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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous Page 3

Basilica of Saint Peter (Part 3)

Description of the Basilica

As may be seen in the accompanying plan, the four principal divisions of the basilica extend from the dome and are connected with each other by passages behind the dome piers. To the right and the left of the nave lie the smaller and lower aisles, the right of which is bordered by four lateral chapels, the left by three chapels and the passage to the roof. The general decoration consists of coloured marble incrustations, stucco figures, rich gilding, mosaic decoration, and marble figures on the pilasters, ceiling, and walls. The paneling of the pavement in geometric figures is of coloured marble after the designs of Giacomo della Porta and Bernini. The extremely long sweep of the nave is closed by the precious bronze baldachino 95 feet high, which Urban VI caused to be erected by Bernini in 1633. Beneath it is the Confession of Saint Peter, where the body of the Prince of Apostles reposes. No chairs or pews obstruct the view; the eye roves freely over the glittering surface of the marble pavement, where there is room for thousands of people.

The centre of the entire structure is the tomb of Saint Peter. Very interesting also are the high altar in the tribune, enclosing the chair of the Prince of Apostles, and the mighty slab of porphyry upon which the German emperors were formerly crowned. The magnificent holy water basins to the right and to the left, well known from numerous illustrations, are supported by gigantic putti. The barrel vaulting reposes in a beautiful curve upon the pillars and the arches connecting them. Proceeding forwards we also perceive the marble reliefs of many popes on the piers while many of the pier niches contain heroic statues of the founders of the orders, a decoration which extends also over the transepts and the nave of the tribune. At the fourth pier to the right is a very important sitting statue of Saint Peter, which has been erroneously ascribed to the thirteenth century, but in truth dates from the fourth or fifth. This is no adaptation of another statue, but was intended to be a statue of the Prince of the Apostles. In the left transept the confessionals of the penitentiaries of Saint Peter's reveal in the most beautiful manner the unity of the Faith, by offering the opportunity for confession in the most important civilized tongues of the world. Facing the Confession there stand obliquely before the dome piers the colossal marble statues of Saints Longinus, Helena, Veronica, and Andrew. From the gallery above the statue of Saint Helena the so-called great relics are displayed several times during the year. The most important of these is a large fragment of the True Cross. Above the four galleries of the dome the four Evangelists are depicted in magnificent mosaics after the designs of Cavaliere d'Arpino. In the frieze above stand the proud Latin inscription, the letters of which are six feet high: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and I will give thee the keys of Heaven."

In the tribune of the left transept are three altars of which the middle one is particularly noteworthy because, in the first place, the tomb of the immortal composer Pierluigi da Palestrina lies before it; secondly, because the bodies of the two Apostles Simeon and Jude Thaddeus repose in a stone sarcophagus beneath the altar; and thirdly, because, as the altarpiece of Guido Reni records, the altar marks the spot in the circus of Nero where the cross stood upon which Saint Peter breathed his last. The right transept has attained a special importance in most recent ecclesiastical history because in 1870 the Vatican Council held its sessions here until dispersed by the march of the crowned revolution upon Rome. Returning to the entrance we find in the first lateral chapel of the right aisle the place made famous by Michelangelo's Pietà (1498). Beside it in the chapel of Saint Nicholas is the treasury of the relics of Saint Peter, then follows the chapel of Saint Sebastian, and finally the roomy chapel of the Sacrament. Among the art treasures here is the tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, a thoroughly simple and impressive bronze monument by Antonio Pollajuolo. From the multitude of sepulchral monuments which adorn the right transept, those of Pope Leo XII, of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, the powerful friend of Pope Gregory VII, and of Pope Gregory XIII, the reformer of the calendar, deserve special mention. Against the dome pier, directly in front of us, stands an altar with the Communion of Saint Jerome after Domenichino. The passage around the dome to the right is called the Gregorian chapel, because it was decorated under Pope Gregory XIII after the designs of Michelangelo. Next to the monument of Pope Gregory XVI is the altar of the Madonna dell Soccorso, whose picture is from the ancient church of Saint Peter. Under the altarpiece reposes the body of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and adjoining it is the colossal tomb of Pope Benedict XIV.

In the opposite passage of the dome pier are Canova's masterpiece, the monument of Pope Clement XIII, and the altarpiece after Guido Reni, representing the Archangel Michael. In the same division on the left side of the church, the monument of Pope Alexander VIII gleams in the distance, and under the altar of the Madonna della Colonna, in an early Christian sarcophagus the mortal remains of Saints Leo II, Leo III, and Leo IV repose. The altar of Saint Leo I is surmounted by the colossal marble relief by Algardi, the Retreat of Attila from Rome, the proportions of which seem too large, even for the Basilica of Saint Peter. Farther on is the monument of Pope Alexander VII, and opposite this is the only oil-painted altarpiece — one by Vareni — in Saint Peter's. All the remaining altarpieces within the church are of mosaic. Passing through the left transept we approach the passage around the fourth dome pier, where on the right, under the monument of Pope Pius VIII, is the entrance to the sacristy, and directly in front, under the monument of Pope Pius VII by Thorwaldsen, is the stairway to the gallery of the singers in the choir chapel. Here the left transept begins, the first lateral chapel of which is used for the prayers of the canons, while the last serves as a baptistery. Adjoining the choir chapel beyond the entrance, at a height of fifteen feet above the pavement, is an enclosed niche in which each deceased pope is interred until his body can be taken to the sepulchre definitively assigned for it. At the present time the body of Pope Leo XIII still reposes here, although his sepulchre in the Lateran has long been finished. The uncertainty of conditions at Rome has rendered it inadvisable as yet to undertake the removal of the body. On the tomb of Pope Leo XI our attention is attracted by an excellent marble relief representing King Henry IV of France abjuring Protestantism. Of similar importance is another relief here upon the monument of Pope Innocent XI, relating to the raising of the Turkish siege of Vienna by John Sobieski, King of Poland. Among the most beautiful funeral monuments of the entire basilica is that of Pope Innocent VIII by Antonio and Pietro Pollajuolo. Adjoining these are the two important tombs of Pope Urban VIII by Bernini and Pope Paul III by Guglielmo della Porta.

Sacre Grotte Vaticane is the name applied to the extended chambers under the pavement of Saint Peter's. They are distinguished as the old and the new crypts. The former lie principally under the nave, and are 59 feet wide and 147.6 feet long. They represent the pavement of the old Basilica of Saint Peter. Numerous graves of popes and emperors, which were in the Basilica of Constantine, are here, so that the low and extended place, 11.4 feet in height, is of the greatest historic interest. Among many others are the graves of the popes: Nicholas I, Gregory V (a German), Adrian IV (an Englishman), Boniface VIII, Nicholas V, Paul II, Alexander VI, and the Emperor Otto II. The heart of Pope Pius IX also reposes here in the simple urn. The new crypts extend about the tomb of the Apostle and lie under the dome. Adjoining the horseshoe-shaped passage are a number of chapels in which very remarkable antiquities and works of art from the old basilica are preserved. In the middle of the passage just mentioned is the most magnificent of all the early Christian sarcophagi, that of Junius Bassus, to which Waal has dedicated a detailed and richly illustrated monograph, sympathetic in treatment. Two altars are placed here in the closest possible proximity to the sarcophagus in which the body of Saint Peter reposes. Admission to the crypts and to Holy Mass at the altar of the Confession which was formerly very difficult, especially to women, is now easy to obtain.

The Ascent of the Dome

It was the former custom to ascend an easy stairway to the roof of the church, but now a spacious elevator carries visitors to the heights. From the roof, which is enlivened with many small cupolas and a few guards' houses, there is a fine panorama and a view of the Eternal City. The great dome has a circumference of about one hundred paces, and if one wishes to mount higher, a stairway between the inner and outer casing of the dome, 308.3 feet in height, leads into the lantern. Entering the external gallery of the lantern, the beholder is astonished by the view that greets the eye. It looks down into the gardens of the Vatican Palace, in which the people walking about seem like dwarfs. The panorama of the city unfolds itself in plastic forms. To the left tower the Sabine mountains; and beyond the extensive sun-bathed Campagna are the beautiful Alban hills with their highest peak, Monte Cavo. On the slope of this chain lie the attractive suburban towns Frascati, Marino, Albano etc., and on the right gleams a silver streak — the sea. Encircling the gallery towards the west, the Vatican gardens lie beneath us, rich and varied in plan, although not artistically laid out. The entire panorama is one of greatest interest.

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