St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)

After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

The Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Italy)

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (from Wikipedia)

The Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling is adorned with the fresco masterpieces painted by Michelangelo, outside of being the site of Papal conclaves, is more than a destination for tourists. It is arguably one of the great achievements of Renaissance art, even more remarkable for the fact that Michelangelo really didn’t want to do it even when offered the commission by Pope Julius II. After compromises were made by the Pope, notably allowing Michelangelo to paint whatever biblical scenes he wanted, it took Michelangelo four years (1508-1512) to complete over 300 scenes over an area of 5,000 square feet, painted entirely while on his back on a scaffold. While there are masterpieces by other artists here as well, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, it is Michelangelo’s ceiling that towers figuratively and literally over all of them.

In order to experience it with as little a crowd around us as possible, Robin, our guide, shuttled us through the Vatican Museum as quickly as possible, even though she did stop occasionally to point out some of the museum’s highlights. In order to do the museum justice, we would have to return on our own, something we didn’t get a chance to do. One of the biggest problems is that it is visited by hordes of people with lines to purchase tickets snaking out well in front of the entrance. When we finally reached the Sistine Chapel, we were awed by its sheer size and the enormity of Michelangelo’s accomplishment, the ceiling almost 70 feet above the floor.

The most famous fresco is likely The Creation of Adam (above), which rests at the center along with two other episodes from the story of Adam and Eve. There are many other scenes from the Bible, which I’m not going to bother to summarize. The cumulative effect of seeing the entire corpus was overwhelming.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia)

I have no personal photographs to share since no photography was allowed.