St. Peter’s Cathedral – also referred to as St. Peter’s Basilica – hardly needs an introduction. It’s Rome’s most celebrated church and in a city stuffed full of them, that’s saying a lot. While it may not be the mother church of the Catholic Church or even the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, the cathedral is widely regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines in the world. Located in the heart of Vatican City, it’s also the world’s largest church, topped by the world’s tallest dome. Its sumptuous interiors house some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, from Michelangelo to Bernini too. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting facts about St. Peter’s Cathedral that might surprise you.
Interesting facts about St. Peter’s Cathedral
1. It’s not the original
It might look like St. Peter’s Cathedral has been around forever, but an even older church stood here before this one. Emperor Constantine, the Roman Empire’s first Christian emperor, built the church on the spot where St. Peter was thought to be buried (more on that below). A church stood here for well over 1,000 years, from the 4th century until the 16th century. Today’s building has the same foundations as the original structure, making it over 1,700 years old.
By the early Renaissance, the church was looking rather run-down so Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of the old site and a new Renaissance-style Basilica in its place.
2. There are 91 popes buried under the Basilica
Not all popes are buried here, but most are – including John Paul II who was buried here in 2005. The popes are buried in the Papal Grottoes, located below the current basilica but above the original Constantinian church. These grottoes also include a handful of chapels dedicated to different saints, royals and popes. There’s a range of different popes buried here, including Urban VI, Innocent XIII, Paul VI and the corrupt Bonficate VIII. Royals including the Queen Christina of Sweden and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus, have been laid to rest here too.
There’s even an empty tomb for Benedict XVI, the current pope. You can wander around the grottoes with a ticket to the basilica. As well as the shrines and chapels, there are hundreds of sculptures, frescoes and funerary monuments to see too.
3. They pinched materials from other celebrated sights to build it
Bernini’s famous four-poser, solid-bronze canopy – or the Baldacchino – is one of the church’s most famous works of art. To create it, Bernini used over 100,000 pounds (90,718,474 kg ) of bronze to create the extravagant feature. Unsurprisingly, getting your hands on that amount of bronze is quite difficult. Pope Urban VIII took an interesting approach to this problem. He instructed workers to pull the bronze from the Pantheon‘s porch and melt it down for the cathedral.
We know Pope Urban VIII ordered the work, because there are hundreds of tiny bumblebees carved into the bronze – his papal emblem.
4. Those paintings aren’t actually… paintings
This might surprise anyone who’s ever seen a picture of the inside of St. Peter’s Cathedral, given the floor to ceiling frescoes adorning the landmark. But those frescoes are actually mosaics, made from tiny tessarae – tiny fragments of glass. They replaced the original paintings with glass in the early 19th century. That’s why there aren’t any restrictions on taking photographs inside with flash.
5. It took five architects to build it…
… and 120 years to finish it. The final flourish, a fountain designed by Bernini, was installed in 1675. Bramante was appointed as the original architect in 1506, but he was fairly swiftly replaced by Raphael in 1515. Then Raphael died five years later (on the job), so Michelangelo stepped in. Already a formidable artist and sculptor, he took up architecture at the age of 40. Pope Paul III appointed the self-taught architect for the job in 1546; Michelangelo was 71. Carlo and Stefano Moderno father and son then designed the building’s facade, and Bernini updated it. We have him to thank for the impressive Via della Conciliazione and the Piazza San Pietro too.
6. St. Peter might be buried beneath it
We’ve already mentioned that Emperor Constantine built the original church on the spot where St. Peter’s bones were thought to lie. Peter, along with Paul, is revered by Christians as the greatest early missionaries; he travelled with the Gospel from Damascus to Rome. At this time, Christians were seen as a radical cult and were being persecuted across the city. He tried to flee, but Christ appeared to him and instructed him to return and face his fate. He was crucified by Emperor Nero in 64 AD.
Archaeologists found bones in 1953 after a decade of excavations which were confirmed to be a man in his 60s, along with remnants of purple thread. Back then, only holy or royal individuals would be wrapped in purple. Then in 2011, after the first scientific tests on the bones, the Vatican announced that they believed they had the evidence to confirm “to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains on the Apostle Paul.
7. One of the popes is on show
Most of the popes lie in hidden tombs, but Innocent XI is one notable exception. Known for his exemplary moral conscience and crackdown on corruption, he’s one of the most important popes of the 17th century. He’s also buried in full view for all to see in the church. You can’t see any bone, since his face is covered by a mask, but you can still make out the body. He’s also fully clothed, lying below a painting depicting the Transfiguration by Raphael.