A message from Father Nick 59

St Peter’s (2) – an archaeology of faith

In last week’s picture of Old St Peter’s, Constantine’s building of the fourth century, an ancient obelisk stands just to the right of the basilica. Brought back from Alexandria, this obelisk had been placed on the central spine of Nero’s Circus on the Vatican Hill (sometimes known as Caligula’s Circus and shaped like the Circus Maximus or Piazza Navona).

We believe that St Peter was put to death in Nero’s Circus, and it is quite possible that the obelisk was the last earthly thing he saw. Today it stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square, facing directly the “new” basilica with which we are so familiar. And still, deep beneath the high altar of our present St Peter’s lies the grave of Peter himself, a simple grave surrounded by a number of other interments. However grand the building, his remains will always ground the church above it.

But there are other factors in the life of churches too: the effects of time and decay on buildings, and the new possibilities that come with expansion. As Stanley Luff puts it, writing of the present, very different, basilica, “St Peter’s, as architecture, is a masterpiece of the age of renaissance and discovery – discovery of the New World, of Science; a rebirth of the classical learning and art of Greece and Rome.” Popes too have reacted to the human story.

1453 saw the fall of Constantinople and the rise of the printing press. 1492 saw the fall of Granada, last Muslim stronghold in Spain, and Columbus’ journey to America. Meanwhile, as we have seen, the church and city of Rome had lost a great deal of its apostolic lustre.

Even so, who would think – who would dare – to demolish such a hugely significant building as Constantine’s basilica? In the turmoil of a world which was becoming modern, one man did seize his moment. Giuliano Della Rovere, an arch-foe of the Borgia family, became Pope Julius II (1503-1513). He was a warrior pope, who led armies into battle and was accused of copying his namesake, Julius Caesar. Like Michelangelo, Pope Julius had the special Roman quality of “terribilita”. Rough in manner and utterly determined in his aims, he would even strike the artists who worked for him.        

In 1505, Julius took the decision to demolish old St Peter’s. He would undertake to build a replacement basilica, to promote the physical and moral restructuring of the Church. On 18th April, 1506, he laid the cornerstone of new St Peter’s. This building would incorporate a world of new ideas.

Julius’ decisive act was the beginning of an unimaginably long and costly journey, and it would have far-reaching consequences for the Church. Work on the basilica would continue for over a century (the building would not be consecrated until 18th November 1626). During that time, a succession of popes and some of the greatest artists who have ever lived would be involved in shaping it – often in competition with each other. Colleagues or rivals, they enhanced its splendour and produced a powerful symbol for the world…                                                                                                                   tbc.