St. Peter's, Warts and All


Sadly, many people who don't know the name of the present Pope turn out to be quite well versed in the more scandalous papacies of centuries past. Yet that same mentality that takes a gossip magazine as seriously as a history text, never fails to be taken aback by the number of people thronging St. Peter's Square today, traveling thousands of miles to see the Successor of St. Peter.

For them, it seems inexplicable that after such human frailty, the Church can still be vibrant and active 2,000 years later. For Catholics, however, this comes as reassuring, daily proof that the Holy Spirit is constantly sustaining the Church.

St. Peter's Basilica itself presents a splendid example of the gentle guidance of Divine Providence toward greatness. The (relatively) new St. Peter's took 120 years and about 10 architects to build, while vicious rivalries and disastrous setbacks colored the history of the construction. All this is recounted in the recently opened exhibition in the Charlemagne wing of St. Peter's Square.

This stunning show, "Petros Eni," or "Peter is Within," presents the Popes, architects and saints involved in the history of this church, marking its 500th anniversary this year. Ancient yellowed documents, artistic masterpieces and unique artifacts are on display in this exhibit open until March 8.

Near the entrance, the first object on display is the astounding walk-in model of St. Peter's dome designed by Michelangelo from 1559-61. It is about 15 feet high and represents the dome cut in half. It captures and thrills the visitor from the threshold of the show and provides a glimpse into the excitement aroused by this project that propelled the work through thick and thin for over a century.

The show itself is broken up into three parts — the construction, the presence of St. Peter, and the saints the basilica has inspired. It seems appropriate that the discussion of the show follow the same pattern.

Rifts and reconciliations

The building site of St. Peter's often became an arena for professional rivalry or self-aggrandizement. These tensions are hinted at throughout the first rooms, although we are constantly reminded of how pettiness was overcome in favor of the greatness of the project.

The exhibit opens with the busy and momentous year of 1506, when Pope Julius II decided to destroy the millennium-old St. Peter's, built by Constantine in the fourth century, to build a newer, better church.

While the Pope may have indeed been motivated by a desire to have a fitting cornice for his splendid new tomb (being designed by the 30-year-old Michelangelo and intended to be placed on top of St. Peter's grave), the fact was that the old church was crumbling and unsafe and several architects had already called for drastic intervention.

A cabinet displays the medal struck in commemoration of April 18, 1506, when Julius II laid the foundation stone of the new basilica. Nearby, a letter from Julius II to King Henry VIII of England proudly informs the then loyal supporter of the Church of the undertaking. Long before the completion of St. Peter's, Henry would separate from Rome and found his own church.

Julius II greets visitors from his masterly portrait by Raphael done the year before his death. He looks depleted and pensive, clearly aware that he will never see his project finished. Although spurred by a desire for grandeur, this man gave the Church some of its most lasting treasures: the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms and of course St. Peter's.

The early plans for St. Peter's by Bramante as well as his immediate successors were elaborate and very complex constructions. A myriad of different ideas for the basilica, from Bramante's original design to the work of Fra Gerard and Giuliano Sangallo, show a certain streak of searching for personal greatness — to the detriment of St. Peter's role as a gathering point for pilgrims.

Some plans envision numerous interlocking spaces and chapels but don't allow for gathering around St. Peter's tomb. One looks like a Romanesque monastery's dream cathedral, but doesn't take into account the history and place of St. Peter's. The works fall short of the mark because they are more about the glory of the architects than the glory of God.

St. Peter's tomb

Bickering among architects flared regularly and the enmity between Michelangelo and Bramante was legendary. A letter from Antonio Sangallo (a cousin of Giuliano's) lists complaints regarding Raphael's work, while it is well known that Bramante was dubbed by contemporaries as "Bramante, Maestro Ruinante" for the destruction of the old basilica.

One of the funniest things in the exhibit is a satire written in 1516 by Guarna da Salerno. It imagines Bramante trying to get into heaven and St. Peter demurring after Bramante has destroyed his church. Bramante offers to rebuild heaven for him saying that he could make it more modern and functional. When Peter refuses, Bramante offers to rebuild hell which has been worn down by the flames and is in need of repair. Exasperated, St. Peter tells Bramante he can just wait outside the gates until his last building project (St. Peter's) is finished.

Raphael's breathtaking portrait of "Leo X and Two Cardinals" provides the backdrop this period of internecine strife at St. Peter's. A masterpiece of color and ornament, it shows the Medici Pope, pausing momentarily in his examination of an exquisite illuminated manuscript. Raphael painted it in 1518, as Martin Luther was rapidly gaining ground in Germany. The battles among the workers at St. Peter's were but a faint echo of the greater disturbances further north.

The old church was being dismantled but nothing was surging up to take its place. A few drawings by Martin Van Heemskerck record the protective shrine that kept the rain off Peter's grave as it stood uncovered between Bramante's massive piers. Thirty years and the building had not progressed.

The turning point was reached in 1545. Titian's brilliant portrait of the forceful Pope Paul III shows neither a tired and aged Pontiff nor a pampered and delicate one but piercing eyes and hawklike features indicative of a strong will. Not a saintly man, as any papal scandal monger will be glad to recount, but the man who managed to call and assemble the Council of Trent as well as persuade Michelangelo to take over the helm of building St. Peter's.

Paul III began the process of reconstruction of the church, both spiritually and physically, aided by Michelangelo, 70 years old at the time, who also rose to the occasion with grandness of spirit.

Michelangelo retrieved the aged yellowed plan for St. Peter's of Bramante, his archrival, from the dozens of drawings, and modified that design. Refusing all payment, Michelangelo gave the last 19 years of his life to the construction of the church, for the "glory of God, the honor of St. Peter and the salvation of his own soul."

The fulcrum

"Peter, do you love me?" Archbishop Angelo Comastri's address during the inauguration of the "Petros Eni" exhibit quoted this question Christ asked St. Peter three times. Last Tuesday, Archbishop Comastri was appointed the archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica and after his rousing and often moving talk at the opening, there can be no doubt why.

The archbishop spoke of St. Peter's profession of love even unto his crucifixion which took place almost 2,000 years ago just a few feet from the exhibition space.

The second part of the exhibit revolves around St. Peter as the fulcrum of this great church. Dominated by three exceptional paintings, this section invites viewers to reflect on the origins of the church, a simple hole in the ground where the body of St. Peter was deposited after the first of what would be many Christian persecutions.

El Greco's intense canvas of "Peter Penitent" is the first work on display and reveals the apostle alone and weeping after having denied Christ. Next, the powerful Caravaggio work, "The Crucifixion of St. Peter," confronts viewers showing the aged, yet rugged apostle doggedly accepting death just as he stubbornly followed Jesus in life. Caravaggio's light effects highlight the sense of mission in Peter's martyrdom; eager to prove his love of Christ, the apostle seems to clasp the nail driven through his hand.

In the wake of these dramatic canvases, it would be easy to overlook the little Rembrandt treasure of "St. Peter in Prison." This small oil painting presents a touching vision of Peter, old and weak, praying in his prison cell. The warm light that bathes Peter's wrinkled face and hands helps us to understand the solace that God's love brings to him.

The most extraordinary object in this part of the show is also the humblest. At first glance it appears as a tiny piece of painted plaster, scratched with ancient graffiti. But a closer look reveals the words "Petros eni," Peter is within. Poor, humble and broken like St. Peter's body, this fragment on an ancient buttressing wall brought 20th-century excavators to the grave of the Prince of the Apostles.

A lesson

So what does St. Peter's Basilica mean to us today? A stop on a tourist itinerary? A holding pen for unruly pilgrims? The last room of the exhibit renders homage to three great pilgrims who came to Rome, prayed at St. Peter's grave and drew strength from his example.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux's handwritten account of her pilgrimage in 1887, St. Francis' tunic from Verna (the site where he received the stigmata) and the sandals of Mother Teresa of Calcutta are displayed around the room.

The sandals have particular meaning for Archbishop Comastri, who acknowledges himself as a spiritual son of Mother Teresa. The archpriest explains that these relics serve to remind us today that at St. Peter's we must "don the sandals of the pilgrim, and allow ourselves to be reinforced in our faith" before heading out fearlessly into the world to "love Jesus as Peter did," even unto death.


ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.


Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2003 Zenit

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