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St Pietro in Vaticano is the papal basilica in Vatican City, the official title of which is San Pietro in Vaticano. Pictures of the basilica on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Peter the Apostle, as the church contains his tomb.

(This page has a mirror under the title of St Peter's.)


The basilica's formal status is lower than that of San Giovanni in Laterano, because the latter church is the cathedral of the pope as the Bishop of Rome. In the past, it held second place as the patriarchal basilica of Constantinople.

However, it is arguably the most important and famous of all churches because it is the location of those liturgical activities in Rome which express the pope's dignity as Head of the Universal Church.

It is also the largest church that has ever been built.

In English, the church name “St Peter's” on its own everywhere refers to this one.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI abolished the status of “patriarchal basilica” which this church shared with San Giovanni and also with Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo fuori le Mura. These four churches are now classed as “papal basilicas”.


Ancient times[]

The story of the basilica starts with the martyrdom of St Peter in the vicinity, when the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome was crucified in the year 64 or 67.

Back then, the area of the Vatican was suburban and was crossed by roads and lanes lined with tombs and villas. The flat area now known as the Borgo was called the Ager Vaticanus, and was dominated by the Villa of Agrippina which was on the site of the present Ospedale di Santo Spirito. To the west of this was a circus, the Circus of Caligula and Nero which was oriented from west to east and was immediately to the south of the present basilica. To the north of the circus was a low hill, an outlier of the present Monte Mario. This is the Vatican hill, now occupied by the papal palace, which in ancient times was covered in vineyards producing poor-quality wine (according to Martial).

The exact location of the circus has been a matter for debate. It is now thought that it was wholly to the south of the basilica, with an obelisk erected next to its northern wall which remained in its original position until moved in 1586. This was not originally ancient Egyptian, but had been commissioned by Caius Cornelius Gallus for a forum in Alexandria when he was prefect in Egypt.

Just to the north of the circus in ancient times was a road, identified by some as the Via Cornelia, and in the 2nd century a necropolis consisting of tightly packed brick mausolea began to develop along this.

Original grave of St Peter[]

The apocryphal Acts of St Peter describes him as crucified inter duos metas, which is now understood to refer to the turning-points in the race-circuit of the circus. He seems to have been immediately buried in the vicinity, for the archaeologists found a simple grave in the bottom layer of their excavations under the high altar of the basilica in the mid 20th century. Two other graves with the same alignment were found close by, one being datable by a tile stamp to the reign of the emperor Vespasian (69-79), and this simple little cemetery is the remote origin of the church.

Unfortunately, there was a very serious lapse in professional archaeological standards which broke the chain of evidence as regards the human remains also found here.

Trophy of Gaius[]

The necropolis of mausolea was built on top of this graveyard, another tile stamp giving a date between 147 and 161. The excavators found a row of brick mausolea tightly packed together in a terrace, with another later terrace on the other (south) side of a narrow street which was built in the 3rd century. Most of these mausolea were pagan with cremations, but the so-called Mausoleum M contains frescoes with a Christian theme.

Under the present high altar, two mausolea -O to the east and, S to the south- had been built around a courtyard (which the excavators called Campo P) which had its north side open. An alleyway with stairs was on the west side of this, separated from the court by a wall plastered and painted red -the famous “red wall”. This ran over the grave mentioned above, but the excavators argued that the foundation was raised above the grave to avoid disturbing it during construction.

Against the wall in the court was built a simple little open-air aedicule or shrine, called the “Trophy of Gaius” because a priest of that name seems to have made a reference to it in a letter that he wrote about the year 200. This consisted of an apsidal niche in the wall, sheltered by a slab of travertine limestone supported in front by two columns. A smaller niche was above this, and the excavators surmised that a pediment crowned the edifice. A moveable slab was in the pavement within the columns, and it was noticed that this was not aligned with the wall but with the grave below. The whole erection was originally 1.80 meters wide and approximately 2.30 metres high.

A piece of wall plaster, that actually broke off during the excavation, had some Greek letters scratched into it, reading PET....ENI which was interpreted (controversially) as saying “Peter is here”. No properly executed epigraph was found.

3rd century[]

The aedicule was restored at an uncertain date, perhaps in the mid 3rd century. A short screen wall, the so-called “graffiti wall”, was built immediately to its right (north) with a little marble-lined loculus or cupboard in it. The lower niche and floor were revetted with marble, and mosaics laid on the courtyard floor in front.

The excavators surmised that this work was done after the aedicule was vandalized by enemies of Christianity. This is an attempt to tie into a competing ancient tradition that the grave of St Peter was in the so-called Basilica Apostolorum (the present San Sebastiano fuori le Mura) on the Appian Way. Traditionally, the clash was rectified by suggesting that the relics of the apostle had been taken there for safekeeping in the mid 3rd century -only, it was not obvious how the Appian Way would have been safer for Christians than the Vatican. The archaeological evidence shows that the necropolis around St Peter's original tomb was crowded and shared with pagans, so the tomb might well have been vulnerable.

The bones now claimed to be the relics of St Peter were allegedly found in the loculus, but had been removed by non-professional intruders entering the excavations and put into store without record for eleven years. Archaeologically this was a disaster, which has left the identification relying on unsupported witness testimony. Much has been written defending the archaeologists and the intruders, who were actually the monsignor in charge of the excavation project together with one of the basilica's fabric maintenance team. The fact remains that a monumental error was made.

If the claim is correct, then the relics were brought back from the Appian Way at some unknown date -perhaps even by the emperor Constantine. (The bones recovered from the grave itself proved to be a jumble from several individuals.)

The Constantinian basilica[]

The old basilica has its own English Wikipedia page here.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Church historian and a bishop in emperor Constantine's time, referred to the aedicule as a trophy symbolizing the Apostle's victorious faith, so it had remained unchanged until the early 4th century even if it might have been functioning as a cenotaph. Part of it is still visible in the present church's crypt (see below), because the emperor made it a focus of his great basilica.

This, the first roofed edifice here, was begun between 324 and 329 on the orders of the emperor. Preparation of the area, which was difficult to build on, was started earlier, between 318 and 322. Because the necropolis was on the slope of the Vatican hill, the site had to be levelled by demolishing the mausolea on the north side and cutting into the slope, and infilling those on the south (the ones the excavators discovered). Then a vast building measuring 85 by 64 metres was erected.

This had a central nave and two lower side aisles on each side, separated by four colonnades of twenty-two columns each with the two end ones engaged (a total of eighty-eight). These columns supported horizontal entablatures, not arcades. Then came a transept, separated from the aisles by screen walls flanking a central triumphal arch. At the end of each aisle was a portal in the screen wall accentuated by two further columns. The transept extended on each side beyond the width of the nave and side aisles. It had a semi-circular apse in the centre of its back wall, and the shrine of the apostle was in front of this.

Unlike pagan basilicas, which were vaulted in concrete, the one here had open timber roofs made from beams from enormous old-growth trees which do not exist in Italy any more. One roof covered the nave, the other the transept and a further two the side aisles (the latter had single pitches).

The 2nd century memorial to the Apostle remained the focus of attention, as it was enclosed in a rectangular, marble-revetted box which was visible from the nave. The walls of this, and the floor around, was of pavonazzetto marble and the box had pilaster-strips of porphyry. A low railing surrounded it, and at the corners were four helically twisted columns supporting a bronze canopy. Through an opening in the pavement, objects such as strips of cloth could be lowered down to the monument to make secondary relics. A further two of the twisted columns (called Solomonic) were at the ends of the arc of the apse.

The basilica was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 326, and it is thought that construction was completed in 349. To get an idea of how this edifice looked, the best place to go is San Paolo fuori le Mura. There are some differences in layout, but you will be able to understand how a vast basilica with five naves can function as a church.

However, recently doubts have been expressed as to whether the basilicas that Constantine erected in Rome were actually churches as we understand the term. The major issue is, that there is no evidence that they were originally provided with altars for saying Mass. More than that, there is archaeological evidence that each of them had a tomb-shrine instead of a high altar. The liturgical and cultic function of these basilicas is now the focus of revisionist attention. See Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana.

The conch of the apse was provided with a mosaic after the death of the emperor, but its subject is not known (Christ with SS Peter and Paul is a guess). This is the only detail that we have about the fittings and decoration of the original basilica.

In front of the basilica was an impressive colonnaded atrium called the Paradisum (although there is an argument that this was built later).

The mausolea demolished for the basilica were not the only ones here. Many others were around it, notably two large round ones immediately to the south. These were to become the churches of Santa Maria della Febbre and Santa Petronilla. The apse of the basilica was actually attached to a rectangular building called the Mausoleum Aniciorum, which also later became a church called the Domus Petri.

Early Dark Ages[]

The façade and interior were decorated with mosaics and frescoes in the Dark Ages, but the only information that we have derives from remarks to be found in the Liber Pontificalis.

Pope Liberius (352-66) allegedly began the provision of medallions containing portraits of popes immediately above the central nave arcades.

In the reign Pope St Leo the Great (440 to 461) there was a major earthquake, part of the nave with sixteen columns collapsed and had to be restored. He then provided a large mosaic for the upper part of the façade, showing Christ, The Evangelists and the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse. This survived until the 13th century. Pope Leo also commissioned a mosaic for the apse conch, which survived until the end of the 12th.

Pope Symmachus (498 to 514) took up residence next to the basilica, the first pope to do so (an antipope was in control of the city), and either restored or built from scratch the large colonnaded atrium. He also provided what was called the cantharus, a fountain in the atrium near the entrance. This had a dome of gilt bronze supported by eight columns of porphyry, the cornice being embellished with bronze dolphins and peacocks (four each). The actual fountain was the famous bronze pine-cone, allegedly brought down from the tip of the Mausoleum of Hadrian (now the Castel Sant'Angelo) and now to be found in the Pinoteca in the Vatican Palace. This pope also covered the lower façade of the basilica, the part sheltered by the western ambulatory of the atrium, with mosaics which lasted until the late 13th century.

The sanctuary layout was altered in 594 by Pope St Gregory the Great (590 to 604). He raised the floor of the apse and the transept in front of it by between one and one and a half metres, hence burying the original Constantinian shrine. On top of this he put an altar (perhaps the first at the location), and a new baldacchino. Flanking this were two transverse staircases leading up to the raised sanctuary area, which had a bishop's throne flanked by curved priests' benches in the apse. The original six Solomonic columns were supplemented by six others, and were erected as two rows of six in front of the sanctuary to form a double screen (the provenance of these columns is unknown, although they seem to have been carved by Greeks in the early 3rd century).

At either end of the apse was a staircase leading down to a semi-circular passage, with a dead-end passage leading from under the bishop's throne to the shrine. This arrangement made it easier for pilgrims to venerate the tomb of the Apostle, as they could now approach it by one staircase and leave by another. See San Marco for a church with an identical surviving layout.

Pope Honorius I (625-638) re-tiled the main roof, using tiles scavenged from the Basilica of Maxentius, which gives a date for the dereliction of the latter building. He also plated the five entrance doors with silver -this was later stolen by Muslim pirates.

Pope Donus (676-8) ordered the atrium to be paved (it was apparently laid out as a garden originally).

During the reign of Pope Sergius I (687-701) a piece of the True Cross was allegedly discovered hidden away in the sacristy. The question is obvious, as to how the existence of such an important relic could have been forgotten about in the first place.

Pope Adrian I (772-95) undertook a major restoration, and Pope Gregory IV (827-44) rebuilt much of the atrium. For the entrance to this was provided a two-storey portico with three entrances within a huge blind arcade springing from Corinthian columns and enclosing carved tympani. The portals had doors in bronze. Pope Gregory also frescoed the central nave walls above the colonnades.

Foundation of the Borgo[]

In the 8th century, refugee monks from the eastern Mediterranean arrived in Rome to get away from the spread of Islam and from the iconoclast persecutions in the Byzantine Empire. Up to then, the area around the basilica was apparently still undeveloped and dominated by ruined mausolea. Only simple living-quarters for clergy had existed next to the basilica (the nucleus of the papal palace, and already used as such by Pope Symmachus). But the monks founded several monasteries round about, it is now known that monastics of the Byzantine, Syrian, Coptic and Armenian rites were established here by the 9th century. They persisted for about two hundred years.

Unfortunately, toxic historiography in the Middle Ages wrote these monks out of the historical record after the Great Schism, and it used to be thought that all these monasteries were Benedictine. This is false.

Also, colonies of Germanic barbarian expatriates were founded here towards the end of the century. Four of these persisted into the Middle Ages as scholae or hospice-complexes for pilgrims; the Schola Francorum was south of the nave of the basilica, with a church called San Salvatore in Torrione (thought to be the present San Pietro in Borgo) and a cemetery at what is now Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto. The Schola Langobardorum was around the lost church of San Giustino, under the north colonnade of the present piazza, the Schola Frisonum was at Santi Michele e Magno and the Schola Saxonum was at Santo Spirito in Sassia. These folk, whose languages were mutually intelligible, gave the name Borgo to the new urban settlement which means “fortified village” (burgh).

After the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor, a palace for him was built in the Schola Francorum by Pope Leo III. This was the first genuine palace in the basilica's grounds.

Leonine City[]

However, the area was not fortified but was outside the ancient city walls. As the city authorities lost the ability to police the local countryside, marauders became a problem. This led to disaster, as in 846 Muslim pirates from North Africa (usually referred to as “Saracens”) sailed up the Tiber and plundered the basilica. They broke open the shrine of St Peter, and some scholars have argued that the apostle's genuine relics were scattered then.

In response, Pope Leo IV (847 to 855) built a set of walls around the Borgo, which was then also called the Leonine City.

Pope Formosus (891-6) had the central nave frescoes re-done.

Middle Ages[]

The story of the basilica for the next half millennium was mostly one of restorations, as no substantial alteration was made to the design of the fabric before its demolition.

At least by the end of the 11th century, a tall Romanesque campanile was provided in the south-east corner of the atrium. An idea of what this looked like is provided by the surviving example at Santa Maria Maggiore, which is about the same size.

The high altar of Pope Gregory was given another case of marble on the orders of Pope Callixtus II (1119 to 1124), and a new baldacchino provided. This survived until the Renaissance.

In 1167, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa paid the city a visit and his troops conducted a massacre of his enemies in the basilica itself. The bronze doors of the portico were stolen, and taken to Viterbo.

Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216) replaced the mosaic in the apse.

Pope Gregory IX (1227 to 1241) rebuilt the upper façade, providing new mosaics to replace those by Pope Leo.

Pope Nicholas III (1277-80) substantially rebuilt the palace, and intended to make it the seat of the popes instead of the Lateran. He repainted the portraits of the popes above the central nave colonnades.

Under Nicholas IV (1288-92) the portico into the atrium was given two large mosaics, one on the outside and one on the inside facing over the atrium. The latter was the famous Navicella mosaic by Giotto, which survives (massively restored) in the loggia of the present edifice. Unfortunately, the early 6th century mosaics on the lower wall of the basilica in the western walk of the atrium were destroyed and replaced with frescoes. In the same project, Giotto re-painted the 9th century central nave frescoes.

During the Avignon Captivity of the popes, the basilica as well as the rest of the city suffered very serious neglect as well as misuse by the warring local nobility.


The end of the Captivity came when Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 to reside at the Vatican (the Lateran palace had burned down in 1308). However, the Great Schism between rival popes in Italy and France then left the former with no funds for improvements beyond necessary repairs. The major innovation was that Pope Eugene IV (1431-47) commissioned Filarete to cast a new set of bronze doors for the basilica's central entrance -these survive.

Permanent papal residence at the Vatican (until the popes moved to the Quirinal palace) required the alteration of the boundaries of the diocese of Rome. Until 1377, the right bank of the Tiber, including the basilica, Borgo, Trastevere and the Isola, was in the diocese of Porto Santa Rufina -not in that of Rome!

The Schism ended with Pope Nicholas V (14471455), who commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to survey the complex. He reported that the nave walls were leaning out of the perpendicular by almost two metres at the top, and so the entire basilica was in danger of collapse. This was the first impetus to the entire rebuilding of the church, and the pope actually had the Florentine Bernardo Rossellino to draw up a plan (which survives) for a new church.

A new choir chapel called the Tribuna di San Pietro was begun behind the apse in 1452 (the Domus Petri being demolished), which was only completed well after the pope's death. This was the sole result of his plans.

Pope Pius II (1458-64) built a Loggia of Benedictions, having three storeys, to the right (north) of the entrance portico. He also converted the old church of Santa Maria della Febbe into a new sacristy (the small old one was grossly inadequate).

His successor, Paul II (1464-71) restored the basilica's transept, and had the Tribuna completed. The architect for this was the young Giuliano da Sangallo.

Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), obviously abandoning any idea of rebuilding, provided new windows and a floor for the church as well as a new baldacchino over the shrine altar.

By this time, the basilica had attracted much scholarly interest and, as a result, many descriptions and illustrations survive. Unfortunately, it is not easy to reconcile them as regards important details.

Pope Innocent VIII (1484-92) received the gift of the head of the spear used to pierce Christ's side at the Crucifixion, passed on by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I just before he came to a bad end from Tamerlane (Constantinople was conquered by his son Mohammad II).

Michelangelo's Pietà was completed in 1500, and installed as the altarpiece in the church of Santa Petronilla.

Appearance in 1500[]

The basilical complex was approached by a very wide staircase of five flights, leading to an elevated patio. On this in the middle was the entrance portico or gatehouse, with three doors surmounted by mosaic, and to the right was the Loggia of Benedictions which had three open arcades of four arches each, one on top of the other (the top arcade was actually trabeated). Behind this loggia was the brick campanile, of five storeys above the roofline and having a pyramidal cap.

The atrium or paved courtyard was some 60 metres long and 55 wide, with colonnaded walkways on all four sides. By 1500, the side walkways led through to two narrow side courts. The inner side of the gatehouse displayed the Navicella mosaic by Giotto, and in the centre was the cantharus or ancient covered fountain made from a large bronze pine-cone. A second fountain was nearer the basilica's entrance.

The colonnaded ambulatory running along the frontage of the church served as its loggia. It contained many tombs of popes (over forty), and at its left hand end was the mediaeval sacristy or Secretarium Vetus in the form of a little church. (It was hopelessly inadequate for the job.) The façade above this loggia had 13th century mosaic decoration showing Christ and the Apostles, together with Pope Gregory IX who commissioned the work. It was applied round two rows of three large round-headed windows, with a circular one in the gable.

There were five doors, three for the central nave and one for three of the four aisles. The main door was the Porta Regia because it was for emperors and kings (as well as popes); it was also called the Porta Argentea. Opposite it was a porch or prothyrum projecting into the atrium on two columns. The first door on the right was the Porta Romana, for Roman residents only, the second was the Porta Guidonea for foreigners (“those guided”) and the third the Porta Sancta or Holy Door. To the left, in turn were the Porta Ravenniana for inhabitants of the diocese of Porta Santa Rufina (including the Borgo and Trastevere) and the Porta Iudicii for funerals.

Inside the basilica, the nave was about 91 metres long with two aisles on each side, separated by four colonnades of twenty-two Corinthian columns each with the two end ones engaged -a total of eighty-eight. These columns supported horizontal entablatures, not arcades. Above the entablature on each side were medallions depicting popes, and above these were three rows of fresco panels originally 9th century but re-done by Giotto. The upper register between the nave windows showed patriarchs, prophets and apostles, while the two lower registers comprised a total of forty-six scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

Then came a transept, separated from the aisles by screen walls flanking a central triumphal arch springing from a pair of monumental Ionic columns in granite. At the end of each aisle was a portal in the screen wall accentuated by two further columns. The transept extended on each side beyond the width of the nave and side aisles. It had a semi-circular apse in the centre of its back wall, and the shrine of the apostle was in front of this.

Over the triumphal arch was a mosaic inscription left by Constantine: Quod duce te mundus surrexit in astra triumphans, hanc Constantius victor tibi condidit aulam (“Because, with you leading, the triumphant world reaches to the stars, Constantine the victor founded this meeting-place for you”).

The conch of the apse had an early 13th century mosaic showing Christ between SS Peter and Paul. In front of the apse (which contained the pope's throne) was the shrine altar and the new baldacchino erected by Pope Sixtus IV in about 1480. It re-used four ancient porphyry columns from the previous structure, and was embellished with bas-relief carvings featuring New Testament scenes featuring Christ and St Peter. To either side were the twelve famous twisted Solomonic columns, forming two open screens of six columns each.

The right hand end of the transept was screened off to form the baptistry. The left hand end led into an attached church, the so-called Basilica Sancti Angeli, which in turn led into the round church of Santa Petronilla to the south. Michelangelo's Pietà was actually first installed as the altarpiece here. Also, from the church of the Angels there ran a diagonal corridor via a vestibule to the second round church, Santa Maria della Febbe, converted into a new sacristy in about 1460 and located east of Santa Petronilla.

By 1500 the basilica had accumulated an amazing number of chapels and side altars. The left hand nave side wall had a row of them attached to its exterior, including the old choir chapel. These were accessed by doorways knocked through the ancient wall. However, along the outside of the right hand side wall was an alleyway with the corresponding row of chapels on the other side of it. This was called the “Twelve Altars”. Inside, altars were established against all the interior walls, also against columns and piers. Allegedly the number reached over ninety although this is probably the total number of altars serviced by the Chapter of priests -and would include several nearby churches and separate chapels.

Also, after the loggia had run out of room for burying popes the church had been used for the purpose. As a result, there were many papal memorials in between the side altars and some were of great importance artistically.

Pope Julius II[]

Sanpietro Bramanteplan01

Bramante's original plan

It was Pope Julius II (15031513) who finally started work on the new basilica in 1505. Initially the architect was to be Giuliano da Sangallo, but the pope quickly replaced him with Donato Bramante, who produced several versions of a design based on a Greek cross plan with a large central dome. This was a scaled-up version of his famous Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio. Unfortunately he immediately demolished the transept of the old basilica, together with the church of Santa Petronilla, and discarded the many artworks without recording or attempting to preserve any of them. This was vandalism, and the most idiotic example of it was the smashing up of the ancient carved porphyry sarcophagus in which the relics of St Petronilla had been enshrined.

The pope laid the foundation stone of the new basilica on 18 April 1506, literally weeks after the demolition had started. Bramante then erected the central dome piers and pendentive arches, and within these put up a temporary peperino stone church over the shrine and apse. (This stood until 1592.) Then nothing much happened until the pope died in 1513. Bramante, who had been preoccupied with work on the adjacent palace, died in the following year.

Pope Leo X[]

The new pope, Leo X, recalled Giuliano da Sangallo who was by then an old man. With him were commissioned Raphael and Fra Giocondo da Verona, with Giuliano's talented nephew Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as an assistant. As more interior space in the church was thought to be needed, a longer nave was added to the plan (perhaps by Raphael), creating a Latin cross plan rather than the Greek cross as proposed by Bramante.

Raphael died young in 1520, and the Latin cross proposal was abandoned as too costly. The pope then appointed Baldassare Peruzzi to replace him, before dying himself in 1521. His reign had seen many plans, but little progress. What there had been of the latter then stopped.


Progress only resumed under Pope Paul III (1534-49). In 1534 he instructed Peruzzi to resume work, but the latter died in 1536 and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger was brought back instead. He erected the apses at the ends of the new transept, and built a temporary dividing wall between the surviving nave of the old basilica and the building site. Then he died, in 1546. Michelangelo took over, and was in charge of the project until his own death in 1564, aged eighty-nine.

Michelangelo chose a simplified version of one of Bramante's designs, based on a Greek cross. He is responsible for the main part of the present basilica, beyond the nave. The enormous dome (of his design) was to sit on four free-standing piers around the shrine, and these piers would be surrounded by four aisles in the form of a square. Four large equal-sized apses would then project beyond these aisles, and four smaller domes sit over the corners of the square (only two were built). Most of this is what we have now, except that the far apse was shortened for the present Tribuna and the near apse was, of course, replaced by the nave.

When he died, the left hand transeptal apse was structurally complete and the right hand one almost so. The drum of the dome was almost finished. Nothing had been done about the proposed façade. Bramante's piers (inadequately constructed and expensively maintained already) had to be demolished for much bigger ones. The nave of the ancient basilica was to stand for another forty years.

Finishing the dome[]

Michelangelo's successors were Pirro Ligorio and Vignola, but the former was sacked in 1566. Vignola completed the dome drum, finished the north transept arm but did little else before his death in 1573.

Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) appointed Giacomo della Porta to replace him. For the pope the Cappella Gregoriana was fitted out, and the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen enshrined here (they were forcibly removed from the nunnery of Santa Maria della Concezione in Campo Marzio).

Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) appointed Domenico Fontana as assistant to Della Porta in 1585. He moved the ancient obelisk from its original site to its present location in 1586, although there was no colonnaded piazza then. Rather, the ancient atrium and nave were still intact.

The dome was finally completed structurally by Della Porta in 1589, and inaugurated in 1593 after the lead covering had been put on. The temporary church over the shrine was finally cleared away, as the location was now weatherproof. A new high altar was consecrated in 1594 by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), and a confessio dug by Della Porta. He also excavated the first stage of the Grotte, (the so-called Cappella Clementina), and provided a secret passage from it to the palace.

Della Porta died in 1602, having spent the previous eight years in tidying up and in providing decorative elements. Carlo Maderno was appointed to replace him, but work stopped.


The election of Pope Paul V (1605-21) saw further progress. The nave of the ancient basilica had reached such a dangerous state of disrepair that the Fabbrica (the basilica's maintenance department) urged its demolition. This was done in early 1606, despite strong pressure to finish the project by keeping the old nave and simply joining it properly to the new edifice. Also pulled down were the atrium, portico and campanile.

It was agreed that Raphael was right, and that the church would need a commodious nave. Work on it was begun in 1607 by Maderno, who also included three new chapels on each side and provided a formal façade with a loggia. Unfortunately, after the latter was begun in 1612 it was decided to add a pair of flanking campaniles -but the foundations of these were not properly dug. As a result, work on them had to stop after they reached the level of the façade roofline. The result was a disproportionate façade which has been severely criticized ever since. It was completed in 1614.

The nave project included an extension of the grotte or crypt, which became a miniature basilica in its own right.

The last thing that Maderno did was to re-fit the confessio. He died in 1629.


The basilica was now structurally complete (apart from the campaniles), although interior decoration was to continue for another half-century or so. As a result, Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) solemnly consecrated it in 1626.

In the same year he also commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1626 to provide a bronze canopy -the famous baldacchino- over the high altar and sanctuary. This occupied Bernini until 1633, and meanwhile he was appointed as the new architect of the basilica to succeed Maderno in 1629.

The excavation of the foundations of the baldacchino gave the opportunity also to dig out four little chapels under the dome piers, with passages linking them to the grotte.

In 1637, there was a disaster. Bernini attempted to complete the two campaniles flanking the façade. He built two storeys of the southern one over the façade roofline, but in 1641 the inadequate foundations shifted, the edifice failed and so had to be demolished. The death of the pope in 1644 cancelled any thought of an alternative scheme. The basilica had reached its present aspect, and there have been no structural alterations since.

The colonnades of the Piazza San Pietro were begun by Bernini in 1657, and finished in early 1667 (his proposed gateway was never begun). The same span of years was also taken in Bernini's re-ordering of the tribune in order to provide a shrine for the Cathedra Petri. He was involved in further aspects of interior decoration, including papal tombs, until his death in 1680. He was succeeded by Carlo Fontana, who designed the baptistry and provided the second fountain in the piazza.

18th century[]

The only two major additions to the fabric of the basilica were both carried out in the reign of Pope Pius VI (1775-99). Giuseppe Valadier installed clocks and bells in the top storeys of the stumps of the campanile, and provided clock-dials with rococo frames above them.

Also, a new sacristy was built (this is now the Treasury). It replaced the sacristy and former church of Santa Maria della Febbe, itself converted from a 2nd century mausoleum and hence one and a half millennia old at the time of its demolition. The architect was Carlo Marchionni, and the work was completed in 1784.

Modern times[]

The First Vatican Council was held in the north transept of the basilica in 1869-70, the area being sequestered temporarily for the purpose by an enormous screen of wood and canvas painted to look like marble.

Up to the mid 20th century, access to the piazza was by narrow streets -and the piazza itself was freely accessible to wheeled vehicles. The first problem was solved between 1937 and 1950 when the broad Via della Conciliazione was cut through the closely-packed ancient neighbourhood of the Borgo, on the axis of the piazza and basilica. The second issue became a horrible problem with the boom in the number of motor vehicles in Rome after the Second World War, reaching its nadir in the 1970's when traffic levels threatened the fabric of the city. In belated response, the piazza was pedestrianized at the end of the 20th century. This allowed the cleaning and re-painting of the façade in 2000, and the restoration of the piazza colonnades by 2014.

The Second Vatican Council was held in the nave of the basilica from 1962 to 1965. This time, the whole nave was used.

There was an act of vandalism in the confessio in 1969, when the statue of Pope Pius VI there was attacked with a hammer. This was followed in 1971 by a much more high-profile copycat attack on Michelangelo's Pietà. As a result, the confessio was closed, the chapel of the Pietà was provided with a bulletproof glass screen and security measures put in place. These were enhanced after 9/11, and Vatican City turned into a gated community.


The ancient necropolis under the basilica only came to light owing to a wish to lower the floor of the grotte in order to make the crypt a more fitting place for papal monuments (the basilica itself was running out of suitable sites). In 1939 the first of the ancient mausolea was discovered, and Pope Pius XII gave permission to excavate them and to investigate the tomb of St Peter. The work continued in strict secrecy until publication of the results in 1956. The putative tomb was found to contain bones from several individuals, and the formal report declared that no conclusive evidence of the burial of St Peter there had been found.

The outcome was disgraceful. Archaeological proceedings had been under the authority of the Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, who had no archaeological training and who was allowed to invade the excavations unsupervised. Further, he required all human remains to be forwarded to him without scientific analysis.

An epigrapher called Margherita Guarducci had joined the archaeological team in 1952, in order to decipher the complex remains of scratched graffiti around the tomb. She was told by one of the basilica's maintenance staff that Kaas had himself removed parts of a skeleton from a niche in the tropaion above the tomb ten years previously, and put them into store without informing the archaeologists. This one man, Giovanni Segoni, was the only witness to the procedure, and to the source of the bones. Guarducci published an argument in 1965 that these bones belonged to St Peter, and Pope Paul VI proclaimed them to be so in 1968.

However, in archaeological terms this won't do. The chain of evidence was broken, and the relics now venerated have their documented source in a wooden box in a storeroom used by the excavators. Scholars have also raised serious doubts, even under the dubious proviso that Segoni's unsupported testimony could be treated as reliable historical evidence (Kaas had died in the meantime). Unfortunately, no further elucidation now seems possible.

To be fair to Kaas, he had romantic expectations that were bitterly destroyed by reality. Up until the excavations, it was thought that the relics of the Apostle were lying undisturbed in a bronze sarcophagus embellished with a large cross of solid gold donated by the emperor Constantine. There was a story that the cross was seen in 1594 when the present high altar was built. So, nobody was expecting to end up with nothing but loose bones and some obscure graffiti scratched into ancient wall plaster.


This is the world's largest church. The interior is 186 metres long, and 137 metres wide across the transept. The main dome is 137.5 metres high exteriorly.

One count has eleven domes or cupolas, 778 columns, 395 statues, 135 mosaic panels and 45 altars.

The English Wikipedia article has an excellent set of statistics here


External fabric[]

The basilica's civic presence amounts to its piazza, its façade and its dome. Unfortunately, owing to security considerations, it is not possible freely to examine the rest of its exterior. You have to take a guided tour of the Vatican gardens to do this.

The exterior is formed by a monumental screen wall in travertine marble, bearing Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief bearing an entablature which is a continuation of that across the façade. Above this is an attic, and then the roofline cornice.

The roofs over the nave, transept apses and tribune apse are pitched and tiled. Those over the side aisles and the four major corner chapels flanking the dome are flat, and famously the roof of the bottom left hand corner chapel has a coffee-bar on it (you can visit this when climbing to the top of the dome).

The three aisle cupolas on each side have pepper-pot lanterns, while the two corner chapels flanking the nave end have an identical pair of subsidiary domes with cogwheel drums and lead cupolas. The other two domes on the far side chapels, proposed by Michelangelo, were never built.


It is accepted that the drum of the dome is basically as intended by Michelangelo. This has sixteen sectors, each with a large rectangular window with alternate triangular and segmental pediments. Over these windows is an entablature running round the dome, and on top of that is an attic on which the actual dome sits. In between the windows are pairs of Corinthian columns which support plinths formed by posting out the entablature. These columns and plinths look as if they are actually doing nothing, and the suggestion is that they were intended for statues. This might have been so, but in reality they disguise sixteen heavy pillar-buttresses intended to stop the drum spreading out under the weight of the dome.

The attic is divided into sixteen panels, each with a swag of fruit and a lion's mask. The dome itself is ellipsoidal (egg-shaped); it is thought that Michelangelo wanted a hemispherical one. It is in lead, which covers sixteen stone ribs meeting at a lantern. Each sector has three windows lighting the void between the interior and exterior domes, and also the way up to the viewing gallery around the lantern. The bottom one of each threesome is square, under either a segmental or triangular pediment according to the style of the large window in the drum below. The second is round, with a curly Baroque frame topped by a lion's mask. The topmost is simply round, in a slightly dished frame.

The design of the lantern is fiddly. It has sixteen conjoined pairs of Ionic columns, supporting a cog-wheel entablature above which is an attic. This has little double-volute buttresses, and supports a ring of sixteen candlestick finials. The cupola is a ribbed cone, with a cross and ball finial.

Piazza San Pietro[]

The famous piazza, including its colonnades, was laid out by Bernini under the patronage of Pope Alexander VII Chigi, and was finished in 1667. It encloses an area which is a transverse ellipse joined onto a trapezoid, the latter closed by the façade of the basilica. There is a total of 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters, and the ellipse is 240 metres across.

The ellipse is embraced by two open colonnades, each with four rows of columns creating three ambulatories (walkways). The middle one is wider than the two side ones, and has at times been used for Corpus Christi processions. The Doric columns support an Ionic entablature, along the cornice of which runs a balustrade with baluster pins. Facing the outside world this is unadorned, but facing the piazza are 96 statues of saints, each 3.1 metres in height and all sculpted by Bernini's pupils.

The outer ends of the colonnades are in the form of Greek temple façades, with a pair of inner columns and outer pilasters supporting a triangular pediment. A further two statues are at the outer corners of the pediments. Round the corners of each façade is a side entrance formed by bringing the entablature forward over a pair of columns, and over the inner two entrances is the coat-of-arms of Pope Alexander VII. At the further ends of the colonnades are two exits in identical style, and in the middle of the colonnades are similar exits, except with four columns each. The exits at the further ends lead into enclosed corridors flanking the trapezoid. The right hand one is actually the main entrance to the papal palace (the Portone di Bronzo), but the left hand one is simply there for symmetry and leads to the so-called Piazza dei Protomartiri Romani and Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto. The entablatures of the colonnades continue along the rooflines of these corridors, over paired pilasters with windows in red brick in between. The cornices have balustrades identical to the colonnade ones, and a further 42 statues.

This gives a total of 140 statues of saints. An excellent list of the saints concerned, and the sculptors responsible for their statues, is here

There are two identical fountains flanking the central obelisk. The water in these is from Lake Bracciano, brought here by the aqueduct built by Pope Paul V (16051621 (the Acqua Paola). The one on the right is the original designed by Maderno and installed in 1613. Bernini moved it to sit on the major axis of the ellipse of his piazza, and proposed a second fountain for the sake of symmetry (actually only installed by Fontana in 1677). The older one bears the heraldry of Pope Paul V, while the copy (1675) has that of Pope Clement X.

Between the fontains and the obelisk, there are porphyry discs set in the pavement. These mark the foci of the ellipse. If you stand on one of these, you can appreciate the perfection of Bernini's design because the three further rows of columns hide behind the nearest row on that side. The discs are part of a decorative paving scheme designed by Filippo Gilli and inaugurated in 1817.


The obelisk is a single piece of red granite from Aswan in Egypt, weighing 360 tons and having a height of 25.8 metres. It is not pharaonic, but was commissioned by Cornelius Gallus when he wa s the first Roman governor of Egypt under the emperor Augustus. Apparently it was originally erected in a forum that he ordered to be laid out in Alexandria. It is unclear whether he had it quarried, or if it was available as builder's stock from an incomplete temple project (probably the latter).

The obelisk was brought from Egypt by Emperor Caligula in order to adorn his new circus (later named after Nero) in the Ager Vaticanus. It stayed put for one and a half millennia, and is the only obelisk in Rome that did not fall over by the Middle Ages. The spot marked by a bronze plaque in the Piazza dei Protomartiri Romani just outside the sacristy of the basilica. This location is inside the security cordon of Vatican City so, unless you can get permission to enter, you won't be able to see it up close. If you want to see the approximate location anyway, look through the gateway guarded by a Swiss Guard to the left of the basilica, just past the bookshop. You'll be able to see this piazza, and the sacristy beyond.

The obelisk was moved to its present location before the nave of the basilica was built, or the present piazza laid out. The re-erection was by Domenico Fontana, and took place on 10 September 1586 with the aid of 900 men and 140 horses (not all worked at once). To ensure that no one lost their concentration, Pope Sixtus V had ordered complete silence during the operation of raising the obelisk on its new site. However, a sailor who was watching noticed that the cables were heating up under the enormous strain, and cried out: "Water on the ropes!". By daring to break the Pope's order he saved the obelisk, and so he was rewarded with a choice of some privilege. He requested that the palm leaves used in the basilica in papal ceremonies on Palm Sunday should be supplied from his farm, for as long as it was in his family's ownership.

The obelisk used to have a globe finial, but this was replaced in 1586 by a cross-shaped reliquary containing a piece of the True Cross allegedly discovered in the old sacristy at the end of the 7th century. This is on a bronze base in the form of the Chigi family crest -mountains and a star.

The 1817 re-paving of the piazza included a plan of a mariner's compass around the obelisk, giving the names of the cardinal winds. Also around the base are cobbles actually made of imperial porphyry; it is suspected that these came from the ancient sarcophagus of St Petronilla smashed up by Bramante when he began the demolition of the old basilica. (Bramante ruinante, as the pasquinade accurately observed.) The ring of stone bollards is a reminder that the rest of the piazza was once the prey of wheeled vehicles.


The façade was built 1606-1614 by Carlo Maderno. Overall it is disproportionate, but the two end bays are actually not part of the church frontage at all but are the stumps of proposed campanili (bell-towers). This is made clear by the inscription on the entablature frieze, which confines itself to the actual façade. Overall, the frontage is 117.7 metres wide and 45.5 metres high.

In front is a trapezoidal patio, accessed by stairs on three sides which are by Bernini although the paving is part of the overall 1817 scheme. At the near corners of the steps are statues of SS Peter and Paul on high pedestals, installed on the orders of Pope Pius IX in 1847. St Peter on the left is by Giuseppe De Fabris, St Paul on the right is by Adamo Tadolini and the pedestals are by Antonio Sarti. The pair was originally intended for San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The actual frontage of the central nave of the basilica is occupied by an enormous propylaeum having four Corinthian columns supporting an entablature with a triply molded architrave and with a triangular pediment above. The side aisle frontages each have two columns, the inner one butted against the slightly projecting propylaeum, and a pillar on the outer corner. The entablature is extended over these columns and pillars, and bears the inscription In honorem Principis Apost[olorum], Paulus V Burghesius Romanus, Pont[ifex] Max[imus], an[no] MDCXII, pont[ificatus] VII [hoc fecit]. (“In honour of the prince of the apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman and chief high priest, did this in the year 1612 the seventh of his pontificate”).

Above the entablature and pediment is an attic, with a balustrade. Standing on this are thirteen statues, of Christ, eleven apostles and St John the Baptist. The missing apostle is St Peter, because his statue is inside. (Two of these statues are on the campanili.)

The façade below the entablature has three identical balconied windows in between the columns. The one in the centre is the Loggia of Benedictions, where the Holy Father appears on special occasions to bless those in the piazza. The announcement of the election of a new Pope is also made from this loggia. Below its corbelled balcony is a bas-relief depicting St Peter Receiving the Keys by Ambrogio Buonvicino.

The three main entrances are below these balconies, and are flanked by Ionic columns. Two smaller arched entrances are in between them.

A complete renovation was carried out for the Jubilee Year of 2000. The original paint was analyzed, and the rendered parts of façade were, to the distress of many and the joy of many others, repainted.


The stumps of the flanking bell-towers are identically designed. Each has a tall first storey containing an enormous arched portal, and a smaller one the same height as the attic. The archway on the left side is known as the Arch of the Bells - look up and you will see why. It leads into the Vatican State -prior permission is needed to pass through it. The right hand archway is another portal to the papal palace, and is not accessible.

The original tall mediaeval campanile was demolished in 1606, with the intention of providing a worthy replacement. Maderno started a pair of matching towers in 1612, with completely inadequate foundations, and Bernini proved their inadequacy by his disastrous attempt to continue building in 1637. The bells of the basilica were in store all this time. Finally Giuseppe Valadier provided two clocks in the upper storeys, with mosaic clock-faces in Rococo frames above. The sculptured angels and Papal emblems are by Francesco Antonio Franzoni, Andrea Bergondi and Giuseppe Angelini.

The modern time was told by the left hand clock. Formerly, the right hand clock told “Roman” time, which the papal government insisted on until the mid 19th century. This involved dividing the period of daylight into twelve “hours”, and at of night into another twelve. This meant that mechanical clocks had to be adjusted daily.

The basilica's bells are in the left hand chamber. There are only six of them.


The portico or vestibule is often used for smaller ceremonies, such as prayer liturgies. It occupies the first storey of the façade, with rooms connecting to the palace above. Maderno rightly considered it his masterpiece, and finished it in 1612.

The ceiling is vaulted, with lunettes containing 38 statues of canonized early popes. The gorgeous gilded stucco work designed by Martino Ferrabosco and executed by Buonvicino. It contains 32 stucco relief panels depicting scenes from the life of St Peter, designed by Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara. A map of the portico ceiling is given here.

The pavement is by Bernini, except for the inset coat-of-arms of Pope St John XXIII by Giacomo Manzù, executed to commemorate the Second Vatican Council.

Standing with your back to the central door, you can look up to see the Navicella by Giotto, executed in the 14th century. The mosaic depicts the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee, when Peter was summoned across the water to meet Christ, and was on the inner wall of the mediaeval gatehouse facing the atrium. The work has been moved and restored several times, to the extent that it could be considered to be a 17th century copy of a lost original. After the new basilica had been built it was first placed inside the nave, above the entrance, before being transferred here.

This is also a good place to look down at the piazza and the colonnades by Bernini.

Between the five entrances are three old epigraphs. The left hand one records a donation of olive trees by Pope Gregory II (715-31) to provide oil for the shrine's lamps, the middle one is a record of a speech given by Charlemagne at the funeral of Pope Adrian I in 795, and the right hand one is the announcement of the Holy Year of 1300.

Beyond the ground floor chambers of the campanili at each end of the portico are equestrian statues, actually at the ends of the corridors running along the sides of the trapezoidal part of the piazza. On the right is Emperor Constantine by Bernini, sculpted in 1675. This location is actually the vestibule of the staircase into the palace, the Scala Regia also by Bernini, and is not usually accessible. On the left is Emperor Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini, made in 1725. This work was modelled on the one of Marcus Aurelius now standing on the Capitol, at the time thought to be a portrait of Constantine. Art critics have been rude about it in the past, but it is technically accomplished.

Life of St Peter[]

The stucco bas-relief panels in the portico present the events in the life of St Peter, as follows: St Andrew Introduces St Peter to Christ; The Call of St Peter and St Andrew; The Miraculous Catch of Fish; (Navicella) St Peter Receives the Keys; The Transfiguration; The Temple Shekel; The Washing of the Feet; Christ in Gethsemane; The Arrest of Christ; St Peter Denies Christ Before the Servant Girl; St Peter Denies Christ the Third Time; SS Peter and John at the Empty Tomb; The Appearance of Christ at the Sea of Galilee; Feed My Sheep; St Peter Heals a Cripple; The Death of Ananias; The Death of Sapphira; The Resurrection of Tabitha; The Vision of the Unclean Animals; St Peter with the Centurion Cornelius; St Peter Freed from Prison; St Peter Taken by the Angel to the Gate; The Fall of Simon Magus; St Peter Baptizes SS Processus and Martinianus in Prison; Domine Quo Vadis; The Martyrdom of St Peter; St Peter Taken Down from the Cross; The Easterners Hide the Relics of SS Peter and Paul in a Well; Pope St Cornelius and Lucina Recover the Relics.


The portico has five entrance doors, three with segmental pediments and two with triangular ones. The middle door is 15th century bronze work, and the other four are modern.

The central bronze door belonged to the old basilica, and when it was re-hung here in 1619 it had to be augmented by additional panels at top and bottom. It was originally commissioned from Antonio Filarete by Pope Eugene IV in 1433, and took about twelve years for him to finish. The main panels depict (from the top): Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, SS Peter (with Pope Eugene) and Paul, and the Martyrdoms of SS Peter and Paul. The scrollwork fillets around the panels are impressive -Filarete managed to replicate ancient Roman decorative elements at a time when the study of antiquity was a lot less advanced than it is today. These include, surprisingly, subjects from pagan mythology. Between the panels are little scenes from the Council of Florence, when representatives of the Churches of East and West met to discuss union. On the inner side of the door is Filarete's signature, a group of workmen returning from a country picnic with the master on a mule and his assistant on a camel (of all mounts!).

Over this door is a relief of Christ Entrusting the Flock to Peter by Buonvicino (not Bernini).

The door to the far left is by Giacomo Manzù 1964, and is the Door of Death since it was intended for funerals. The panels feature The Deposition, The Assumption of Our Lady, Symbols of the Eucharist, The Killing of Abel, The Death of St Joseph, The Martyrdom of St Peter, The Death of Pope St John XXIII (who commissioned the work), The Death of Pope St Gregory VII and the deaths of some animals. The inside of the door shows a scene from the Second Vatican Council, when Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa paid homage to the pope. He was the first Native African cardinal.

The near left door is the Door of Good and Evil, and is by Luciano Minguzzi 1977. The bad things are on the left, and the good on the right.

The door to the near right is by Venanzio Crocetti 1968. It is the Door of the Sacraments, and on it in eight panels is an angel declaring the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

The door to the far right is the Porta Santa, the Holy Door. It is normally sealed up on the inside, and is only open during Holy Years - last during the Jubilee Year 2000. The Holy Doors found in some cathedrals symbolize the threshold that has to be crossed in order to achieve salvation (John 10, 9). It is opened by the Holy Father during a solemn ceremony, and closed at the end of the Holy Years. During that time, thousands of pilgrims enter the basilica through that door to obtain indulgences. The two stone plaques above the door are in memory of the Jubilee of 1975 and the extraordinary Jubilee of Redemption in 1983.

The Holy Door was decorated for the 1950 Jubilee by Vico Consorti with 16 bronze panels representing episodes in the history of the Fall and the redemption by Christ. Above the blocking on the counterfaçade inside the basilica is a mosaic of St Peter based on a design by Ferri 1675.



The layout of the basilica is perfectly symmetrical. There is a nave with side aisles, and three external chapels on each side. Then comes an enormous square transept containing four mighty free-standing piers supporting the dome. The shrine is immediately below the latter. Four chapels are in the corners of the square, and the three sides away from the nave each have an apsidal extension. The far one contains the Chair of St Peter. The corner chapels are linked to the nave and these apsidal bays by enormous vaulted passages called the ambulacra (ambulacrum in the singular), or ambulatories in English.

Many have remarked on the odd effect of not noticing how enormous the basilica is on entering for the first time. This is because, even though the dimensions are vast, the proportions are exactly the same as for a much smaller church. You have to notice the people to get a sense of scale. Some architectural critics (not all) regard this as a fault, and suggest that the church of Hagia Sofia at Constantinople (Istanbul now) gives a much more awesome sense of space. You have to visit both churches to make a judgment. The critics have a point.

It may be noted here that most of what look like frescoes and oil paintings are actually mosaics. There has been a policy over the last couple of centuries of removing oils on canvas to the Vatican Museums (where there are better conditions for preservation) or to other churches, and replacing them with mosaic copies made in the famous Vatican workshops. The reason is that the mosaics are much more durable than paintings -the canvases over the altars here were very large, and would sag and split with time.


San Pietro in Vaticano

The church was originally designed by Michelangelo on a Greek cross plan. This was changed by Maderno, for two reasons. Firstly a Latin cross plan was favoured at the time for liturgical reasons and, secondly, there was a perceived need for a larger area for worship. By extending Michelangelo's proposed entrance bay this could easily be accomplished. According to the original design, the entrance should have been about where the nave narrows at its further end. Maderno completed the nave in 1615, and decoration in white and polychrome marbles was added from the 1640's initially by Bernini.

The nave has three bays, with side aisles separated by arcades having enormous rectangular piers. Each of these has two separate ribbed Corinthian pilasters, which together support an entablature running round the interior of the basilica. This has a gilded frieze with an epigraph quoting verses from the New Testament concerning St Peter, and a cornice with modillions (corbels).

The barrel-vaulted ceiling by Maderno springs from the cornice, and is coffered in squares and rectangles. The overall design is allegedly derived from one by Bramante, and matches the vaults in the transept and tribune. Most of it is gilded, with only a little white showing for contrast. Decorations involving angels sprouting vine-fronds were added over the windows by Giovanni Battista Maini in 1750, and the gilding was done in 1780. The central roundel has the coat-of-arms of Pope Pius VI, who commissioned the work.

The vault is in two sections. The first two bays have lunettes with windows, but the third bay is slightly narrower and lower, and has no lunettes. This is because the last pair of piers is much larger than the first two, in order to support the thrust from the dome beyond. You can see how the pilasters of these last piers project further, and the nave beyond is slightly narrower.

Between each pair of pier pilasters are two niches, the lower round-headed and the upper rectangular. These contain statues of the founders of religious orders, part of a wider scheme in the basilica. The two niches on each pilaster are separated by grey-streaked marble revetting in a zig-zag pattern, and this also occurs elsewhere.

On the spandrels of the arches are figures of allegorical virtues, accompanied by identifying symbols. On the Doric arch impost pilasters are oval tondi supported by putti, which contain fifty-six portraits of early popes in bas-relief. There are two on each pilaster, separated by a panel containing papal insignia. At the top and bottom of each pilaster is a dove, the Pamphilj family emblem of Pope Innocent X. All these are part of the decorative campaign supervised by Bernini for a year after 1647, employing thirty-nine sculptors and Antonio Raggi as foreman.

The counterfaçade has two more of the pilasters, with a further pair folded into the corners. Over the three entrance doors of the central nave are three large dedicatory tablets, and over these are three curtained windows that give onto the chambers behind the attic of the façade. The triplet lunette window above the entablature is actually behind the crowning statuary of the façade, and so invisible from outside. The clock-faces and the gilded Rococo decoration surrounding them is also by Maini.

In the floor between the Chapel of the Pietà and the baptistry, near the entrance, is a porphyry roundel or rota that survives from the old basilica. It is claimed that Charlemagne knelt on this roundel when he was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, a ritual that was repeated by 21 successive Holy Roman Emperors. There used to be six of these rotae in the old basilica, sawn from an enormous ancient column. The rest of the polychrome marble flooring is by Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno and Bernini.

Also in the floor, further down, are several transverse bronze lines with inscriptions in bronze lettering. Each of them delimits the length of one of the great churches of the world, making it very clear to you that this is the largest of them all (the measurements are from the Chair of St Peter behind the shrine). The names are in Latin, but you should be able to figure out most of them even if you don't know that language. See a list of the world's longest churches.

There are two colossal holy water stoups at the entrance end, in the form of puttos holding a shell. The design was by Agostino Cornacchini, and the shells were sculpted in yellow Siena marble by Giuseppe Lironi. They demonstrate great skill. The putti are by Francesco Moderati and Giovanni Battista De Rossi.

Statues of Founders[]

The statues in the nave niches are part of a set of thirty-nine that are also to be found in the transept and tribune. The nave proper has twelve, the central dome piers have fifteen (four each, except the Longinus pier which has only three because of the statue of St Peter), and the tribune and side apses have four each.

The sculptures date from the 17th century to the 20th and are of variable quality, but many are good examples of late Baroque sculpture. Starting at the bottom of the nave to the right and proceeding round the church anti-clockwise, the saints and the religious institutes that they founded are:

(Right of nave, lower then upper) St Teresa of Jesus, Discalced Carmelite nuns (1754 by Filippo Della Valle); St Magdalen Sophie Barat, Society of the Sacred Heart (1934 by Enrico Quattrini); St Vincent de Paul, Lazarists (1754 by Pietro Bracci); St John Eudes, Congregation of Jesus and Mary (1932); St Philip Neri, Oratorians (1734 by Giovanni Battista Maini); St John Baptist de la Salle, Brothers of the Christian Schools (1904);

(Longinus Pier) Statue of St Peter; St John Bosco, Salesians (1936 by Pietro Canonica); St Cajetan, Theatines (by Carlo Monaldi); St Francesca Xavier Cabrini, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart;

(Right transept) St Jerome Emiliani, Clerks Regular of Somascha (1756 by Pietro Bracci); St Jeanne Antide Thouret (Sisters of Charity); St Joseph Calasanz, Piarists (1755 by Innocenzo Spinazzi); St Bonfilius Monaldi, Servites -one of their Seven Holy Founders (1906);

(Helen Pier) St Bruno, Carthusians 1744 (the saint is shown theatrically rejecting the episcopacy); St Paul of the Cross, Passionists 1876 (by Ignazio Jacometti); Prophet Elijah, Carmelites -a psychotic fantasy on the part of that Order (by Agostino Cornacchini); St Francis de Sales, Visitation nuns;

(Tribune) St Dominic, Dominicans (1706 by Pierre Le Gros the Younger. The dog is a Latin pun on the saint's name -Domini canis); St Francis Caracciolo, Minor Clerks Regular (1834 by Alessandro Massimiliano Labourer); St Francis of Assisi, Franciscans (1727 by Carlo Monaldi); St Alphonsus Mary de Liguori, Redemptorists (1839);

(Veronica Pier) St Benedict, Benedictines (1735 by Antonio Montauti); St Francesca Romana (not the founder of an order, but only of a Roman nunnery of Benedictine oblates, Santa Maria Annunziata a Tor de' Specchi. Her presence here is as a result of the Roman nobility exerting undue influence); St Juliana Falconieri, Servite nuns (1740 by Paolo Campi); St William of Vercelli, Monteverginians -extinct, with one surviving monastery now Benedictine (1878);

(Left transept) St Norbert, Norbertines (1767 by Pietro Bracci); St Angela de Merici, Ursulines (1866); St Peter Nolasco, Trinitarians (by Paolo Campi); St Louise de Marillac, Daughters of Charity (1953);

(Andrew Pier) St John of God, Brothers Hospitallers (1745 by Filippo Della Valle); St Euphrasia Pelletier, Sisters of the Good Shepherd (1940 by Giovanni Niccolini); St Francis of Paola, Minim friars (1732); St Peter Fourier, Augustinian Canonesses of Our Lady (1899);

(Left of nave) St Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuits (1733 by Camillo Rusconi); St Anthony Mary Zaccaria, Barnabites (1909); St Camillus de Lellis, Camillians (1753); St Louis Mary Grignion de Montfort, Company of Mary (Giacomo Parisini 1948); St Peter of Alcántara, Discalced Franciscans -now extinct (1713); St Lucy Filippini, Maestre Pie Filippini (1949).

Webpages for each of the Founder Statues are available here.

High altar[]

Pietrovaticano papalmass1

The high altar and baldachino before a papal Mass

The free-standing high altar was consecrated by Pope Clement VIII in 1594, and is formed from a monolithic block of grey-veined white marble from Greece which was allegedly excavated in the Forum of Nerva. It stands directly underneath the dome, and has the shrine of St Peter under it in a confessio. This is a papal altar, which means that (with a few exceptions) the Holy Father must be the main celebrant if Mass is to be celebrated on it.

The bronze baldacchino sheltering it is by Bernini, and is the largest bronze monument in the world. It is 28 metres high, and weighs about 37 metric tonnes.

The architect was only 25 years old when he was commissioned to execute the work by Pope Urban VII Barberini in 1624. The altar was officially consecrated in 1626, seven years before the baldacchino was completed in 1633. There is a long-standing urban legend that the bronze came from the ceiling of the portico of the Pantheon, but a scholar has taken the trouble to check Vatican inventories of the time. The pillaged bronze went into cannon for Castel Sant'Angelo, not the baldacchino.

The actual sculptural details on the bronze, created by the lost-wax process, were by Duquesnoy.

The design alludes to the twelve helically twisted Solomonic columns in the screens around the shrine of the Apostle in the old basilica. You can see eight of the originals flanking the upper niches in the piers supporting the dome, where Bernini put them. However, in designing the four vast columns of the baldacchino Bernini did not slavishly imitate the models, which have sections alternately fluted and decorated, but kept the fluting at the base and decorated the rest with olive foliage in gilt (the old columns have vine-leaves). The foliage contains little putti and also bees, the emblem of the Barberini family.

The columns stand on polychrome marble box-plinths with the coat-of-arms of Pope Urban. There are eight of these, two on each plinth, and above seven of them are women's faces. The charming story attached to these is that they represent a niece of the pope during different months of her pregnancy, because the eighth shield has a baby's face. Other candidates for the identity of this woman have been suggested.

The columns support posts decorated with the sun-face, which in turn support a cornice (no full entablature). Between the posts are hanging banners featuring more bees, and above the posts are four angels with putti in between. The baldacchino is crowned by four great curlicues meeting to support a cross-and-ball finial.

In the vault of the baldacchino is the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory.


The location of the tomb of St Peter was the focal point of the first basilica, and apparently only in the late 6th century was an altar installed on top. This was ordered by Pope St Gregory the Great, whose work was enclosed within cladding at the start of the 12th century by Pope Callixtus II. The altar of Pope Clement VIII, the present one, was some distance above it when it was installed and consecrated in 1594. So, Giacomo Della Porta dug a pit in front of it to allow access to the original altar, and this is the so-called confessio. It was re-fitted and embellished with sumptuous polychrome marble decoration by Maderno, and inaugurated in 1615 (work on the decoration went on for another three years).

You can't miss the confessio -it's the open crypt in front of the high altar. The polychrome marble balustrade is an important place for prayer and the veneration of St Peter (ordinary visitors have not been allowed down since an act of vandalism in 1969). When bishops come to see the Holy Father on their ad limina visits, they come here to pray. Eighty-nine oil lamps in gilded bronze (the number quoted varies) burn night and day around the shrine; these are by Mattia De Rossi. Two staircases curve down in a horseshoe shape.

If you ever manage to get down there, you will be standing in front of an aedicule with four alabaster Ionic columns. This is flanked by a pair of niches with gilded bronze statues of SS Peter and Paul by Buonvicino. In the centre is a cupboard with a pair of intricately designed doors in pierced and gilded metalwork designed by Nicolas Cordier and founded by Onorio Fanelli, over which is a gilded metal bas-relief showing the busts of Christ and the two apostles. This cupboard contains a little round-headed niche which is actually cut into the ancient altar, and is called the Niche of the Pallia. It contains a 9th century mosaic of Christ, heavily restored under Bernini and again in 1833.

When an archbishop is granted the Pallium, it is left overnight in a bronze casket in front of the niche before being awarded to him. This is a symbol of the Apostolic Succession, the continuity from the Apostles, and especially from St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, to the bishops of our time.

In the floor in front of the niche is a gilded bronze plaque bearing a dove, the family emblem of Pope Innocent X Pamphilj (1644-55). This contains a small trapdoor, opening onto a shaft which is the same one as existed in the mediaeval shrine down which pilgrims would lower bits of cloth to make second-class relics.

If you go down into the Grotte or crypt, you have a view of the confessio through some glass doors at the top end of the grotte nuove. The confessio also has a pair of side passages leading into the grotte vecchie, but neither of these is accessible to visitors.

Piers of the dome[]

The altar is surrounded by the four great pentagonal piers supporting the dome. The sides facing the altar are decorated in a single scheme by Bernini, referring to four relics of first importance kept in the basilica and called the Reliquie Maggiore (one is now elsewhere). They are: The skull of St Andrew the Apostle who was St Peter's brother (this has now been given to the Greek Orthodox Church at Patras, Greece as an ecumenical gesture); the Veil of St Veronica; part of the True Cross, and the Holy Lance of St Longinus.

Each face is framed by a pair of ribbed Corinthian pilasters, and has two storeys. The first has a round-headed apsidal niche containing a statue of the saint associated with the relic, and above is a balcony corbelled out, with an aedicule sheltering a stucco representation of that relic. The aedicule has a coved (concave) segmental pediment on two of the original helically twisted Solomonic columns of the mediaeval shrine.

The statues, ordered by Pope Urban VIII in 1643, depict St [Helena (with the True Cross that she discovered), St Veronica (with the veil that she used to wipe Christ's face before his crucifixion), St Longinus the Centurion (with the lance that he used to pierce Christ's side) and St Andrew the Apostle (with the X-shaped cross on which he was martyred).

The statue of St Longinus is by Bernini himself, and was executed 1631-1638. It is known that he made several models, but only a miniature has been preserved.

St Andrew is by Francesco Duquesnoy, executed 1629-1640.

Francesco Mochi executed the statue of St Veronica in the years 1631-1640.

The final statue, of St Helena, was executed by Andrea Bolgi.

The piers are named after the saints -Andrea, Veronica, Helena and Longino. The balconies have been used to expose the relics during Holy Week, but usually they are kept safe in the chamber within Veronica.

Statue of St Peter[]

By the pier of Longinus is an ancient bronze statue of St Peter. One of the feet is of silver, and you can clearly see that it has been worn away from being touched and kissed by pilgrims for many centuries. An indulgence is attached to this act.

The date of the work has been uncertain for centuries. Formerly it was thought to have been a pagan statue that was adapted (certainly false), or an original work made before the Classical style mutated into the Byzantine one at Rome, late 5th century. However, recent research during a restoration in 1990 indicates that it was made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century. No universal consensus is yet reached in the matter, but the revisionist hypothesis has won wide acceptance.

It is recorded that the custom of kissing the foot of the statue was encouraged by Pope Constantine (708-715), but it might have been a different statue that he was referring to.

Above the statue is a tondo portrait in mosaic of Pope Pius IX, put up when his reign exceeded the traditional one of St Peter -twenty five years.


The mighty dome springs from a ring entablature supported by pendentives themselves springing from the four piers just described. It was first designed by Michelangelo, and completed by Giacomo Della Porta and Domenico Fontana in 1589-1593. The drum is much as intended by Michelangelo, but the ellipticity of the dome is Della Porta's.

It was originally intended to be decorated with mosaics for the 1600 Jubilee and work was begun in 1590 as soon as the surface was available from the builders, but it could not be finished in time. Only those on the four pendentives were completed in 1599, and then the plans were altered. The mosaic in the dome itself was designed by Cavaliere d'Arpino, who was paid for it in 1613.

The pendentives display the Evangelists in four tondi, with angels in the corners. St Luke and St John are by Giovanni de' Vecchi, and St Mark and St Matthew are by Cesare Nebbia and Paolo Rosetti.

On the frieze of the entablature of the dome are written the words that Christ spoke to Peter: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam, et tibi dabo claves Regni Caelorum.

The dome itself is divided into sixteen sectors by wide ribs meeting at the oculus. Each sector contains six figurative panels. The bottom one is a lunette, the second and last have no borders, the third and fifth are trapezoids with curved short sides and the fourth is a tondo. The total is ninety-six, and the theme is the Host of Heaven. The bottom lunettes contain patriarchs and bishops, and above them are Christ, Our Lady, St John the Baptist and the Apostles including St Paul. Then comes four orders of angels: Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim. The oculus is surrounded by stars, and is rimmed with an epigraph S[ancti] Petri gloriae, Sixtus P[a]p[a] V a[nno] MDXC, pontif[icatus] V. In the lantern is a mosaic of God the Father, by Ranuccio Semprevivo 1604. He's not too visible.

Nave side aisles[]

The side aisles of the nave each have three bays, roofed by elliptical domes. The subjects of the mosaic decoration of the interiors of these refer to the chapels opening off the bays below them.

The Corinthian columns supporting the vaults in between the bays are in red Portsanta marble, and were installed by Bernini. They are matched by those supporting the segmental pediments over the side aisle doors (the door at the bottom of the right hand aisle is the Holy Door).

The description of the side chapels below proceeds anti-clockwise from the right of the entrance.

Chapel of the Pietà[]

The vault of the dome of the entrance bay of the first chapel on the right has a mosaic featuring the Passion by Ciro Ferri and Pietro da Cortona. Below it on the floor is an elliptical pietra dura panel commemorating Blessed Pope Paul VI whose tomb is in the crypt. The entrance to the chapel is in the form of a propylaeum with a triangular pediment supported by two of the Corinthian columns in red marble.

This chapel was originally named the Cappella del Crocifisso, Chapel of the Crucifix, but has been renamed because of Michaelangelo's Pietà which was installed here in 1749.

The Pietà, one of the most famous works of art in the world, is now placed safely behind a bullet-proof glass screen after it was attacked with a hammer by a mentally unbalanced man in 1971. Many complain that they have to see it at such a distance; don't worry too much about that as you get a much better sense of the proportions this way. One scar of a hammer blow to the back of Our Lady's head was left as a memorial, but the repair work has left the serious damage invisible -except under ultra-violet light, when the filler used will glow.

The Pietà depicts the moment when the body Christ was placed on his mother's knees after the Crucifixion. It shows Mary's grief, but also her great strength. There is an important theological point being made -she is depicted younger than her Son. The latter, as God, created her.

Michelangelo was only 22 years old when he started working on the Pietà, and finished it in 1499. The sculpture was commissioned by Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, the Cardinal Legate of the French King Charles VIII to the Vatican, and was intended for the high altar of the church of Santa Petronilla (which was also known as the Chapel of the Frankish Kings) as part of his funerary memorial. According to the contract, the work was to take a year to finish. After it had been installed in that church, the artist overheard guides telling pilgrims that other sculptors had actually executed it to his design. So, one night, he came into the church and signed it, chiselling "Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence made this" on the band that crosses Mary's breast -probably the world's most indiscreet signature.

In 1517, the sculpture was installed in the church of Santa Maria della Febbre because Bramante had demolished Santa Petronilla. It stayed there when the old church was converted into a sacristy, but had to be moved out to the Choir Chapel when the new sacristy was built. Then it was moved here.

A word of warning -you will find miniature models of the Pietà everywhere in Rome. If you really want to buy one, look carefully at it beforehand because most of them are very badly executed. Try sourcing one in a good religious art shop -it might cost more than buying one from a street vendor, but you'll be much more happy with it in years to come.

The polychrome marble decoration of the chapel is by Giovanni Lanfranco, including the fresco of the Triumph of the Cross in the vault. On the right-hand wall is a bronze medallion depiction St Bridget of Sweden. It is a copy of a marble original by Domenico Guidi, which can be found in the Bridgettine convent next to Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori. It was placed here in 1991, when the 600th anniversary of her canonization was celebrated. (You may wonder why there is no statue of her among the Founders of Religious Institutes. It was because she didn't become a Bridgettine herself.)

Chapel of the Relics[]

The Chapel of the Relics is a small (relatively speaking) elliptical chapel inserted into a former stairwell behind the first right hand pier of the nave. (This means that the symmetry of the basilica is broken here, since there are actually four side chapels instead of the three that Maderno intended). The design was by Bernini, but the decoration had to wait until Vanvitelli.

The altarpiece is a wooden crucifix attributed to Pietro Cavallini. Also here is a mosaic representation of St Nicholas of Bari by Pietro Paolo Cristofari.

This chapel is seldom found open.

The chapel entrance is under a memorial to Leo XII by Giuseppe De Fabris 1836. The pope is shown giving a blessing for the Jubilee of 1825, and the allegorical figures above him are Justice and Religion.

The cenotaph to Christine of Sweden (died 1689) is on the pier opposite the chapel entrance. It was designed by Carlo Fontana, and was was executed 16971702. Jean-Baptiste Théodon carved the bas-relief which depicts the ceremony in the Hofkirche, Innsbruck in 1655, when she converted to the Catholic Church. Lorenzo Ottoni executed the two putti. The bronze cameo portrait is impressive, and is by Giovanni Giardini.

Christine was the daughter of King Gustav Adolph of Sweden, who fought for the Protestants in the Thirty Years War, and it was considered a victory for the Catholic faith when she converted in 1655. Her tomb is in the crypt.

Chapel of St Sebastian[]

The cupola of the entrance bay of the second chapel on the right has a mosaic depicting The Glory of the Martyrs, which is by Pietro da Cortona.

The dedication of the chapel is to St Sebastian of Rome. The mosaic over the chapel altar is a copy of a 1631 fresco by Domenichino, the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. The original is now in Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Below the altar is the shrine of Pope St John Paul II. His relics replaced those of Blessed Pope Innocent XI, enshrined here after his beatification in 1956 and exshrined (if there's such a word) just fifty years later. He was moved to under the altar of the Transfiguration.

The side walls of the chapel have memorials to Pope Pius XI by Canonica to the left, and to Pope Pius XII on the right with a bronze statue by Francesco Messina.

The archway to the next bay has two monuments. One is a sumptuous Berniniesque memorial to Pope Innocent XII, who died in 1700, by Filippo della Valle. The allegorical figures to each side are Justice and Charity. The latter has offspring, while the former has a sword and the fasces, symbols of authority in ancient Rome.

The other monument is actually designed by Bernini, and was executed by his school 16331637. It is to Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who had died in 1115 (her remains were brought here from Mantua). The reason for the honour shown her is that she was a great supporter of the early mediaeval papacy in the Investiture Controversy. The bas-relief shows Pope St Gregory VII receiving the submission of Emperor Henry IV at Canossa. The statue of the countess is thought to be by Bernini. The putto on the left is by Luigi Bernini, son of the master, and that on the right by Andrea Bolgi. The coat-of-arms is by Matteo Buonacelli.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel[]

WARNING. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the next chapel, the third on the left, and it is for silent prayer. Sightseers are not allowed in, and there is a custodian on duty to enforce this. This is to show respect for the Blessed Sacrament, which according to the Catholic faith is the truly present Body of Christ.

The dome of the entrance bay has a mosaic designed by Pietro da Cortona 1656, which shows allegories and Old Testament prophecies of the Eucharist, including the Altar in Heaven of the Book of Revelation.

The wrought iron gates at the entrance to the chapel are by Francesco Borromini, and bears the heraldry of Pope Urban VIII. The interior is very sumptuously decorated in florid Baroque style, the decorative elements being designed by Pietro da Cortona again and executed by Giovanni Battista Ricci. However, the mosaic work in the vault is by Abbatini.

There are fourteen bas-reliefs in the lunettes depicting Old Testament scenes, designed by Francesco Vanni and executed in mosaic by Manenti. Also there four allegorical statues depicting Faith, Abundance, Charity and Sacrifice as well as a total of sixteen angels.

Cortona also painted the altarpiece, depicting the Holy Trinity. This is the only altarpiece painting still present in the basilica, as all the others have been replaced by mosaics.

The tabernacle was designed by Bernini in 1674. It is modelled on the Tempietto of Bramante, and is executed in gilded bronze embellished with gold, silver and lapis lazuli. Of the two angels flanking it, the left hand one is thought to be by the master himself.

To the left of the altar is a doorway leading from the papal palace, which by tradition is the one that the Holy Father uses when he officiates at liturgies in the basilica.

On the right side wall is an altar dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, which has a mosaic copy of St Francis Receives the Stigmata by Domenichino as its altarpiece. Before the 19th century, this was over the left hand altar in the left hand apse of the transept.

There is an organ against the left hand wall, in a richly carved and gilded 16th century case. The setting includes stucco work by Giacomo Perugino, involving reliefs of biblical scenes in the vault above.

The archway beyond the chapel is the end of the aisle, and opens out into the basilica's main transept. It contains two contrasting papal monuments. One is to Pope Gregory XIII, and is by Camillo Rusconi 1723. Note the dragon, the emblem of the Buoncompagni family of the pope. The bas-relief commemorates the pope's inauguration of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, and is by Carlo Francesco Mellone. The figure on the right is Magnificence, dressed as if she were the goddess Minerva, and she is holding up a marble drapery to reveal the bas-relief. The figure on the left is Religion.

The other memorial is a restrained one to Pope Gregory XIV, who died in 1591 ten months after his coronation.

Altar of St Jerome[]

You now emerge into the enormous square transept surrounding the central dome piers. Each of these piers has two altars inserted into its back sides, and you are facing the first of these in the Longinus pier. It is dedicated to St Jerome, and the altarpiece is a mosaic copy of a painting by Domenichino, The Last Communion of St Jerome. The original can be seen in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (Vatican Museums). It was originally painted for San Girolamo della Carità in 1614.

Relics of St Jerome used to be kept under the altar, but this is now the location of the shrine of Pope St John XXIII. His body, apparently mostly incorrupt when exhumed, is in a glass case embellished with convolvulus stems and flowers in gilt bronze by Novello Finotti.

Cappella Gregoriana[]

To the right, in the corner, is the domed Cappella Gregoriana which is named after Pope Gregory XIII whose monument you have just met. Originally designed by Michelangelo in 1561, who died before it was finished, it was continued by Vignola from 1567 to 1573 and finally completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1578. It was then consecrated, but without any decoration which was then applied over the next two years. The bronze, stucco and mosaic work was overseen by Girolamo Muziano. The dome depicts scenes from the life of Our Lady by Salvatore Monofili, and the pendentives show Doctors of the Church by Niccolò Piccolo, Il Calabrese. The lunettes showing the Annunciation with prophets are by Muziano himself.

This chapel has as an altarpiece an 11th century painting of Our Lady of Good Help, or Madonna del Soccorso, to whom it is dedicated. The painting was also venerated in the old basilica, and kept for the new one when it was demolished. Below the altar are enshrined the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen, the pope's patron.

To the right, over a side entrance to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, is a monument to Pope Gregory XVI, by Luigi Amici 1855. The sarcophagus has a bas-relief with the theme of the pope's defence of the faith, while the allegorical figures are Wisdom and Prudence.

WARNING. You cannot go further than this, because the entire right hand side of the transept is cordoned off and is reserved for private prayer and for those going to Confession. If you wish to do either of these, or to venerate the side altars located here, pass round the left hand side of the Longinus pier and tell the custodian on duty at the entrance who is there to prevent sightseers trespassing.

Altar of St Basil[]

The other altar in the back of the Longinus pier is dedicated to St Basil the Great, and will be to your right once you turn right into the ambulacrum after having explained yourself to the custodian.

Beneath the altar is a glass case containing the mortal remains of St Josaphat Kuntsevitch, dressed in episcopal vestments of the Byzantine rite. His mostly incorrupt body was enshrined here on the orders of Pope Paul VI. On his feast day, 12 November, the Eucharist is celebrated according to the Byzantine Catholic rite at this altar.

The altarpiece mosaic is a copy of a painting by Pierre-Hubert Subleyras. It replaced a painting of St Basil Celebrating Mass for Emperor Valens, which was executed by Girolamo Muziano and is now in Santa Maria degli Angeli.

The memorial to Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) is opposite the altar. It was executed by Pietro Bracci, and unveiled on 4 April 1795. The allegorical statues of Wisdom and Disinterestedness are by Gaspare Sibilia. The pope is shown giving the blessing for the Jubilee of 1750.

The barrel vault of the ambulacrum is coffered in gilded octagons, and this is repeated for the other seven ambulacra.

Transept side arms[]

The two side arms of the transept are identically designed. Each has a single bay with a semi-circular apse, with a pair of ribbed Corinthian pilasters at the entrance, three in the curve of the apse and two conjoined pair at the mouth of the apse. The apse contains three similarly designed side chapels, each having a pair of Corinthian columns in coloured granite or marble supporting a horizontal entablature without a pediment and containing a little apse with a conch which houses the aedicule. The central chapel has ribbed columns. Above these chapels are three large rectangular windows.

The ceiling vault of the bay has the same design as those of the nave and tribune, but the apse vault is a semi-dome with three ribs separating window lunettes, the sectors stucco medallions with terracotta relief panels depicting scenes from the lives of the Apostles. The inspiration for these were the Raphael tapestries in the papal palace. This work was designed by Vanvitelli and executed by Maini 1750.

Chapel of St Wenceslaus[]

The first on the right of the apse chapels is dedicated to St Wenceslaus. The altarpiece mosaic is a copy of a work by Cesare Caroselli, 1630. The relief panels in the conch depict Biblical scenes concerning St Thomas, executed in 1599 because the chapel was initially dedicated to him.

Chapel of St Processus and Martinian[]

The apse chapel in the middle in the right hand transept arm is dedicated to SS Processus and Martinian who, according to the legend, were jailers baptized by St Peter in prison. Their alleged relics are enshrined here. The mosaic is a copy of a work by Jean de Boulogne, now in the Museums.

The ribbed columns flanking the chapel are in red granite, and are claimed to be unique. Granite columns are almost invariably smooth, for the simple reason that it is a very hard stone.

Chapel of St Erasmus[]

The left hand apse chapel is dedicated to St Erasmus. The mosaic depicting the martyrdom is by Fabio Cristofari 1743, replacing a painting by Nicolas Poussin which is also now in the Museums.

Altar of the Navicella[]

To the left of the ambulacrum leading off the far side is an altar in the Helena pier. This is the Altar of the Navicella, because the altarpiece shows St Peter walking on the water as does the mosaic in the portico. The work is in mosaic by Fabio Cristofari 1727, a copy of a painting by Giovanni Lanfranco now in Milan.

Opposite the altar is the monument to Pope Clement XIII (1758-1759) which is by the young Antonio Canova. It was was unveiled on 4 April 1795. It shows the Holy Father kneeling in prayer above a sarcophagus with a relief showing allegories of Charity and Hope. Two marble lions are crouched on a pair of box plinths which flank a door. One has its eyes open (alive), and the other has them closed (dead). On the left is an allegory of Religion, and on the right one is the Genius of Death. This monument demonstrates the change in fashionable style from Baroque to neo-Classical; there is a strong contrast between this tomb and that of Benedict XIV by Pietro Bracci, even though Canova and Bracci were contemporary. It established Canova's fame as a sculptor.

Chapel of St Michael[]

The far right hand corner chapel is dedicated to St Michael. Unlike the two nearest the nave, the two chapels in the far corners of the transept never received their domes. The cupola, provided instead, has mosaic and stucco work designed by Lorenzo Ottoni, the former being executed by Alessandro Ricciolini in 1725. The Doctors of the Church on the pendentives are described as having been done by Andrea Sacchi, Romanelli, Abatini and Pellegrini, and the scenes in the lunettes from the life of St Petronilla as being by Marco Benefial and Lamberti.

Above the altar is a mosaic copy from 1756 of the famous painting of St Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni. It was painted in 1635, and the original can be seen in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. This work has several other copies in Roman churches, and is familiar on prayer cards.

Altar of St Petronilla[]

The chapel has a side altar, dedicated to St Petronilla who had her own church next to the old basilica until it was demolished by Bramante. Her relics are enshrined under the altar in 1606, and the fitting out of this chapel was paid for by the monarchy of France because the old church used to belong to it.

The mosaic of St Petronilla is a copy of a painting by Guercino. The original is in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Altar of the Resurrection of Tabitha[]

The ambulacrum leading to the tribune has an altar in the Helena pier on the left, the mosaic altarpiece of which is a 1760 copy of a work by Placido Costanzi depicting St Peter Resurrects Tabitha.

Opposite is a monument to Pope Clement X (1670-76), inspired by Bernini but executed by a committee of artists. The designer was Mattia de' Rossi, the statue of the pope is by Ercole Ferrata, the allegory of Clemency is by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, that of Benignity is by Lazzaro Morelli, the putti are by Filippo Carcani and finally the bas-relief depicting the pope proclaiming the Jubilee of 1675 is by Leonardo Letti.


Architecturally, the far apsidal bay of the basilica (the tribune, so-called) is very similar to the two side arms of the transept. The walls and ceiling vault are similarly decorated. One immediate difference is that the floor is slightly higher than that of the rest of the basilica, and is accessed by means of two steps made of porphyry slabs from the old basilica.

What you would expect here, given that the high altar is centrally located in the transept, is a set of choir stalls for the canons of the basilica fitting into the apse curve, with the pope's throne at the far end of the apse. What you actually have is Bernini's fantastic and theatrical shrine for the relic known as the Cathedra Petri, or Chair of Peter.

This used to involve an altar, but this has been brought well forward and is now in the centre of the tribune with longitudinal choir stalls on each side. This re-ordering was done in 1975, and the bronze frontal of the altar is by Albert Friscia. Matching the choir stalls is a low wooden screen, which now means that visitors cannot examine the Cathedra close up.

The vaulting was embellished by Vanvitelli, who inserted the panels in the semi-dome which show The Granting of the Keys to St Peter, The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Beheading of St Paul.

Cathedra of St Peter[]

The chair concerned has been traditionally but falsely venerated as that which St Peter used as pope. One suggestion is that it originally belonged to Emperor Charles the Bald in the 9th century, and was given to the Church by him. It is certainly from the first millennium, but has been heavily restored since its first documentary mention in 1217. It is in the form of a box with four solid posts of oak at each corner extending at the bottom to form short legs, the panels in between being of acacia-wood, hinting at a possible African origin for these bits. These panels were inlaid with ivory, possibly in the 9th century, including ancient plaques depicting the Labours of Hercules and also zodiacal symbols. The legs had four iron rings attached at some stage for carrying-poles. The chair back is an open arcade of four arches, surmounted by a triangular pediment.

The importance of this relic meant that it was provided with an innovative and influential shrine by Bernini, approved in 1656 and finally unveiled in 1666. The shrine is on a plinth of black and white French marble in front of which the altar used to stand, which bears bronze coats-of-arms of Pope Alexander VII who authorized the work. This in turn has an attic plinth in pinkish red Sicilian jasper, on which stand colossal gilt bronze statues of four Doctors of the Church shown as supporting the shrine suspended in mid-air. In front are two Latin Doctors, SS Augustine (to the right) and Ambrose, and behind are two Greeks, SS John Chrysostom and Athanasius (to the right). These statues are over five metres high.

The shrine itself is also in bronze, and was by Johann Paul Schor. It has bas-reliefs designed by Bernini, showing The Granting of the Keys, The Washing of the Feet and Feed My Sheep. It is surrounded by clouds, which rise up to join those surrounding an oval window of yellow glass containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit. This emits rays of glory at the top, and is surrounded by a host of gilded angels.

The work is flanked by a pair of papal memorials, within apsidal niches flanked by pairs of Corinthian columns supporting horizontal entablatures. These columns are in an unusual banded marble in white, grey and pale brown and originally came from the old basilica. The stone was allegedly sourced from Africa by the ancients.

The monument to the right of is that of Pope Urban VIII, and is by Bernini 1627-1647. The gilt bronze effigy sits on a plinth above a sarcophagus flanked by allegorical female figures of Charity and Justice. A winged skeleton is climbing out of the sarcophagus in order to write the name of the pope on a tablet.

The monument on the left is to Pope Paul III and was executed by Guglielmo della Porta 1551-1575. The latter also has a statue of the enthroned pope above, and two female figures representing Prudence and Justice in front of the sarcophagus.

These are shown reclining, a style deriving from ancient Etruscan tomb art. It is possible that they were based on drawings by Michelangelo. The one of Prudence is said to be a portrait of the pope's mother, Giovannella Caetani di Sermoneta, and the other of Justice to be a portrait of his sister-in-law Giulia Farnese. Two more statues were made, as the monument was intended to be free-standing. They represented Abundance and Tenderness. Since the monument was placed in a niche they could not be used, but they can be seen in the Palazzo Farnese.

Justice is wearing a metal tunic. She was originally nude, but offence was taken at her and so Guglielmo's son Teodoro had to provide clothes.

Altar of the Cure of the Cripple[]

The ambulacrum leading to the far left corner chapel has an altar to the left, inserted into the Veronica pier. It has an altarpiece showing St Peter curing a cripple at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple at Jerusalem, which is a copy of a painting by Francesco Mancini.

Opposite is a memorial to Pope Alexander VIII, a superb Baroque confection by various artists. The design was by Arrigo di San Martino 1725, the effigy of the pope was executed by Giuseppe Bertoni, the bas-relief showing the pope canonizing saints is by Angelo de' Rossi who also executed the allegorical figures of Religion and Prudence.

Chapel of Our Lady of the Column[]

The chapel in the far left hand corner of the transept is dedicated to a medieval icon of the Madonna painted on a column. This was in the old basilica, and was such an object of veneration that it was rescued in the demolition and enshrined here in 1579. You can see that the surface of the icon is curved.

The altar is on a Christian sarcophagus of the 4th century, showing relief carvings of Christ and some of the apostles. It contains relics of the following canonized popes: St Leo II, St Leo III, and St Leo IV are buried. Pope Leo XII is buried in the centre of the floor, although his memorial is in the right hand nave aisle.

This chapel, like its twin in the other far corner of the transept, did not receive its proposed dome. The cupola has mosaic decoration with angels and symbols of Our Lady 1757, while the pendentives have four Doctors. SS John Damascene and Thomas Aquinas are by Andrea Sacchi, while SS Bonaventure and Germanus of Auxerre (not proclaimed a Doctor) are by Lanfranco.

Altar of Pope St Leo[]

The side altar in this chapel is dedicated to Pope St Leo the Great, and his relics are beneath the altar. He is the one who met Atilla the Hun in 452 when the latter was on his way to sack Rome. According to legend, the pope prevented this either by threatening Atilla with the vengeance of the apostles Peter or Paul, or by buying him off with pepper (at the time a valuable luxury item). The former version is depicted in the relief above the altar, sculpted 1646-1650 by Alessandro Algardi. In historical reality, no-one knows why Attila turned back.

Altar of the Sacred Heart[]

The ambulacrum leading to the left hand transept bay has on its left the altar of the Sacred Heart which is inserted into the Veronica pier.

This used to be the altar of the Fall of Simon Magus, a legendary event set in the Roman Forum. Simon Magus was a magician who could levitate -until St Peter prayed, his power failed and he crashed and died. The altarpiece used to be a mosaic copy of a work by Francesco Vanni.

The dedication was changed in 1923, at the wish of Pope Benedict XV. The altarpiece is now a mosaic by Carlo Muccioli, depicting the Apparition of the Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Opposite is the monument to Alexander VII who died in 1667, which was the last work by Bernini in the basilica. It is one of the most popular memorials here artistically. The pope is shown kneeling on a plinth above two allegories of Justice and Prudence by Balestri and Giulio Cartari respectively. Charity by Giuseppe Mazzuoli and Truth by Bernini himself are to the sides in front, while over a little door (actually leading into a broom-cupboard) is a huge rumpled shroud in red Sicilian jasper out of which is emerging a skeleton with an hourglass.

Charity was carved in the nude, then given a covering in metal by Bernini.

Chapel of St Joseph[]

WARNING. The left hand side of the transept is reserved for prayer and liturgical activities. The scheduled daily Masses of the basilica are celebrated in here. Although it is not cordoned off with a low wooden screen as is the opposite side, sightseers should not enter and cause a disturbance.

The three chapels in the left hand side arm of the transept match those opposite. Up to the late 20th century St Joseph had no altar in the basilica. This was rectified in 1963, and the middle chapel of the apse here is now dedicated to him. There has been a shuffling of dedications as a result. The Crucifixion of St Peter has been moved from here to the left hand chapel, and the original dedication of that chapel suppressed.

Under the chapel altar are the relics of the apostles Simon and Jude, enshrined here in 1605. To the sides are oval tondi with mosaic portraits of them (St Jude is on the left) based on paintings by Vincenzo Camuccini. The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of a work by Achille Funi showing St Joseph with the Christ-child. The stucco reliefs above show scenes from the life of St Peter, and are left-overs from the previous dedication.

There is a modern altar in front of the chapel pro populo, for scheduled weekday Masses.

Chapel of St Thomas[]

The chapel to the right is dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle. Under the altar are the relics of Pope St Boniface IV. The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of a work by Camuccini, depicting The Doubt of Thomas. The conch has reliefs depicting scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist, to whom the chapel was once dedicated.

Chapel of the Crucifixion of St Peter[]

The chapel to the left in the apse is dedicated to the Crucifixion of St Peter. The mosaic altarpiece, a reproduction of a painting by Guido Reni, was executed in 1822. The original work was intended for San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, but is now in the Vatican Museums.

Under the altar are enshrined the relics of Pope St Leo IX.

This altar was previously dedicated to SS Martial and Valeria, and had a mosaic copy executed in 1896 of a work by Giovanni Antonio Galli, Il Spadarino. St Martial is by tradition the first bishop of Limoges in France, martyred in the mid 3rd century. He had a romantically fictional biography forged for him in the Middle Ages, featuring one St Valeria who allegedly picked up her own head and gave it to him after being beheaded. This ridiculous nonsense was enough to have the altar rededicated.

The conch has reliefs depicting scenes from the life of St Andrew, to whom the chapel was first dedicated. Then it was dedicated to St Francis before receiving that to SS Martial and Valeria in the 19th century.

Altar of the Lie[]

To the right in the ambulacrum leading to the transept's near left corner chapel is an altar inserted into the Andrew pier. It is called the Altare della Bugia, the Altar of the Lie. This is a strange name for an altar, but it refers to a story from the Acts of the Apostles which is depicted in the altarpiece mosaic. The first Christians shared all their property, and none of the claimed private ownership of any possessions (Acts 4: 32). A couple who had converted, named Ananias and Sapphira, agreed to sell their property and give everything to the Christian community. However they kept part of the proceeds, and concealed the fact. St Peter reproached Ananias for telling a lie to the Holy Spirit, and the latter fell down dead. His wife came about three hours later, and she, too, lied about the money. St Peter asked her why she wished to test the Spirit of the Lord, and said that the men who had carried her husband's body out would carry her too, at which she too dropped dead at his feet. (Acts, 5, 1-10). In the background, you can see a depiction of the men carrying Ananias's body out for burial.

The mosaic is a copy of a painting by Cristoforo Roncalli. The original is in Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Opposite is a memorial to Pope Pius VIII 1830, which is above the doorway to the Sacristy (see section later). This is a neo-Classical work by Pietro Tenerani.

Cappella Clementina[]

In the near left hand corner of the transept is the Cappella Clementina, dedicated to Pope St Gregory the Great and named after Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) who commissioned Giacomo Della Porta to decorate it for the 1600 Jubilee.

The relics of Pope St Gregory were re-enshrined here when the altar was consecrated in 1628, and lie in a sarcophagus visible through a grille under the altar.. The mosaic above the altar depicts imperial messengers from Constantinople asking for relics of martyrs. Gregory offered them sand from the Colosseum, and they felt that this was disrespectful toward the emperor. The Pope then squeezed the bag containing the sand, and the blood of martyrs ran from it. The original painting is by Andrea Sacchi, and was painted in 1625-1627.

The dome has a mosaic depicting symbols of Our Lady, and its pendentives show the same four Doctors of the Church as are in the tribune. The designer was Cristoforo Roncalli, Il Pomarancio.

Also in this chapel is the neo-Classical tomb of Pope Pius VII, made in 1823 by the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen. He is claimed to have been the only Protestant artist with work in the church. The work is unusually ornate for the style, and shows the pope seated on a throne and looking very intense. He is above a door into the actual burial. Flanking this door is a pair of allegorical figures of Wisdom and Fortitude.

Altar of the Transfiguration[]

To the left in the ambulacrum leading from this chapel to the end of the nave is an altar dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, inserted into the Andrew pier.

A mosaic reproduction of the Transfiguration by Raphael is its altarpiece. The artist died before he could complete the original painting. So only the upper part, Christ with Moses and Elijah, is by him, while the rest was skilfully painted in his style by his pupils. You can see the original painting in the Vatican Art Gallery (part of the Vatican Museums). Don't rely on this mosaic to give a true impression of the original -it is regarded as the poorest of all the mosaic copies of original paintings in the basilica.

Below the altar are the relics of Blessed Pope Innocent XI, whose monument is a bit further on.

Opposite this altar is the archway marking the end of the left hand nave aisle. In this are two papal monuments. That to Pope Leo XI is by Alessandro Algardi, assisted by his school in its execution from 1634 to 1644. It was only unveiled in 1652, almost half a century after the pope died. The motto on the base, Sic floruit, is an allusion to the fact that the pope only reigned for twenty-seven days in 1605. The allegorical figures are of Magnanimity by Ercole Ferrata and Liberality designed by Giuseppe Peroni, and the bas-relief depicts King Henry IV repudiating Protestantism in order to inherit the French throne (the pope had been the cardinal legate to France when this happened).

An interesting stylistic observation is that the monument is in white marble, which seems to be a reaction against the polychrome marble work preferred by Bernini and many Baroque sculptors of funerary monuments at the time.

The other monument is to the Blessed Pope Innocent XI, who was enshrined in the Chapel of St Sebastian before being evicted in favour of Pope St John Paul II. The work is by Pierre Étienne Monnot 1689, to a design by Maratta. The allegorical figures are of Religion and Fortitude, and the bas-relief depicts the Siege of Vienna which began the slow but steady decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Cappella del Coro[]

In the plan of the basilica, the Choir Chapel at the end of the left hand nave aisle mirrors the Blessed Sacrament Chapel opposite and, like it, was part of Maderno's scheme to extend the nave.

Architecturally, the choir of a church is that part of it where the Divine Office is recited by those priests or monastics to whom the church belongs. This company is called the Chapter, and the seats that they use are called stalls. At St Peter's, the Chapter has never, ever been monastic. It has historically been divided into Canons, who had the obligation of celebrating the Divine Office together, and Beneficiaries who were holding the status of members of the Chapter without such an obligation. This was originally an abuse, because these priests would be collecting a salary (the correct English word is “benefice”) without perhaps having any job to do.

In mediaeval times the choir or schola cantorum was often in front of the high altar, and it still is in a few churches like San Clemente. If the high altar were free-standing, the choir was often behind the altar and could be arranged in a semi-circle of stalls in an apse. Because of the shrine, neither of these happened in the old basilica but instead the canons had a poky little side chapel against the left hand nave side wall, accessed by a hole knocked through that wall. It was approximately around where the present chapel is. Just before Bramante's demolition started, a new choir chapel was provided behind the old basilica's apse but this did not survive Michelangelo.

The chapel is rarely accessible to visitors, which is a pity because it is spectacular.

The aisle bay outside has a cupola fresco by Marcantonio Franceschini showing The Vision of the Apocalypse. The pendentives and lunettes show prophets and other Old Testament characters by Carlo Maratta and Ciro Ferri.

The chapel itself has a rectangular plan, with separate sets of choir stalls at each end. These were ordered by Pope Urban VIII (1623-44), and are in the style of Bernini -although perhaps not actually designed by him. Behind each set is a pair of ribbed Ionic pilasters supporting an entablature, dividing the side wall into three zones which contain arches. The larger central arch contains an organ (the chapel has two), and the smaller side arches have opera-boxes or cantorie for solo musicians. The spandrels of the larger arch accommodate stucco angels.

The entrance wall contains a single arch for the doorway, which has a good wrought iron gate with the heraldry of Pope Clement XIII. The opposite altar wall has three zones in the same style as the side walls, with another two cantorie. The altar has an enormous round-headed mosaic altarpiece fitting into the central arch, which depicts the Immaculate Conception. This has a crown that was renewed in 1904, on the 50th anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma. The original painting was by Pietro Bianchi. The canopy above contains the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory.

The floor is in polychrome marble work, with a simple tomb-slab of Pope Clement XI 1721.

On the elevated area in front of the original altar is an ancient Roman bath-tub in grey granite, which contains the relics of St John Chrysostom. This was as a result of re-ordering in the late 20th century, the shrine being used nowadays as an altar for Mass when it is celebrated in here.

The walls and ceiling vault are superbly richly decorated in white and gold stucco work, with relief panels depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. This was designed by Giovanni Della Porta, and executed by Giovanni Battista Ricci. The rectangular coved ceiling vault has two lunettes, a blind one over the entrance and one with a window over the altar (this is the only natural light that the chapel gets, so if the lights are off when you peer through the entrance gate you won't see much). There is a little lantern in the centre of the vault, which contains the heraldry of Pope Sixtus V.

The archway to the next aisle bay contains another two papal monuments. One is to Pope St Pius X, whose standing effigy is allegedly depicted as praying for the avoidance of war. It is by Florestano Di Fausto. The bronze bas-reliefs depict two important doctrinal interventions by the pope, The Condemnation of Modernism and The Communion of Children (he reduced the age for First Communion).

The other monument is to Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492). This work, by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, was completed in 1498 and so admired that it was saved when the nave of the old basilica was demolished. It was re-erected here in 1621. The pope is shown in effigy twice, alive on his throne above his sarcophagus and dead on his bier on it. The live figure's right hand is raised in blessing, while the left is holding a copy of the lance with which St Longinus pierced Our Lord's side on the cross. The alleged lance-head had been brought to Rome during his papacy. The inscription mentions the discovery of a new world during his reign; this refers to the discovery of the sea route to India. There were many more memorials of popes as good as this one in the old basilica, but most were smashed up by Bramante and his successors. Bits of some are in the Grotte.

Chapel of the Presentation[]

The cupola of the next aisle bay shows the Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven, and is by Carlo Maratta. Note the Devil being seen off to Hell.

The second chapel off the left hand nave aisle is named after the subject in the mosaic above the altar, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. It is a copy of an original from 1640 by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, now in Santa Maria degli Angeli.

The relics of Pius X (1903-1914), whose memorial you have just met, are under the altar.

A monument to Pope St John XXIII with four gilt bronze plaques showing events in his papacy by Emilio Greco is to the right of the altar. To the left is a memorial to Pope Benedict XV, by Pietro Canonica with a bronze bas-relief icon of Our Lady of Peace.

The next archway has two famous monuments to seculars. On the pier to the right is the memorial to the House of Stuart, the British Royal house that was exiled after the so-called Glorious Revolution deposed King James II. The Old Pretender, called "James III", the son of the deposed king, Bonnie Prince Charlie his elder grandson and the Cardinal Duke of York, his younger grandson called "Henry IX", are buried the crypt below. The monument is typically neo-Classical, in the form of a stele with relief portraits of the three Stuarts above the epitaph. Below, a false door is flanked by a pair of naked winged Genii of Death (not angels) with inverted torches.

This work is by Antonio Canova 1831. Apparently King George III of Britain made a contribution to the fund that paid for it.

Opposite is the memorial to Maria Clementina Sobieski, grand-daughter of King John III Sobieski of Poland. It was designed by Filippo Barigioni, and executed by Pietro Bracci who sculpted the allegorical figure of Charity as well as the magnificent alabaster drapery. It was completed in 1742. The mosaic portrait of the deceased is from a work by Ludovico Stern.

Older guidebooks and some online sources describe the doorway under the monument as the access for those wishing to climb the dome. This is no longer the case.


The cupola of the first side nave bay on the left has frescoes based on designs by Francesco Trevisani. The cupola itself depicts the three forms of the sacrament of baptism recognized by the Catholic Church: by water, by blood (if someone is martyred before being baptized) or by desire (if someone sincerely wishes to be baptized before death, but dies beforehand). The pendentives show the four races of humanity, emphasizing the universal scope of the Christian message. The lunettes show baptismal scenes and types mostly in the Scriptures: Moses dividing the Red Sea, Noah after the Flood, the baptism of Christ, that of the centurion Cornelius, that of the Ethiopian eunuch and that of the emperor Constantine.

As may be expected from this, the first chapel off the left hand side aisle is the basilica's baptistry, and so contains the baptismal font. According to an ancient practice, many churches have the baptismal font near the entrance rather than near the high altar. This symbolizes baptism as an entry into the Church.

The font itself is a reused cover from an ancient porphyry sarcophagus. By tradition it was used in the tomb of Emperor Otto II for a long period, but this is now seriously doubted. The cover and embellishments were designed by Carlo Fontana, who also designed the chapel as a whole in 1692, and executed by Giovanni Giardini except for the Lamb of God which was by Lorenzo Ottoni. The panel showing the Trinity and the two flanking angels are by Michel Maille.

There are three mosaics here. The one above the altar shows the Baptism of Christ, based on a work by Carlo Maratta. The left hand one depicts St Peter Baptizing SS Processus and Martinian, from a painting by Andrea Procaccini and the right hand one shows St Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius from a canvas by Giuseppe Passeri.

The statues above the entrance are by Andrea Bolgi, and were his last works here before he left for Naples in 1650. The one on the left represents the Church, while the one of the right represents Divine Justice.



The sacristy is actually a free-standing complex of several rooms to the south (left) of the nave. It was commissioned by Pope Pius VI from Carlo Marchionni, and was completed in 1784. The ancient church of Santa Maria della Febbre, functioning beforehand as the sacristy, was demolished for it.

The complex is accessed via two covered passageways, one from opposite the Altar of the Lie (this is now the public access to the Treasury, for which see the section below) and the other from the Choir Chapel (this is private). These two passageways enclose a small courtyard called the Largo Braschi.

The focus of the edifice is the main sacristy or Sagrestia Commune, which is a large octagonal room. This is surrounded by several smaller rooms. To the east is the Sacristy of the Canons, with its own little circular chapel beyond it and also the Capitolo or chapter-room of the canons in the corner to the south-east. To the west is a mirror layout for the Beneficiaries (see the section above on the Cappella del Coro for an explanation of who canons and beneficiaries were). Ancillary chambers occupy the block to the south.


The Treasury has taken over the Beneficiaries' department, and so this is accessible to the public. The rest of the complex is not. Apparently, if you have a serious scholarly interest in visiting you can write to the Fabbricà for permission to do so, but there are security issues involved so the matter is not one of routine.

Sagrestia Commune[]

The main sacristy is a very impressive octagonal chamber. The entablature of the dome is supported by pilasters in yellow Siena marble, and the four entrances at the cardinal points are flanked by antique fluted Ionic columns in grigio antico or grey marble from Africa. These were looted from the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli. The altarpiece is a Deposition by Lorenzo Sabatini.

The floor is unusual, in that it has a wheel design with the sectors filled with polychrome marble tiles in irregular shapes in what the English would call crazy-paving. The central roundel contains the heraldry of Pope Pius VI in pietra dura.

Sacristy of the Canons[]

The private sacristy of the canons has four pictures by Antonio Cavallucci over its entrances, depicting SS Paul, Barnabas, James the Great and Peter. There is also a Liberation of St Peter from Prison by the same artist, and a Madonna and Child by Giulio Romano. The chapel altarpiece depicts St Anne, and is by Gianfrancesco Penni. The woodwork of the sacristy is tropical hardwood sourced from the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil (now almost gone).

Chapter-house of the Canons[]

The meeting-place of the canons, the Stanza del Capitolo, has three works by Giotto, Christ the Redeemer (patrons of the painting are also depicted), The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Beheading of St Paul. There are also fragments from a fresco of angel musicians by Melozzo da Forlì, which used to be in Santi Apostoli.



The Sacristy of the Beneficiaries (Sagrestia dei Beneficiati) has been taken over by the Treasury (Museo Storico Artistico Tesoro San Pietro), which was re-ordered in 1975. This is a museum where you can view ancient, medieval and more recent ecclesiastical art, vestments and liturgical vessels in a total of twelve rooms labelled A to N. There is a moderate entrance fee.

Exhibits may be re-arranged and changed.

Room A []

Vestibule. Here is a polychrome statue of St Andrew, dating from the 15th century. Near the statue is a tablet listing all the popes who were buried in the basilica. (You will not be able to find all the tombs in the present church, as most of those in the old basilica were dispersed when it was demolished. Some popes were buried in the portico of the old basilica, and others within. Some monuments were moved to other churches when the old basilica was demolished a few were kept here and most were destroyed.)

Room B []

This room is off to the right, and is in the north-west corner of the sacristy complex. This now contains the Colonna Santa, one of the helically twisted columns from St Peter's shrine in the Constantinian basilica. Tradition claims that they came from Solomon's temple, but this is certainly not the case as they are probably Greek and 3rd century. They are called the Solomonic columns, and eight more are in the aedicules above the statues in the central dome piers of the basilica. The other three of the original twelve seem to be out of sight (two are apparently in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and one is lost altogether). This one used to be in the Chapel of the Pietà until the chapel was re-ordered after 1971.

Also here is a gilt-bronze 9th century cockerel or rooster which used to be the finial of the mediaeval campanile. It was brought here in 1975 from the Sagrestia Commune, where it decorated the clock.

Room C[]

The room straight ahead from the vestibule is the original Sacristy of the Beneficiaries (Sagrestia dei Beneficiati). It contains the Vatican Cross, a 6th century gift by Emperor Justin II which probably survived looters because it is only bronze (although the jewels are real). This is the oldest item in the Treasury.

The dalmatic of Charlemagne is a magnificent work, and you should study it closely to see the details. The tradition that it belonged to Charlemagne is wrong. It has been dated to about 900, a century after Charlemagne's coronation in the old basilica, and it is a Byzantine work.

There are also some Byzantine items of personal piety, and a useful copy of the Chair of St Peter (the original is invisible in its shrine).

Room D[]

Turn right from Room C to reach the Chapel of the Beneficiaries. The altarpiece is Peter Receiving the Keys by Girolamo Muziano. Here is a carved marble ciborium by Donatello 1432, saved from the old basilica, which displays the old icon of Santa Maria della Febbe. This was the altarpiece of the church demolished to make way for the sacristy. In the past, Our Lady under this title was venerated as a protector against malaria (febbe means fever).

A plaster copy of Michelangelo's Pietà can also be seen here. You'll get closer to this than to the original, but plaster is a poor substitute for marble. Don't expect much inspiration from it.

Room E[]

Straight ahead through Room C from the vestibule is the former Chapter-house of the Beneficiaries. It contains a huge bronze memorial to Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) is by Antonio del Pollaiuolo 1493. The work is intended to be free-standing, and shows the pope's recumbent effigy. After the demolition of the old basilica it was moved to the Grotte, but was brought here in 1975.

Other rooms[]

The remaining rooms occupy the west end of the ancillary block attached to the sacristy on its south side. In order, they are: Room F, the Sala Reliquiari; Room G, the Sala dei Candelieri; Room M (out of alphabetical sequence), the Sala Santi Pietro e Paolo; Room H, which contains a clay model for Bernini's angel on the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel; and Room I which is a long gallery containing display cases for liturgical items.

Room L contains the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus which is a wonderful example of early Christian sculpture. The main relief shows a youthful Christ with the Apostles Peter and Paul. This item was also moved from the Grotte when the tomb of Pope Pius XII was installed

Room N is the bookshop.



The entrance, which was from the north side of the basilica, is now back inside the basilica at the St. Andrew pier. The exit is the courtyard on the north side of the basilica, near the queue to climb to the dome.

Opening times are 7:00 to 18:00 in summer, closing an hour earlier in winter (this might change). The Grotte are closed if the Holy Father is in the basilica. 

Entry is free, but only a certain number of people are allowed down at any one time so you may have to queue to wait your turn if there are a lot of visitors. 


The term grotte (meaning “caves”) refers to the basilica's crypt. This extends beneath the nave, and around the shrine of the apostle. It is also referred to as the Tombe dei Papi.

When the new high altar was consecrated in 1594 by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), it included a confessio dug by Della Porta. He also excavated the first stage of the Grotte, (the so-called Cappella Clementina) and provided a secret passage from it to the palace. The only other way into the grotte was via the confessio via a portal where the glass doors now are.

This was changed in the reign of Pope Paul V, as part of the project by Maderno to extend the nave. As well as the construction of the so-called "Old Caves" (Grotte vecchie), in the year after 1616 certain side chapels were provided and two access passages built to the Longinus and Andrew piers of the dome above. Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara decorated the walls and vaults of these passages, as well as the side chapels and the so-called peribolos. The new space was used to house certain artworks from the old basilica which were thought worth keeping.

The confessio was re-fitted by Maderno, and was left without any direct access between it and the grotte vecchie (this was re-established in 1975)Two side passages were provided between it and the peribolos.

In the reign of Pope Urban VIII, Bernini supervised the excavation of four small chapels under the dome piers as part of the laying of the foundations of his baldacchino. Passages connected these with the grotte nuove, and stairways gave access to the basilica. These four entrances were the means of access for centuries.

In 1939 a scheme was begun to lower the floor of the grotte vecchie, and in the process the necropolis under the left hand side of the basilica was discovered. This led to the excavation of the tomb of the Apostle. The lowering of the floor was completed in the 1950's.

In the later 20th century, certain new national chapels were provided and older ones enlarged. The present Irish Chapel dates from 1954, the Polish Chapel from 1958, the Lithuanian Chapel from 1970, the Chapel of the Patrons of Europe from 1981 and the Mexican Chapel from 1992.

In 1975 a portal was opened between the grotte vecchie and the confessio, and provided with a pair of glass doors. This was after the confessio was closed to visitors when an act of vandalism took place in 1969.

The increased visitor numbers led to the provision of an external entrance to the north of the basilica, but the main access was still by one of the pier doorways. The queuing of people waiting to get in became a serious distraction around the shrine, and it was decided that access would have to be from the outside only. This was achieved in a major restoration of the Grotte nuove between 2003 and 2005, which was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.


The crypt is in the form of a miniature basilica. Very confusingly the nave with side aisles, which is under the basilica's nave and is the newer part, is called the Old Grottoes. Off the left hand side aisle of this is a suite of six ancillary rooms, and it is through these that the Necropolis is accessed. They are called the "Archaeological Rooms" and are numbered one to six. The right hand side aisle at the equivalent location has an alcove containing the tomb of Blessed Pope Paul VI, behind which is the Hungarian Chapel. Parallel to these is the so-called "Gallery of Clement VIII", leading into an exit corridor. The main entrance corridor opens into the bottom of the right hand aisle.

The older part around the tomb of the Apostle is called the New Grottoes, and consists of a horseshoe-shaped peribolos corridor with chapels leading off it. 

A plan of the layout is here.

Entrance corridors[]

The entrance vestibule has a mediaeval statue of St Peter from the old basilica, a conversion from a 2nd century sculpture of a philosopher. From this runs two corridors. The wider corridor straight on from the entrance has a niche on the left containing the cenotaph of Pope Callixtus III with good reliefs. The 15th century relief of Christ Victima Sancta over it used to be the altarpiece of what is now the Mexican Chapel. Opposite are two column bases from the ancient basilica. This is the main way in.

On the left just where the corridor bends to the right to enter the right hand aisle is the Pallavicini Madonna, a copy of a late 13th century fresco (removed for safety) which was enshrined in a Renaissance tabernacle by Cardinal Antonio Pallavicini Gentili in 1586. He had a great devotion to it. The pedimented tabernacle frame survives, as well as reliefs of the Latin Doctors of the Church and two copies of the Pallavicini family shield.

The corridor on the right at the entrance bends three times before emerging into the Gallery of Clement VIII mentioned above. The Hungarian Chapel, dedicated to St Stephen of Hungary and All Saints of Hungary, has two entrances off this. Beyond the gallery the corridor enters the Old Grottoes.

Hungarian Chapel[]

The Hungarian Chapel was consecrated in 1980, and is a long rectangular chamber with a separate square sanctuary entered through a simple arch. Two side entrances lead into the chapel, one into the nave and one into the sanctuary. These are provided with wrought iron gates executed by the sculptor Josef Kovacs, and installed in 1982. The floor is paved with slabs of red Hungarian marble, separated by thin brass fillets.

The far wall of the sanctuary is entirely covered by three gilded stainless steel panels, the two side ones being embossed with stylized figures of legendary deer from the Hungarian folk tradition. The central panel represents the tree of life, in front of which is a statue of Our Lady Magna Domina Hungarorum. By the sanctuary entrance gate is a life-size statue of St Stephen the first Christian king of Hungary, represented in the act of descending the entrance stairs and walking towards Our Lady to pay homage. These two patinated bronze statues with silver-plated details on the clothes are by the Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga. The cloak of St Stephen is an exact copy of an original cloak woven by the king's wife, Blessed Gisela, preserved in the treasury of the Cathedral at Esztergom.

The liturgical furnishings of the sanctuary include elements from the old basilica which are decorated with Cosmatesque motifs. The small altar has a square Cosmatesque frontal, and the celebrant's chair, the candlesticks, the base of the processional cross and the helical column supporting the lectern are also so decorated.

The side walls are revetted with travertine, and are decorated with twenty square bas-relief panels in white limestone depicting saints associated with Hungary and executed by Hungarian sculptors. The figures of St Adalbert, St Gerard Sagredo and Blessed Eusebius of Esztergom (the founder of the Order of St Paul the First Hermit) are by the sculptor Pal Ko. St Elizabeth, St Margaret of Hungary and Blessed Gisela are by Sandor Kiss. Blessed Kunigunde, "Piroska" (actually Irene of Hungary, a Byzantine empress venerated as a saint by the Orthodox) and St Ladislaus the King, are by Anrdas Kiss Nagy. Blessed Yolanda, Blessed Salomea, Moses of Hungary (an Orthodox monk at Kiev in the Ukraine) and St Louis of Touluse are by Laszlo Marton. St Isabella, St Emeric and St Margaret of Scotland are by Gyula Kiss Kovacs. "Blessed Elizabeth" (?), Blessed Hedwig, and Blessed Giovanni Dominici are by Robert Csikszentmihalyi. The same artist made the panel showing Blessed Vilmos Apor, Bishop and Martyr, in 2001.

On the end wall opposite the sanctuary is an oval bronze bas-relief by Amerigo Tot with a central cross dividing the space into four equal parts. On the top left is St Stephen Receiving the Royal Crown from Pope Sylvester II. To the right is Pope Callixtus III, who after the victory of the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 introduced the daily Angelus prayer at midday. In the lower part to the left is Blessed Pope Paul VI giving a model of the chapel under construction to Cardinal László Lékai; to the right is Pope St John Paul II receiving from the Primate of Hungary a model of the completed chapel.

Old Grottoes[]


As they now are, the Old Grottoes have no architectural interest. Time, damp and the mid 20th century restoration (during which the floor was lowered) have destroyed Maderno's original decoration and the space is now just a vaulted cellar with square piers and whitewashed walls.

Ad confessionem[]

The far end of the chamber has a pair of glass doors, through which you can see the confessio. These were installed in 1975, and replaced an altar called the Altare del Salvatore. On the flanking walls are two angels in relief, which came from the monument of Pope Boniface VIII (1378-89). There is a pair of lions sitting either side of the door, and these came from that of Urban VI (1295-1303).

The lost altar was initially replaced by a simple slab on a fragment of ancient marble column with a Corinthian capital, but recently a much better altar with ancillary liturgical furnishings has been installed some distance in front of the doors. A Cosmatesque-style pavement has been laid behind it.

Mexican Chapel[]

To the left is the Mexican Chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was fitted out in 1992. The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of the famous icon, which is over a wall-plinth which is part of Bramante's Tegurium (the temporary structure that he put up over the shrine after demolishing the sanctuary of Old St Peter's). The seating for the clergy, the base of the lectern and the block-pillars of the free-standing altar are in a pale grey stone with black speckles which is sourced from the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico where the shrine of Guadalupe is located.

The tops of the altar pillars have little cubical silver inserts with the symbols of the Evangelists on them. These are part of a major commission from several Mexican silversmiths, also including the candlesticks and the impressive processional cross. In silver also are two side wall reliefs, one showing the original apparition of Our Lady to St John Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin and the other the visit of Pope St John Paul II to the shrine.

The floor has a porphyry roundel with a frame in giallo antico and green serpentine, which comes from the ancient basilica. The modern floor around it also uses serpentine in a traditional Mexican pattern, inset into what the English call crazy paving in marble.

Chapel of the Madonna Between SS Peter and Paul[]

To the right is a chapel with a 15th century relief of the Mother and Child over the altar, depicted between SS Peter and Paul. The floor in here matches that in the previous chapel

The tomb of Pope Pius VI (1799) was installed in the left hand niche here in 1949, at the wish of Pope Pius XII. They are in a sarcophagus from the 4th century, which is decorated with strigillate relief. On top is a long panel which is a fragment of another sarcophagus of the 4th century, with two exquisite reliefs. The left hand one depicts The Selling of Joseph into Slavery, and the right hand one depicts the Adoration of the Magi. For those fascinated with details: This is the earliest known artistic depiction of the latter subject in which camels are included.

Tombs of the Popes[]

The grotte are most famous for its collection of papal tombs. You are not allowed to come close to all of them, unfortunately. Most of them are in the form of sarcophagi, some with effigies. The following listing begins to the right of the statue at the bottom of the crypt, proceeds anti-clockwise up the right hand aisle and round to the bottom of the left hand aisle.

(Right hand aisle)

Innocent VII. A copy c 1600 of the original 1406 work.

Nicholas III. A 4th century Christian sarcophagus, not his original tomb. The epitaph from the latter is above. The sarcophagus reliefs are, from left to right: The Washing of the Feet, SS Paul and Luke, SS Peter and Mark and Pilate Washes His Hands. The entrance from the main access corridor follows.

Boniface VIII, 1303. His sarcophagus and effigy survive from his destroyed monument, and you've already met angels from this at the altar. Note the mosaic heraldic shields on the sarcophagus, and the quality of the carving of the drapery.

Nicholas V 1453 allegedly by Mino da Fiesole, and the destruction of the monument by Bramante was considered vandalism by his contemporaries. The surviving sarcophagus with a reclining effigy in rather shallow relief used to occupy an elevated central position in the original work. Modern art critics consider it mediocre.

Paul II by Giovanni Dalmata, with an effigy by Mino da Fiesole.

John VII, a mosaic portrait.

Blessed Paul VI This is a simple slab in polished limestone, in a very plain whitewashed alcove. He left instructions to be buried below ground, under a simple slab with no embellishments. So, when he was beatified in 2014 the only intervention was the addition of Beatus to his tomb-slab. The relief of the Madonna and Child on the far wall is ascribed to the school of Isaia da Pisa, and is flanked by a pair of angels in relief from the lost tabernacle of the Holy Lance.

Marcellus II. He was re-interred in a newly-discovered 4th century sarcophagus in 1606 after his original simple tomb of 1555 had been destroyed. The sarcophagus has strigillate decoration, and a central relief of Christ with two unknown figures. At the corners are two further figures whose identities are disputed -either saints, or the deceased.

Innocent IX, who died in 1591 and was re-buried in the grotte in 1606. His remains were moved here and put in a simple 3rd century sarcophagus in the mid 20th century.

Queen Christina of Sweden . She died as a Catholic convert in 1689, but her simple neo-Classical marble tomb-chest with a bronze epitaph tablet is early 20th century.

Queen Charlotte of Cyprus. This is opposite the above.

Pope St John Paul II, 2005. This is in another little alcove, and is a simple marble tomb-slab. When he was beatified, he was exhumed and enshrined in the Chapel of St Sebastian in the basilica. On the far wall is a Renaissance relief of Our Lady with angels.

(Left hand aisle)

Pius XI. This is an impressive work by Giannino Castiglioni 1939, within a niche with a realistic tomb effigy on a pink marble sarcophagus and mosaics depicting Christ in Glory, St Ambrose and St Teresa of Lisieux.

Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val 1931. His simple sarcophagus is in onyx from Majorca.

The Royal Stuarts. The remains of the exiled British Stuart royal dynasty were re-interred here in 1939 in a sarcophagus of polished travertine with a convex lid bearing a pair of crosses within wreaths. On top is a crown on a cushion in bronze.

Cardinal Federico Tedeschini 1959. He has a gabled sarcophagus in granite, with a bronze epitaph plate.

Innocent XIII. He died in 1724, but his monument in the basilica was destroyed in 1836 to make way for that of Pope Leo XII. In the mid 20th century his remains were re-interred here, in an ancient sarcophagus with strigillated panels. Over is a relief fragment showing two winged putto's heads tentatively ascribed to Giovanni Dalmata, and a stucco eagle from the original memorial.

Urban VI 1389. He was buried in a 3rd century sarcophagus originally occupied by a married couple whose wedding is depicted on the original central relief, now round the back. The other three sides were re-carved for the pope, who is depicted receiving the Keys from St Peter on what is now the front. His destroyed monument left a pair of sculpted lions, which now flank the confessio. The high-relief marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child on the wall above is allegedly from the lost church of San Cosma e Damiano in Banchi, which was near San Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

Pius III 1503. He is in a simple 4th century Christian sarcophagus, bearing a cross on each side in shallow relief. Above is a fragment of a Renaissance relief depicting Christ Returning as Judge.

Adrian IV (the only English pope) 1159. Unlike most of the popes in sarcophagi down here, he is in his original resting place which is a superb pagan sarcophagus in red granite from Aswan in Egypt. This has a convex lid with two heads of Medusa, and was originally an item of the highest prestige. To one side is an epigraph installed in 1924, recording the part that the pope played in the conversion of Norway before his election (he had been legate there).

Cardinal Ludwig Kaas 1952.

Gregory V.

Emperor Otto II 983. He died at Rome, hence was buried in the portico of Old St Peter's in a magnificent polychrome marble tomb with a porphyry sarcophagus. This memorial was destroyed in 1610 (the sarcophagus lid is dubiously the baptismal font in the basilica), and the emperor re-interred here in a newly discovered ancient sarcophagus with strigillate decoration. Above is a mosaic, heavily restored, that used to be part of the monument and which depicts Christ with SS Peter and Paul. The mediaeval epigraphs flanking the tomb do not concern it, but are part of the "museum stock" in the grotte of bits from the old basilica which were salvaged when it was demolished.

Julius III 1555. He is in an ancient sarcophagus of simple design, with strigillate panels.

Two tombs are in the centre of the crypt, to the right in front of the main altar. They belong to:

Benedict XI 1922, who has an impressive marble chest-tomb with a reclining bronze effigy by Giulio Barbieri. The epigraph is also in bronze, with a cross and two craticuli with the chi-rho symbol. There are two other bronze plaques, one with the pope's heraldry and the other with that of the city of Bologna which paid for the tomb (he had been bishop there before being elected Pope).

John Paul I by Francesco Vacchini 1978, who provided a massive chest in grey-striped marble incorporating two old reliefs of angels by Andrea Bregno. These originally came from the destroyed tabernacle of the Holy Lance.

Pope St John XXIII (1958-1963) was also originally buried here, even though he had asked to be buried at San Giovanni in Laterano. His original tomb was to the right of the present main altar, but he is now under the altar of St Jerome in the basilica.

Statue of Pope Pius VI[]

At the bottom of the central nave is a large kneeling statue of Pope Pius VI, sculpted by Antonio Canova in an attitude of fervent prayer. This was originally installed in the confessio, but was attacked with a hammer by a vandal in 1969. After being repaired, it was installed here instead and the very good idea of opening a doorway from the Old Grottoes to the confessio adopted.

New Grottoes[]


The so-called "New" Grottoes (actually the oldest part of the crypt) consist of a horseshoe-shaped passage that starts at the top ends of the side aisles of the Old Grottoes and loops round behind the tomb of the Apostle along the line of the apse of the old basilica. It is called the peribolos. The vault frescoes, in a continuous sequence, are by Guidobaldo Abbatini and Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara. A collection of items from the old basilica are on the walls of the passage, as well as fresco work much of which has been lost.

The sets of reliefs by Matteo del Pollaiolo depicting scenes from the Life of St Peter which used to adorn the walls have been removed and re-assembled elsewhere in their original layout. They used to decorate the tabernacle of the high altar of the old basilica.

Several chapels lead off the passage, beginning at the right hand entrance as follows:

Chapel of Longinus[]

This is one of the four chapels under the dome piers of the basilica, excavated and fitted out by Bernini. The altarpiece by Fabio Cristofari 1689 is a reproduction of a work by Andrea Sacchi 1634. Here there are frescoes by Guidobaldo Abbatini 1632, depicting the Finding of the True Cross in Jerusalem by St Helena in the year 326, which show that the original dedication of the chapel was to her.

As with the other three chapels, a pair of staircases flank the altar which lead up to the basilica.

Abbatini also painted the coat-of-arms of Pope Urban VIII in the lunette above the chapel.

Chapel of the Patrons of Europe[]

The next chapel was inaugurated in 1981, and is dedicated to St Benedict together with SS Cyril and Methodius. It was originally dug out in 1607 as a polyandrium for human remains disturbed during construction of the new basilica.

The little free-standing altar and the spiral column supporting the lectern bear good Cosmatesque work. Behind the altar is a large bronze crucifix, which is flanked by four tondo bas-reliefs of the Evangelists dating to the 15th century and thought to have come from the tomb of Pope Paul II. This crucifix was commissioned for the chapel from Tommaso Gismondi, who also executed the large and impressive gilded bronze relief to the right. This depicts the three patrons, flanked by the four Evangelists.

There is a 13th century fresco icon of the Madonna and Child here, ascribed to the school of Jacopo Torriti.

In the vault outside the chapel is a monochrome fresco panel by Abbatini showing Pope Sylvester dividing the relics of SS Peter and Paul so that the basilica here and that of San Paolo fuori le Mura both got an equal share. This legend is a demonstation of the traditional insistence in the Roman liturgy of always celebrating the two saints together.

In the wall opposite the chapel entrance is a glazed aperture revealing part of the original Tegurium, which was the temporary church that Bramante built over the shrine after his demolition of the transept of the old basilica.

The walls of the peribolos so far have lost their frescoes.

Chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa[]

The next chapel is adjacent to the previous one, being only separated by a partition wall. It was excavated as the Polish Chapel in 1958, but enlarged with a new sanctuary in 1982. The floor, in large red Verona marble panels framed with strips of grey azzulina, contains a polychrome marble inlay of the coat-of-arms of Pope St John Paul II.

The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of the famous miraculous icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Poland, which was installed in 1992 to replace a painted copy. The 1982 sanctuary is round, with a slightly raised floor dominated by an inlaid star in yellow marble focusing on the little free-standing altar which is on an Ionic capital.

The walls of the chapel have wall-relief sculptures of saints associated with Poland, helpfully labelled. Eight were sculpted in 1957 by Michal Paszyn, and are: SS Stanislaus the Martyr, Adalbert, Stanislaus Kostka, Andrew Bobola, Hyacinth, John of Kenty, Hedwig and Casimir. There have been two later additions: St Maximilian Kolbe by Pierino di Pasqua 1987, and St Albert Chmielowski by Stefan Duonsa 1993.

On the wall to the right of the chapel entrance is a plaque recording the sponsorship of the Knights of Columbus of the restoration completed in 2005. The first fragment of the original wall frescoes is next to it. Opposite is a much older tablet, reading: Super isto lapide multa corpora sanctorum caesa sunt, erat in veteri basilica ad laevam portae iuxta sacellum Sanctissimi Sudarii, anno MDCVI  ("On this stone, many bodies of Saints were martyred. It was in the old basilica to the left of the door of the oratory of the Holy Shroud, 1606")

In the roof vault at the entrance is a fresco of the Triumph of the Cross by Ricci da Novara.

Chapel of St Columbanus[]

The next chapel is the Irish Chapel of St Columbanus. The project to dig it out was begun in 1951 and it was consecrated in 1954, quite soon after the Old Grottoes were renovated and had the floor lowered. The work uncovered part of the wall of the north transept of the ancient basilica, and an epigraph now mentions this. There was a restoration in 1999, when the altar was made free-standing.

The altarpiece is a mosaic of St Columbanus with four other Irish monks on their long journey. The panels below the main depiction show their points of departure and arrival: Bangor and Bobbio. There is a bronze president's chair behind the altar, by Tommaso Gismondi. It bears the heraldry of Pope St John Paul II and the figures of SS Peter and Paul.

If you look up in the peribolos outside the chapel, you will see a tablet on the vault proclaiming a restoration of the Old Grottoes under Pope Paul V in 1617. This mentions the opening of passageways, which was done by Carlo Maderno when he constructed two side passages to the confessio. The entrance to the northern one is opposite the chapel entrance.

North Passage of Confessio[]

This passage was actually dug by Maderno in 1615, but completion of its frescoes by Ricci da Novara had to wait until 1919.

The vault has three fresco panels: The Concealment of the Relics of SS Peter and Paul in the Catacombs of St Sebastian; Recovery of the Relics of SS Peter and Paul from the Catacombs; Enshrinement of St Peter in the Vatican Basilica.

 On the walls are four panels depicting legendary events occurring in the confessio. On the right: Pope St Paschal’s Vision of the Burial Place of St Cecilia; St Peter Appears to a Priest to Request the Consecration of some Altars in the Basilica. On the left: Felix, Archbishop of Ravenna, Makes a False Profession of Faith; St Owen Sings with Angels in front of the Confession.

Further on to the left is another glass panel giving a view of more remains of the tegurium, with another fresco fragment above it.

Popes and apostles[]

You now meet the first remains of the frescoes of the early popes buried around the tomb of St Peter, which was the theme of the cycle on the inner wall of the peribolos. The outer wall now has the first of a series of niches containing statues of apostles. These are part of a full set of twelve, attributed to Matteo del Pollaiolo and his school. They were sculpted between 1474 and 1475, during the pontificate of Sixtus IV, to decorate the original ciborium of the shrine in the old basilica. The statues of Peter and Paul, however, were carved by Paolo Romano in about 1470. The other statues in the set can be found in the Apostolic Palace.

The first one here is of St Matthew.

Shrine of Head of St Andrew[]

To the left is a carved lunette from a mediaeval shrine which held the relic of the head of St. Andrew. The superb relief shows two flying angels holding a cloth drape where the head of the Apostle is laid. The work was commissioned by Pope Pius II (Piccolomini, 1458-1464) in 1464 and is attributed to the workshop of Paolo Romano and Isaia da Pisa 1464. Two more identical reliefs, coming from the same tabernacle, can be found in the other end of the Peribolos.

Below the lunette is a large tablet which was once located at the altar of St. Andrew in the old basilica, under the shrine where the relic of his head was kept. This commemorates, in 1570, the sponsoring of a large statue of the Apostle by Francesco Bandini Piccolomini, as the Latin inscription reads: "To Saint Andrew, Apostle of Our Lord Jesus Christ, brother of Saint Peter, patron of the Piccolomini family, Francesco Bandini Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena, grandnephew of Pius III, having chosen this place as his burial at the foot of the statue erected to the Saint, and wishing to entrust his soul to his protection, offers it as a gift in the year of salvation 1570, at the age of 65"

Chapel of St Helen[]

Now comes the second of the pier chapels by Bernini, dedicated to St Helen the Empress who found the True Cross in Jerusalem. The mosaic altarpiece is by Fabio Cristofari 1689, and is based on a painting by Andrea Sacchi 1640. It represents St. Helena, and the miraculous healing of the sick person who was placed on the wood of the True Cross (the legend has it that the saint found out which of the three crosses discovered was the True one by this means). The frescoes on the walls and vault are attributed to various artists, among which is Guidobaldo Abbatini. They illustrate legends concerning the martyrdom and the relic of the head of St. Andrew, to whom the chapel was originally dedicated.

Beyond this chapel are niches with statues of the apostles Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Bartholomew.

Cappella Clementina[]

When you reach the apex of the Peribolos, you will find a very richly decorated blind corridor running back in the direction of the confessio. This is the oldest part of the grotte, the Cappella Clementina named after Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605). The 17th century gilded bronze gates are by Ridolfo Panfili. On the roof of the vault at the chapel entrance is a very richly executed coat-of-arms of Pope Paul V, by Ricci da Novara.

Originally the vault was decorated with a series of gilded bronze bas-reliefs by Ruggero Bescape, finished in 1599. These were restored by Alessandro de' Rossi in 1650 and again by Luigi Vanvitelli 1750, who inserted new stucco decorations by Giovanni Battista Maini.

The figurative reliefs depicts scenes from the career of SS Peter and Paul, in no particular chronological order and deriving either from Biblical texts or from the legends of their martyrdoms.

In the first wide intrados of the ceiling vault, to the left is St Peter Baptizes Cornelius the Centurion (Acts 10:47-48), in the centre tondo is An Angel with the Palm of Martyrdom and to the right,The Raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:40-41).

In the middle bay, to the left is The Death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-2) and to the right, The Burial of the Decapitated St Paul. In the tondo over the left hand marble credence table is St Peter Before Nero, and in the lunette above is The Calling of St Peter on the Lake (Lk 5:10-11). On the small vault, to the left is The Granting of the Keys to St Peter (Mt: 16,19), and to the right St Peter after the Miraculous Catch of Fish (Lk: 5:8-9). The tondo over the right hand credence table shows St Peter on His Way to Martyrdom and in the lunette is St Peter Saved by Jesus on the Water (Mt, 14:30-31). On the small vault to the left is St Peter Heals the Cripple at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:6-7), to the right St Peter Heals with His Shadow (Acts 5:15).

In the last wide intrados of the ceiling vault before the altar are: To the left,The Denial of Peter (Jn 17:17-18); in the centre tondo Christ Confers the Primacy on Peter (Jn 21:15-17) and to the right Peter Cuts off the Ear of Malchus (Jn 18:10-11).

The pendentives of the cupola in front of the altar show:The Flogging of St Peter, ordered by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem after his preaching of the Resurrection of Christ (Acts 5: 40-41);The Flogging of St Paul by the Jews (2 Co 11:24-25 -not mentioned in Acts);The Concordia Apostolorum, which is the traditional reconciliation of SS Peter and Paul after the disagreement in Antioch (Ga 1:18 -the reconciliation is not mentioned in the Bible); Quo Vadis?, the encounter of St Peter and Christ on the Appian Way as the former was fleeing his martyrdom.

Over the little altar at the far end, there is no altarpiece. Instead there is a bronze grille made up of rings joined together, and through this you can see part of the cubical shrine (the Memoria Petri) that was raised here by Emperor Constantine over the tomb of St Peter in the 4th century. The portion that you can see is a revetment in greyish pavonazzetto marble with a vertical band of porphyry formed of two strips, and above it you can see the base of the altar installed by on top of the Memoria by Pope Callixtus II in 1123. The frontal of the modern altar is in malachite, fastened with four bronze studs inlaid with lapis lazuli and framed by two little porphyry pillars. It contains an aperture which reveals part of the first brick altar here, installed when the crypt was first dug out by Pope Gregory the Great at the start of the 7th century. The original altarpiece was a 19th century mosaic copy of an icon of SS Peter and Paul, but the present setup was consecrated in 1950 after the discoveries in the Necropolis below.

In the same restoration two bronze doors were installed in the side walls, to give access to the Necropolis. They commemorate the Jubilee of 1950, and bear inscriptions from the writings of Pope St Leo the Great and St Hilary of Poitiers.

Tomb of Pope Pius XII[]

Opposite the Cappella Clementina is the simple chest-tomb of Pope Pius XII(1939-1958), in a very privileged position in its own deep chapel-like alcove which was excavated for it. This replaced a niche containing the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, which was moved out before the pope's tomb was installed in 1954. It is now in the Treasury.

Over the tomb is a fresco fragment of the Madonna and Child of the school of Pietro Vannucci, Il Perugino.

On the side walls are two modern mosaics representing scenes from the Apocalypse. On the left is depicted The Seven Candlesticks, and to the right The Dragon with Seven Heads which symbolize respectively the Church of God and the rule of Satan. They were executed in 1971 from designs by Ferruccio Ferrazzi, but only installed here in 1982.

You now enter the left hand (south side) of the horseshoe corridor of the peribolos. You'll notice that the wall frescoes are much better preserved here. The first apostolic statue here is of St Peter. Then come SS James the Great and Thomas.

Chapel of St Veronica[]

The third of Bernini's pier chapels is dedicated to St Veronica. The mosaic altarpiece and the wall and vault frescoes depict her legend. There is an epigraph commemorating Bramante in here, because the foundation stone of the new basilica was laid by Pope Julius II in this location.

The next apostolic statue is of St James the Less. The southern corridor to the confessio has its entrance opposite.

Just before the next chapel, on the left is a little square stone with the chi-rho symbol on it. This might just have come from the basilica of Constantine. Opposite is the marble finial cross which was on the gable of the ancient basilica's façade at its demolition.

Chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata[]

The next chapel is the Czech Chapel, and was excavated at the end of the 16th century for a miraculous icon that used to be in the portico of the old basilica (the chapel is also known as the Madonna del Portico). The story is that a drunken soldier threw a stone, a boccia, at it and bruised the face. Blood then dripped from the mark. The icon was formally enshrined here in 1631.

South Passage of Confessio[]

To the left is now the south passage to the confessio, matching the north one. This was frescoed by Ricci da Novara and his assistants, the work being finished in 1627. Depicted on the vault are three scenes inspired by medieval paintings with the same subjects that decorated the portico of the old basilica. Starting from the confessio, the first scene represents The Encounter of Peter and Christ on the Appian Way -"Quo Vadis?", followed by The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Decapitation of Saint Paul.

The wall frescoes depict legends the confessio. On the right: St. Abundius the Mansionary Healing a Young Woman (he was a resident canon of the basilica, which is what mansionarius means), and Taius, Bishop of Saragossa, Finding the “Moralia” of St Gregory the Great in the Confessio (his diocese lacked a third of the "Morals of Job" by St Gregory, and he was looking for a complete text in Rome).

On the left: St. Leo the Great Cutting the Brandeum that Bled, and St. Gregory the Great Making an Incision in the Brandeum which Produces Blood. (A brandeum was what is now called a second-class relic, or something that has touched the relics of a saint. Here, it refers to a cloth that had covered the bodies of martyrs. Both of these frescoes refer to a legend that St Gregory proved the value of such an item by piercing it, upon which blood flowed out.)

Just before the next chapel is the second of the three lunette reliefs of the Head of St Andrew.

Chapel of the Madonna della Partoriente[]

The next chapel is dedicated to "Our Lady Pregnant", and was consecrated in 1616 to honour a 15th century icon of the Madonna and Child. It is L-shaped, with a side chamber to the right of the altar and another one beyond that. The ancillary chamber was actually the original sepulchral chamber of the saintly popes Leo, including Pope St Leo the Great. The further side chamber was a so-called polyandrium used to store human remains found when Old St Peter's was demolished.

The venerated icon amounts to a fresco fragment attributed to Antoniazzo Romano, which was cleaned in a 1950 restoration. The icon is now in a modern marble frame, and is flanked by a pair of mediaeval bas-relief carvings featuring angels.

There was another re-ordering of the sanctuary in 1984, leaving a little altar on three colonnettes with Cosmatesque decoration. The back pair is thought to have come from the tomb of Pope Urban VI 1389, since the gilded capitals incorporate an eagle which features on his shield. Below the icon, the former Cosmatesque altar frontal has been set into the wall.

The vault frescoes are by Ricci da Novara (although with heavy 18th century touching-up), and have three octagonal panels featuring figurative scenes. The first one is The Suicide of the Lombard Thief, which derives from a legend related by Pope St Gregory the Great. According to it, a Lombard barbarian stole a gold key from the shrine of St Peter, and committed suicide soon after. The second panel shows St Zoe Arrested at the Tomb of St Peter, and the last depicts The Eternal Father.

Several epigraphs, sculptural items and small artworks from the old basilica are here, the most famous of which is a fragment of mosaic featuring an angel which is thought to have come from the Navicella by Giotto. A bust of Pope Boniface VIII stands out, as does a bas-relief of the school of Andrea Bregno which was from the shrine of the Holy Lance in the old basilica. The collection amounts to a small museum of the former basilica's mostly lost contents. A description is here (although the English of the text is not good).

Back in the passage, opposite the chapel entrance is the first of three epitaphs from papal monuments in the old basilica. The first is of Boniface II, the second of Gregory the Great and the third of Adrian II. They are not contemporary with these popes.

In the passage vault above is a fresco panel by Abbatini, depicting St Leo Praying Before the Tomb of St Peter During the Invasion by Attila the Hun.

On the right just beyond is a mosaic showing the Madonna and Child between two donors, a Franciscan and a noble lady. The tablet below of 1631 states that it was once on the shrine of the Veil of Veronica in the old basilica, erected by Pope John VII. It is heavily restored. The figures in relief on either side are of St Bartholomew (right) and St John the Evangelist (left). Their original location is stated to have been the memorial to Pope Callixtus III. They are anonymous, mid 15th century.

Chapel of the Madonna of the Gate of Dawn[]

The Lithuanian Chapel was newly excavated and consecrated in 1970. When it was excavated, a corridor dating to 1617 was discovered which had been filled in when Bernini re-modelled the access arrangements to the grotte. Part of this is visible in the left wall near the entrance. The fresco fragments are by Ricci da Novara, and feature the Instruments of the Passion on the vault.

The chapel is entered through a wrought iron gate designed by Alfiero Nena, which bears the coat-of-arms of Lithuania with the figure of a white knight called Vytis. This is an ancient symbol of the country. The gate also has plants of symbolic significance to Lithuanians: tulip for youthfulness, rue for innocence, pine for majesty and oak for strength.

The walls of the chapel are clad in irregularly shaped slabs of travertine limestone, reminiscent of Inca work, which contrasts with the regular geometricity of the floor. The latter is in white and grey-striped marbles, with inserts in porphyry and serpentine. The walls contain sunk reliefs depicting scenes from Lithuania's Catholic history, as follows:

First on the left from the entrance is The Baptism of Mindaugas in 1253, approved by Pope Innocent IV after Lithuania became Christian. The coat-of-arms of the pope is by Pasquale Sciancalepre. Next is a stylized depiction of the churches built in Vilnius and Kaunas by King Alexander Vytautas (d.1430) in the 14th and 15th centuries. Next is the figure of Grand-Duke Vladislaus Jogaila (d.1434), who united Lithuania with Poland under his rule. Opposite, on the right wall, are depictions of St Josaphat Kuncevitius (as he is known in Lithuanian) and St Casimir. Next is an image of the church in Kražiai with the date 1893, when soldiers killed several of the faithful defending the church from being closed down by the Russian government. Then comes the half-finished profile of a young girl, the other half being formed by twelve pages, in twelve different languages, of a devotional book called "Save Us Mary". This became famous in Lithuania because it was written by four girls exiled to Siberia for their faith by the Russians. On this work is the only inscription in Lithuanian in the chapel: Marija, gelbeki mus ("Mary, save us"). Finally, to the right of the entrance is the coat-of-arms of Blessed Pope Paul VI (by Sciancalepre again), because he had granted to the Lithuanian faithful the privilege of having this chapel in the grotte. It remains their only national place of worship in Rome.

Inserted into a side niche is a bronze figure of Christ called Rupintojelis or "Provider", a traditional Lithuanian iconographic depiction. The exhausted Christ is sitting on a rock, with his face resting on his forearm in an attitude of silent suffering. The work was sculpted by Alcide Tico.

The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of the famous icon of Our Lady Mater Misericordiae, Aurorae Porta in the Gate of Dawn chapel at Vilnius which is the capital of Lithuania. This is one of the great Marian pilgrimage icons of Europe. In Lithuanian she is Aušros Vartų Dievo Motina, and in Polish Matka Boska Ostrobramska. The copy here has an embossed silver cover in the form of a cape by Angelo Bortolotti.

Chapel of St Andrew[]

The last of the four pier chapels by Bernini is near the exit from the peribolos. The frescos don't match, owing to a shuffling of the dedications of these chapels, and here depict scenes from the life of St. Longinus. They are attributed to Guidobaldo Abbatini and his school. The altarpiece mosaic was executed by Fabio Cristofari in 1689, and was inspired by a painting by Andrea Sacchi in 1634 which depicts St. Andrew praying in front of the cross of his martyrdom.

The last of the three lunettes of the Head of St Andrew is outside this chapel.

You are now back in the Old Grottoes.



Special arrangements have to be made with the Fabbrica di San Pietro for a visit to the Necropolis, which are rather involved. For reasons of conservation only 250 visitors a day are allowed down there. All visitors must be aged fifteen or over (no children). All visitors are allotted a guided tour of about twelve persons, in your preferred language if possible.

You personally have to make an application for a visit, or your group leader has to if you are visiting in a group. According to the Vatican website, there are three ways of doing this (which apparently does not include a letter by post):

1) Fax. +39 06 69873017.

2) E-mail.

3) Personal visit if you are in Rome. The Ufficio Scavi is the place to go, and it is on the Via Paolo VI which is accessed to the left of the piazza colonnade. The Swiss Guard on duty will point it out. Opening times are 9:00 to 18:00 weekdays, closing an hour earlier on Saturdays.

You have to specify the names of the visitors, how many there are, the language preferred, the period within which you wish to visit and the means of providing a reply (e-mail, fax or, it seems, by post). Be aware that it's first-come, first-served so it's best to do this as far in advance as is possible. There's no "fast-track" service available -well, not to ordinary visitors, anyway.

You will be allotted a tour, and be informed of the day and time.

You need to show up at the Ufficio Scavi ten minutes before your tour is due to start. You must conform to the basilica's dress code (no bare shoulders or shorts, no skirts above the knee). Photography is not allowed. You cannot bring along any large bags, cameras or backpacks and these need to be left at the basilica's free cloak-room which is to the right of the façade. If the guide faults you on dress or baggage and you can't sort it out in time, you will lose your place and you won't be able to join a later tour.

The cost (2013) is thirteen Euros per person, with no discounts.


The ancient Roman necropolis is accessed through a set of rooms to the left of the Old Grottoes.

Constantine built his basilica on top of a tightly-packed cemetery of mausolea located on the slope of a hill. As a result, the constructors demolished those on the site of the future right hand side of the old basilica, but infilled those on the left in order to give a level platform to build on. It is these that the archaeologists excavated on their way to uncovering the Tomb of St Peter, and they lie under the left hand nave aisle of the basilica. They were originally excavated from 1939 to 1957, and labelled with letters of the alphabet.

The excavators found a row of brick mausolea tightly packed together in a terrace, with another later terrace on the other (south) side of a narrow street which was built in the 3rd century. Most of these mausolea are 2nd century pagan ones with cremations in apsidal wall-niches, but the so-called Mausoleum M contains frescoes with a Christian theme. The social stratum responsible for the necropolis seems to have been mostly that of wealthy freedmen -that is, manumitted slaves and their descendants who made good.

The excavators only went as far as just behind the tomb of St Peter, but it is known that the necropolis stretched as far at least as the present church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini, under which other mausolea on the same alignment have been excavated.

The first mausoleum in the terrace, A, was not excavated. It has an epigraph on its façade recording that Caius Popilius Heraclea wished to be buried "near the Circus". Mausoleum B, of Fabia Redempta, has two rooms with rich painted decoration. Mausoleum C, belonging to Lucius Tullius Zethus, has good stucco work and a black and white mosaic floor. The excavators recovered many funerary sarcophagi dumped here by the builders of the basilica. Mausoleum E, belonging to former slaves of the emperor Hadrian called Tyrannus and Urbana, has a fresco of two peacocks with a basket of fruit. Mausoleum F also belonged to freedmen, and was used by the families of the Tullii and Caetennii. Mausoleum G has a fresco of a slave giving money (his earnings?) to his master sitting at a table.

Mausoleum H was the largest found, erected by Valerius Herma and belonging to his family. The stucco decoration, originally gilded, contains several herms as a pun on his name. Several sarcophagi were found in situ, around a central niche containing a representation of Apollo. Several frescoes and inscriptions with a Christian theme were added later, notably a very important one reading Petrus, roga Christus pro sanc[tis] hom[ini]b[us] chrestian[is] [ad] corpus tuum sepultis ("Peter, ask Christ on behalf of the holy Christian men buried at your body"). This is one of the very few unambiguous early instances of a documented reference to the location of the tomb of St Peter.

Mausoleum I has its cremation niches framed in little columns, and has good stucco decoration. The frescoes depict the story of Alcestis, and the black and white mosaic floor that of the Rape of Proserpina. Mausoleum L was built by Marcus Catennius Hymnius, and also has elegant stucco decoration.

Mausoleum M is small, and differs from all those previously met with in not having any cremation niches in its interior walls. It belonged to the Julii, and is late 2nd century. The decorative elements are clearly Christian: The Good Shepherd, a fisherman and the prophet Jonah with his whale. The vault depicts Christ on the chariot of the sun, in the guise of Apollo. Mausoleum N, which is next, was unexcavated. There follows Mausoleum O, and opposite it the twins Mausoleum T and Mausoleum U which are richly decorated.

Tomb of St Peter[]

There follows a small rectangular court, called Court P by its excavators, which was open (apparently) to the north but had the mausolea O, S (to the south), Q and R on the other three sides. Between P and R was a narrow alley, accessed by a flight of steps and with a wall between it and P.

This wall was plastered and painted red -the famous “red wall” -and ran over a simple grave identified as Peter's. The excavators argued that the foundation was raised above the grave to avoid disturbing it during construction (this has been disputed). Against this wall in Court P was built a simple little open-air aedicule or shrine, the so-called “Trophy of Gaius”. This consisted of an apsidal niche in the wall, sheltered by a slab of travertine limestone supported in front by two columns. A smaller niche was above this, and the excavators surmised that a pediment crowned the edifice. A moveable slab was in the pavement within the columns, and it was noticed that this was not aligned with the wall but with the grave below. The whole erection was originally 1.80 meters wide and approximately 2.30 metres high.

The aedicule was restored at an uncertain date, perhaps in the mid 3rd century. A short screen wall, the so-called “graffiti wall”, was built immediately to its right (north) with a little marble-lined loculus or cupboard in it. The lower niche and floor were revetted with marble, and mosaics laid on the courtyard floor in front. The bones now claimed to be the relics of St Peter were allegedly found in this loculus. They have been returned, and can been seen in plastic boxes which the guide will point out as the climax of the tour.

Climbing the Dome[]

Climbing the dome for the view of the city from the lantern has been a popular tourist activity for centuries.

The way up starts around the north side of the basilica, entered through the right hand end of the portico. It is beyond the entrance to the grottoes -be careful to join the right queue.

The times are 8:00 to 17:00, closing an hour earlier from October to March.

There is a charge. Using the lift, it is seven Euros. Using the stairs, it is five Euros. School pupils pay three Euros.

However, the lift only takes you to the roof of the basilica and saves you 231 stairs. You are then faced with climbing up the dome itself. This is by a staircase running between the inner and outer domes, and has 320 stairs.

Also, you can visit a gallery which looks down into the basilica crossing from the bottom of the inner dome.

There is a small coffee bar on the roof before the dome stairs. However, it's not a surprise that they serve no alcohol -not even the local Peroni beer, which the Russians would consider a soft drink.


Opening times[]

The basilica is open daily from 7:00 to 19:00, but shuts at 16:30 from October to March.

Since it is a working church, it will not be accessible to visitors on major liturgical events. These need to be checked for beforehand.

When to visit? The tourist pressure is so enormous that the queue for entry can stretch all round the piazza. You may think that turning up for 7:00 is best, but so many have this idea that there a queue even then. However half an hour later, between 7:30 and 8:00, you may be lucky enough to get a walk-in after the first queue is cleared.

The best season to visit is definitely winter, and November is the best month. July and August are impossible -only do it if you have no choice otherwise.


You have to queue at a security check at the right side of the piazza before getting in. This checks your appearance, and also your baggage with an x-ray machine. The procedure is taken seriously. A Vatican policeman is overseeing the proceedings, and the staff are looking for anything that could cut like a knife or be used as a hammer. This includes glass -no bottles of wine! If something forbidden is found, you have to remove it from your baggage before going on. However, these are not airport security Neanderthals and the policeman is usually kind enough to put the item to one side for you to collect when you leave -if he thinks you are innocent. However, if he finds you suspicious he can forbid your entry and turn you away.


Your visit is on certain conditions:

Dress. Shorts, skirts above the knee and bare shoulders are completely forbidden. Men are not allowed to wear hats or caps in the basilica, and this includes the queues for the dome and grottoes. The policeman on security duty can also object if he thinks that your appearance is provocative or offensive. (There are grey areas here. Kilts for Scotsmen should be OK, but be ready to have to explain. Bare feet used to be a feature of penitential pilgrims here right up to the early 20th century, but expect to be checked out nowadays if you like being shoeless -the Vatican staff know all about New Agers.)

Behaviour. The basilica has a full staff of custodians whose first task is to ensure that visitors behave properly. They are quite ready to deal with anyone causing a disturbance. However, they are also friendly and willing to help -although you shouldn't expect them to be expert on where everything is.

Forbidden areas. The Blessed Sacrament chapel and the side apses of the transept are not accessible to sightseers, but only to worshippers. This is taken seriously by the custodians, who routinely question those entering these areas.


There is a bookshop and a post office at the far left hand side of the piazza. The Vatican postal service is far superior to the Italian one -even local Romans are known to use it in preference. Another bookshop is in the Treasury.

There is a cloakroom for bags and coats to the right of the façade, which is free.

Also, famously, there is a free set of toilets down the passage here past the cloakroom. The number of public toilets in Rome can be counted on the fingers (bars serving alcohol have a legal obligation to allow passers-by to use the toilet without buying anything), and this is the best set by far.


Mass is celebrated routinely (that is, prescinding from special celebrations):

Sundays and solemnities 9:00, 10:30 (in Latin), 11:30 (Blessed Sacrament Chapel), 12:15, 13:00 (Altar of St Joseph), 16:00, 17:45.

These Masses are at the Altar of the Chair of St Peter, unless otherwise listed.

Weekdays 8:30 (Blessed Sacrament Chapel), 9:00 (Thursday only), 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 17:00 (in Latin, at the Altar of the Chair of St Peter).

These Masses are in the Chapel of St Joseph, unless otherwise listed.

Many groups have permission to have Mass said for them at other side altars, but these are private. Especially, do not expect to receive Communion at any private Mass being said by a priest on his own if you just happen to be there -this is seriously bad manners, and has caused embarrassment.

Confessions are heard in the major European languages daily, from 7:00 to 13:00 and 15:00 to 19:00 (an hour earlier in winter). On Sundays, the confessionals are vacated at 12:30.

Vespers is celebrated on Sundays at 17:00.

There is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every day in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel from 9:00 to 16:45, following the 8:30 Mass.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Italian Wikipedia page on grottoes

Italian Wikipedia page on dome

Vicipaedia Latina

Interactive Nolli Map Website (Basilica )

Interactive Nolli Map Website (old Sagristia di San Pietro in Vaticano)

Basilica website

Virtual tour on basilica website

"" website (unofficial website with enormous amount of information)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 1)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 2)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 3)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 4)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 5)

Info.roma web-page

Annazelli's web-page with gallery

"Great Buildings" web-page

"Labatorioroma" web-page

Virtual tour of New Grottoes (needs Adobe Shockwave Player)

Website of the Ufficio Scavi

Virtual tour of necropolis

The Seven Churches
San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura