Saint Peter’s Basilica: A Magnificent Renaissance Icon
Nothing speaks of greatness as much as the Renaissance period does. Filled with grandeur, classical elements, magnificence, and elegance, this artistic and architectural movement swept through Europe and left an irreversible mark of glory on the culture of its nations.
When paired with Christianity, the Renaissance delivered great feats and great human achievements. One such feat of architecture is the subject of today’s article. Nestled in the center of Vatican City , St. Peter’s Basilica is among the greatest achievements of world architecture. Designed by Masters like Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante and Maderno, this breathtaking church stands as an indomitable monument of times past and the architectural glorification of God.
View of St Peter’s Square, Vatican City. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Story of St. Peter’s Basilica
The location of this basilica has its roots in times much more ancient than its building date. It takes the name of Saint Peter , one of the chief apostles of Jesus. And according to legend (and perhaps, fact) the basilica is built upon the spot of Saint Peter’s burial, or near it at least.
Saint Peter allegedly traveled to Rome after several decades of preaching. In Rome, which was then under the rule of Emperor Nero , Saint Peter met his doom. Alongside Saint Paul, he was martyred in 64 AD, after a string of accusations against Christians that Nero propagated. He blamed them for causing the Great Fire of Rome in that same year. Saint Peter was martyred by crucifixion and Saint Paul was beheaded at the Circus of Nero, beside one of the great obelisks of Rome. That same obelisk still stands today and is revered by believers and pilgrims as a witness of the death of Saints. The legend states that Saint Peter was buried a mere 150 meters (490 feet) from where he was crucified.
At that spot, almost three centuries later, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity – Constantine the Great – ordered the construction of a splendid basilica of Saint Peter. Naturally, it was much less splendid than the current basilica, and was known in the Renaissance as the Old St. Peter’s Basilica.
Constantine ordered the construction on the spot of a small shrine, which was believed to be the burial of Saint Peter. The building lasted from 319 AD to 349 AD. It is stated that as much as a million tons of earth needed to be packed to make the platform which held the building.
In the decades and centuries afterwards, the basilica became the traditional burial place of many important individuals, including most of the popes up to the 15 th century.
Time has no mercy – for no man and no building. After more than a millennium, the Old St. Peter’s basilica was nearing its end. The building grew dilapidated, showing critical signs of weakness, and threatening with collapse. It was not until the time of Pope Julius 2 nd ( Giuliano della Rovere ) that serious plans for rebuilding or renewing the basilica were considered. After plenty of architectural considerations, careful planning and assessing the state of disrepair, it was at last decided that the old basilica was beyond salvation. It needed to be destroyed and a new one constructed. And that is the beginning of the story of this modern, magnificent building.
The simple fact that the construction of this new basilica took 120 years to complete tells us all we need to know about its complexity and grandeur. This also means that over that century and two decades, many popes and key architects were a key part of the overall design and building process.
The new basilica was the brainchild of several architects that were amongst the crucial persons of the European baroque and The Renaissance . Over those years, amongst those involved were the famed Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Raphael, and Antonio da San Gallo. These names would later remain etched in the pages of history as some of Europe’s greatest, and their skill and vision remains immortalized in the St. Peter’s Basilica we can see today.
The first, original floor plan of the basilica was created by Donato Bramante, in 1506. He died in 1514, and had to be replaced with da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo, who both died the next year. Raphael later took over the designs, in 1514/1516, and he introduced a critical change to the design. Raphael chose to implement an elaborate nave which consisted of five bays, and rows of elaborate apsidal chapels on each side.
The nave of St Peter’s Basilica. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Sadly, Raphael died in 1520, and in his place came Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi. Raphael’s successor didn’t apply any successful changes to the design. He died in 1536. No significant changes were made until Michelangelo became the main architect in 1547. This great artist and architect is today considered one of the principal contributors to the design and the final form of the basilica.
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Michelangelo’s Masterly Touch and the Final Form of the Basilica
It was the great visionary mind of Michelangelo that really combined all the designs of his predecessors, combining and expanding them into something much greater. And even though he was 70 years old at the time, he still implemented crucial elements. He decided to go with the “Greek cross” scheme, and to retain the grand dome element. This is one part of the rivalry between Italian cities of the Renaissance, where Michelangelo and his contemporaries wanted to outdo the great achievement of Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was considered the critical founding figure of Renaissance architecture, and he was the first to accomplish building a grandiose dome since times of antiquity – his legacy is the grand cathedral of Florence, with the famed “Brunelleschi dome”.
The dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Michelangelo died in 1564 and was succeeded by his student Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. The pair further advanced the building process and oversaw much of the final stages of construction. The two also brought it to what is generally considered completion (as a building) in 1590. Officially, though, the basilica was consecrated nearly four decades later, in 1626, by Pope Urban VIII.
The dimensions of the basilica are truly immense and mind boggling. The length is 220 meters (720 feet), while it is 150 meters (490 feet) wide and an amazing 147 meters tall (448 feet). The diameter of the main dome is an incredible 42 meters (138 feet). Another aspect on the main façade that can help you truly wrap your head around the dimensions are the large Roman inscriptions . Each letter is 1.4 meters high (4.6 feet).
One inscription is a part of the façade designed by Carlo Maderno and states:
IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII
(In honor of the Prince of Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate)
The façade is an elaborate example of the architecture of the period, is characterized by elegant Corinthian columns running alongside the entrances, and the statues of Christ, John the Baptist , and eleven Apostles.
The façade of St Peter’s Basilica with Corinthian columns and inscription. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The other inscriptions are located alongside the inner circumference of the dome.
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
(... you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.)
This majestic inscription is done in large blue letterhead letters, and is taken from the Vulgate Bible, Matthew 16: 18-19.
Inscription on the inner circumference of the dome. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Influences in the Western Christendom
It goes without saying that a basilica as magnificent as this one has left some pretty big influences on the architecture of the later periods. When Western Christendom is considered, i.e. Catholicism, it is clear that the major design elements found in St. Peter’s Basilica also found their way to other important religious buildings throughout Europe. Even before the basilica was completed, it had influence. It was Giacomo della Porta who designed the Sant’Andrea della Valle – a minor basilica also in Rome, whose main design feature is the great dome. Other churches with such domes are Sant’Agnese Basilica in Agone, or Santi Biagio e Carlo ai Catinari in Rome. In other places, there is the famous Anglican cathedral of Saint Paul , the seat of the Bishop of London, and the famed Pantheon of Paris, or the Viennese church of St. Karl Borromäus. All were greatly influenced by the St. Peter’s Basilica of Rome.
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Even in modern periods, architects draw from the well of inspiration that is this magnificent building. Many churches which were built during 19 th and 20 th centuries are considered a revival movement and implement many aspects of Michelangelo’s great architectural feats. Some examples include the Polish Basilica of Our Lady of Licheń at the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows – with clear parallels between the two buildings. Others are the Basilica of Saint Josaphat in Milwaukee and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago. Another example, although much less elaborate or decorated, is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the capital of Ivory Coast, Yamoussoukro. The impact of the monumental achievement that is Renaissance building is clear and has resonated across the entire world.
The Great Dome
As can be gathered, the chief element of the entire basilica is the great dome. As the centerpiece, it received great attention and still remains as the most splendid aspect. Interestingly, the dome cracked in the mid-18 th century and had to be reinforced by chains.
Beneath it are four enormous statues of saints, each one associated with a relic that is kept in the basilica. These statues are spread around the main altar and the respective relics. One of the four relics is the purported fragment of the Christ’s Cross. The piece was allegedly brought by Saint Helena from Jerusalem in the 4 th century, and thus her statue is there. The second relic is the Spear of Longinus – one of the four claimed – and it is represented by a statue of Saint Longinus. The third is the statue of Saint Veronica, representing the towel which bears the imprint of Christ’s face . And the fourth statue is that of Saint Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles and the first to follow Christ.
Above them, in the dome, a splendid and intricately detailed mosaic is displayed to the onlookers below. The mosaic displays Christ and Mary, all the Apostles, John the Baptist, and heavenly angels in procession, bearing the instruments of Christ’s Passion . In the center of the dome is the image of God, 118 meters above the floor (390 feet).
Plenty of symbolism is connected with the imagery in the center of the basilica. The dome represents heaven, with God in the center, while the floor is the earth. To signify this, there are mosaics at the very base of the dome – they represent the four Evangelists: John, Matthew, Luke, and Mark – a metaphor for the ascension to heaven from the earth.
A Different Kind of Worship
The glory and magnificence that is the St. Peter’s Basilica is a never-ending source of inspiration for many. A mere sight of the building can leave a lifelong impression, thanks to the sheer size and the intricacy. And isn’t it suitable? The original idea of the Church officials was just that – to impress and subjugate with size and magnificence. As Gian Lorenzo Bernini said, the Basilica in its grander was to embrace and strengthen the faith of the believers, to amaze heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to defeat the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith.
But it also poses some important and interesting questions. It clearly reflects the riches of the church, and begs the question: Is Christ to be worshiped in such splendor? Isn’t the rejection of the material wealth the original purpose?
Either way, the sheer size of this great building solidified the Vatican as the head of the Catholic Church and immortalized the great minds of Europe who designed it. Michelangelo, Raphael, Maderno, Bramante – all have given their very best talents to bring this unbelievable creation to life.
Top image: Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome. Source: gnoparus / Adobe Stock
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