Seventeen Popes and One Hundred Years: The Construction of St. Peter??™s Basilica
Seventeen Popes and One Hundred Years: The Construction of St. Peter’s Basilica Megan Malone Since 64 CE, Rome has been a center for the Christian church. St. Peter, believed by many to have special authority given by Christ, was martyred and buried there. From then on, Rome has held religious significance, for the Christian church. His death and burial were memorialized by the construction of churches. Most significant of these buildings, St. Peter’s Basilica, is found in modern day Vatican City. The Roman Emperor Constantine built the original basilica in the fourth century.
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Twelve hundred ears after Constantine, the papacy demolished and entirely rebuilt the church. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica exemplifies the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through its display of High Renaissance architecture, the humanistic attitudes pervading European culture, and the instability of the Roman Catholic Church. The Constantinian, or Old St. Peter’s, Basilica was constructed c. 354 BCE. Having recently gained control of the land where the Vatican now sits, Constantine desired to display his power and wealth by building something magnificent.
Constantine chose the grave of St. Peter for his exhibition. Old St. Peter’s Basilica marked the alleged site of his burial, and developed into the most important building in the Christian church. Pilgrimage to this shrine became the goal of many Christians throughout the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. In 1420, shortly after the Great Schism, Pope Martin V returned the papacy to Rome. He noticed the disarray that had lasting. By 1455, the structure was falling apart. Pope Nicholas V desired to fully rebuild the edifice, but he died before completing any plans.
It was not until 1506, with the papacy of Julius II, that actual progress came about. Pope Julius II decided to demolish Old St. Peter’s and erect a completely new structure. Due to the venerated status of the old building, this idea was highly contested. However, the pope was confident in the accomplishments of the Renaissance architects. He believed that this new building should exemplify the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Funded mainly by indulgences, Julius continued with his plans and constructed the “greatest building in Christendom. l Bramante, a Renaissance architect, was the first to undertake the design of the basilica. Already well known for his construction of II Tempietto, built on the supposed site of St. Peter’s crucifixion, he was Julius II’s first choice for the new basilica. In order to portray the Renaissance focus on perfection and emulate Early Christian tradition, he devised a central plan for the building. The new structure would be in the shape of a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length and an enormous dome in the center. Unfortunately, Pope Julius died in 1513, and Bramante in 1514.
This left the new pope, Leo X, the responsibility of finding a new architect. The Italian painter, Raphael, became the next to work on this great undertaking. In 1 514, he began to redesign the ideas for the basilica. Eliminating the Greek cross and central plan, the Latin cross, with its three short arms and one long, became the new idea. This provided the church with an extended nave and allowed a larger congregation to gather. Raphael continued his work on St. Peter’s until his death in 1520. After his death, construction on the building came to a halt, due largely to turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church.
The Protestant Reformation took the forefront in the pope’s mind, and challenged the collection of indulgences. Difficulties arose concerning financing the basilica’s completion; indulgences largely paid for its atronage. A succession of ineffective architects followed until the commissioning of Michelangelo in 1546. When Michelangelo was 71 years old, Pope Paul Ill enlisted him as the head architect for the project. He used a similar approach to Bramante. The Greek cross and central plan came back into play. However, Michelangelo simplified the first design to create a single, unified space covered by a hemispherical dome.
This dome is the superlative architectural achievement of his career. Using double Corinthian columns as a unifying agent, he integrated the dome with the rest of the building. The Corinthian order provides harmony throughout the structure, beginning at the ground and continuing to the top of the dome. He remained faithful to the High Renaissance architectural ideals of simplicity, harmony, and depth. However, Michelangelo died in 1564, before seeing the basilica to completion. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was not finished until 1590 by Giacomo della Porta. He kept Michelangelds basic design, but gave the dome a taller profile.
After its completion, the basilica saw many further alterations. During the Counter- Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church placed an emphasis on congregational orship. In 1606, Pope Paul V hired Carlo Moderno to adjust the current structure to nave, transforming the building into the Latin cross plan; causing it to resemble the Old St. Peter’s. He also gave the building a new fapde, completing the current basilica. Gianlorenzo Bernini made the final addition to the structure. Bernini worked on statues for the decoration of the dome until 1657 when he began his construction of the Piazza San Pietro, or, St.
Peter’s Square. Designed to exemplify the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica, this tremendous elliptical space further portrayed the humanist ideals of the High Renaissance. The great colonnade was “like a huge set of arms extended to embrace the faithful as they approach the principal church of Western Christendom. “2 This space allowed for greater numbers of people to gather near the church, and it perfectly accentuated the grandeur of the previous architect’s endeavors. It took seventeen popes and over one hundred years to complete St. Peter’s Basilica, but it was well worth the wait.
Lord Byron once visited the church, and its splendor so struck him that he wrote several poems discussing it. Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage holds the following work: “Then pause, and be nlighten’d; there is more In such a survey than the sating gaze Of wonder pleased, or awe which would adore The worship of the place, or the mere praise Of art and its great masters, who could raise What former time, nor skill, nor thought could plan; The fountain of sublimity displays Its depth, and thence may draw the mind of man Its golden sands, and learn what great conceptions can. 3 Although experiencing several tumultuous periods, including the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Thirty Years War, the Roman Catholic Church was able to produce one of the most astounding architectural works ever seen. The architects adhered strictly to High Renaissance conventions to create a majestic classical building. None of this would have been possible without the humanist philosophy that the people living during the Renaissance could improve on everything done by the ancients.
As Lord Byron said, there is much more to St. Peter’s Basilica than to marvel at its beauty, it also provides intriguing insight into the century of its construction. Bannister, C. Turpin. “The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter at Rome. ” JOURNAL OF THE SOCIETY OF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIANS volume 27, no. 1 (1968): 3-32. Campbell, Ian. “The New St Peter’s: Basilica or Temple?. ” Oxford Art Journal Volume 4, no. 1 (1981): 3-8. Gordon, George.
The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron: In Two Volumes. Philadelphia: Moses Thomas, 1813 Matthews, Roy T. , F. DeWitt Platt, and F. X. Thomas Noble. The Western Humanities Volume II: The Renaissance To The Present. 7th Edition ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011. Spielvogel, Jackson J.. Western civilization. 8th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012. Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael Watt Cothren. Art History. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/ Prentice Hall, 2011.