What’s old is actually new

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 3, 2021

The current St. Peter’s Basilica is not the first to hold that name

Few things are more familiar to Catholics than St. Peter’s Basilica, with its huge dome and the surrounding Vatican Square.

However, this great church is not the original St. Peter’s.

That honor goes to a fourth-century basilica consecrated in 366 A.D. It lasted until being torn down in 1505 to allow for construction of the present church.

A pilgrim touches the foot of the statue of St. Peter on a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in this file photo. (CNS photo | L’Osservatore Romano)

The Roman emperor Constantine started the construction of this first basilica honoring St. Peter around the year 326 A.D. It was completed about 35 years later and served for 1,200 years.

Once Constantine had allowed the free practice of Christianity in the empire, he began to sponsor the faith in many ways. One of the first was a gift of what is officially “The Patriarchal Basilica of the Most Holy Savior and St. John the Baptist at the Lateran” in 313 A.D. It was dedicated on Nov. 9, 324, and remains St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral. It had originally been the home palace of the Laterani family, who seem to have fallen from imperial favor.

Near the circus

Constantine then turned to the site of St. Peter’s grave near what had been the Circus of Nero. Many Christians had been martyred there, including Peter. The place was an active cemetery at the time of Constantine and contained graves from centuries back. While it was against Roman law to bury anyone within the city, Constantine could override that rule. And he did, extending the city beyond the site of the new church.

Constantine’s church followed the basilica style of Roman governmental buildings — more long than wide and tall. It had no dome, as the present basilica does. However, it was between 350 and 400 feet long, and built in the shape of a Latin cross with a tall, gabled roof. It contained five main aisles and was famous for its many columns — more than 100 of them, said to be styled after the columns in Solomon’s Temple.

The church also held many mosaics, including one of Constantine handing the church to Jesus. Not many of these mosaics survived intact. However, many fragments of them did. One of the more famous is the eighth-century “Adoration of the Magi” fragment that today resides in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a minor basilica in Rome.

‘Garden of Paradise’

The entryway to Old St. Peter’s was famous for its “Garden of Paradise,” an atrium filled with plants and fountains. It was a later addition to the original church.

While Rome remained the seat of Christianity, the imperial capital moved to the East under Constantine, who founded Constantinople — now Istanbul. This left the care of the churches of Rome to the church itself, which was costly.

Age and attack took their toll. Old St. Peter’s was heavily damaged in 846, when Saracens invaded Rome. This part of Rome was easy to invade, since it lay outside the third-century (B.C.) Aurelian Walls of the city. Pope Leo IV, in response to the assault, ordered the building of what became known as the “Leonine Wall” with its fortified towers to protect the area around the basilica.

However, the fact that the church was built on a sloping hillside leading to the River Tiber continued to wear the structure down, as did age. It was eventually found that the basilica was leaning off-center.

The deterioration was hastened during the time of the Avignon Papacy, when seven popes ruled — not from Rome — but from France. This was a complicated political problem that probably started when Charlemagne was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. in Old St. Peter’s. Tensions followed between various European rulers, including the pope. These culminated in 1303 with the death of Pope Boniface VIII while he was held prisoner by King Philip IV of France. A schism in the church followed, which led to several true popes and antipopes.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome and attempted repairs to the aging basilica. Eventually, replacing the church became a topic of consideration. Pope Nicholas V (1447–55) commissioned two architects to produce a plan for a new structure. Nothing happened, however, until Pope Julius II (1503-1513) decided to tear the whole basilica down. He held a competition for architects and artists to design the new basilica and Donato Bramante won.

In 1506, Pope Julius laid the first stone of the present basilica, which was finally completed and dedicated on Nov. 18, 1626. While Bramante is known as the architect of the basilica, many others followed him, including Michelangelo who designed the famous dome.

The ‘Red Wheel’

Many items from the original St. Peter’s remain, including the “Red Wheel” — the only one of several red porphyry circles that adorned its floor. Today, the Red Wheel lies near the entry doors. It marks the spot where Charlemagne knelt to be crowned emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800.

Other survivors of the old church include the Chair of St. Peter, now over the Altar of the Chair, the filarete gate and, of course, the tomb of St. Peter below the main altar. The tomb has remained a constant through the centuries. What is believed to be the site of Peter’s crucifixion in Nero’s circus stands beneath the Altar of St. Joseph to the left of the main altar.

Another silent witness to St. Peter that comes from long before either basilica was built is St. Peter’s Needle (the Vatican Obelisk). This red granite obelisk stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square. It came to Rome in 40 A.D. from Heliopolis, Egypt, brought by Caligula to place in his circus (which later became Nero’s).

Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk moved in 1586, as the new St. Peter’s basilica was being built. The moving work started in 1585 and took until Sept. 10. 1586. The final lifting of the obelisk into place was done in 52 stages, all on one day, under the direction of the architect Domenico Fontana. The obelisk is 134.5 feet tall and weighs 350 tons.

A final and famous piece from Old St. Peter’s is the bronze statue of the Prince of the Apostles, called “St. Peter Enthroned.” While some believe the statue dates to the fourth century, consensus today is that it was made in the 13th century by artist Arnolfo di Cambrio (d. 1310). Most people will recognize this giant, dark-toned statue because of St. Peter’s right toe. The digit has been worn down by the touch of many pilgrims, seeking the blessing of the holy fisherman for Christ.


Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; The Encyclopedia of Art History; brittanica.com; stpetersbasilica.info; vatican.va; Michigan State University at msu.edu; sacred-destinations.com; voxmundi.eu; walksinrome.com;Obeliscus Vaticanus” at uchicago.edu; “Amidst the Crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Stands Ancient Egypt” in Street Archaeology; romartlover.it; and legendaryrome.blogspot.com.

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