Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stational Church: San Pietro in Vaticano

Today, the stational church is the great San Pietro in Vaticano dedicated to the Apostle Peter.

The Apostle Peter probably came to Rome some time after the year 50 and was martyred around 67 AD in the Circus of Nero near the Vaticanum, a hill outside Imperial Rome near a Roman necropolis. Today the site of his martyrdom and burial is commemorated by the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica.

The “Fisherman’s” burial chamber is found protected under the papal altar in the new basilica. Over his tomb Pope Anacletus (79-91) built an oratory and Constantine (306-337) began to construct his basilica in 323. Pope Sylvester I (314-335) consecrated it on November 18, 326, although it was not completed until the reign of Constans (337-350). The Constantinian basilica remained intact until 1450. This ancient church had the form of a Latin cross, 140 meters long and 63 meters wide, with five naves divided by ninety columns, all coming from nearby monuments and especially from the mausoleum of Hadrian. For centuries the basilica was used as the official cemetery for the popes.

When the building threatened to collapse in the fifteenth century, Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) began its restoration. With his death, work came to a halt and nearly remained so for half a century. It was Pope Julius II (1503-1513) who decided that restoration would not suffice, but that a new building was needed. Donato Bramante (1444-1514) was placed in charge, and Julius II laid the first stone (in what is now the St. Veronica pier) on April 18, 1506. After Bramante’s death, construction continued under the architectural direction of Raphael, then Baldassarre Peruzzi, and then for a long time, the great Michelangelo.

One of Michelangelo’s primary contributions to the plan was the great dome. Successive architects could not agree whether to make St. Peter’s into the shape of a Greek or Latin cross. In 1607 Pope Paul V (1605-1621) appointed Carlo Maderno architect and instructed him to complete the basilica in the form of a Latin cross. The pope’s decision was based on two factors: he wanted the new basilica to occupy the same area as the old basilica; and a building in the form of a Latin cross was better suited for important liturgical functions. By adding three chapels on each side to the eastern portion of Michelangelo’s building, Maderno created the nave we now see, though his plan is sometimes criticized because the extension necessarily conceals the lower part of Michelangelo’s dome. Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) consecrated the basilica on November 18, 1626, exactly 1300 years after its first consecration. Thus the new Basilica of St. Peter was 120 years in the making (1506-1626).

The papal altar does not stand directly beneath the dome’s center but directly above the tomb of St. Peter, as did the altar of the original basilica. The altar overlooks the confessio and faces east. The present altar dates from 1594, when Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) had the earlier altars of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) and Pope Callistus II (1119-1124) enclosed within it. Only the pope, or the cardinal whom he deputes, may offer the Mass at this altar. In 1613 Pope Paul V asked Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) and Martino Ferrabosco (Rome 1615-1623) to make an open sunken confession under the dome, in front of the tomb of the apostle. In the wall is the Niche of the Pallia, with a silver casket (1700) in which the pallia are kept until June 29 of each year, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, when the Pope confers them on the newly appointed metropolitan archbishops. (The pallium is a vestment made by Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere from the wool of lambs that are blessed at Mass on the Feast of St. Agnes – January 21 – and borne in procession by Roman virgin girls or nuns at the Basilica of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura.)

Click here to read more about the Basilica of St. Peter

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