Arts & Tradition

St. Peter’s Basilica: The Most Magnificent Church in All of Christendom

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
TIMEJanuary 4, 2022

Peter, the first pope and bishop of Rome, appointed by Jesus himself, took the lead to establish Christianity in Rome. He was later martyred; however, his legacy was set.

One and a half millennia passed, and the inspired Pope Julius II sought to honor St. Peter and the origins of the papacy. He turned to Renaissance architect and painter Donato Bramante and requested him to make “the most magnificent, biggest church in Christendom.”

For more than 100 years, some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance and Baroque periods contributed to the magnificent creation of St. Peter’s Basilica that would offer its patrons an experience of the divine.

Although his design was not entirely realized, Bramante embarked on the journey that embraced the Renaissance ideals of truth and beauty, honoring St. Peter and the divine principles the saint embodied, and set the course for creating this great Basilica.

Bramante aimed to transport visitors to a divine realm through perfect proportions and geometry. After Bramante’s passing, the direction of the design varied in Raphael’s and others’ hands before Michelangelo rose to the occasion and took the lead to expand upon the earlier vision. He elongated the main nave to allow greater attendance and developed the majestic dome we see today.

The Baroque period began under the direction of the Roman Catholic Church to reach out, stimulate, and engage people to inspire their relationship with the divine. Architect Carlo Maderno completed the building with an expressive façade of the era.

Then Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in Baroque fashion, thoroughly engaged visitors with his design of The Baldacchino, a large bronze canopy marking the location of St. Peter’s tomb. He also created a theatrical experience of the Holy Spirit with his awe-inspiring Cathedra of Petri (Throne of St. Peter).

Finally, he completed the Basilica with the large welcoming arms of St. Peter’s Square, to embrace pilgrims, visitors, and guests alike who came from far and wide to see the pope, experience the divine, and witness the legacy of St. Peter.

Peters Basilica-Maderno-Facade
At the center of the second floor is the loggia, which serves as a stage to present incoming popes who, as representatives of God, stand with the 12 apostles seen here lining the top of the façade. The apostles, Jesus’s closest disciples, stand upon 12 giant Corinthian columns, perhaps intended as pillars upon which the Roman Catholic Church was built. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
Bramante’s design of a Greek cross
Bramante’s design of a Greek cross, with four identical arms within a square. A dome is situated above the center with four smaller domes above each arm of the cross. These elements are centered around the focal point: St. Peter’s tomb. (Bramante/CC BY-SA 4.0)
St Peters Basilica-Bernini-St Peters Square
Looking from the top of the basilica, we see in the distance St. Angelo Bridge, which provides passage from Rome proper to St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s square is defined by two large fountains, an obelisk marking the location of St. Peter’s martyrdom, and two colonnades that welcome guests like open arms. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-Baldachino
The Baldacchino stands at the center of the basilica and is one of two altars where the pope may deliver Mass. The eight-story bronze canopy humanizes the giant scale of the space beneath the dome and draws focus to the location of St. Peter’s tomb. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-Baldachino-Chair of Peter
The Baldacchino is framed by twisting columns that draw the eye through to the Cathedra of Petri (Throne of St. Peter). As the sun sets, golden light shines through the oval window and is extended with sculpted shafts of golden light. Cherubs float in a divine cloud that seems to frame the bronze Throne of Peter. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-ceiling & dome
The semi-circular barrel vaulted ceilings direct one to the grand dome directly above the Baldacchino and St Peter’s tomb. The sense of space is overwhelming, leaving one awestruck. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-Michelangelo-Dome-Interior
Michelangelo’s dome projects upward as if reaching for the heavens and letting divine light in through the lantern into the heart of the basilica. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
The nave fills with light in the late afternoon. With the extended nave, the basilica now has the largest interior volume of any in the world and can accommodate 60,000 people. (gillmar/Shutterstock)
Michelangelo elongated the dome. The shape projected further into the sky and also better transferred the dome’s weight with a more vertical path to the pillars below. The lantern crowns the dome, glowing at night and letting light in during the day. (alexeyart1/Shutterstock)
St Peters Basilica-mosaic-coffered ceiling-
The repeated form of the ornately coffered ceiling emphasizes mosaics that depict biblical scenes. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-Pope Leo XII-sculpture-
Sculptures gesture across the nave to engage visitors in the divine scene. Here stands a sculpture of Pope Leo XII. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
St Peters Basilica-Michelang
Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Mary holds Jesus with an expression not of sorrow, but of hope. (J.H.Smith/Cartio)
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.