Although there has been a church on Vatican hill since the fourth century, the current St. Peter's Basilica dates only to 1626, when its 120 years of construction were completed. Considering artists such as Michelangelo and Bernini were involved with the planning and building, it's no wonder that St Peter's has become known as the "greatest church in all of Christendom."
We knew St. Peter's would be impressive, but nothing can really prepare you for it. It's huge.
Down the center nave, a line marks where other churches and cathedrals would end if they were placed inside the Basilica. Having visited St. Vitus in Prague, St Paul's in London, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., etc, in the past, it was amazing to see where the length of those cathedrals compare to the massive size of St. Peter's. You're almost tempted to disbelieve it, though, since the Basilica was designed and constructed in a way that makes it seem smaller than it truly is. This optical illusion was intended to make the church, and God, seem more approachable to the worshipper.
The statues in the Basilica are also fashioned to appear smaller. See the cherub up there? Doesn't he look like you could just scoop him up and pinch his cheeks? (Ok, so maybe that's a slight exaggeration...) But as you can see from the picture on the right, its hand dwarfs that of my husband. And my husband has some big hands!
As you continue down the nave, alternating your gaze from left to right at various side altars and statues, you finally reach Bernini's High Altar, situated directly beneath one of Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces: the Dome.
|Bernini's High Altar|
For better views, however, it is well worth springing the 5 euros to climb to the top of St Peter's to see Rome laid out before you! For an additional 2 euros, you can skip the first 320 steps by taking the elevator; honestly, the first 320 steps are not that difficult, and we made it up before the folks behind us in line got through the line at the lift. Your first "resting stop" is inside the dome, looking down to the nave's floor. For acrophobics like myself, this can be rather daunting. I think I spent the entire time pressed against the walls! But nothing could replace the experience of touching the mosaic pieces with my own hands or catching the tail-end of a mass from the dizzying but spectacular vantage point of the dome!
But the climb can go ever higher! From the dome you ascend greater heights, at times walking sideways along the dome itself. In between my nauseating fear of heights, I had to admit that it was a really cool experience. And the anxiety and effort of the climb were amply rewarded with stunning views:
|St Peter's Square|
|Papal apartments behind the Basilica|
|The long building with courtyards is the Vatican Museum.|
Our day at the Vatican ended up being the highlight of our Roman experience, for both spiritual and aesthetic reasons. I respect and admire Michelangelo, Bernini, and the other artists who endeavored to honor the power of God and attempt to bring the viewer closer to Him through their masterful designs and art in the Basilica. While the hordes of tourists did not lend a particularly quiet atmosphere to St. Peter's, the architecture and design made me feel so small and yet embraced by both the hugeness of the Basilica and the greatness of God.
Have you visited St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican?
Time Needed: You could breeze through in 30 minutes if you really have no interest in churches, history, or artwork. However, I'd recommend 2-3 hours, particularly if you want to climb the Dome (so worth it).
Accessibility: Currently, the Basilica is not immediately near a Metro line. We took Line A to the Ottaviano - "San Pietro" station and walked south on Via Ottaviano. It was about a 10-15 minute walk.
Tips: Download Rick Steves' free podcasts on your smartphone! He provides excellent explanations of various parts of the Basilica, and you'll feel much more knowledgeable after listening.
Linking up with other travel bloggers for the #WeekendWanderlust!