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The Treasures of St. Peter's

Michelangelo's Pieta

The greatest artists of the Renaissance era worked to create this breathtaking church, faith and genius alike paid homage to Peter's tomb and the new basilica. Few works represent this faith and dedication more than the statue to the immediate right of the entrance, The Pieta by Michelangelo...

Michelangelo was just twenty four years old when he carved The Pieta. Picture him searching the quarries, obsessed with finding the carrara marble he needed to finish his work. Imagine the intense concentration on his young face as he shapes the statue to the image in his mind. Artists before and after Michelangelo always depicted the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ in her arms as grief stricken, almost on the verge of desperation. Michelangelo's Virgin emanates sweetness, serenity and a majestic acceptance. He was criticised for portraying the Virgin as too young, since she must have been around 45 to 50 years old when Jesus died. He answered that he did so deliberately because the effects of time could not mar the virginal features of the most blessed of women. His finished working is possibly the world's most famous religious sculpture, and it is the only one he ever signed.

This is because he kept hearing the basilica staff telling pilgrims that other more famous artists had made the sculpture. So he just brought his chisel in and tapped "Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence Made this" right across Mary's breasts. There was no confusion after that.

Messina's Monument to Pope Pius XII

Along the same wall you will find the artist Francesco Messina's monument to Pope Pius XII, who guided the Church during the difficult days of World War II. His prophetic words to the heads of state before the outbreak of the war have become famous

"Nothing is lost with peace, everything can be lost with war."
Pope Pius XII

Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament with Bernini's Tabernacle:

Further inside you will find the silent Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, filled with the scent of flowers and incense. Follow the harmonious lines and colours of the gilded stucco on the ceiling, the gaze of angels in mid-f1ight, and the slanting rays of light that illuminate the space.

Bernini's tabernacle shows two large angels kneeling on the altar, inviting pilgrims and visitors to forget the deafening noise of the world for a moment and contemplate what is really important.

Michelangelo's Gregorian Chapel

As you move towards the heart of the building you will find Michelangelo's Gregorian Chapel, one of the most beautiful and lavish chapels in the world consisting of coloured marble, mother of pearl, and gemstones, mosaics of all colours, and an enchanting stuccowork on the ceiling.

The Chapel of Saint Petronilla

According to legend, Saint Petronilla was St. Peter's daughter, who left Jerusalem with him to go to Rome. She was actually Peter's spiritual daughter, in that he baptised her and showed her the light.

Her relics are now beneath the altar in the chapel that was consecrated by Pope Paul the fifth. The altar above is one of the most outstanding mosaics in the basilica. It was created by Pietro Cristofari, showing the martyrdom and apotheosis of the saint as she is received by Christ

The Monuments of Urban the Third and Paul the Third

At the rear of the basilica, where you will find the Chapel of the Cathedra and monuments to two Popes, Urban the third and Paul the third, patrons of two of the most eminent artists who contributed to the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Pope Urban discovered the great Neapolitan artist Bernini who, in return, dedicated the bronze monument to his patron. On either side of the black marble sarcophagus are fine, white marble statues of young women. The one on the left holding a child in her arms represents Charity, who looks sadly at another child pointing at the dead pope. The other woman symbolises Justice. In the middle, the bronze skeleton of Death holds a scroll with the name of the dead Pope in a bony hand.

Paul the third was the patron of Michelangelo. It was Pope Paul who convinced him to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The artist was over seventy when he had completed the piece and was ordered to direct construction of this new St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo accepted the assignment and refused any form of payment, because he wanted to work to "render glory to God, honour to St. Peter, and for the salvation of his soul."

The Left Transept

The light-filled left transept of the basilica is a large chapel not open to tourists or the curious. All the Masses in the Basilica are celebrated here, except for Sundays and holy days. On Good Friday, the Pope joins the other fathers to hear confessions. Whether confessing to the Pope really makes for a good Friday or not, will probably depend on what you have been up to since your last confession.

The Tomb of St Peter and Altar Of The Confession

You won't be able to miss the Papal Altar with it's baroque canopy in the heart of the church. It is believed to be on the exact site of the tomb of St. Peter himself.

While the new testiment never mentions Peter being buried here, recent excavations unearthed the tomb that some archeologists believe are the actual remains of St Peter. The skeleton was missing its feet, supposing that after dying by crucifixion upside down, his feet were cut off to remove him from the cross. They also cite that the age of the deceased was around 60 to 70 years, which would be consistent with his age when he died. Furthermore, a piece of plaster which had come off the repository in which the bones were supposedly buried, bore the Greek inscription PETROS ENI, "Peter is within".

Above the simple alter rises The Baldachin by Bernini. The four spiral columns are decorated with gold. The first part of the columns with helicoidal fluting symbolises the soul as it moves to heaven.

Some believe these vine-leaf decorated columns came from ancient Greece, others say they were from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.

At the bottom of the dark, heavy columns, Bernini managed to show his lighter side. The columns rest on marble pedestals, and each of these is decorated with the coat of arms of Pope Urban. Bernini, it is said, having heard that one of the Pope's nieces was pregnant, sculpted the face of a woman in various stages of pregnancy and childbirth on the sides of the four pedestals. Historians friendly to the church claim the woman was the Pope's niece while critics claim this was actually his mistress.

The Dome of St Peter's

Of course one of the most impressive sights is the interior of that great dome, one of Michelangelo's greatest creations. At the time of his death the dome was only finished as far as the drum, the base on which domes sit. The dome was vaulted under the direction of the architect Giacomo Della. Eight hundred men worked day and night by torch-light for twenty two months to do so.

The brilliance of the 96 figures in the mosaic is overwhelming. The dome is decorated in the three colours of Medieval mysticism, blue, gold and red divided into sixteen sections that converge at the top of the dome divided into six horizontal circles.

In the 18th century cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it. If you decide to take the climb to the dome via the spiral stairs you will be able to glimpse the rings.

The Latin inscription that runs around the bottom of the dome translates to the bible quote that we mentioned earlier.

"Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

Take a look at the four points surrounding the tomb. The Four Relics sit at base of the pillars that support the dome. St. Veronica, St. Helena, St. Longinus, and St. Andrew, the works of four different renaissance masters. The chapels above the niches were designed and built by Bernini each containing the relics of these saints.

There are of course many more treasures to be discovered once you get in and scout around. Watch out for the grottoes and the treasury among others. But mainly it's the scale of the thing as a whole effect that really takes your breath away. There is no other cathedral on earth quite like it.

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