St. Peter’s Cathedral, history and architecture

St. Peter’s Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral, the center of the Roman Catholic religion, is the second largest Christian temple in the world. It is one of the most revered shrines and the most popular object of worship for pilgrims from all over Europe. It is located in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.

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General Information

Over the course of a century and a half, many architects took part in the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral, often radically changing the designs of their predecessors. Still, the temple creates a surprisingly coherent impression, radiating incredible dignity throughout its architecture and interior. The ensemble of the cathedral and St. Peter’s Square forms a magnificent stage for the exit of the Pope and the representation of Christianity.

To reduce the significance of St. Peter’s Cathedral solely to its architectural merits is to forget its status as a Christian shrine and the role it played in the momentous turn that marked a new stage in the development of Western art, architecture, and culture in general. This temple is not just a historical and architectural monument. Within the walls of the main sanctuary of the Roman Catholic Church, the world’s art, history and spiritual development have all shown themselves in full measure.

The cathedral is dedicated to the Apostle Peter, the first bishop of Rome, whose successors are considered to be all popes. Until the early 1990s, when an even larger church was built in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, St. Peter’s Cathedral was the largest Christian sacred building.

Opening hours: daily. Opening hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.; admission free.


The first church of St. Peter’s was built under Emperor Constantine, a five-nave basilica with a square framed by columns in front. The basilica was erected over the tomb of the Apostle Peter and was consecrated in 326.

The first St. Peter’s Cathedral was built in 324 when Emperor Constantine transferred the remains of the apostle Simon Peter to Mount Vatican City. To mark the sanctity of the site, he ordered the construction of a basilica with five altars, merely the pitiful predecessor of the colossus that now stands in its place.

In the XV century the basilica, which had already existed for eleven centuries, threatened to collapse, and under Nicolas IV it began to be expanded and rebuilt. Julius II radically solved this problem by ordering to build a huge new cathedral on the place of the ancient basilica, which had to outshine both pagan temples and existing Christian churches, thus strengthening the papal state and expand the influence of the Catholic Church. The foundation stone was laid on April 18, 1506. The funds for the construction of the cathedral were raised thanks to the generous trade in indulgences and levies from the territories subject to the church, called “St. Peter’s Mite”.

Bramante was the first “Renaissance man” to attempt drawings of this new, unfamiliarly monumental house of God. After his death in 1514, Raphael (died 1520) followed by Da Sangallo and Peruzzi. The work remained at a standstill until 1546, when over-ambitious architects could not find a common language. Each was only interested in leaving his or her mark on the structure, and the endless changes in plans almost halted construction.

Siena Cathedral in Siena, Italy

In 1547, Pope Paul III entrusted the 72-year-old Michelangelo with directing the works. Simply put, he simply commanded the stubborn master to finish the construction. Michelangelo was forced to bow to such a firm will of the pope and set to work. He labored on St. Peter’s until his death in 1564.

St. Peter’s Basilica was completely finished on November 18, 1623, when Pope Urban VII solemnly consecrated the temple. All in all it took almost 120 years to erect the cathedral – during this time it took the turn of 20 popes from Julius II to Urban VII, and each of them, in one way or another, tried to expand and make even more monumental the monumental house of God. The list of masters, architects and artists whose skill and talent contributed to the glory of the magnificent temple includes such names as Bramante, Raphael, Bernini and of course Michelangelo.

The interior of the cathedral

Inside St. Peter’s cathedral is astonishing in its scale: the length is 186 meters, the height in the central nave is 45 meters, and with the dome – all 119 meters. In the center of the main aisle the floor plates contain the dimensions of the most significant cathedrals in the world, allowing us to compare them to the size of the cathedral. On the red porphyry slab of the main portal, where the former altar was located, Pope Leo III placed the Roman Emperor’s crown on the head of Charlemagne in Christmas 800. At the fourth pillar on the right is a bronze statue of a seated St. Peter (13th century), whose right foot is polished with the kisses of the faithful.

In addition to the main dome and eight side domes, the interior of St. Peter’s cathedral is decorated by 800 columns and 390 colossal statues of tufa, marble, plaster and bronze. There are 45 separate altars. Visitors enter the basilica through massive bronze doors. Nearby there are “Holy Doors,” which are only opened for the pope to proclaim a holiday or holy year.

Cathedral Dome

The double dome of the cathedral with a diameter of 42, 2 meters above the papal altar rests on powerful pillars; between them in niches are the statues of St. Helen, St. Veronica, St. Longinus and St. Andrew. On the ring of the dome is a Latin inscription: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Above the gallery inside the vestibule between the two layers of the dome, stairs lead up to the lantern, which offers a grand view of St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican and Rome (entrance in the left side nave or right in the narthex).

Papal Altar

Above the Pontifical or Main Altar, on four twisted gilded columns, is a huge bronze canopy (ciborium), created in 1633 by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII. In front of the altar, a double staircase leads down to the Confessio, the place where the tomb of the Apostle Peter is supposedly located. Another masterpiece by Bernini is the pulpit of St. Peter in the apse. The four Fathers of the Church support Peter’s bishop’s chair, above the back of which two putti hold the keys and the tiara, symbols of papal authority, and above them the symbol of the Holy Spirit hovers.

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The apse

The first chapel in the right side aisle contains Michelangelo’s great creation, the sculptural group Pietà, commissioned by the French cardinal Jean Bilard de Lagrol (then 24 years old) for his future tombstone (1498-1499). The young Mary is holding in her lap the Christ taken down from the cross. Michelangelo left his signature on the ribbon on Mary’s chest. Of the many papal tombstones in the side aisles, the baroque tombstone of Pope Alexander VII, Bernini’s (1672-1678) greatest dramatic creation, is particularly impressive. Surrounded by four figures of virtues, the pope looks on as he dies.

Vatican Grottoes

The Vatican Grotte (Sacre Grotte Vaticane), there descends from the columns at the intersection of the longitudinal and transverse aisles; it is a crypt built during the construction of the new basilica. The floor level was then raised by 3.5 m. Under the main altar is a reliquary with holy relics; Pope Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I are buried here. These grottos are to the Vatican German Cemetery, which is to the left of the cathedral.


No shorts, open-shouldered clothing or miniskirts are allowed. The rules are equally strict for both men and women. Even if you get past the security guards in St. Peter’s Square, you may not be allowed inside the museums and the Cathedral.

How to get into St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican

The main cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church is the most spacious religious building in the Christian world. The work of many outstanding Italian masters.

Describing St. Peter’s Cathedral is a non-trivial task. The main Catholic church in the world was, until recently, the largest Christian religious structure. St. Peter’s Cathedral is located in the domain of the Vatican State in the center of Rome.

History of the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral

In the first century, this site was the site of Nero’s Circus. This infamous emperor arranged there not only performances and competitions, but also demonstrative executions of the first Christians. In 67 the most famous among them – the Apostle Peter – was executed here. He was strangely crucified upside down as he considered himself unworthy to be executed like Christ. The tomb of the apostle became an object of secret worship.

After the victory of Christianity at the beginning of the IV century at the command of Emperor Constantine a great basilica was built over the tomb, in which within 5 centuries the main religious and secular ceremonies took place. It was also the burial place for the righteous, who were honored to be buried next to the apostle.

Assumption Cathedral in the Trinity Sergius Lavra

In the 9th century the Basilica was sacked by the Saracens, and then they tried to reconstruct it. In 1506, Pope Julius II ordered the construction of a new church, the likes of which had never been seen in the world. Who built St. Peter’s Basilica? There is no clear answer to this question. In the design and construction of the structure participated famous architects who succeeded each other.

The first architect, Bramante, designed the church in the form of a symmetrical (Greek) cross. Raphael, who continued the construction, decided to focus on the cross with an elongated side (Latin). The idea of a dominant central dome belonged to Michelangelo, and was realized by Giacomo della Porta. Carlo Maderna, who was completing the construction, erected a massive western facade concealing most of the dome, which ceased to be the dominant feature of the structure. The consecration of the cathedral took place in 1626.

Architectural solutions

The construction, which lasted more than a century, coincided with the transition from Renaissance ideas to the early Baroque architectural style. Therefore, in the architecture of St. Paul’s Cathedral one can find features of both of these styles.

Main facade

Close to the entrance to the cathedral on pedestals are sculptures of the apostles – Peter with a key and Paul with a sword. The monumental facade is 45 meters high and 115 wide and is crowned with almost 6 meters high figures of Jesus, 11 (except Peter) apostles and John the Baptist. The cathedral has five doors (portals), four of which were built relatively recently – in the XX century.

The central portal is named Filaret after the Florentine master who made it. The door is the only one that has survived from the old 15th-century basilica. The upper bronze panels of the door depict Christ and the Madonna on the throne. In the middle are the apostles Peter and Paul, and below are scenes of their martyrdom. At the top of the door is a marble bas-relief with the Apostle Peter receiving the keys. Opposite the portal of Filaret is the famous mosaic “Navicella”, laid out by Giotto in the 13th century.

The holy portal is used one year in a quarter of a century. The stonework on the inside is dismantled on the eve of the Jubilee Christmas. At the end of the year, this door is bricked up again. The Portal of Death is only for the removal of the body of the deceased pontiff. This door depicts relevant scenes-the death of Joseph, the Sepulchre, the murder of Peter, and scenes of the sacrament of Communion. There is also the portal of Good and Evil and the door of the Sacraments.

The Dome

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is 138 meters high on the outside and 119 meters on the inside with a diameter of 42 meters. The dome rests on four massive columns. On its frieze is a mosaic inscription quoting the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew about Peter, the Church and the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The authors of the 4 Gospels are depicted on the inside surface. Next to Mark, John and Luke are, respectively, a lion, an eagle and an ox. These apocalyptic animals, according to Revelation, were seen by John at the throne of God. Next to the Evangelist Matthew the angel is drawn, guiding him with his hand.

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Under Pope Clement VIII, the dome of the cathedral was crowned with a cross. On it were placed lead caskets with relics. The balcony of the dome turret offers a memorable Roman panorama.

What is inside the Vatican Cathedral

The interior of the Cathedral is amazing in its size and splendor. Its length is 211.5 m, and the area is more than 22 thousand meters 2 . Inside there may be 55,000 people at a time. This is more than all the other major religious buildings can hold. The world’s largest new church in Côte d’Ivoire is no exception: in 1990 it surpassed the Cathedral in height and area, but not in capacity. There are marks on the floor of the central nave indicating the comparative size of other large temples that easily fit inside.

Another 400,000 people can listen to the Pope in the eponymous square in front of the Cathedral, designed by the great architect and sculptor Giovanni Bernini.

There are always many tourists inside the Cathedral, but its sheer size rules out bustle. Along its perimeter are richly decorated chapels with the tombs of Roman popes and royalty. They were created by eminent masters. In the first Chapel of Mercy on the right is the famous Pieta (Mourning of Christ), a marble sculpture in which the genius of the young Michelangelo showed its full force. After being attacked by a vandal, it is exhibited behind thick protective glass.

Bernini contributed a great deal to the sculptural decoration of the interior. Above the main altar in the center of the Cathedral rises a 29-meter ciborium (canopy), topped with statues of angels. It is based on four twisted columns. Their shape is not accidental: it repeats the column silhouette of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Only the pontiff has the right to lead divine service here. From the main altar the stairs lead to the tomb (“Confessional Room”) of St. Peter.

Nearby is a bronze sitting figure of St. Peter. Its authorship is attributed to the 13th-century Florentine sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio. According to other accounts, the statue was made as early as the 5th century in Syria. The sculpture’s feet glisten from the many touches of those who have made a wish.

Among the relics kept in the temple are the relics of St. John Chrysostom, and the spear of the Roman centurion Longinus, with which Christ was pierced on the cross. A five-meter statue of this centurion, made by Bernini, stands in the niche of one of the columns. Shocked by the martyrdom and resurrection of the Savior, which he witnessed, Longinus began to preach Christianity and was executed for it.

The main nave of the Cathedral ends with an altar ledge (apse) with a gilded bronze pulpit, made in the 17th century by Bernini, which is considered one of the pinnacles of his work. Inside the pulpit there is a wooden throne that belonged to the Apostle Peter. According to tradition, the place where a relic is kept should resemble its shape. Therefore, in the center of the pulpit there is a bronze throne with a bas-relief on the theme of the presentation of the keys to the apostle.

Holy Trinity - Izmailovsky Cathedral in St. Petersburg

On both sides of the throne Bernini placed four figures of the Church Teachers. The Eastern teachers John Chrysostom and Athanasius the Great stand closer to the throne, while Ambrose of Mediolano and Aurelius Augustine with their heads covered with Western mitres stand on the outer side. Above the pulpit is a stained glass window lined with alabaster plates, in the center of which is a dove shining in the sunlight, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. From a distance it looks small, but its wingspan is about 3 meters.

The pulpit of St. Peter is the symbol of the power of the pontiff. One of the Pope’s titles is “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles. The account of the Roman pontiffs begins with Peter.

How to get to St. Peter’s Cathedral

This can be done by several means of public transportation:

  • By subway line A to Ottaviano station;
  • Trolleybus #19 to the Piazza Risorgimento stop;
  • by buses nos. 32, 49, 62, 81, 590, 271 to Via della Conciliazione.

The opening hours of St. Peter’s Basilica are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the high season and to 6 p.m. during the low season. The sightseeing platform closes 1 hour 15 minutes earlier. Entrance to the cathedral is free but not to the observation deck. If you want to get there on foot you have to pay 6 EUR and 8 EUR for the elevator. Only physically fit people who can climb more than 500 steps can save money. Tourists should keep in mind that the last section of all narrowing stairs in both cases is to be climbed independently. You have to almost crawl up the narrower and narrower stairs that end the climb.

In order to minimize the time in line, it is advisable to avoid Wednesdays (the day of worship and papal audience) and Sundays. It is better to arrive in time for the opening or in the afternoon. Tourists who have completed their tour of the Vatican Museums go to the Cathedral without waiting in line. True, it is difficult for a person to cope with such a huge emotional load.

A visit to St. Peter’s Cathedral will be as informative as possible as part of the tour. For a two-hour tour you will need to pay 80 EUR.

During the visit, there is a standard dress code for religious buildings. Shoulders, arms and legs must be covered, women – hair. Men, on the contrary, must remove headgear. Tourists pass through a turnstile with a metal detector.

There is a Vatican post office near the Cathedral. From here you can send a postcard with a special stamp, confirming sending from the Vatican territory.

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