Saint Peter’s Basilica

Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Numerous architects (see below), Saint Peter’s Basilica (Basilica Sancti Petri in Latin) begun 1506 completed 1626, Vatican City.

Architectural contributors include:

  • Donato Bramante whose design won Julius II’s competition
  • Antonio da Sangallo, a student of Bramante, designed the Pauline Chapel
  • Fra Giocondo strengthened the foundation
  • Raphael worked with Fra Giocondo, his redesigned building plan was not executed
  • Michelangelo designed the dome, crossing, and exterior excluding the nave and facade
  • Giacomo della Porta, designed the cupola
  • Carlo Maderno, extended Michelangelo’s plan adding a nave and grand facade
  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the piazza, the Cathedra Petri, and the Baldacchino

Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante to build a new basilica. This involved demolishing the Old St Peter’s Basilica that had been erected by Constantine in the fourth century. The church was old, and in disrepair. But tearing it down was a bold manouever that gives us a sense of the enormous ambition of Pope Julius II, both for the papacy as well as for himself.

The site is a very holy one—it is (according to the Church) the site of the burial of St. Peter (remember he was the first Pope). Bramante did the first plan for the new church. He proposed an enormous centrally planned church in the shape of a Greek cross enclosed within a square with an enormous dome over the center, and smaller domes and half-domes radiating out. When Bramante died, Raphael took over as chief architect for St. Peter’s, and when Raphael died, Michelangelo took over. Both Michelangelo and Raphael made substantial changes to Bramante’s original plan. Nevertheless, the experience of being inside St. Peter’s is awe-inspiring.

The two basic types of Church are the basilica and the central plan.

The basilica, with its long axis that focuses attention on the altar, has been the most popular type of church plan because of its practicality.

The other popular type of church plan is a central plan that is usually based either on the shape of a circle, or on a Greek cross (a cross with equal arms). These are called central plans because the measurements are all equidistant from a center. This type of Church, influenced by Classical architecture (think of the Pantheon), was very popular among High Renaissance architects. Besides the influence of ancient Roman architecture, the circle had spiritual associations. The circle, which has no beginning and no end, symbolized the perfection and eternal nature of God. For some thinkers in antiquity and the Renaissance the universe itself was constructed in the form of concentric circles with the sun, moon and stars moving in circular orbits around the earth.