Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Happy 500th B-Day to St. Peter's


Vatican, Apr. 18 (CWNews.com) - St. Peter's basilica, the largest and most important church in the Catholic world, marks its 500th anniversary today: April 18.

Despite it is the center of liturgical life at the Vatican, St. Peter's is not a cathedral; the cathedral of the Rome diocese is the basilica of St. John Lateran. But St. Peter's holds pre-eminent place because it is built on the tomb of St. Peter, at the site where the first Pontiff's martyrdom. Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, authorized construction of the first basilica in 319; the building was completed in 349. By the middle of the 15th century, however, the Constantinian structure was in danger of collapse, and Pope Nicholas V (1447- 1455) commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino to begin drawing up plans for a new basilica. It was Pope Julius II (1503- 1513) who had the old basilica razed, and asked Donato Bramante to design a massive new building in the shape of a Greek cross. The first stone was laid on April 18, 1506, at the site of the old transept. Four pillars and an arc to support the cupola were completed by 1514, at the death of the architect.

Raphael, taking up the work that Bramante had begun, chose the form of a Latin cross, with one arm longer than the three others. Antonio da Sangallo then became director of the project, followed by Michelangelo, who was appointed by Pope Paul III. Michelangelo returned to the plan for a building shaped as Greek cross, and by the time of his death in 1564 the construction of the dome was well underway. He was succeeded by Pirro Ligorio and Jacopo Barozzi, and they in turn were followed by Giacomo della Porta-- who, in collaboration with Domenico Fontana, completed the great dome in 1590. A spire topped by a cross was finished three years later. Carlo Maderno then won a competition under Pope Paul V (11605- 1621) to complete the nave of the basilica and design the enormous (375 foot) façade. That project was completed on Palm Sunday, 1614. The new basilica was consecrated in 1626.

Pope Urban VIII (1623- 1644) supervised the design of the interior. Bernini designed much of the interior, notably including the enormous bronze baldachino above the altar. That work continued through the end of the 17th century, with sculptures and mosaics added throughout the 18th century. The central nave includes 39 niches, in which there are statues of the great founders of religious orders. In recent years new statues have been added to niches on the exterior o the building. The vault of the basilica is decorated with the words (in Latin and in Greek) that Christ said to St. Peter: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build by Church…"

St. Peter's Square, with its colonnade (also designed by Bernini) defining the plaza outside the basilica, was completed during the same period, topped by 140 statues. The granite obelisk in the center of the square was set up in 1585: a massive task that required 800 men and 150 horses. According to legend, the Pope ordered complete silence while the Egyptian obelisk was being raised. But when the ropes being used to hoist the enormous obelisk threatened to snap because of friction, someone in the crowd shouted that the ropes should be dampened. The Pope then thanked the anonymous tipster for disobeying his order.

St. Peter's Square can easily accommodate 50,000 people. The basilica itself, with its huge central nave, can also accommodate thousands of worshippers, and is the central site for papal liturgical celebrations. From 1962 to 1965 the basilica was the site of plenary sessions of the Second Vatican Council.


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