Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dedication of the Basilicas of Ss. Peter and Paul

In the older calendar today is the commemoration of the dedication of the basilicas of St. Paul Outside the Wall and of St. Peter's on Vatican Hill.

The Papal Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls
(photo from Ferrell's Travel Blog)
Layout of St. Paul's (from wikipedia)
St. Paul's looks much as it did centuries ago, but the structure itself is not original. A fire in the nineteenth century caused the roof and much of the structure to implode, only to be rebuilt. The layout is distinctly old-Roman. The aisles are long and straight, a larger aisle in the middle with smaller aisles on the side for the congregants to stand during the consecration. The altar is upon an elevated sanctuary and opposite a chair from which the Pope may pontificate.

The ancient Roman Christians venerated this site as the place of St. Paul's beheading and burial. As a Roman citizen the great apostle to the gentiles was spared the agony of crucifixion. His head now rests in the Roman Cathedral, but his body still resides in a tomb beneath the main altar of the basilica.

St. Paul outside the Wall remains the only Papal basilica I have not visited, so I will refrain from commenting any further.

On the other hand, I spent two days in st. Peter's and have quite a bit to say, but people tend to like pictures as much as words, so I will make this into a visual post very shortly.

The original St. Peter's basilica was begun by Emperor Constantine over a shrine on Vatican Hill here Christians had venerated what tradition tells us was the place of St. Peter's burial since the first century—St. Peter's bones were not actually discovered until the reign of Pius XII. The basilica was completed in 360, but constantly remodeled. Originally the tomb of the first Pope of Rome was in the apse of the basilica, behind the altar. Tidal flow of pilgrims necessitated switching these two. A more elaborate throne for the Pop was constructed, as consecration of the Bishop of Rome became more usual at St. Peter's at the cost of the Lateran Cathedral, papal tombs, and a series of ninth century invasions by Saracens. One such remodel, around the time of Leo IV, led to an altar embroidered in precious stones, ambos and doors of silver, and mosaics taken from the finest Eastern churches. Like most Roman basilicas, there was a group of canons attached to the church and a cloister preceding the entrance.

St. Peter's basilica around the year 1450
(taken from wikipedia)

A cross-section of the old basilica
Neglect during the Avignon papacy left the Roman basilicas in ruins, St. Peter's included. The roof of the basilica and its re-enforcement were both wood, which had long rotted. Instability eventually caused the walls and foundations to crack and, although many maintained the basilica was still usable, the decision was made to replace it in 1505 by Pope Julius II. The decision rightly sent Romans into uproar, as the old church had been used by the City and by saints for twelve centuries.

Inside the old St. Peter's notice the elevated altar surrounded by the twisting
arches. St. Peter's tomb was below. Above is the fatal ceiling.
(image taken from
The fate of much of the original basilica is unknown. Elements of the portico survived, as did the Papal tombs. St. Peter's tomb received its own chapel, named for the Pope who built it. The high altar was retained and en-capsuled in the new altar. The altar sanctuary had been walled from the nave by winding pillars, supposedly taken from the Temple of Solomon. They were destroyed, although their design is retained in the new basilica.

Another long view inside the old basilica
Below is a reconstruction of how the sanctuary would have looked during the Middle Ages. Note the wall and doors, much like an iconostasis, betwixt the sanctuary and nave. The semi-circular benches around the Papal throne were for the canons of the basilica, the seven deacons of Rome, the archpriest, and the cardinals.

From New Liturgical Movement
Note the side altars, where the Roman low Mass as we know it was formed. Also, the entrance to St. Peter's tomb from doors under the stairs.

Below is a video from the same source showing a detailed view of the old basilica. I always found the old pine cone funny. It is a pagan bronze work dating to the first century and which resided in the Vatican square for no reason other than its pre-dating the basilica.

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