ST. PETER’S BASILICA TOUR - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


St. Peter’s is the greatest church in Christendom. It represents the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter, this is where the grandeur of ancient Rome became the grandeur of Christianity.


(See “St. Peter’s Square” map, here.)

Cost: Free entry to basilica and crypt. Dome climb-€5 if you take the stairs all the way up, or €7 to ride an elevator partway (to the roof), then climb to the top of the dome (cash only; for details, see “Dome Climb,” here). Treasury Museum-€7 (€3 audioguide).

Hours: The church is open daily April-Sept 7:00-19:00, Oct-March 7:00-18:30. It closes on Wednesday mornings during papal audiences (until roughly 13:00).

The dome (cupola) is open to climbers daily from 8:00; if you’re climbing the stairs all the way up, the last entry time is 17:00 (16:00 Oct-March); if you’re riding the elevator, you can enter until 18:00 (17:00 Oct-March).

The Treasury Museum is open daily April-Sept 8:00-18:50, Oct-March 8:00-17:50.

The crypt (grotte) is open daily 9:00-16:00.

Avoiding Lines: There’s no surefire way to avoid the long security lines. The checkpoint is typically on the north side of the square, but is sometimes closer to the church or tucked under the south colonnade.

St. Peter’s is often accessible directly from the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museums—a great time-saving trick, but unfortunately not a reliable one (for details, see here).

Avoid the worst crowds by visiting before 10:00. If you come after 16:00, crowds are lighter, sunbeams can work their magic, and the 17:00 Mass (Mon-Sat) in the apse fills the place with spiritual music. But after about 16:00, the crypt is closed, and the area around the altar is often roped off to prepare for Mass. (For a detailed Mass schedule, see “Church Services,” below.)

Dress Code: No shorts, above-the-knee skirts, or bare shoulders (this applies to men, women, and children). Attendants enforce this dress code, even in hot weather. Carry a cover-up, if necessary.

Getting There: Take the Metro to Ottaviano, then walk 10 minutes south on Via Ottaviano. The #40 express bus drops off at Piazza Pio, next to Castel Sant’Angelo—a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s. The more crowded bus #64 is convenient for pickpockets and stops just outside St. Peter’s Square to the south (get off the bus after it crosses the Tiber, at the first stop past the tunnel; backtrack toward the tunnel and turn left when you see the rows of columns; the return bus stop is adjacent to the tunnel). Bus #492 heads through the center of town, stopping at Largo Argentina, and gets you near Piazza Risorgimento (get off when you see the Vatican walls). A few other handy buses (see here) get you to the general Vatican area. A taxi from Termini train station to St. Peter’s costs about €12.

Information: The Vatican TI on the left (south) side of the square is excellent (Mon-Sat 8:30-18:15, closed Sun, tel. 06-6988-1662). For the Vatican, see

Church Services: Mass is said daily, generally in Italian, usually in the south (left) transept, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (on right side of nave), or the apse. Typical schedule: Mon-Sat at 8:30, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 17:00 (in Latin, in the apse); and on Sun and holidays at 9:00, 10:30 (in Latin), 11:30, 12:15, 13:00, 16:00, 17:00 (vespers), and 17:45.

Tours: The Vatican TI conducts free 1.5-hour tours of St. Peter’s (depart from TI Mon-Fri at 14:15, confirm schedule at TI). Audioguides can be rented near the checkroom (€5 plus ID, for church only, daily 9:00-17:00).

Image Download my free St. Peter’s Basilica audio tour.

To see St. Peter’s original grave, you can take a Scavi (excavations) tour into the Necropolis under the basilica (€13, 1.5 hours, ages 15 and older only, no photos). Book at least two months in advance by phone (tel. 06-6988-5318), email (, or fax (06-6987-3017), following the detailed instructions at (search for “Excavations Office”); no response means they’re booked.

Vatican City

The tiny independent country of Vatican City is contained entirely within Rome. (Its 100 acres could fit eight times over in New York’s Central Park.) The Vatican has its own postal system, armed guards, beautiful gardens, a helipad, mini train-station, and radio station (KPOP). It also has two huge sights: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Politically powerful, the Vatican is the religious capital of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. If you’re not a Catholic, become one for your visit.

The pope is both the religious and secular leader of Vatican City. For centuries, the Vatican was the capital of the Papal States, and locals referred to the pontiff as “King Pope.” Because of the Vatican’s territorial ambitions, it didn’t always have good relations with Italy. Even though modern Italy was created in 1870, the Holy See didn’t recognize it as a country until 1929.

Like every European country, Vatican City has its own versions of the euro coin (with a portrait of the pope). You’re unlikely to find one in your pocket, though, as they’re snatched up by collectors before falling into circulation.

Vatican Gardens: To walk through the manicured Vatican Gardens (with views over Rome and a good look at St. Peter’s dome), you must book a guided tour several days in advance at (€32, 2 hours, usually daily except Wed and Sun, includes entry to Vatican Museums; tours usually start at 9:30 or 11:00 at Vatican Museums tour desk). On rare occasions, same-day tickets are available at the Vatican TI. A 45-minute open-bus tour through the gardens is offered in good weather (€36 includes audioguide and admission to Vatican Museums; see website for details).

Post Offices: The Vatican postal service is famous for its stamps, which you can get from offices on St. Peter’s Square (one next to the TI, another between the columns just before the security checkpoint), in the Vatican Museums (closed Sun), or from a “post bus” that’s often parked on St. Peter’s Square (open Sun). To get a Vatican postmark, you must mail your cards from postboxes at the Vatican itself (although the stamps are good throughout Rome).

Seeing the Pope: Your best chances for a sighting are on Sunday or Wednesday. Most Sundays (though not always, especially in July or August), the pope gives a blessing at noon from his apartment on St. Peter’s Square to the faithful assembled below. You don’t need a ticket—just show up. On most Wednesdays, the pope holds a general audience at 10:00. That’s when he arrives in his Popemobile and gives a short sermon from a canopied platform on the square. (In winter, it’s sometimes held indoors at the big Paolo VI Auditorium, next to St. Peter’s Basilica, though Pope Francis prefers the square, even in cold weather.) Note that whenever the pope appears on the square, the basilica closes and crowds are substantial—so avoid these times if you just want to sightsee. To get the pope’s schedule for your visit, see (click on “Prefecture of the Papal Household”) or call 06-6988-3114.

General Audience Tickets: For the Wednesday audience, you need a (free) ticket to get close to the papal action and get a seat. Reserve tickets (available about a month or two in advance) by sending a fax request (access the form at, under “Prefecture of the Papal Household”) or by calling 06-6988-3114. You’ll then pick up the tickets at St. Peter’s Square before the audience (available Tue 15:00-19:00 and Wed 7:00-9:00; usually under Bernini’s colonnade, to the left of the church).

You can also book tickets online through Santa Susanna, the American Catholic Church in Rome (free, but donations appreciated). Pick up your reserved tickets or check for last-minute availability at the church the Tuesday before the audience between 16:30 and 18:15—consider staying for the 18:00 English Mass (Via XX Settembre 15, Metro: Repubblica, tel. 06-4201-4554—charming Rosanna speaks English, details at

Finally, starting the Monday before the audience, Swiss Guards hand out tickets from their station near the basilica exit (see map on here). There’s no need to go through security—just march up, ask nicely, and say “danke.” While this is perhaps the easiest way, I’d reserve in advance to guarantee a ticket.

General Audience Tips: On Wednesday morning, you’ll need to be dressed appropriately (shoulders covered, no short shorts or tank tops—long pants or knee-length skirts are safest) and clear security (no big bags; lines tend to move more quickly on the side of the square farthest from the Metro stop). To get a seat (much less a good one), it’s smart to be there a couple of hours early—there are far fewer seats than ticketholders. If you just want to see the pope, get a good photo, and don’t mind standing, you can show up later (though still at least 30 minutes early) and take your place in the standing-room section in the back half of the square. The service gets underway around 9:30 when the names of attending pilgrim groups are announced. Shortly thereafter, the Popemobile appears, winding through the adoring crowd (the best places—seated or standing—are near the cloth-covered wooden fences that line the Popemobile route). Around 10:00, the Pope’s multilingual message begins and lasts for about an hour (you can leave at any time).

Dome Climb: You can take the elevator (€7) or stairs (€5) to the roof (231 steps), then climb another 323 steps to the top of the dome. The entry to the elevator is just outside the north side of the basilica—look for signs to the cupola. If you’re climbing the dome without your travel partner, confirm where you’ll exit before you split up (exit sometimes moves). For more on the dome, see the end of this chapter.

Length of This Tour: Allow one hour, plus another hour if you climb the dome (or a half-hour to the roof). With as little as 15 minutes, you could stroll the nave, glance up at the dome, down at St. Peter’s resting place, and adore the Pietà on your way out.

Baggage Check: The free bag check (mandatory for bags larger than a purse or daypack) is outside the basilica (to the right as you face the entrance) just inside the security checkpoint.

Vatican Museums Tickets: There’s often a table selling priority-entry tickets to the Vatican Museums in the narthex of St. Peter’s. You pay the regular €16 admission plus a €9 service fee. It’s more than what you’d pay online, but you get an entry time and no wait, generally for the same day (see here for other Vatican Museums ticketing options).

Holy Year 2016: Because of the special Holy Year declared by Pope Francis (see here), be prepared for slightly larger crowds and a few extra security procedures, but nothing that will disrupt your visit.

Services: WCs are to the right and left on St. Peter’s Square (just outside the security checkpoint and exit), near baggage storage down the steps on the right side of the entrance, and on the roof. Drinking fountains are near the obelisk and the WCs. Post offices are next to the TI and just outside the security checkpoint.

Starring: Michelangelo, Bernini, St. Peter, a heavenly host...and, occasionally, the pope.

Nearby Eateries: For restaurants near Vatican City, see here.


Nearly 2,000 years ago, St. Peter’s oval-shaped “square” was the site of Nero’s Circus—a huge, cigar-shaped Roman chariot racecourse. The Romans had no marching bands, so for halftime entertainment they killed Christians. This persecuted minority was forced to fight wild animals and gladiators, or they were simply crucified. Some were tarred up, tied to posts, and burned—human torches to light up the evening races.

One of those killed here, in about A.D. 65, was Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, who had come to Rome to spread the message of love. At his own request, Peter was crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die as his master had. His remains were buried in a cemetery located where the main altar in St. Peter’s is today. For 250 years, these relics were quietly and secretly revered.


Peter had been recognized as the first “pope,” or bishop of Rome, from whom all later popes claimed their authority as head of the Church. When Christianity was finally legalized in 313, the Christian emperor Constantine built a church on the site of Peter’s martyrdom. “Old St. Peter’s” lasted 1,200 years (A.D. 326-1500).

By the time of the Renaissance, Old St. Peter’s was falling apart and was considered unfit to be the center of the Western Church. The new, larger church we see today was begun in 1506 by the architect Donato Bramante. (Bramante was in such a hurry to demolish parts of the original church that he earned the nickname “Master Ruiner.”) He was succeeded by Michelangelo and a number of other architects, each with his own designs. Later, Carlo Maderno took Michelangelo’s Greek-cross-shaped church and lengthened it, adding a long nave. As the construction proceeded, the new church rose around the old one (see diagram above). The project was finally finished 120 years, 20 popes, and 10 architects later, and Old St. Peter’s was dismantled and carried out of the new church. (A few bits survive from the first church: the central door, some columns in the atrium, eight spiral columns around the tomb from the Jerusalem Temple, the venerated statue of Peter, and Michelangelo’s Pietà.) It took another 200 years to decorate. All told, it took 320 years to build the largest church in the world in what is now the smallest country in the world.

Michelangelo designed the magnificent dome. Unfortunately, although it soars above St. Peter’s, it’s barely visible from the center of the square because of Maderno’s extended nave. To see the entire dome, you’ll need to step outside the open end of the square, where in the 1930s Benito Mussolini opened up the broad boulevard, finally letting people see the dome that had been hidden for centuries by the facade. Though I don’t make a habit of thanking fascist dictators, in this case I’ll make an exception: “Grazie, Benito.”


The Tour Begins

(See “St. Peter’s Square” map, here.)

✵ Ideally, you should head out to the obelisk at the center of the square and read this. But let me guess—it’s 95 degrees outside, right? OK, find a shady spot under one of these stone sequoias. If the pigeons have left a clean spot, sit on it.


St. Peter’s Square, with its ring of columns, symbolizes the arms of the church welcoming everyone—believers and nonbelievers—with its motherly embrace. It was designed a century after Michelangelo by the Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did much of the work that we’ll see inside. Numbers first: 284 columns, 56 feet high, in stern Doric style. Topping them are Bernini’s 140 favorite saints, each 10 feet tall. The “square” itself is actually elliptical, 660 by 500 feet (roughly the same dimensions as the Colosseum). Though large, it’s designed like a saucer, a little higher around the edges, so that even when full of crowds (as it often is), it allows those on the periphery to see above the throngs.


The obelisk in the center is 90 feet of solid granite weighing more than 300 tons. It once stood about 100 yards from its current location, in the center of the circus course (to the left of where St. Peter’s is today). Think for a second about how much history this monument has seen. Originally erected in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago, it witnessed the fall of the pharaohs to the Greeks and then to the Romans. Then the emperor Caligula moved it to imperial Rome, where it stood impassively watching the slaughter of Christians at the racecourse and the torture of Protestants by the Inquisition (in the yellow-and-rust building just outside the square, to the left of the church). Today, it watches over the church, a reminder that each civilization builds on the previous ones. The puny cross on top reminds us that Christian culture has cast but a thin veneer over our pagan origins.


✵ Now venture out across the burning desert to the obelisk, which provides a narrow sliver of shade.

As you face the church, the gray building to the right at two o’clock, rising up behind Bernini’s colonnade, is, at least officially, the pope’s abode. The last window on the right of the top floor is the papal bedroom; to the left of that window is the study window, where popes have often appeared to greet the masses. Pope Francis, however, has shunned the grand papal apartments and lives instead in a modest Vatican guesthouse (upon first seeing the papal suite, he exclaimed, “You could fit 300 people in here!”).


On more formal occasions (which you may have seen on TV), the pope appears from the church itself, on the small balcony above the central door.

The Sistine Chapel is just to the right of the facade—the small gray-brown building with the triangular roof, topped by an antenna. The tiny chimney—the pimple along the roofline midway up the left side—is where the famous smoke signals announce the election of each new pope (an extension is added for the occasion). If the smoke is black, a two-thirds majority hasn’t been reached. White smoke means a new pope has been selected.


Walk to the right, five pavement plaques from the obelisk, to one marked Centro del Colonnato. From here, all of Bernini’s columns on the right side line up. The curved Baroque square still pays its respects to Renaissance mathematical symmetry.

✵ Climb the gradually sloping pavement past crowd barriers and the security checkpoint.

On the square are two entrances to Vatican City: one to the left of the facade, and one to the right, in the crook of Bernini’s “arm.” Guarding this small but powerful country’s border crossing are the mercenary guards from Switzerland. You have to wonder if they really know how to use those pikes. Their colorful uniforms are said to have been designed by Michelangelo, though he was not known for his sense of humor.


✵ Continue up, passing the huge statues of St. Paul (with his two-edged sword) and St. Peter (with his bushy hair and keys). Along the way, you’ll pass by the dress-code enforcers and a gaggle of ticked-off tourists in shorts. Enter the atrium (entrance hall) of the church.



The Atrium

(See “St. Peter’s Basilica” map, here.)

The atrium is itself bigger than most churches. The huge white columns on the portico date from the first church (fourth century). Five famous bronze doors lead into the church.

Made from the melted-down bronze of the original door of Old St. Peter’s, the central door was the first Renaissance work in Rome (c. 1450). It’s only opened on special occasions. The panels (from the top down) feature Jesus and Mary, Paul and Peter, and (at the bottom) how each was martyred: Paul decapitated, Peter crucified upside down.


The far-right entrance is the Image Holy Door, opened only during Holy Years (and special “Jubilee” years designated by the pope). On Christmas Eve every 25 years, the pope knocks three times with a silver hammer and the door opens, welcoming pilgrims to pass through. After Pope John Paul II opened the door on Christmas Eve, 1999, he bricked it up again with a ceremonial trowel a year later to wait another 24 years. (A plaque above the door fudges a bit for effect: It says that Pope “IOANNES PAULUS II” opened the door in the year “MM”—2000—and closed it in “MMI.”) On the door itself, note the crucified Jesus and his shiny knees, polished by pious pilgrims who touch them for a blessing. Pope Francis declared that the door be open from December 2015 through 2016 to welcome visitors for the “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” Holy Year celebration (see sidebar on here).

✵ Now for one of Europe’s great “wow” experiences: Enter the church. Gape for a while. But don’t gape at Michelangelo’s famous Pietà (on the right). I’ll cover it later in the tour. I’ll wait for you at the round maroon pavement stone on the floor near the central doorway.

Overview of the Church

This church is appropriately huge. Size before beauty: The golden window at the far end is two football fields away. The dove in the window has the wingspan of a 747 (OK, maybe not quite, but it is big). The church covers six acres. The babies at the base of the pillars along the main hall (the nave) are adult-size. The lettering in the gold band along the top of the pillars is seven feet high. Really. The church has a capacity of 60,000 standing worshippers (or 1,200 tour groups).


The church is huge and it feels huge, but everything is designed to make it seem smaller and more intimate than it really is. For example, the statue of St. Teresa near the bottom of the first pillar on the right is 15 feet tall. The statue above her near the top looks the same size, but is actually six feet taller, giving the impression that it’s not so far away. Similarly, the fancy bronze canopy over the altar at the far end is as tall as a seven-story building. That makes the great height of the dome seem smaller.


Looking down the nave, we get a sense of the splendor of ancient Rome that was carried on by the Catholic Church. The floor plan, with a central aisle (nave) flanked by two side aisles, is based on that of ancient Roman basilicas—large halls built to accommodate business and legal meetings. In fact, many of the stones used to build St. Peter’s were scavenged from the ruined law courts of ancient Rome.

On the floor near the central doorway is a round slab of porphyry stone in the maroon color of ancient Roman officialdom. This is the spot where, on Christmas night in A.D. 800, the king of the Franks Image Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Even in the Dark Ages, when Rome was virtually abandoned and visitors reported that the city had more thieves and wolves than decent people, its imperial legacy made it a fitting place to symbolically establish a briefly united Europe.

St. Peter’s was very expensive to build and decorate. The popes financed it by selling “indulgences,” allowing the rich to buy forgiveness for their sins from the Church. This kind of corruption inspired an obscure German monk named Martin Luther to rebel and start the Protestant Reformation.

The ornate, Baroque-style interior decoration—a riot of marble, gold, stucco, mosaics, columns of stone, and pillars of light—was part of the Church’s “Counter” Reformation. Baroque art and architecture served as cheery propaganda, impressing followers with the authority of the Church and giving them a glimpse of the heaven that awaited the faithful.

From Pope to Pope

When a pope dies—or retires—the tiny, peaceful Vatican stirs from its timeless slumber and becomes headline news. Millions of people converge on Vatican City, and hundreds of millions around the world watch raptly on TV.

The deceased pope’s body is displayed in state in front of the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Thousands of pilgrims line up down Via della Conciliazione, waiting for one last look at their pope. On the day of the funeral, hundreds of thousands of mourners, dignitaries, and security personnel gather in St. Peter’s Square. The pope’s coffin is carried out to the square, where a eulogy is given.

Most popes are laid to rest in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica, near the tomb of St. Peter and among shrines to many other popes. Especially popular popes—such as John Paul II or John XXIII—eventually find a place upstairs, inside St. Peter’s itself.


While the previous pope is being laid to rest, 100-plus cardinals, representing Catholics around the globe, descend on Rome to elect a new pope. Once they’ve assembled, the crimson-robed cardinals are stripped of their mobile phones, given a vow of secrecy, and locked inside the Sistine Chapel. This begins the “conclave” (from Latin cum clave, with key). As they cast votes, their used paper ballots are burned in a stove inside the chapel. The smoke rises up and out the tiny chimney, visible to the crowds assembled in St. Peter’s Square. Black smoke means they haven’t yet agreed on a new pope.

Finally, the anxious crowd looks up to see a puff of white smoke emerging from the chapel. The bells in St. Peter’s clock towers ring out gloriously, the crowd erupts in cheers, and Romans watching on TV hail taxis to hurry to the square.

On the balcony outside St. Peter’s, the newly elected pope steps up and raises his hands, as thousands chant “Viva il Papa.” A cardinal introduces him to the crowd, announcing his newly chosen name. “Brothers and sisters,” the cardinal says in several languages, “habemus papam.” “We have a pope.”

✵ Now, walk straight up the center of the nave toward the altar.

Image Michelangelo’s Greek-Cross Church

The plaques on the floor show where other, smaller churches of the world would end if they were placed inside St. Peter’s: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (Londinense), Florence’s Duomo, and so on.

You’ll also walk over circular golden grates. Stop at the second one (at the third pillar from the entrance). Look back at the entrance and realize that if Michelangelo had had his way, this whole long section of the church wouldn’t exist. The nave was extended after his death.


Michelangelo was 71 years old when the pope persuaded him to take over the church project and cap it with a dome. He agreed, intending to put the dome over Donato Bramante’s original Greek-Cross floor plan, with four equal arms. In optimistic Renaissance times, this symmetrical arrangement symbolized perfection—the orderliness of the created world and the goodness of man (who was created in God’s image). But Michelangelo was a Renaissance Man in Counter-Reformation times. The Church, struggling against Protestants and its own corruption, opted for a plan designed to impress the world with its grandeur—the Latin cross of the Crucifixion, with its nave extended to accommodate the grand religious spectacles of the Baroque period.

✵ Continue toward the altar, entering “Michelangelo’s church.” Park yourself in front of the Image statue of St. Andrew to the left of the altar, the guy holding an X-shaped cross. (Note that the entrance to the crypt is usually here; see here.)


Like Andrew, gaze up into the dome, and also like him, gasp. (Never stifle a gasp.)

The Dome

The dome soars higher than a football field on end, 448 feet from the floor of the cathedral to the top of the lantern. It glows with light from its windows, the blue and gold mosaics creating a cool, solemn atmosphere. In this majestic vision of heaven (not painted by Michelangelo), we see (above the windows) Jesus, Mary, and a ring of saints, rings of more angels above them, and, way up in the ozone, God the Father (a blur of blue and red, unless you have binoculars).


When Michelangelo died (1564), he’d completed only the drum of the dome—the circular base up as far as the windows—but the next architects were guided by his designs.

Listen to the hum of visitors echoing through St. Peter’s and reflect on our place in the cosmos: half animal, half angel, stretched between heaven and earth, born to live only a short while, a bubble of foam on a great cresting wave of humanity.

But I digress.

Peter’s Remains

The base of the dome is ringed with a gold banner telling us in massive blue letters why this church is so important. According to Catholics, Peter was selected by Jesus to head the church. The banner in Latin quotes from the Bible where Jesus says to him, “You are Peter (Tu es Petrus) and upon this rock I will build my church, and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18). (Every quote from Jesus to Peter found in the Bible is written out in seven-foot-tall letters that continue around the entire church.)


Peter was the first bishop of Rome. His prestige and that of the city itself made this bishopric more illustrious than all others, and Peter’s authority has supposedly passed in an unbroken chain to each succeeding bishop of Rome—that is, the 260-odd popes that followed.

Under the dome, under the bronze canopy, under the altar, some 23 feet under the marble floor, rest the bones of St. Peter, the “rock” upon which this particular church was built. You can’t see the tomb, but go to the railing and look down into the small, lighted niche below the altar to see a box containing bishops’ shawls—a symbol of how Peter’s authority spread to other churches. Peter’s tomb is just below this box.

Are they really the bones of Jesus’ apostle? According to a papal pronouncement: definitely maybe. The traditional site of his tomb was sealed when Old St. Peter’s was built on it in A.D. 326, and it remained sealed until 1940, when it was opened for archaeological study. Bones were found, dated from the first century, of a robust man who died in old age. His body was wrapped in expensive cloth. A third-century tag artist had graffitied a wall near the tomb with “Peter is here,” indicating that early visitors thought this was Peter’s tomb. Does that mean it’s really Peter? Who am I to disagree with the pope? Definitely maybe.

If you line up the cross on the altar with the dove in the window, you’ll notice that the niche below the cross is just off-center compared with the rest of the church. Why? Because Michelangelo built the church around the traditional location of the tomb, not the actual location—about two feet away—discovered by modern archaeology.

Peter, the “Fisher of Men”

According to the Bible, Peter was a fisherman chosen by Christ to catch sinners instead. This “fisher of men” had human weaknesses that have endeared him to Christians. He was the disciple who tried to walk on water—but failed. In another incident, he impetuously cut off a man’s ear when soldiers came to arrest Jesus. And he even denied knowing Christ, to save his own skin. But Jesus chose him anyway and gave him his nickname—Rock (in Latin: Petrus).

Legends say that Peter came to the wicked city of Rome after Jesus’ death to spread the gospel of love. He may have been imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison near the Roman Forum (see here), and other stories claim he had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way (described on here). Eventually, Peter’s preaching offended the Nero administration. Christ’s fisherman was arrested, crucified upside down, and buried here, where St. Peter’s now stands.

Back in the nave sits a bronze Image statue of Peter under a canopy. This is one of a handful of pieces of art that were in the earlier church. In one hand he holds keys, the symbol of the authority given him by Christ, while with the other hand he blesses us. He’s wearing the toga of a Roman senator. It may be that the original statue was of a senator and that the bushy head and keys were added later to make it Peter. His big right toe has been worn smooth by the lips of pilgrims and foot fetishists. Stand in line and kiss it, or, to avoid foot-and-mouth disease, touch your hand to your lips, then rub the toe. This is simply an act of reverence with no legend attached, though you can make one up if you like.


✵ Circle to the right around the statue of Peter to find another stop that’s popular among pilgrims: the lighted glass niche with the red-robed body of...

Image Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII, whose papacy lasted from 1958 to 1963, is nicknamed “the good pope.” He is best known for initiating the landmark Vatican II Council (1962-1965) that instituted major reforms, bringing the Church into the modern age. The Council allowed Mass to be conducted in the vernacular rather than in Latin. Lay people were invited to participate more in services, Church leadership underwent some healthy self-criticism, and a spirit of ecumenism flourished. Pope John was a populist, referring to people as “brothers and sisters”...a phrase popular today amongst popes. In 2000, during the beatification process (a stop on the way to sainthood), Church authorities checked his body, and it was surprisingly fresh. So they moved it upstairs, put it behind glass, and now old Catholics who remember him fondly enjoy another stop on their St. Peter’s visit. Pope John was canonized in 2014.

We’ll visit the tomb of another beloved pope-turned-saint—John Paul II—near the end of this tour.

Pope Francis I

In 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became Francis I, the Catholic Church’s 266th pope. Signaling a new direction for the Church, his election represents three “firsts”: As the first pope from the Americas, Francis personifies the 80 percent of Catholics who live outside Europe. As the first Jesuit pope—from the religious order known for education—he stands for spreading the faith through teaching. And as the first Francis—named after St. Francis of Assisi—he calls to mind that medieval friar’s efforts to return a corrupt church to simple Christian values of poverty and humility. In addition, Francis is in the unusual position of sharing the world stage with “pope emeritus” Benedict XVI (who decided to retire rather than die in office).

Born in 1936, Francis grew up in Buenos Aires in a family of working-class Italian immigrants. He worked as a chemist and a high-school teacher before entering the priesthood. Ordained a Jesuit in 1969, he eventually rose to become archbishop of Buenos Aires. He first came to the world’s attention in 2005, when he was the runner-up in the election of Pope Benedict. While bishop in Argentina, he worked in the worst of slums and denounced (though some say not loudly enough) Argentina’s bloody dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.


Now a resident of Vatican City, Francis lives simply, staying in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the official papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He reportedly eats leftovers. When people talk about Francis, the word that comes up time and again is “dialogue.” He’s known for listening to every point of view, whether mediating between dictators and union leaders, sitting down with the Orthodox Patriarch, celebrating Rosh Hashanah with Jews, visiting a mosque, or speaking well of gays and atheists. In Argentina, he was often seen sharing mate (the national tea) with people of every stripe. At the Vatican, his management style stresses the collegiality of the cardinals. He speaks a number of languages, including fluent Italian—the language of his parents and of the Vatican. As Francis himself has pointed out, the original Latin word for pope—“pontifex”—literally means “bridge builder.”

But Francis is not a liberal. He strongly defends traditional Catholic beliefs. No one expects major changes under Francis in the Church’s positions on abortion, gay marriage, contraception, or the celibate, male-only priesthood. He inherited a Catholic Church with many problems: financial shenanigans, charges that they’ve protected pedophile priests, and alleged blackmailing of gay priests (as exposed in the “Vatileaks” scandal). And though the Catholic religion is growing worldwide, its home base—Europe—is becoming increasingly secular.

As pope, Francis has made it clear that he wants the Church to focus less on money and power, and more on the poor and the outcast. Francis is skeptical of globalization, worldliness, and unchecked capitalism, with the economic inequality they bring. He’s well aware that many of Rome’s homeless people camp out right by the basilica. (In fact, Francis—making a point to walk the talk—has opened up a service center just off St. Peter’s Square where the local homeless can get a haircut, shower, and use the toilet.) One of his favorite Christian rituals is to literally kneel down before the poor, sick, or imprisoned, and wash their feet. Francis’ personal credo, “Miserando atque elignedo,” focuses on how God shows “mercy”—miserando—and compassion by forgiving sinners and helping the downtrodden.

Image The Main Altar

The main altar (the white marble slab with cross and candlesticks) beneath the dome and canopy is used only when the pope himself says Mass. He sometimes conducts the Sunday morning service when he’s in town, a sight worth seeing. I must admit, though, it’s a little strange being frisked for weapons at the door to the holiest place in Christendom.


The tiny altar would be lost in this enormous church if it weren’t for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seven-story bronze canopy (God’s “four-poster bed”), which “extends” the altar upward and reduces the perceived distance between floor and ceiling. The corkscrew columns echo the marble ones that surrounded the altar/tomb in Old St. Peter’s. Some of the bronze used here was taken and melted down from the ancient Pantheon. On the marble base of the columns are three bees on a shield, the symbol of the Barberini family, who commissioned the work and ordered the raid on the Pantheon.

Starting from the column to the left of the altar, walk clockwise around the canopy. Notice the female faces on the marble bases, about eye level above the bees. Someone in the Barberini family was pregnant during the making of the canopy, so Bernini put the various stages of childbirth on the bases. Continue clockwise to the last base to see how it came out.


Bernini (1598-1680), the Michelangelo of the Baroque era, is the man most responsible for the interior decoration of the church. The altar area was his masterpiece, a “theater” for holy spectacles. Bernini did: 1) the bronze canopy; 2) the dove window in the apse, surrounded by bronze work and statues; 3) the massive statue of lance-bearing St. Longinus (“The hills are alive...”), which became the model for the other three statues in the niches around the main altar; 4) much of the marble floor decoration; and 5) the balconies above the four statues, incorporating some of the actual corkscrew columns from Old St. Peter’s, said to have been looted by the Romans from the Temple of Herod (called “Solomon’s Temple”) in Jerusalem. Bernini, the father of Baroque, gave an impressive unity to an amazing variety of pillars, windows, statues, chapels, and aisles.

✵ Approach the apse, the front area with the golden dove window.

The Apse

Bernini’s Image dove window shines above the smaller front altar used for everyday services. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a six-foot-high dove, pours sunlight onto the faithful through the alabaster windows, turning into artificial rays of gold and reflecting off swirling gold clouds, angels, and winged babies. During a service, real sunlight passes through real clouds of incense, mingling with Bernini’s sculpture. This is the epitome of Baroque—an ornate, mixed-media work designed to overwhelm the viewer. (By the way, as the basilica faces west, rather than the standard east, late in the day the light of the setting sun pours through the alabaster window.)


Beneath the dove is the centerpiece of this structure, the so-called Throne of St. Peter, an oak chair built in medieval times for a king. Subsequently, it was encrusted with tradition and encased in bronze by Bernini as a symbol of papal authority. Statues of four early Church Fathers support the chair, a symbol of how bishops should support the pope in troubled times—like the Counter-Reformation.

Remember that St. Peter’s is a church, not a museum. In the apse, Mass is said daily for pilgrims, tourists, and Roman citizens alike (for Mass times, see “Church Services” on here). Wooden confessional booths are available in the north transept (to the right of the main altar) for Catholics to tell their sins to a listening ear and receive forgiveness and peace of mind (daily, usually mornings and late afternoons). The faithful renew their faith, and the faithless gain inspiration. Look at the light streaming through the windows, turn and gaze up into the dome, and quietly contemplate your deity (or lack thereof).

✵ To the left of the main altar is the south transept. It may be roped off for worship, but anyone can step past the guard if you say you’re there “for prayer.” At the far end, left side, find the dark “painting” of St. Peter crucified upside down.

Image Peter’s Crucifixion Site

This marks the exact spot (according to tradition) where Peter was killed 1,900 years ago. Peter had come to the world’s greatest city to preach Jesus’ message of love to the pagan, often hostile Romans. During the reign of Emperor Nero, he was arrested and brought to Nero’s Circus so all of Rome could witness his execution. When the authorities told Peter he was to be crucified just like his Lord, Peter said, essentially, “I’m not worthy” and insisted they nail him on the cross upside down.

The Romans were actually quite tolerant of other religions, but they required their conquered peoples to worship the Roman emperor as a god. For most religions, this was no problem, but monotheistic Christians refused to worship the emperor even when they were burned alive, crucified, or thrown to the lions. Their bravery, optimism in suffering, and message of love struck a chord among slaves and members of the lower classes. The religion started by a poor carpenter grew, despite the occasional persecution of minorities by fanatical emperors. In three short centuries, Christianity went from a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to the official religion of the world’s greatest empire.


This and all the other “paintings” in the church are actually mosaic copies made from thousands of colored chips the size of your little fingernail. Because smoke and humidity would damage real paintings, since about 1600 church officials have replaced the paintings with mosaics (a.k.a. the “art of eternity”) produced by the Vatican Mosaic Studio. Around the corner on the right (heading back toward the central nave), pause at the mosaic copy of Raphael’s epic painting of Image The Transfiguration. The original is now beautifully displayed in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums.

✵ Back near the entrance of the church, in the far corner, behind bulletproof glass, is the sculpture everyone has come to see, the...

Bernini Blitz

Nowhere is there such a conglomeration of works by the flamboyant genius who remade this church—and the city—in the Baroque style. Here’s your scavenger-hunt list. You have 20 minutes. Go!


St. Peter’s Square: design and statues


Constantine equestrian relief (right end of atrium)


Decoration (stucco, gold leaf, marble, etc.) of side aisles (flanking nave)


Tabernacle (the temple-like receptacle) inside Blessed Sacrament Chapel


Much of the marble floor throughout church


Bronze canopy (baldacchino) over main altar


St. Longinus statue (holding a lance) near main altar


Balconies (above each of the four statues ringing main altar) with corkscrew columns


Dove window, bronze sunburst, angels, “Throne,” and Church Fathers (in apse)


Tomb of Pope Urban VIII (far end of apse, right side)


Tomb of Pope Alexander VII (between apse and left transept, over a doorway, with the gold skeleton smothered in jasper poured like maple syrup)


Image Pietà

Michelangelo was 24 years old when he completed this pietà—a representation of Mary with the body of Christ taken from the cross. It was Michelangelo’s first major commission (by the French ambassador to the Vatican), done for Holy Year 1500.

In Italian, pietà means “pity.” Michelangelo, with his total mastery of the real world, captures the sadness of the moment. Mary cradles her crucified son in her lap. Christ’s lifeless right arm drooping down lets us know how heavy this corpse is. His smooth skin is accented by the rough folds of Mary’s robe. Mary tilts her head down, looking at her dead son with sad tenderness. Her left hand turns upward, asking, “How could they do this to you?”


Michelangelo didn’t think of sculpting as creating a figure, but as simply freeing the God-made figure from the prison of marble around it. He’d attack a project like this with an inspired passion, chipping away to find what God had placed inside.

The bunched-up shoulder and rigor-mortis legs show that Michelangelo learned well from his studies of cadavers. But realistic as this work is, its true power lies in the subtle “unreal” features. Life-size Christ looks childlike compared with larger-than-life Mary, which accentuates the impression of Mary enfolding Jesus in her maternal love. Mary—the mother of a 33-year-old man—looks like a teenager (she would have been about 50), emphasizing how she was the eternally youthful “handmaiden” of the Lord, always serving him, even at this moment of supreme sacrifice. She accepts God’s will, even if it means giving up her son.

The statue is a solid pyramid of maternal tenderness. Yet within this, Christ’s body tilts diagonally down to the right and Mary’s hem flows with it. Subconsciously, we feel the weight of this dead God sliding from her lap to the ground.

In 1972, a madman with a hammer entered St. Peter’s and began hacking away at the Pietà. The damage was repaired, but that’s why there’s now a shield of bulletproof glass in front of the sculpture.

This is Michelangelo’s only signed work. The story goes that he overheard some pilgrims praising his finished Pietà, but attributing it to a second-rate sculptor from a lesser city. He was so enraged that he grabbed his chisel and chipped “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence did this” in the ribbon running down Mary’s chest.

On your right (covered in gray concrete with a gold cross) is the back side of the Holy Door. It will next be opened on December 8, 2015, the dawn of the next Jubilee Year (see here). If there’s a prayer inside you, ask that St. Peter’s will no longer need security checks or bulletproof glass when this door is next opened.

✵ In the chapel to the left is the...

Image Tomb of Pope John Paul II

John Paul II (1920-2005) was one of the most beloved popes of recent times. During his papacy (1978-2005), he was the highly visible face of the Catholic Church as it labored to stay relevant in an increasingly secular world. The first non-Italian pope in four centuries, he traveled widely. He was the first pope to visit a mosque and a synagogue. He oversaw the fall of communism in his native Poland. He survived an assassination attempt, and he publicly endured his slow decline from Parkinson’s disease with great stoicism.

When John Paul II died in 2005, hundreds of thousands lined up outside the church, waiting up to 24 hours to pay their respects. At his funeral in St. Peter’s Square, the crowd began chanting “Santo subito, santo subito!” insisting he be made a saint (santo) right now (subito). They didn’t have to wait long—he was sainted in April 2014, just nine years after his death...light speed by Vatican standards.

The tomb has no monument—just a simple stone slab with the inscription Ioannes Paulus PP. II (1920-2005). St. John Paul II lies beneath a painting of the steadfast St. Sebastian—the martyr who calmly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Romans. Sebastian was John Paul’s favorite saint. There’s also a plaque in the floor on the opposite side of the church honoring the man. Of 260-plus popes, two have been given the title “Great.” That elite group may soon grow by 50 percent, as there’s talk of calling him “John Paul the Great.”



Crypt (Grotte / Tombe)

Visitors can go down to the foundations of Old St. Peter’s, containing tombs of popes and memorial chapels. The crypt entrance is usually beside the statue of St. Andrew, to the left of the main altar. Stairs lead you down to the floor level of the previous church, where you’ll pass the sepulcher of Peter. This lighted niche with an icon is not Peter’s actual tomb, but part of a shrine that stands atop Peter’s tomb. Nearby is the chapel where Pope John Paul II was buried before being moved upstairs in 2011. Next are the tombs of past popes, including the traditionalist Paul VI (1897-1978), who suffered reluctantly through the church’s modernization. Finally, you can see a few column fragments from Old St. Peter’s (a.k.a. “Basilica Costantiniana”). Continue your one-way visit until it spills you out, usually near the checkroom.

The walk through the crypt is free and quick (15 minutes)—but you won’t see St. Peter’s original grave unless you take a Scavi (excavations) tour (see “Tours” on here).

Image Treasury Museum (Museo-Tesoro)

The museum, located on the left side of the nave near the altar, contains the room-size tomb of Sixtus IV by Antonio Pollaiuolo, a big pair of Roman pincers used to torture Christians, an original corkscrew column from Old St. Peter’s, and assorted jewels, papal robes, and golden reliquaries—a marked contrast to the poverty of early Christians.

Holy Year 2016

Every 25 years the pope declares a Holy Year, when the faithful from around the world are encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Rome. In 2000, the last Holy—or Jubilee—Year, some 16 million people went through the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica seeking divine forgiveness. This tradition has been going on for the last 700 years.

On rare occasions the pope declares a special Holy Year, and 2016 is one of those. Pope Francis surprised everyone when he designated it the “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” Holy Year. Francis, who emphasizes taking care of the poor, is mindful of the economic hardship a trip to Rome would put on many Catholics. So, he is granting the same special indulgence (forgiveness) that comes with a Holy Year trip to the Vatican to people who simply visit the cathedral in their home district. Still, Rome is readying for a big year, and you should anticipate extra crowds at the Vatican during 2016.

Image Blessed Sacrament Chapel (Capella di Santissimo Sacramento)

You’re welcome to step through the metalwork gates into this oasis of peace reserved for prayer and meditation. Mass is sometimes said here (see “Church Services,” earlier). It’s located on the right-hand side of the church, about midway to the altar.

Up to the Dome (Cupola)

A good way to finish a visit to St. Peter’s is to go up to the dome for the best view of Rome anywhere. The Image entrance to the dome is along the right (north) side of the church, but the line begins to form out front, at the church’s right door (as you face the church). Look for cupola signs.


There are two levels: the rooftop of the church and the very top of the dome. Climb (for €5) or take an elevator (€7) to the first level, on the church roof just above the facade. From the roof, you have a commanding view of St. Peter’s Square, the statues on the colonnade, Rome across the Tiber in front of you, and the dome itself—almost terrifying in its nearness—looming behind you. (Depending on the routing when you visit, you might see this view from the roof only after descending from the dome.)

From the roof, you can also go inside the gallery ringing the interior of the dome and look down inside the church. Notice the dusty top of Bernini’s seven-story-tall canopy far below. Study the mosaics up close—and those huge letters! It’s worth the elevator ride for this view alone.


From this level, if you’re energetic, continue all the way up to the top of the dome. The staircase actually winds between the outer shell and the inner one. It’s a sweaty, crowded, claustrophobic 15-minute, 323-step climb, but worth it. The view from the summit is great, the fresh air even better. Admire the arms of Bernini’s colonnade encircling St. Peter’s Square. Find the big, white Victor Emmanuel Monument, with the two statues on top; and the Pantheon, with its large, light, shallow dome. The large rectangular building to the left of the obelisk is the Vatican Museums complex, stuffed with art. Survey the Vatican grounds, with its mini-train system and lush gardens. Look down into the square at the tiny pilgrims buzzing like electrons around the nucleus of Catholicism.