The Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. At it's heart is St. Peter's - the largest church in the world!
The Tomb of St. Peter - he of the Gates to Heaven - was situated on this spot (where he was martyred by being crucified upside down) and in the 2nd century a shrine was set up. This was converted into a basilica by order of the Emperor Constantine in AD 349. This church continued to grow over the centuries and became the mother church of the whole of the Roman Catholic world.
In 800 Charlemagne received his crown as Holy Roman Emperor from Leo III. Despite this being the centre of the strongest power in Europe by the mid-15th Century Constantine's basilica was in a ruinous state and Pope Nicholas V decided to have it rebuilt. Unfortunately Nicholas died in 1455 before much work had occurred and the rennovation had to wait until 1506 when Pope Julius II began the work once more.
Julius employed Bramante (known in Rome as maestro ruinante because of his habit of knocking things down and not getting around to building the replacements). Bramante, true to his reputation, tore down most of the old basilica and never got around to starting his grand new planned church. A succession of architects followed using Bramante's plan as their basis.
This chaotic state of affairs continued until Pope Paul III employed Michaelangelo in 1547. Michaelangelo interpreted Bramante's ideas in his own way. It was he who designed the great Dome to crown the basilica - today it is still the world's tallest. Michaelangelo was succeeded by a number of architects who stuck quite faithfully to his designs.
Bramante and Michaelangelo both had an approximately square building in mind, but Pope Paul V decided it should return to a more traditional cruciform design and so employed Carlo Maderno to extend the nave and it was he who designed the breath-taking facade with its massive columns and great statues which, when completed in 1614, was said to have absorbed the mountains of "travertine from Tivoli" (meaning a massive amount of stone was used).
Once the facade was completed most of the exterior work was finished. The next master of works to be appointed was Bernini who set about working more on the interior. He created the huge bronze Baldacchino which stands over the Pope's Throne in the very centre of the church. Bernini was also responsible for the over-all "baroque" feel of the interior of St. Peter's. Bernini also added the graceful circle of the Piazza San Pietro to the outside of the basilica.
As well as being a work of art in itself, St. Peter's contains a number of important sculptures and paintings, including Michaelangelo's Pietà.
The Vatican is, of course, still the home to the Pope and the faithful flock from across the whole Catholic world to worship here and have audiences with the Holy Father. The less faithful also come here for the most amazing view from the Dome and the sheer size and spectacle of what must surely be the ultimate expression of the Christian faith.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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