The Vatican and St. Peter Basilica - Than & Now

St Peter, believed to have been one of the 12 apostles, and the first ever pope was martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero in approximately 64 AD.

In 306 AD, Emperor Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome. He decided to erect a basilica on Vatican Hill at the supposed location of St. Peter's tomb.


 St. Peter's Basilica A Brief History 

Where St. Peter's now stands was once a chariot racing stadium, built in the time of the Emperor Caligula, Claudius and Nero (40-65). That was the first century of our era. Nero was the Emperor who began the first great persecution of Christians in Rome. Under his rule of terror, many Christians were imprisoned and put to death here in the newly completed stadium ("Circus" in Latin). Among those first Christians to be rounded up by Nero's soldiers was the leader of the Christian community in Rome, St. Peter the Apostle.
He had probably come to Rome about the year 40 and was therefore about 25 years in the city preaching the Good News and obviously making many converts to Christianity - to many for Nero's liking. Many of these Christians were thrown to the wild animals as part of the entertainment in the stadium. Many, however, were crucified.

A low wall divided the arena of the stadium so that the chariot races took place around them. Some, we are told by Tacitus, the chronicler of the Roman Empire, had oil and tar poured over their bodies and they were set alight to illuminate the stadium in the late Summer evenings.

The stadium, about six hundred yards long, stretched from about the end of the Western wing of the Colonnade to well beyond the apse of the present basilica. St. Peter's place of crucifixion is traditionally marked as corresponding to the left hand wing of the basilica, more or less where the altar of St. Joseph is today.

Peter's Tomb Afterwards, some of his friends took Pete's body and buried it in the nearest cemetery. That was just outside and to the right of the stadium. The tomb of Peter is still there, underneath the front of the Papal Altar and about 20 ft. below the floor level of the basilica.

 Constantine's Basilica 

When Christians were eventually given their freedom (313), under the Emperor Constantine, after more than two hundred years of persecution, it was decided to build a basilica above the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Many things had changed in those two hundred years. Christians had become so numerous in Rome that persecution was judged counter productive. Contrary to pagan practice, Christians assembled frequently for worship. They needed increasingly large buildings - much larger than the tiny pagan temples of the past. Constantine saw to the building of a number of these "Basilicas" and especially to the largest of them which was erected above the tomb of Peter on the slope of the Vatican hill.

Michelangelo's Basilica (1506-1626) 

That building lasted throughout the centuries until 1500. It was then in such a state of disrepair that Pope Julius II decided to replace it with a new and more magnificent structure. Work began in April 1506.
Many great artists were involved in its construction and decoration: Bramante, Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno, Della Porta, Bernini, Fontana. The most notable contributions, however, are those of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Maderno and Bernini. At the age of 72, in 1546, Michelangelo was obliged to undertake the building of the present Basilica by Pope Paul III.
When he died, the construction of the Greek Cross section surrounding the Papal altar and the tomb of Peter had been completed only as far as the top of the drum: the large windows which are underneath the upturned bowl of the dome. The bowl itself, changed in shape from the half rounded shape of Michelangelo's design to the half oval shape of today, was completed by Della Porta in May 1590.
The Pope was Sixtus V. Pope Paul V, in the beginning of the 1600's, decided that the Greek Cross design was too small. He obliged his architect, Maderno, to pull down the front wall of Michelangelo's building and extend the eastern end of the basilica by 116 yards.

That was completed in 1626, and in the following 30 years Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the Colonnade


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