Let me just do a quick recap from where I left off two weeks ago:
I’ve just been through the emotional wringer, looking at the Sistine Chapel and sobbing into my handkerchief in a corner of the room.
I mean it: to be in this room with – but for time – the master of all, was a profound experience for me.
Now our tour guide gives us an opportunity to breathe, and walk some more down the halls and out the side of the Vatican Museums and into the Basilica of Saint Peter.
Very short religion recap: Saint Peter was one of Jesus’ Apostles, kind of the ring leader. He founded the Roman Catholic Church. Peter escaped imprisonment in Jerusalem (an event painted by Raphael in one of the rooms of the Vatican Museum)
... eventually got himself to Rome, got himself imprisoned there and then got himself crucified, too.
According to Roman Catholic doctrine, Peter did not want to die the same way his Christ died, believing he was unworthy to die the same way.
So he asked to be crucified upside down. (Jesus was crucified right-side up).
Peter was buried somewhere on the premises, when it was the Caligulan Circus, a public sports arena of a sort. It was also the site for the first state-sanctioned executions of people who followed the new Christian religion. The Church calls them martyrs.
Peter wasn’t the first Christian to be martyred here, but he is probably the most famous.
Several centuries later, the Roman Emperor Constantine built the first St. Peter’s church on this site, seeing as the apostle was buried somewhere beneath.
Pope Julius II – you remember him, the biggest patron of both Raphael and Michelangelo – made the decision to tear down the old church and build one befitting the first Pope and the first Bishop of Rome (Peter).
It took more than a century to complete the work Pope Julius started, but it stands today as the largest church in the world, at over 15,000 square meters. It’s more than 2 football fields long, more than 1.5 football fields wide and, beneath the dome, it is 1.3 football fields high (you can interpret football as either American football or soccer, it’s pretty much the same).
The place is big.
It’s huge. Standing here in front of the front doors, you can’t see the dome because the façade is so tall.
And it’s crowded.
You may remember from my last two posts that Fiona and I paid a tidy sum to get through the museums without the crowds.
Well they’re here, in the basilica. Thousands of them.
So our last part of the private tour is pretty quick here in the big church.
There are a couple of things I want to relate:
There are four major holy relics that reside in the four columns that support the basilica dome designed by Michelangelo: the true cross including the nails, the veil of Saint Veronica, the spear of destiny and the cross of St. Andrew.
You can’t actually see any of these relics just visiting the church, so you have to take it on the Pope’s word that they are here.
I don’t think I need to explain what “the true cross and nails” are, but perhaps you might not know that it was Helene, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, who, on a pilgrimage to Palestine, purportedly discovered the true cross. So she is the one holding the true cross on column one.
Recently, Pope Francis stepped out onto his balcony with a box. He didn’t open the box but he told the crowds below that he was able to confirm it did indeed contain the veil of Veronica. He peeked but he’s not sharing.
In case you didn’t know (I didn’t), I quote from Wikipedia:
According to Catholic tradition, Veronica was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face miraculously impressed upon it. This piece of cloth became known as the Veil of Veronica.
The spear of destiny or, as the Church refers to it, “the holy lance,” was used by one of the Roman soldiers at the crucifixion to see whether Jesus was dead yet. The soldier pierced his chest to see if he would still bleed. He didn’t, so he was pronounced dead. All sorts of myths have arisen around this relic, and even Hitler thought if he could seize it, it would help him win the war.
Problem is, the “real” spear is contested – there seem to be several of them around – not to mention if it really is. The Church is not confirming they have the real one. But one of them is there nevertheless.
As for the cross of St. Andrew, here’s the story: Andrew was the brother of the Apostle Peter. And apparently he actually introduced Peter to Jesus. Both brothers became apostles. Andrew was also crucified, somewhere in what is now modern Turkey. He also deemed himself unworthy to die the same way Jesus did, so he asked for a different kind of cross, shaped like an X instead of the traditional T.
This kind of cross is known as the St. Andrews Cross.
Now just two more things of note during our hasty tour of the basilica of St. Peter (Fi and I were both flagging after the hours of walking and learning, and the crowds were really starting to get to me).
One of Michelangelo’s earlier works is nestled in a protected side chapel in the church.
This monumental work of art is rendered in Carrara marble and is the only piece of art Michelangelo actually signed (I learned that from a recent NYT crossword). It is a little shorter than two meters high, by two meters wide. Jesus is at peace and Mary is depicted as a young woman (she was pure so she didn’t age, according to Church doctrine.)
The circle of porphyry where the first Holy Roman Emperor was crowned by Pope Leo III. The Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day, 800 in St. Peter's (the original church, not this ‘’modern” version), making him the most powerful ruler of his time. This also makes the stone circle about 1,400 years old.
This concludes my lecture series on a most marvelous tour in the Eternal City.