There are five main doors into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. One of them is called “the Door of Death” or “Door of the Dead.”
The door is fairly recent, even though the basilica itself was dedicated in 1626. The present Door of Death, to the left of the entrance facade, dates to 1964. Three of the five main doors are the work of contemporary artists. The oldest door – dating to 1445 and the Old St. Peter’s Basilica — is called the Filarette Door and is the central door. (The name comes from a nickname for its sculptor Antonio di Pietro Averlino, from a Greek word meaning “lover of excellence”). The door on the far right is the Holy Door that is usually bricked shut and only used for Holy and Jubilee years.
The Door of Death is the work of Giacomo Manzù and was commissioned by St. John XXIII. The door was completed after the pope’s death on June 3, 1963. Two images of Pope John — receiving the bishops at Vatican II and praying before the cross of St. Peter — can be found on the door. (Manzù also is the artist who made a bronze death mask of the late pope.)
While the door depicts images related to death, its name comes from the fact that it was the door used to carry coffins out of the basilica after a funeral Mass.
The door, made of bronze and divided into 10 panels, is meant to explore death in the human experience. The doors’ handles are eucharistic symbols: a vine on one side and a sheaf of wheat on the other.
The upper panels depict the crucifixion — the death of Jesus — and the passing of Mary from this life to eternity.
The door depicts both violent death — that of Abel — and gentle death — that of St. Joseph. The death of the first pope, St. Peter, is also on the door as is the death of St. Stephen, the first martyr. The deaths of John XXIII and Pope Gregory VII (who died in exile) are there, as is an eerie image of death from space (a modern take on the theme) and the death of a mother as her young son watches helplessly through a window.
Six creatures, all subject to death and some who are symbols of death, are seen below the panels: a blackbird, a dormouse, a hedgehog, an owl, a tortoise and a raven. For example, ravens are carrion birds who often gather at the site of battles. And owls, both in Europe and the Americas, are considered to herald impending deaths.
Art historian Peter Selz noted that the crucifixion panel on the Door of Death has some interesting characteristics. “Christ,” Selz said, “is depicted without the stigmata (nails in his hands and feet), as a young man hung by a rope from the crossbar. Standing at the right of the cross, in the place usually given to Mary, we see Eve weeping, her head nestled on her arm. The long rope extends to the bottom of the Cross, where its end appears like the head of a serpent, symbolically relating the Crucifixion to ‘the Fall of Man.’”
Many people found the door disturbing when it was first unveiled, but it has been noted that it was meant to reflect the times. The world was in the midst of the Cold War and still recovering from World War II. The artist also meant for viewers to ponder the fragility of life and human tendencies toward violence. Not a bad image to reflect upon in many times of human history.
Manzù signed his work, with an image of his own hand, pressed into the bronze. A side note of interest is that both Manzù and Pope John (Angelo Roncalli) grew up in Bergamo, Italy, though Manzù was nearly 40 years younger than the future pope.
Sources: stpeterbasilica.info; walksinrome.com; mytimes.com; thecatholicnewsarchive.org; the Catholic Research Resources Alliance at catholicresearch.org and ncregister.com