Piazza San Pietro
The story of the basilica starts with the martyrdom of Peter. It is built on the site of the Circus of Caligula and Nero, where the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome was crucified in the year 64 or 67. Peter was buried in the cemetery next to the Circus. In the second half of the 2nd century, a monument was erected over St Peter's tomb. Eusebius of Caesarea, Church historian and Bishop at Constantine's time, referred to it as a trophy symbolizing the Apostle's victorious faith. Part of this memorial is still visible in the crypt (see below). It was originallty 1,80 metres wide and 2,30 metres high.
The first church here was built about 324 -329 over the tomb of St Peter, on the orders of Emperor Constantine. Preparation of the area, which was difficult to build on, was started earlier, in 319. It was consecrated by Pope Sylvester in 326, and it is thought that construction was completed in 349. To get an idea of how this church looked, the best place to go is San Paolo fuori le mura. There are some differences, but you will be able to understand how a vast basilica with 5 naves functions as a church.
The 3rd century memorial to the Apostle remained the centre of attention. It was set in a rectangular, marble-coated prism which was visible from the nave. Through an opening in the pavement, objects such as strips of cloth could be lowered down to the monument to make relics. The monument was surmounted by a bronze canopy supported by four twisted columns.
In front of the basilica was an atrium, with a fountain in the shape of a pine cone. The faзade had rich mosaic decoration showing symbols of Christ and the Apostles. Inside the basilica, the nave was about 91 metres long. It ended in a triumphal arch, with mosaic decoration showing Constantine donating the basilica. Beyond that, the apse has a mosaic depiction of Christ with Peter and Paul. On the walls of the nave, there were frescoes showing scenes from the Bible, as well as portraits of the popes.
Under Pope St Leo the Great (440-461), the faзade and nave were decorated with mosaics and frescoes. The sanctuary was altered by Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604). By raising it 1-1.5 metres, he made it possible to build the first semi-circular crypt. This made it easier for pilgrims to venerate the tomb of the Apostle, as they could now approach it by one staircase and leave by another. The high altar was moved to the confessio, exactly above the tomb.
Pope Leo IV (847-855) built walls around the area of the basilica, to protect it from raiding Saracens. It was therefore given the name 'the Leonine City'.
The sanctuary was raised further under Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124), to protect and preserve respect for the shrine of St Peter.
In 1377, when the papacy returned from Avignon, the Vatican was made the official residence of the Pope.
The basilica was in a bad shape by the time of the papacy of Nicholas V (1447-1455). He asked Bernardo Rossellino to design a new church. Work started 1452, but at the death of Nicholas V in 1455 it was suspended for nearly 50 years, with the exception of some activity during the papacy of Paul II. By then, they had not gotten further than demolishing the old basilica. It was Pope Julius II (1503-1513) who finally started work on the new basilica. Donato Bramante was given the job of designing it. He planned a Greek cross plan, with a large central dome. At his death in 1511, Raphael, Frea Giocondo da Verona and Antonio da Sangallo were commissioned to continue. As more space was needed, a longer nave was added, creating a Latin cross plan rather than a Greek cross. As the last of the three new architects, da Sangallo, died in 1546, Michelangelo was asked to complete the church. He attempted to return to Bramante's design, and it is mainly in the area of the apse that his work can be seen. He also designed the main dome, but died before it was completed. Vignola followed, and then in 1573 Giacomo della Porta. The dome was completed by Domenico Fontana in 1589, and inaugurated in 1593.
The faзade was the last major part to be completed, in 1606-1614. It was designed by Carlo Maderno, who also added three new chapels on each side of the nave.
In 1629, while working on the bronze canopy over the high altar, Bernini was appointed as the new architect of the basilica. All the major parts had been completed, but there was still enough work to occupy him for another half century. His work includes the Piazza San Pietro and much of the interior decoration.
This is the world's largest church, with a floor area of 21,477 m2. The external perimeter is 1,778 metres, it is 186.35 metres long and 97.50 metres wide. The main nave is 40 metres high, and the dome 132.50 metres. There are 44 altars (the Constantinian basilica had 120), 11 domes, 778 columns, 395 statues, 135 mosaic panels.
The colonnade is by Bernini. Between the colonnades and the obelisk, there are round stones set in the pavement. If you stand on one of these, you can appreciate the perfection of the structures. The four rows of columns create three galleries. The middle one is wider than the side galleries, and has at times been used for Corpus Christi procession.
The water in the fountains is from Lake Bracciano, brought here by the aqueduct built by Pope Paul V (1605-1621). The one on the right is the original designed by Maderno. Later, the colonnades made it necessary to make a copy to balance it. You can see the the older (1612) has the arms of Pope Paul V, while the copy (1675) has the arms of Pope Clement X.
The obelisk was brought from Egypt by Emperor Caligula. It is said to be the only obelisk in Rome that did not fall during the Middle Ages. It was placed in the Circus of Caligula and Nero, at a spot marked by a bronze plaque in the Piazza of the Roman Protomartyrs just outside the sacristy of the basilica. This spot is inside the Vatican City, so unless you can get permission to enter, you won't be able to see it up close. If you want to see the approximate location anyway, look through the entrance to the Vatican City on the left side of the basilica, just past the bookshop. You'll then see the piazza and the sacristy. When the new basilica was built and the Piazza San Pietro laid out, the obelisk was moved to its present location. It was re-erected by Domenico Fontana on 10th September 1586. 900 men and 50 horses where used to raise the obelisk, which is more than 37 metres high, to its upright position. To ensure that no one lost their consentration, Pope Sixtus V had ordered complete silence during the operation. However, a sailor who was watching noticed that the cables were heating up under the enourmous strain, and cried out: "Water on the ropes!". By daring to break the Pope's order, he saved the obelisk, and he was rewarded with a choice of some privilege. He chose that the palm leaves used in the basilica in papal ceremonies on Palm Sunday should be supplied from his farm for as long as it was in his family's ownership. The reliquary on top of the obelisk contains a piece of the True Cross.
The faзade was built 1606-1614 by Carlo Maderno. The steps leading to it are by Bernini, and the statues of Sts Peter and Paul flanking the steps are from the 19th century. The bell-towers were added a little later, due to difficulties with the foundations. Work on them stopped in 1621, at the death of Pope Paul V. It was resumed some fifteen years later, and completed shortly after.
The archway on the left side is known as the Arch of the Bells - look up and you will see why. It leads into the Vatican State - pemission is needed to pass through it.
In the centre is the Loggia of Benedictions, where the Holy Father appears on special occasions. The announcement of the election of a new Pope is made from this loggia.
A complete renovation was carried out for the Jubilee Year 2000. The original paint was analyzed, and the faзade was, to the distress of many, repainted.
The portico, or front hall, is often used for ceremonies. For instance, during the Jubilee Year 2000, an evening prayer service for pilgrims has been held here every night.
Standing with your back to the main door, you can look up to see the Navicella by Giotto, made in the 14th century. The mosaic depicts the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee, when Peter was summoned across the water to meet Christ. The mosaic has been moved and restored several times, to the extent that this should be considered to be a 17th century copy of a lost original. After the new basilica had been built, it was first placed inside the nave, above the entrance.
This is also a good place to look down at the piazza and the colonnades by Bernini.
On the extremes are equestrian statues. On the right, Emperor Constantine by Bernini, made in 1675; on the left Charlemagne by Agostino Comacchini, made in 1725. The statue of Charlemagne was modelled on the one of Marcus Aurelius now standing on the Capitol, at the time thought to be a portrait of Constantine.
The central bronze doors, by Antonio Filarete, were completed in 1455. They commemorate Pope Eugenius IV's attempt to reunite the Churches of the East and West. The main panels depict (from the top): Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary; Sts Peter and Paul; and the martyrdom of Sts Peter and Paul. The background is impressive - Filarete managed to show a realistic Roman setting at a time when the study of antiquity was a lot less advanced than it is today. Between the main panels are scenes from the Council of Florence, where representatives of the East and West met. There are also, surprisingly, subjects from pagan mythology.
To the left is a modern bronze door, with animal motifs.
To the far right is the Porta Santa, the Holy Door. It is normally walled up from the inside, and is only open during Holy Years - last during the Jubilee Year 2000. The Holy Doors found in some cathedrals symbolize the treshold that has to be crossed in order to achieve salvation (John 10, 9). It is opened by the Holy Father during a solemn ceremony, and closed at the end of the Holy Years. During that time, thousands of pilgrims enter the basilica through that door to obtain indulgences. The two stone plaques above the door are in memory of the Jubilee of 1975 and the extraordinary Jubilee of Redemption in 1983. The Holy Door was decorated for the 1950 Jubilee by Vico Consorti with 16 bronze panels.
The church was planned by Michelangelo with a Greek cross plan. This was changed by Maderno, for two reasons. Firstly, a Latin cross plan was favoured at the time, and secondly there was need for a larger church, and by extending the nave this could easily be accomplished. According to the original design, the entrance should have been about where the last arch before the altar stands. Maderno completed the nave in 1615, and decoration was added from the 1640's.
In the floor, there are many inscriptions in bronze letters. Each of them show the size of one of the great churches of the world, making it very clear to you that this is the largest of them all. The names are in Latin, but you should be able to figure out most of them even if you don't know that language.
In the floor between the Chapel of the Pietа and the baptistry, near the entrance, is a porphyry roundel that survives from the old basilica. It is claimed that Charlemagne knelt on this roundel when he was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, a ritual that was repeated by 21 successive monarchs.
There are two holy water stoups at the entrance. The one on the right side is by Cornacchini.
Along the nave are statues of the founder of religious Orders.
The dome was first designed by Michelangelo, and completed by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana in 1589-1593. It was originally intended to be decorated with mosaics for the 1600 Jubilee, but it could not be finished in time and plans were altered. The mosaics were designed by Cavaliere d'Arpino.
Written at the bottom of the dome are written the words Christ spoke to Peter: TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORUM.
The chapel was originally named Cappella del Crocifisso, Chapel of the Crucifix, but has been renamed because of the Pietа.
Michaelangelo's Pietа, one of the most famous works of art in the world, is now placed safely behind bullet-proof glass after it was attacked by a mentally unbalanced man in 1971. Many complain that they have to see it at such a distance; don't worry too much about that as you get a much better sense of the proportions this way. The Pietа depicts the moment when the body Christ was placed on his mother's knees after the Crucifixion. It shows Mary's grief, but also her great strength.
Michelangelo was only 22 years old when he started working on the Pietа. The sculpture was commissioned by the Cardinal Legate of Charles VIII to the Vatican, and was intended for the Chapel of St Petronilla also known as the Chapel of the Frankish Kings. According to the contract, the work was to take a year to finish. After it had been placed in the church, the artist overheard guides telling pilgrims that other sculptors had made it. One night, he came into the basilica and signed it, chiseling Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence made this on the band that crosses Mary's breast - probably the world's most indiscrete signature.
On the right-hans wall of the chapel is a bronze medallion depiction St Bridget of Sweden. It is a copy of a marble original by Domenico Guidi, which can be found in the Casa de Brigida. It was placed here in 1991, when the 600th anniversary of her canonization was celebrated.
A word of warning - you will find miniature models of the Pietа everywhere in Rome. If you really want to buy one, lok carefully at it, because most of them are very badly executed. Try looking for one in a good religious art shop - it might cost more than buying one from a street vendor, but you'll be much more happy with it in years to come.
The Chapel of the Relics, entered under the memorial to Leo XII, has a wooden crucific attributed to Pietro Cavallini.
The cenotaph to Christine of Sweden (died 1689), also by this door, is by Carlo Fontana, Jean-Baptiste Thйodon and Il Lorenzetto. It was made 1697-1702. Christine was the daughter of King Gustav Adolph of Sweden, who fought for the Protestants in the Thirty Years War, and it was considered a victory for the Catholic faith when she converted c. 1655. The relief depicts the ceremony in the Hofkirche, Innsbruck in 1655, when she converted to Catholicism. Her tomb is in the crypt.
In this chapel, you will find a memorial to Pope Pius XI (bronze statue of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), and the tomb of Blessed Pope Innocent XI (1676-1689), beatified in 1956. His mortal remains can be seen beneath the altar.
The mosaic over the altar is a copy of a fresco by Domenichino, the Martyrdom of St Sebastian, now in Santa Maria degli Angeli.
This is not a place for sightseeing, but for silent prayer. If you wish to see it, but don't intend to take a few moments to contemplate over why this magnificent church was built in the first place, please move silently and show respect for the Blessed Sacrament, the truly present Body of Christ. I suggest that you sit down to look at the 17th century painting of the Holy Trinity above the altar, by Pietro da Cortona. This is one of the few paintings still present in the church, as the others have been replaced by mosaics. The gates to the chapel are by Francesco Borromini, and the tabernacle was made by Bernini in 1674.
Outside the chapel is the tomb of Countess Matilde, designed by Bernini and made by his pupils 1633-1637.
To the right of the chapel are two more columns from the shrine of St Peter in the Constantinian basilica.
Originally designed by Michelangelo, who died before it was finished, it was completed in Giacomo della Porta in 1583, this chapel has an 11th century painting of Our Lady of Good Help, or Madonna of Soccour, enshrined. The painting was also venerated in the old basilica.
Beneath the altar, which is dedicated to St Basil, lies the mortal remains of St Josaphat, dressed in vestments of the Byzantine rite. At times, Mass is celebrated according to the Byzantine Catholic rite at this altar. The mosaic over the altar is a copy of a painting by Pierre-Hubert Subleyras. It replaced the first painting of St Basil, which was made by Girolamo Muziano.
Over the altar of St Jerome is a mosaic copy of a painting by Domenichino, The Last Communion of St Jerome. The original can be seen in the Pinoteca Vaticana (Vatican Museums). It was originally painted for San Girolamo della Caritа in 1614. Relics of St Jerome are preserved in the altar.
The tomb of Pope Benedict XIV (1758-1769) is also in this area. It was made by Pietro Bracci, and uncovered on 4 April 1795.
Above the main altar is a mosaic copy from 1756 of Guido Reni's painting of St Michael the Archangel. It was painted in 1635, and the original can be seen in Santa Maria della Concezione.
The mosaic of St Petronilla is a copy of a painting by Guercino. The original is in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (Vatican Museums).
At the far end of the basilica, you can see Bernini's gloria from 1657-1666, with golden light coming through an alabaster window. Above the window is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and below it a chair, known as the Cathedra Petri, or Chair of Peter. The chair is ancient Roman in its framework, but it was been heavily restored. The wood-carvings represent a pagan myth, the Labours of Hercules. Tradition claims that this was the episcopal throne of St Peter, but this has been rejected. It was probably made by pagan craftsmen and later converted to lithurgical use. Most likely, it belonged to King Charles the Bald in the 9th century, and was given to the Church by him. Supporting the chair are statues of two Western Doctors of the Church, Sts Augustine and Ambrose, and two Eastern, Sts John Chrysostom and Athanasius.
The tombs to the right of the raised area are those of Pope Urban VIII by Bernini, made 1627-1647 and to Pope Paul III by Guglielmo della Porta, made 1551-1575. The latter had a statue of th enthroned pope above, and statues of two female figures representing Prudence and Justice in front of the sarcophagus. It is possible that the female statues were based on drawings by Michelangelo. The one of Prudence is said to be a portrait of the pope's mother, Giovannella Caetani da Sermoneta, and the other a portrait of his sister-in-law Giulia Farnese. Two more statues were made, as the monument was intended to be free-standing. They represent Abundance and Tenderness. Since the monument was placed in a niche, they could not be used, but they can be seen in the Palazzao Farnese.
The altar at the far end of the aisle is the Altar of St Leo. Five popes named Leo are buried in the corner. The first Leo, St Leo the Great, is buried beneath the altar. He is the one who stopped Atilla the Hun from sacking Rome by buying him off with pepper, at the time a valuable luxury item. The event is depicted in the relief above the altar, made 1646-1650 by Alessandro Algardi.
A strange name for an altar; it refers to a story from the Acts of the Apostles, depicted in the mosaic above the altar. The first Christians shared all their property, and none of the claimed private ownership of any possessions (Acts 4, 32). A couple that had converted, named Ananias and Sapphira, agreed to sell their property and give everything to the Christian community. But they kept part of the proceeds. St Peter reproached Ananias for telling a lie to the Holy Spirit. Ananias fell down dead. His wife came about three hours later, and she, too, lied about the money. Peter asked her why she wished to test the Spirit of the Lord, and said that the men who had carried her husband's body out would carry her too, at which she dropped dead at his feet. (Acts, 5, 1-10). In the background, you can see a depiction of the men carrying Ananias' body out for burial.
The mosaic is a copy of a painting by Cristoforo Roncalli. The original is in Santa Maria degli Angeli.
A mosaic reproduction of Raphael's Transfiguration can be found in this area. He died before the original painting could be completed. Only the upper part, Christ with the Prophets and Apostles, are by Raphael, while the rest is skillfully painted in his style by his pupils. You can see the original painting in the Vatican Art Gallery (part of the Vatican Museums).
Most of the paintings in the basilica have been replaced by mosaics made in Vatican workshops. The reason is that they are much more durable than paintings. The paintings that have been replaced have been moved to the Vatican Museums, where there are better conditions for preservation.
By the baptistry is the memorial to the house of Stuart, the British Royal house that was exiled. The Old Pretender, called "James III", Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Cardinal Duke of York, called "Henry IX", are buried in the cyrpt below.
In the corner near the Transfiguration is the altar of Pope St Gregory. His relics were moved here in 1607, andlie in a sarcophagus visible through the grille. The mosaic above the altar depicts imperial messengers from Constantinople asking for relics from martyrs. Gregory offered them sand from the Colosseum, and they felt that this was disrespectful toward the emperor. The Pope then squeezed the bag containing the sand, and the blood of martyrs ran from it. The original painting is by Andrea Sacchi, and was painted in 1625-1627. Also in this chapel is the neo-classical tomb of Pope Pius VII, made in 1823 by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.
Relics of St John Chrysostom are preserved in the chapel.
The chapel is named after Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605)
The Choir Chapel is at the point where Michaelangelo's Renaissance design ends and Domenico Fontana's Baroque extension begins. In the Choir Chapel, by Maderno, Mass is celebrated daily. The paiting of the Blessed Virgin behind the altar has a crown that was added in 1904, on the 50th anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception.
The chapel is named after the subject in the mosaic above the altar, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. It is a copy of an original from 1640 by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, now in Santa Maria degli Angeli.
The next chapel contains the tomb of Pope St Pius X (1903-1914) and the monument to Pope John XXIII by Emilio Greco.
Ouside the chapel is the memorial to Maria Clementina Sobieski, grand-daughter of King John III Sobieski of Poland. It was made by Filippo Barigione and decorated by Pietro Bracci. It was completed in 1742.
Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) is buried outside the chapel. The tomb was made by Antonio del Pollaiulo, and was completed in 1498. It was placed here in 1621. It has two statues of the pope; an effigy on the sarcophagus, and an enthroned statue above. On the latter, the pope's right hand is raised in blessing, while the left is holding a copy of the lance with which Longinus pierced Our Lord's side on the cross. The lance had been brought to Rome during his papacy. The inscription mentioned the discorvery of a new world during his reign; this refers to the discovery of the sea route to India.
The last chapel contains the baptismal font. According to an ancient practice, many churches have the baptismal font near the entrance rather than near the high altar. This symbolizes baptism as an entry into the Church. The font is a reused cover from an ancient porphyry sarcophagus. It is said to have been used as the tomb of Emperor Otto II for a long period. The mosaic in the baptistry shows the Baptism of Christ.
The statues above the entrance are by Andrea Bolgi, and were his last works here before he left for Naples in 1650. The one on the left represents the Church, while the one of the right represents Divine Justice.
Close to the pillar with the statue of Longinus is an ancient bronze statue of St Peter. One of the feet is of silver, and you can clearly see that it has been touched and kissed by pilgrims for many centuries. The date is uncertain. It might be a pagan statue that was adapted, or an original work made before the end of the Classical style. Recent research claim that it was made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century. No general consensus can be reached in the matter.
It is known that the custom of kissing the foot of the statue was encouraged by Pope Constantine (708-715), but it may have been a different statue he was speaking about.
The other altar in the chapel enshrines a medieval Madonna painted on a column, which gives the chapel its appellation. Underneath the altar, Popes St Leo II, St Leo III and Leo IV are buried. Pope Leo XII is buried in the centre.
Just outside the chapel, towards the left transept, is the tomb of Pope Alexander VII, by Bernini. The bronze figure is a personification of Death.
The crypt can be reached through an entrance at the foot of one of the great pillars near this chapel. The sign can sometimes be hard to see, but there is usually a line of people waiting to enter, so it's usually easy to locate the entrance anyway.
At the base of the four great pillars supporting the dome are statues and important relics. The statues, ordered by Pope Urban VIII in 1643, depict St Helen (with a piece of the True Cross), St Veronica (with the veil used to wipe Christ's face), St Longinus the Centurion (with the head of the lance used to pierce Christ's side) and St Andrew, Peter's brother (with the relic of his skull; this has now been returned to the Greek Orthodox Church at Patras, Greece).
The statue of Longinus is by Bernini, and was made 1631-1638. It is known that he made several models, but only a miniature has been preserved.
St Andrew is by Francesco Duquesnoy, made 1629-1640. He holds a cross, the instrument of his martyrdom.
Francesco Mochi made the statue of St Veronica in the years 1631-1640.
The final statue, of St Helena, was made by Andrea Bolgi.
Returning to the nave from the south transept, you can see an entrance leading to the sacristy and Treasury. The Treasury is a museum where you can see ancient, medieval and more recent ecclesistical art, vestments and lithurgical vessels. There is an entrance fee - it's worth every lire in my opinion.
One of the first things you see along the way to the Treasury is a polychrome statue of St Andrew, dating from the 15th century. Near the statue is a tablet listing all the popes that were buried in the church. You will not be able to find all the tombs, as some were buried in the open-air cemetery near the old basilica, and many were moved to other churches when the old basilica was demolished.
The first thing you will see in the Treasury is one of the twisted columns from St Peter's shrine in the Constantinian basilica. Tradition claims that they came from Solomon's temple. This is certainly not the case.
A plaster copy of Michelangelo's Pietа can be seen here. It marks the place where he made it. You'll get closer to this than the original, but plaster is a poor substitute for marble. Don't expect much from it.
A gilded rooster is from the old basilica. It was placed on top of the campanile in the 9th century.
The dalmatic of Charlemagne is a magnificent work, and you should study it closely to see the details. The tradition that it belonged to Charlemagne is wrong. It has been dated to about 900, a century after Charlemagne's coronation in the old basilica, and is a Byzantine work.
The bronze tomb of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) is by Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
The sarcophagus of Junius Bassius is a wonderful example of early Christian sculpture. The main relief shows a youthful Christ with the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The sacristy is from the 18th century. The domed structure has 8 columns from the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli.
The monument to Pope Clement XIII (1758-1759) is by Antonio Canova, and was uncovered on 4 April 1795.. It shows the Holy Father kneeling in prayer. Two marble lions are crouched on the steps to the monument, which rests on a Doric style base. On the left is a personification of Religion, and on the right one of Death. The monument represents a change in style; there is a strong contrast between this tomb and that of Benedict XIV by Pietro Bracci, even though Canova and Bracci were contemporary.
The tomb of St Peter was the focal point of the first basilica.The top of the tomb was used as an altar.
In the present basilica, the high altar stands high above the tomb. You can't miss the confessio - it's an open crypt at the foot of the high altar. The balustrade is an important place for prayer. When bishops come to see the Holy Father, they come here to pray. 99 oil lamps burn night and day around the crypt.
In the crypt, a grille protects the tomb with the ancient monument. Over the tomb, a pallium rests, awaiting its dispatch to a new archbishop. This is a symbol of the Apostolic Succession, the continuity from the Apostles, and especially from St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, to the bishops of our time.
The high altar is a papal altar. This means that, with a few exceptions, the Holy Father must be the main celebrant if Mass is to be said from it.
The bronze baldachino, the largest bronze monument in the world with its 37,000 kilos, is by Bernini. The architect was only 25 years old when he was commissioned to do the work by Pope Urban VII. It was built 1624-1633. It was officially consecrated in 1626, seven years before it was completed. The bronze came from the portico of the Pantheon. The design reflects the surroundings of the tomb of the Apostle in the old basilica. You can see the original 4th century twisted columns flanking the niches in the piers supporting the dome.
Near one of the pillars supporting the dome is the entrance to the crypt. As mentioned above, it is usually easy to find the line of people waiting to get in, although the sign is often hard to see.
The walls of the narrow passage leading around the apse are filled with fragments from the old basilica. At the middle, there are chapels in both sides. In one is the tomb of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), and on the other side is the Clementianian Chapel, named after Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605). Through a grille here, you can see part of the shrine over the tomb of St Peter that was raised here by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It was discovered during excavations ordered by Pope Pius XII between 1940 and 1950. The part that you see is a grey marble wall with a vertical band of porphyry.
There are also other chapel along the passage, such as the Chapel of St Columbanus of Ireland and several dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under various appellations. The passageway will take you to the main crypt.
In the main crypt, the chapel of Our Lady on the right-hand side has a 15th century relief of the Madonna over the altar. The sarcophagus in the chapel is from the 4th century, and the relief depicts the Adoration of the Magi. For those fascinated with details: This is the earliest known depiction of this subject where the camels are included.
Blessed Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) is buried here, even though he had asked to be buried at San Giovanni in Laterano. Between his tomb and that of Innocent IX (1591) is the sarcophagus of Queen Christine of Sweden. Also buried here are Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) and Pope John Paul I (1978).
As you leave through a corridor, you pass the Chapel of St Stephen and the Saints of Hungary. As you leave, you will see large fragments of the Constantinian basilica.