I tried to avoid the obvious locations when I last visited Rome; what would I gain from seeing the Coliseum once more, or ambling through the Forum and Imperial ruins for the third time in my life?
There were two particular exceptions to this; the Musei Vaticani was one, for how could a few hours possibly reveal all of the wonders there? St Peter’s Basilica was the other. Despite my atheism the Catholic Church had got my attention. The museum contents are of course full of what were once private collections of the popes, but from its design and construction throughout the 16th Century the church was a very public display; a display of wealth, power, and influence. Remember that the popes of this period had a powerful military at their disposal too.
Which is why many of the great artists of the period were called upon to design and build what would be the world’s largest church on the supposed site of St Peter’s burial. (Incidentally this doesn’t make it the most important; Rome’s cathedral is actually the older Archbasilica of St John Lateran which is a few kilometres away from the Vatican.) Michelangelo contributed a design for the church, and in particular its famous dome that dominates the city and his Pietá sculpture.
Bernini of course gave us the great welcoming arms of the colonnade that encircles St Peter’s Square and the magnificent bronze baldacchino at the heart of the church. The Chair of St Peter, a wooden relic thought to have been the saint’s seat as the first bishop of the city, is encased in another of his confections.
Baldacchino detail, Bernini
Baldacchino detail, Bernini
Chair of St Peter
Bramante, Raphael, Giacomo della Porta, Sangallo and more worked on designs during the century and the great facade was added by Carlo Madermo. Then there are the numerous artisans who added the polychromatic marble, the dramatic and imposing statuary and the gilt ceiling details.
Nave of St Peters
Now if you look carefully at the last image in the gallery above you’ll see two separate pieces of symbolism. The keys in the lower half are of course associated with St Peter who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The upper symbol is a peculiar piece of headgear worn by popes for centuries and is usually combined with the keys as an overall symbol of the papacy. This headgear or papal tiara is properly known as the triregnum, comprising as it does of three crowns. Three! Though there are multiple crowns in the Queen’s jewels neither she nor any of there predecessors would wear them all at once. Combined with the keys there is an underlying threat that you’d better comply with the authority of the Pope.
There was little chance you might forget it either…
Some years ago I undertook a development project in a Tanzanian village called Mahida. The poverty was striking, and the two main features in the village, the school and the community centre, both benefitted from some repair work that we undertook. In a clearing just outside the village centre was another structure. Bigger, sturdier, unimaginatively designed, and completely at odds with the surroundings. It was a catholic church.
Postscript: the header image in this piece isn’t St Peter, it’s St Paul. My own piece of vanity.