Treasures of the Church- Holy Sites

Basilica of St. peter

The apostle Saint Peter acme to Rome around the year 50 and was martyrized on the Vatican Hill between the years 64 and 67. On his tomb Pope Anacletus built an oratory which was replaced with a basilica by the emperor Constantine.

The Basilica of Saint Peter, as we contemplate it now, is the fruit of a laborious reconstruction of the former Basilica that the emperor Constantine built around the year 320 a.d. It was consecrated by Pope Silvester I on November 18, 326. Saint Peter is the biggest Church in the entire world, measuring 192 meters long.

For about 12 centuries the Basilica functioned with basic reparations until Pope Julius II deemed it an unsafe place and so ordered a new basilica to be built. On April 18, 1506, the first stone was placed for the construction of the new basilica. It needed around 120 years for its completion and twelve architects, some of whom included the famous Bramante, Michaelangelo, Rafael, and Maderno.

The former and new Basilica were built over the tomb of the first apostle who was buried over the slopes of the Vatican hill, in an area of cementeries near the circle of the emperor Neron.

The large area of the cupula built by Michaelangelo is a dominant feature of the skyline of the city of Rome, establishing an ideal point of convergence. On the other hand, the basilica reminds us of the simple tomb of Saint Peter, the rock over which Christ founded his Church. The columns built by Bernini in the shape of open arms as a sign of a warm welcome, highlight the idea of the Church as Mother which in Christ makes diverse nations and peoples one community of brethren.

To enter the Basilica there are five doors, two of which are open for the pilgrims. The central door known as the “bronze door” was part of the former Basilica and the rear left door is known as the Door of Death. These two doors always remain closed. The rear right door ist he Holy Door which is opened only in Holy Years or Jubilee Years. The door to the right of the central door is known as the Door of the Sacraments and the door to the left of the central door has been named as the Door of Good and Evil.

The Holy Door
The Holy Door is a symbol of the Jubilee. At the beginning of the Holy Year it is opened by the Pope with a solemn celebration. Pilgrims from all over the world pass through this door. The Holy Door is the most meaningful symbol of the Holy Year. It is normally sealed and it is opened only on jubilee occasions.

It seems that the idea of closing and opening the door only on these extraordinary occasions is taken from the ancient Christian custom that prohibited entry to the church of public penitents until they had not completely fulfilled their penance.

The ancient ceremony of opening transmitted from generation to generation since the year 1499, is rich in symbols and in meaning. The tool used to open the door is not a key as one may imagine, but rather it is a hammer. The banging that takes place in the ritual and that is done directly by the Pope, reminds one of a door that is difficult to knock down. Indeed, justice and mercy, highlighted by the spirit of the Holy Year, are attained only by the strength of prayer and repentance. In the same manner, in the words the Pope pronounces meanwhile he is tumbling down the piece that covers the door and in the responses the ritual requires of those present in the celebration, one finds the meaning of this event which officially opens the celebrations of the Jubilee: “This is the door of the Lord,” the Pope states, and the faithful respond, “The just will enter through it.”

Statue of Saint Peter and the Central Nave
As one enters Saint Peter’s Basilica, the first feeling one experiences is amazement. The visitor is dominated by the grandeur of the church; but this is a momentary sensation because the largeness surrounding you leads you to participate in a much greater reality and thus enter into a dimension of pure contemplation. Its construction, fruit of the sublime art of many artists, gives witness to the perennial faith of a Church founded over Christ, and narrates the glory, power, strength, and beauty of God who is present in time and embraces all those who believe in Him. The apostle Peter, the first Pope, is the loyal witness of God made Man. His bronze statue is the most sought item by millions of pilgrims who come from all over the world to venerate the Saint and pray over his tomb.

The statue’s right foot has been wore down by the kisses from the faithful who still repeat to this day the ancient gesture of devotion. The statue, credited to Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302), represents Peter sitting and blessing as he extends in his hands the keys which are a symbol of the authority given by Christ to govern the Church.

Bernini’s Altar
The center of Saint Peter’s Basilica is the tomb of the apostle which is covered by the Papal altar. Millions of pilgrims head towards this area. It is here where the High Priest celebrates the solemn liturgies. Also in this way, one visibly sees the continuity between the first Pope and the current Pope, both of whom are representatives of Jesus whom the Church makes present in the history of the world. The Eucharist celebrated by the Pope on this altar gives meaning to and continues salvation history in time. Above the altar there is a large, bronze baldacchino made by Bernini in 1626. The four huge columns of bronze, twisted and decorated with olive leaves and bees support a draped canopy that seems to be moved by the wind. The baldocchino which covers the altar and the tomb of Saint Peter makes evident the idea of the tent which conserves, protects, and adorns; it is also an explicit allusion to the prologue of the Gospel of John (chapter 1, verse 14) which mentions that the Word of God is made flesh and places his “tent” in the midst of the community of people.

In front of the Papal Altar, one finds the Confession. It is so called because it was built over the tomb of he who confessed his faith to the point of martyrdom. Here 99 lights are lit daily to venerate Saint Peter.

Tomb of Saint Peter
The many episodes that tradition attributes to Saint Peter during his apostolate in Rome, as well as the incredible flourishing of legends and the numerous churches named in his honor, prove the continued and ever growing veneration from Christians of the first Pope and the most human and kind presence of this fisherman from Bethsaida of Galilee. For many centuries it has been considered that the humble tomb, placed over the slope of the Vatican hill and on which the impressive Basilica was built, is the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
In recent times and by initiative of Pope Pius XII, between the years 1940-1957, many meticulous excavations in the Vatican necropolis have been done. The surprising arqueological findings that emerged contributed to the confirmation of the authenticity of Saint Peter’s tomb.
There where Peter died on the Cross, “equaling the Passion of Christ” (Tertulian), has remained throughout the centuries as the immovable “rock” over which the Son of God has founded for all eternity his Church (cf. Matthew 16, 13-19).

The Chair
Next to the apse of Saint Peter emerges the throne of the Chair that Bernini completed between the years 1658 and 1666. The See of the bishops, and in a particular way that of the Pope, are normally designated as cathedrals to highlight the duty of teaching, typical of the episcopal service and most specially of the Pope. According to legend, the Episcopal Chair of Peter is found in that majestic throne, precisely the seat from where the apostle, already advanced in age and fatigue, taught the early Christians.

The bronze throne is consequently a large reliquary in the shape of a monstrance supported by four Doctors of the Church – Saints Ambrose and Augustine representing the Latin Church and Athanasius and John Chrysostum the Greek Church. Since antiquity, the Church has called Doctors those men and women who have contributed in a decisive way to studying in depth the message of Revelation. Bernini has put them at the foot of the Cathedra of the Pope to the center of which Bernini placed the Dove, symbol of the Third Person of the Trinity (Holy Spirit), makes evident that the Pope, in his ministry of Teacher of the entire Church, is illuminated and inspired by God himself.

Pieta of Michaelangelo
It is the first of the four “pietas” that Michaelangelo made and the only one completely finished and different from the other works of the artist in that this one is signed. Michaelangelo was only 24 years old at the time. The statue causes astonishment by the precision of the shapes and by the composure of the beauty of the faces and bodies. The originality of the sculpture is evident. In representing the Virgin Mary with Christ dead in her arms, artists would often depict her beaten by pain and desperation. Michaelangelo, on the other hand, wanted to give us a different vision of human pain: the celestial countenance of the Mother who holds the lifeless body of Jesus reveals a sweetness without comparison, a serene acceptance of pain. It is said that when Michaelangelo was reproached for having sculpted the Virgin Mary to look too young when in reality she should have been at least 45 or 50 years old, he responded that he had done so on purpose because the action of time could not ruin the face of the Virgin Mary which is a symbol of perennial youth.

Vatican Grottos
The Vatican Grottos extend underneath the Basilica of Saint Peter and the surrounding areas. In the grottos, sarcophoga of the former Basilica and funeral monuments that date back to the Roman period are found and safeguarded. One may also find chapels and tombs of various saints and popes.

Vatican Museums
The history of the vatican collections begins under the pontificate of Julius II (1503-1513) and continues, modelling itself by the culture and taste of the time. It was born in the Renaissance as an exclusive collection, almost particular, of master works of ancient sculptures, and it developped with the decoration of palaces and vatican gardens. Under the rigor of the counterreformation it was put almost totally to the side. It reflourished in the 18th century with the intention of providing scholarly documentation, first in the library field and later like a great public collection, made for the benefit of the culture. It housed so many ancient works of art which were bought with the purpose of saving them from being exported like the others that archaeology had dug up. In the 19th century, it was expanded with new delineate his contribution to the Pontifical magisterium. The crown of rays,
themes of interest, such as etruscan and Egyptian works, and even with ancient paintings of “natives” and relics of paleochristian art. In the end, it reached its greatest splendor in the 20th century, opening itself up to ethnology and contemproary art.

Sistine Chapel
The Chapel was built at the will of Sixtus IV between 1475 and 1483 who also named the chapel. It was destined to be the chapel of the Palace, but it needed to represent at the same time a type of fort. In the chapel there have been and continue to have the most important ceremonies with the presence of the Pope: it is here where the Conclave takes place, the meeting of Cardinals when the Pope dies so that they elect the Pope’s successor.

The Sistine Chapel represents one of the most outstanding monuments and one of the most beautiful examples of Italian art. It is known for its frescos of Michaelangelo, but many frescos of famous artists of the time are also found. Many of the landscapes and moments of Sacred Scripture as well as the statues of prophets and apostles are also found there.

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