes.


The square in front of the cathedral

The temple is located in St. Peter’s Square, which accommodates 400,000 people who flock to the cathedral to receive papal blessings and participate in festivities.


The square – the frame of the cathedral, in the form of an ellipse, surrounded on both sides by a colonnade, was created in 1656-1667 by Lorenzo Bernini. The basilica building and the piazza are overseen and cared for by a specialized team. St. Peter’s Basilica is a UNESCO-listed site, a place of mystery and mystery 2,000 years old.

St. Peter’s Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral (Italian Basilica di San Pietro) is the main Catholic cathedral, the most important historic Christian structure in the world. It is the diocese of the Pope, the center of Catholicism and one of the four great basilicas of Rome. The cathedral contains many unique artifacts of the past, priceless masterpieces of painting and sculpture by the best masters of their time. It is believed that the cathedral can accommodate 60,000 people at a time.

Ancient Roman Basilica
Construction of the cathedral
The architecture and artistic values of the cathedral:
photo gallery
monuments and tombstones
tomb of St. Peter
Practical information:
hours of operation
entrance ticket
useful links
on the map of Rome

The ancient Roman Basilica of St. Peter

The area where St. Peter’s Basilica is located has a history that dates back to ancient Rome. In the second half of the first century A.D. Nero’s Circus was erected here. In ancient times, circuses served as entertainment facilities for various competitions and performances. But Nero also turned his circus into a place of execution, where Christians were tortured with great cruelty. Among them was the Apostle Peter, who in 67 AD died on the cross (he was crucified upside down) in the arena of the Circus of Nero. Peter’s remains were buried here, in the adjoining “circus” cemetery. Soon Peter’s tomb became a special place of veneration for Roman Christians, who subsequently decided that when they can build their first temple, its altar will be located at the burial site of St. Peter.

As is known, only under Emperor Constantine (beginning of the IV century) persecution of the followers of Jesus Christ was ended, and Christianity has received the status of the dominant religion. Emperor promoted in every possible way to construction of the first Christian temple, received the name Basilica of Sacred Peter. The construction work was finished in 326. The attraction immediately became the main center of pilgrimage in Rome. All the coronations of the elected pontiffs took place within its walls and in 800 Charlemagne was proclaimed Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire here.

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Nero’s circus

In 846, the basilica was sacked by the Saracens. Aware of the colossal treasures found in Rome’s major temples, Saracen soldiers plundered those outside the Aurelian walls (St. Peter’s Basilica was one of them).

St. Peter’s Basilica

In the middle of the XV century the old basilica, which had already existed for eleven centuries, was in a dilapidated state, so Pope Nicholas V started to reconstruct and enlarge it. However, a radical decision was taken only by Julius II, who, wishing to strengthen the papal influence, ordered to build on its place a cathedral, exceeding the size of all existing religious buildings in the world.

Nero’s Circus, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Cathedral

The construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral

The architectural design of St. Peter’s Basilica cannot be attributed to a single person, as over a long period of time several famous craftsmen took turns in designing and constructing it. In 1506 Donato Bramante was the first to begin with the Greek cross, and after his death it was Raffaele Santi who resumed the cross form. Construction then continued under Baldassare Peruzzi, followed by Antonio da Sangallo.

Almost 40 years later, the famous painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarotti was entrusted with directing the construction work. His idea of a cathedral centered on a central dome was fundamental. Having strengthened the structure’s foundations and made it more monumental, the great architect designed a multi-column entrance portico and erected the drum of the central dome. Michelangelo designed four smaller domes, but after his death only two were realized by the architect Viola, with the central dome by Giacomo della Porta.

At the beginning of the XVII century the architect Carlo Maderna, at the behest of Paul V, enlarged the eastern side of the building by adding a three-nave basilica, and erected a facade on the western side. As a result, the dome was hidden by the monumental facade, lost its dominant position and is only seen from a distance (from Via della Conciliazione, which leads to St. Peter’s Square). On November 18, 1626 Pope Urban VIII consecrated the Cathedral of St. Peter.

Main façade

The monumental facade measures 45m by 115m and is crowned by an attic cornice, on which stand the statues of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and the eleven apostles (excluding Peter the Apostle). The statues of the apostles Paul (with a sword in his hand) and Peter (with the key to the kingdom of heaven) are located before the entrance to the cathedral. The architrave contains the inscription “Pope Paul V Borghese, Pontiff of Rome in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate, erected in honor of the Prince of the Apostles” (IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII). Five portals serve as entrances to the cathedral:

Philaret’s portal (the central portal). Made in bronze in the mid-15th century for the ancient basilica of Constantine. The panels show images of Christ on the throne, the Madonna on the throne, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The lower panels show scenes of the martyrdom of the two saints. On the left is the “Beheading of St. Paul,” and on the right is “Crucifixion on the inverted cross of St. Peter. The portal is crowned by a bas-relief by Bernini of “Jesus entrusting Peter with the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The holy portal (the last portal on the right). Made in bronze by Vico Consorti in 1950. The portal is opened only in the Holy Jubilee Year, that is, once every 25 years. From inside the cathedral, the Holy Portal is bricked up with masonry. On Christmas Eve, the masonry is dismantled, and after kneeling three times, the incumbent pontiff is the first to enter. At the end of the Jubilee year, the portal is bricked up for the next 25 years.

The Portal of Death (first portal on the left). Made in 1964. A procession exits through it during the pontiff’s funeral. The portal is decorated with images of the Holy Sepulchre, symbols of the Eucharist (bread, wine and branches of the vine), scenes of the murder of Abel, the death of Joseph and the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Cologne Cathedral in Germany, detailed information

Portal of Good and Evil. Executed by Luciano Minguzzi in the 1970s.

The Portal of the Sacrament. Made by the master Venanzo Crocetti, commissioned by Paul VI, who first inaugurated it in September 1965. The portal is decorated with an angel who announces the seven sacraments.


The dome of the cathedral, 138 meters high, rests on columns and is considered to be the tallest in the world. The interior surface of the dome is decorated with four evangelists: Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox, John with the eagle and Matthew with the angel who guided his hand in writing the Gospel. The lion, the eagle, and the ox are the so-called “apocalyptic beasts” that John writes of as the animals that surrounded the throne of God. Around the inner circle of the dome is an inscription two meters high: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church and give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM). At the bottom of the lantern is inscribed the dedication: “To the glory of St. Peter, Sixtus V in the year 1590, in the fifth year of the pontificate” (S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V).

Michelangelo only managed to finish the supports and the drum of the dome before his death. Further work was carried out by his pupil Giacomo da Vignola with the participation of Giorgio Vasari. But 19 years later Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana were put in charge of the construction under the new Pope Sixtus V. While completing the construction of the dome, the architects tried not to deviate from the idea of Michelangelo, the author of the project, and in 1590 all the work was completed. During the pontificate of Clement VIII the cross was installed on the dome of the cathedral, on which two small shrines with the relics of St. Andrew, a part of the Life-Giving Cross and the medallion of the Lamb of God were mounted.


The interior of the Cathedral of St. Peter’s is richly decorated with sculptures, bas-reliefs, paintings and other works of art. The central nave, on the floor of which there are marks defining the dimensions of the largest cathedrals in the world, is enclosed. On the right at the end of the main aisle is a sculpture of St. Peter of the XIII century, which is considered miraculous, so every visitor tries to touch it.

In the center of the cathedral rises the main altar, behind which only the Pope can say Mass. The altar is adorned by Bernini’s monumental ciborium, set on four twisted columns, which are topped with sculptures of angels. The height of the magnificent ciborium corresponds to a four-story building. The unusual shape of the columns repeats the silhouette of the twisted columns from Solomon’s temple, brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. The bronze for the ciborium was barbarically borrowed from the ancient Roman Pantheon by order of Urban VII.

The main apse of the cathedral, also created by Bernini, holds the tombstones of Urban VIII and Paul III. Here is also the pulpit of St. Peter, where four statues of the church fathers support St. Peter’s throne.

On the right aisle side is the Chapel of Mercy, where the sculptural group of the Pietà or “Lamentation of Christ,” the work of the 24-year-old Michelangelo, is located. Although it is one of the young sculptor’s first works, it bears witness to the full maturity of Michelangelo’s work, who deliberately emphasized the Madonna’s youth as a symbol of eternal life. Next comes the Chapel of St. Sebastian, where there is a large mosaic, The Martyrdom of San Sebastian, designed on the basis of a painting by Domenichino, by Pier Paolo Cristofari. In the altar of the chapel is the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II. Further down the aisle are the monuments to Innocent XII by Filippo della Valle and the tombstone of Matilde Canossa, Margravine of Tuscany, which precedes the entrance to the Chapel of Holy Communion. The entrance to the chapel is through an iron gate, whose lattice pattern is based on a sketch by Borromini. The chapel was designed by Carlo Maderna. Inside is the tabernacle of the Holy Communion in gilded bronze by Lorenzo Bernini, dating back to 1674, and the altar of the Trinity, the work of Pietro da Cartona. The Chapel of Holy Communion was the site of the “kiss of the foot” ritual, where the faithful laid hands on the remains of deceased pontiffs before their burial. This practice was discontinued by Pius XII, whose body was displayed in the central nave after his death. Two monuments to Gregory XIII and Gregory XIV close the right aisle.

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The left aisle is opened by the Chapel of the Baptism, designed by Carlo Fontana and decorated with mosaics by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, which were completed after his death by Francesco Trevisani. The altarpiece mosaic was done in imitation of the painting of Carlo Maratta, whose canvas is now in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Angelo. Immediately behind the chapel is the tomb of Maria Clementina Sobieska, granddaughter of King John III of Poland, with a tombstone by Pietro Bracci. The nearby Chapel of the Assumption houses the body of Pius X, and along the walls are monuments to John XXIII and Benedict XV, made in the 20th century. Nearby is the small Chapel of the Crucifixion, which houses a magnificent wooden crucifix dating from the beginning of the 14th century, presumably by Pietro Cavallini. Of interest is the tombstone of Innocent VIII, created by the sculptor Antonio Pollaiolo in 1490, which was still in the old basilica. One of the last members of the Scottish Stuart dynasty, whose tombstone was made by the famous sculptor Antonio Canova, also rests in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

On the south side of the mediocrity is a mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s famous painting of the Transfiguration. Further to the south transept is the extraordinary monument to Alexander VII by Lorenzo Bernini. In this sculptural composition, the Pope is depicted not in accordance with Church canons, sitting on the throne, but on his knees, immersed in prayer. In front of the pontiff is a red marble drapery on which the statues of “Charity” and “Truth” on the one side and “Justice” and “Prudence” on the other are leaning. In the center, a figure of a skeleton holding an hourglass of golden sand as a symbol of the tireless flow of earthly life is shown from beneath the magnificent drapery. This baroque composition is considered one of Bernini’s notable works.

Photo Gallery

Monuments and gravestones


Originally, the sacristy was located in the Rotunda of St. Andrew on the south side of the cathedral, as a mausoleum of the imperial era of the second half of the 18th century. In the course of several attempts to reconstruct the old sacristy, a design competition was announced in 1715, where the architect Philip Astoria won. He suggested building a separate room for the sacristy as an annex to the existing cathedral. However, due to the high construction costs, the construction of the new sacristy was postponed. It was not until 1776 that Pius VI commissioned Carlo Marchionni to build the sacristy that we see today. The architect followed the general style and tried to fit it into the architecture of the cathedral. Nowadays, the Museum of the Treasures of St. Peter’s Cathedral is located here, where the main sacred artifacts of the Catholic Church are collected. Admission to the museum is chargeable with a separate ticket.

The Confessional Tomb of St. Peter

Archaeological excavations initiated by Pius XII uncovered the foundations of an ancient Roman basilica and the ruins of a Romanesque necropolis. During further research in one of the niches of the necropolis in 1953, bones wrapped in a precious cloth of purple were found. The discovery gave Pope Paul VI grounds to assert that in all probability these relics were the remains of St. Peter’s body. They are now in a tomb called the Confessional of St. Peter. You can go down to the Confessional by the double marble staircase that is located in front of the main altar.

Interesting! The costs of the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral were so great that to cover them, Pope Leo X had to sell the right to sell indulgences in the German lands to Albrecht of Brandenburg. The latter turned out to be an extremely greedy businessman. His misuse of indulgences was one of the causes of Luther’s protest ideas, the Reformation, and the subsequent split of Europe.

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