The front entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is an enormous piazza framed by two long, curving colonnades -- a design that symbolizes the arms of the Roman Catholic Church reaching out to embrace the faithful. The piazza can hold some 300,000 people with room to spare.
From there the crowds enter the basilica, whose sumptuously decorated interior sprawls under a towering dome designed by Michelangelo. The huge edifice, the worldwide center of the Roman Catholic faith, was erected on what is believed to be the site of the tomb of Saint Peter, replacing a ruined basilica built by Constantine in the fourth century. Work on the new building began in 1506 and continued for well over a century.
The view from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica reveals thewelcoming "arms" of the
piazza below, and an unparalleled vista of Rome. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
To prove that this is the "world's biggest church," the nave is laid with gilded bronze markers to indicate the lengths of other cathedrals. The interior extends 615 feet, with 11 chapels and 45 altars.
At the center of the church a canopy of gilded bronze, resting atop 66-foot-high spiraling columns, shelters the high altar where only the Pope may celebrate mass. Bernini designed the canopy -- a curlicued Baroque extravaganza.
A highlight among the basilica's artistic treasures, Michelangelo's Pietà is a heartbreakingly expressive portrayal of Mary with the lifeless body of Jesus draped across her lap. Michelangelo sculpted the marble statue when he was just 25 years old, and it was the only piece he ever signed.
In the nearby Vatican Palace, the Sistine Chapel displays one of the world's most famous artworks -- the Biblical ceiling frescoes that took Michelangelo four years to complete. On the chapel's altar wall at the end of the building, Michelangelo created the masterful Last Judgment, depicting souls of the dead rising to meet God. The expansive theme resonates perfectly with the scale and purpose of St. Peter's.
Considering himself a sculptor, Michelangelo viewed painting the Sistine Chapel
ceiling as a chore. But Pope Julius II pressed him into service to create the
frescoes, which cover over 1,000 square yards.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.