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The Old Saint Peter's Basilica

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The basilica of Saint Peter, in Rome, is one of main centers of Christendom. As the Edict of Milano, in 313 A.D. has allowed the Church into the Roman empire and then it had become by the end of the 4th century the sole religion of it, emperors and wealthy Roman families who had converted to Christianity, had to be built or gave to the Church lands and buildings, or had churches built. Rome had begun to become a place of pilgrimage as soon as the second halve of the 3rd century A.D. because it harbored the tumbs of St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Peter was the chief of Apostles as designed by Christ himself as St. Paul was the great missionary of the nascent Church! Both had endured martyrdom in Rome. St. Peter had been crucified, head downwards, during the great persecution under Emperor Nero by 64 A.D. and Paul had been beheaded some years later by 67 A.D. In their honor the basilica of Saint Peter and the one of St Paolo Fuori le Mura were built as the remaining two main basilicae of the city also constituted the aim of a pilgrimage in Rome, the archbasilica of Saint John of Lateran -which is the cathedral Church of the Pope- and the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Saint Peter had been crucified upside down in the Caligula's Circus, or the 'Neronian Circus,' which lied beyond the Tiber river, northwest of Rome, in the Gardens of Nero at the foothill of a hill named the Vatican Mons. That circus had been built by Caius Caligula, son to Agrippina the Old, grand-daughter to Augustus and the grand-mother to Emperor Nero. She had had built the Gardens of Agrippina in that place. Nero, who especially liked the circus had chosen the place like the one for the martyrdom of Christians who he had accused of a great fire in Rome. The corpse of Saint Peter was lied to rest 'Via Aurelia [...] iuxta palatium Neronianum, in Vaticanum' or 'on the side of Via Aurelia nova [translator's note: one of the Roman roads which led to Ostia] [...], beside the circus of Nero [translator's note: which until in the Middle Ages bore the name 'Palace of Nero'], in Vatican.' A small memorial was built there which, by the middle of the 2nd century A.D. turned into the 'Gaius' Trophy.' Along the Via Cornelia, a secondary Roman road which sided the Neronian Circus, tumbs were lying like along any other Roman road, among which those of Christians and it looks like the tumb of Saint Peter was brought back there at some time. As the time when those tumbs were desecrated during the persecution of Emperor Valerian, by 258, relics of Saint Peter were transfered into the catacumbs located on the Via Appia as they were then brought back to their original location. Emperor Constantine the Great, after he allowed the Church into the Roman empire, had by 324 A.D. begun the construction of a basilica dedicated to St. Peter, as the basilica encompassed the 'Gaius' Tumb.' That explains why the basilica's plan partly lies upon the ancien Circus of Nero. The construction also forced to the levelling of the Mons Vaticanus as, at the contrary of the ecclesiastical tradition which made that the mass was celebrated facing East, the new church was oriented West. Which was due to that, as one came from Rome to the church, one had to be welcomed by the basilica's facade. At the occasion of the construction, the Neronian Circus and the tumbs of the Via Cornelia also were demolished. From the circus, they only kept the central obelisk, which had originated from Heliopolis, in Egypt as the martyrdom of the Chief of the Apostles had took place slightly eastward of it. The Old Saint Peter's Basilica was consacrated by 329 A.D. It had a shape of a 'tau,' and was 267 feet long and 127 high. It was facing West and hold 5 naves -of which a large central one and two double side ones either side- which were delineated through four row of 22 columns each! The transept, at the western middle of the wall of which the tumb of St. Peter was located, was lying by the naves' end. Such a structure was allowing to welcome large numbers of pilgrims. A century later, a columned garden, or 'atrium,' with a 70-foot length in side, was built in front of the basilica as it was called the 'Paradise' or the 'Garden of Paradise.' It had been ornated with a fountain at its center, which was called the 'Symmachus' Fountain' from a pope of the early 6th century A.D. as the decoration's symbols mostly evoked immortality, of those a large, bronze pine cone which was the very symbol for it. Under the colonnade, the atrium self served mostly for the catechesis of catechumens as the fountain to the cleaning of pilgrims before they entered the basilica. Standing ahead of the atrium, a staircase was allowing to the entrance gates which had been completed during the 6th century. Pope Severinus (638-640) had a apsis added to the transept of the basilica and the tumb of St. Peter moved into. The Old Saint Peter's Basilica since remained such until by the early 14th century A.D. as, since the 4th century, it became the most revered sanctuary of the West. The place kept to see the construction of churches, monasteries, pilgrim houses, and cemeteries as that space, which had remained empty between Nero's Circus, the Hadrian's Mausoleum and the Tiber River was itself alloted for buildings during the Early Middle Ages. That Old Saint Peter's Basilica thus served to the imperial coronation of Charlemagne by Christmas 800. Pope Leo IV (847-855), as he endeavoured to protect Rome from the attacks of Saracenes, like the raid they had performed in 846 A.D., enclosed the Vatican hill inside walls, or the 'Leonine City,' which was fitted, by intervals, by strong towers. He also re-built the parts of the basilica which had been destroyed. A common error is to state that the set of the Vatican buildings is where the pope's residence, which is false. Because he is the bishop of Rome, the successor to Peter, the pope lives in the palace which lies beside his cathedral church, or the archbasilic of Saint John in Lateran, southeast of the city. The Saint Peter's Basilica, strictly, is where pilgrims come to adore the tumb of Saint Peter, the Chief of the Church. Archeological diggings were performed since 1940 by order of Pope Pius XII as that found, beneath the basilica's altar, a empty tumb dated back to the 1st century A.D. as it had remained unaccessible since the 9th century! On a wall of it, archeologists found a inscription in Greek language which read: 'Peter is here!' That discovery was announced by Pope Pius XII in 1950. By 1953, some bones of a man aged 60-70 years were also found in a built-in secret location as they had been wrapped into a precious fabrics which had been tainted purple and weaved with golden threads as Pope Paul VI eventually announced in 1968 that those were, according to most likely occurrence, the remainings of St. Peter

thumbnail to a view of the location of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica which also is showing how the Constantinian basilica, with its preceding atrium, had its plan deviced upon the tumb of St. Peterclick to a view of the location of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica which also is showing how the Constantinian basilica, with its preceding atrium, had its plan deviced upon the tumb of St. Peter

Like inside any early great Christian church, Saint Peter's Basilica did not take its inspiration from Roman pagan temples which did not feature enough internal space at they did, at the contrary, from Roman basilicae. Basilicae, at Rome, were large quadrangular buildings which served to meetings, markets and tribunals. Good examples of such basilicae are to be found within the Roman Forum, of which the Basilica of Constantine. The woodwork of roof had been left open, and visible from the inside of Saint Peter as 5 doors, of which a 'Porta sancta' (or a 'saint door'), gave access to the naves. The plan in the form of a Greek 'tau' of the basilica, on a other hand, was copied everywhere in Europe, especially for churches which wanted to assert a strong link with Rome! Some think that the basilica would have taken its plan back from the Solomon Temple. It is possible that the fountain of the Garden of Paradise as located under a dome laid down upon eight columns and as topped with a colossal bronze pine cone -which the very symbol to immortality- have existed since the time of Constantine, or his son Constantius. That pine cone might have been taken from the Hadrian's Mausoleum. Saint Peter's Basilica main altar was overheaded with a large baldachino, or 'ciborium,' which itself lied upon 4 colums called the 'colums of Solomon' as, according to tradition, they would have been taken by Emperor Constantine from the Solomon Temple. They most likely have their origin from a Eastern church building. Those columns were featuring a twisted aspect similar to the one of the column which served for the flagellation of Christ in Jerusalem. Two side columns allowed to link the baldachino to St. Peter's tumb as curtains between them, were conceiling the tumb to view. Lateral walls were lightened with 11 windows each as they were ornated with frescoes, the scenes of which were taken from the Old, and New Testament. The main nave ended with a arch upon which a mosaic was illustrating Emperor and St. Peter, as the latter was offering a model of the basilica to Jesus Christ. The Old Saint Peter's Basilica could harbour 14,000 pilgrims as seven altars could be used for celebration. Time passing, Saint Peter's Basilica filled gradually with saints' and popes' tumbs and also with side altars as wealthy visitors were presenting the church with costly objects, furnishings, statues, and elaborate chandeliers which were settled around St. Peter's tumb, as sacristy was aumgented with magnificent liturgical vestments. As how the basilica was used is concerned, it had been originally considered, like the other main basilicas of the Rome's pilgrimage, like a monumental cemetery which allowed to the veneration of pilgrims. That, further, with the presence of numerous tumbs in the church self, might link to the antique tradition of funerary banquets. Since the second halve of the 4th century A.D. however, popes began to celebrate Christmas in Saint Peter. Then by the early 5th century, Epiphany was also celebrated there as the Saint Peter's Basilica became the first Roman basilica outside the one of Lateran, to harbour masses which were celebrated by the pope. Above all, by the 430's, pope Sixtus III had, through the system of 'papal stations,' had the basilica, like other churches of Rome, to pass from a status of a place of pilgrimage to that of a complete papal basilica of its own. At last and mostly, since pope Symmachus (498-514), the Old Saint Peter's Basilica, due to the development of the cult of saints, had turned into a basilica dedicated to the veneration of St. Peter, and other saints. That concretized by the 8th century A.D. mostly. The basilica then remained the main funerary tumb of St. Peter as it also now was harbouring numerous reliquary altars dedicated to more saints. Some decorative additions were made in the following history of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica, during the Middle Ages

thumbnail to a artist view of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica as it was looking by the Carolingian timesclick to a artist view of the Old Saint Peter's Basilica as it was looking by the Carolingian times; the insert to the lower left is showing a comparison between the current and the old basilica (the current Saint Peter's Square is not shown as the Baroque basilica is also centered upon St. Peter's tumb)

The old basilica staid in such a condition until by the late 15th century A.D. When popes had left Rome to settle into Avignon, France, by the 14th century, Saint Peter's Basilica already was in a bad state and threatened to fall in ruins. That situation worsened due to that popes were now residing in France and from a lack of maintenance. It was Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) who began to modify that ancient basilica as he used Colosseum like a stone quarry. His plan was to entirely demolish the old basilica and to build a new one. By the end of his reign however few had been actually begun. It was then Pope Julius II, as at the time they still wanted to preserve the old building, who, by 1505, decided to have a new Saint Peter Basilica like the place for his tumb. He entrusted Bramante with that project and the view of that artist was to pile a dome as inspired from the Pantheon, in Rome, upon the Constantinian basilica. Then, as some changes had been brought by miscellaneous architects, of them Raphael, the project of a new basilica passed, by 1547, under the supervisation of Michelangelo. At that date, the work had then brought to the destruction of the ancient basilica as the four enormous pilars had been erected upon which the dome of Bramante was to be raised. The main role of Michelangelo was to build a dome, which now rested upon a drum instead of four pilars as the dome however kept unfinished when he died, by 1564. The works then continued in accordance with Michelangelo's intention but Pope Paul V, in 1606, decided to have the original Greek cross plan to be extended eastwards into a Latin cross. The nave was extended by Maderno and terminated with a Baroque facade. Works were far from over then as a important part of the old Constantinian nave was still extent and it was at the time that they definitively took the decision to demolish it. Architects then realized that the remains of the Neronian Circus upon which the south wall of the old basilica had been built, was not able to sustain such that weight. It was too at that time that they decided to preserve, transfer or describe or make drawings for posterity the varied relics and monuments which the ancient basilica was holding. That transfer was made into the crypt of the new basilica, which is called the 'Grotte Vaticane.' Some elements were used back into the new building, like, for example, the porphyry slab upon which Charlemagne had been crowned emperor in the year 800 A.D. It still lies nowadays close to the entrance of the new basilica. It was eventually on November 18th, 1626, under Pope Urbain VIII, that the new Saint Peter's basilica was consecrated as the Piazza di S. Pietro, with its colonnades, as far as it is concerned, was constructed by Bernini in 1667 only. Accessorily, one may know that the building of the new basilica, as it was funded through the sale of indulgences, brought to the beginnings of the Protestant Reform in Germany! The new Saint Peter's basilica, a masterpiece of the Baroque, is the one which you still can admire in Rome nowadays. The church of Santa Prassede, located close to the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, is considered a -small- replica of how the Old Saint Peter's basilica was looking like

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 4/9/2012. contact us at
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