Rome – The famous statue of St. Peter

Well, this view of the statue is most satisfactory! Nothing appears to prevent us from touching it and our eyes seem fairly to look around it.

The figure is made of bronze, and, as you see, it is seated in a chair which is placed on a platform of colored marble. In all the churches of Rome, there is no other figure in this position or similarly placed, with the possible exception of Michelangelo’s Moses in the Church of St. Peter in Chains. From this circumstance, as well as from the cast of the features, it is asserted by some eminent archaeologists that it is an ancient work and was originally a statue of Jupiter Capitolinus, which was appropriated and baptized by the Pope as St. Peter the Apostle. Still others assert that, while originally it was a statue of Jupiter, it was recast by Pope Leo the Great to commemorate the deliverance of Rome from the invasion of Attila. Lanciani, however, declares that the statue was cast as a portrait of St. Peter.

In the Library of the Vatican, among the countless gems preserved there, is an oval medallion belonging, according to the opinion of experts, to the first century. This treasure, which is not well known to the crowds of sight-seers who throng the Vatican, has on it the profiles of St. Peter and St. Paul. Comparing the profile of St. Peter with the features of the statue, one can see a striking resemblance between the two. This medallion shows the Apostle Paul to be quite bald, with long features and aquiline nose, while the lines of his face reveal the meditative expression of a philosopher and of a man worn by the storm and stress of human life.

The figure of the Apostle Peter is characterized by dignity and austerity, and, although it cannot be regarded as a great work of art, nevertheless, it is extremely. full of life and majesty. The right hand, uplifted in benediction, gives the statue a commanding appearance, while the keys, held in the left hand, indicate the power of the Apostle to open the doors of heaven to all believers, as well as to admit unbelievers to the regions of the lost. The delicate folds of the long robe, the naturalness of the tightly drawn cords of the neck, the luxuriant hair and beard, and the muscles of the arm, all enhance the effectiveness of the statue, while you cannot but admire the fine carving of the chair and the rich veining of the marble pedestal.

There is almost always a crowd of worshipers about this statue. As soon as the devotions, which are continually going on at some one of the many altars, are over, the devotee rises, approaches the statue and kisses the great toe of the foot of the Apostle; after which he softly rubs his forehead against the instep. Several toes have been worn away by this contact of human lips, and have been replaced, and if you will look at the foot carefully you will see that the present toe is considerably worn.

Among the memories of St. Peter’s that will, at least, linger longest with me, is one which recalls a crowd of peasants gathered about the statue with rapt faces and upturned eyes, as though they were gazing upon God in heaven. They thronged about it, almost crushing one another in their efforts to kiss the bronze foot. Many of them, in order to secure this inestimable privilege, had walked from twelve to fifteen miles, knowing not where they would find shelter for the night. Standing here in this splendid church, they presented a strange and picturesque appearance, dressed as many of them were, in old sheep and goat-skin mantles, leathern leggings and sandals of hide. In this temple, grander than their wildest dream of heaven’s glories, before this bronze statue that, to them, is the veritable Apostle, they evidently forgot the hardships of their rude existence.

Protestants can never appreciate the feeling which this statue awakens in the heart of a true Roman Catholic. Gregory II wrote Emperor Leo the Isaurian : “Christ is my witness that when I enter the Temple of the Prince of the Apostles and contemplate his image, I am filled with such emotion that tears run down my cheeks like rain from heaven.”

Let me direct your attention to that quaint, old candlestick with its circlet of angel forms, the whole constituting, in its way, an interesting piece of artistic work.

Also let us not neglect to examine the wall back of the statue of St. Peter. In 1871 the clergy of the Vatican caused a mosaic portrait of Pope Pius IX to be placed there, in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession to the papal throne, a period equal to the duration of the supposed episcopacy of St. Peter, and which, up to that time, it was firmly believed no Pope could survive. The limits of our vision forbid our seeing the portrait of the Pope, but we can see its mosaic setting covering the wall back of the statue.

This wall, we are to remember, belongs to one of the four great pillars that support the dome, and, as it was necessary to bear up a cupola nearly as high as the Great Pyramids, the pillars were built of enormous size and solidity, so as not to be crushed by the superimposed weight. The monstrous proportions of these supports of the dome made it necessary to build the pillars of the nave considerably larger than they otherwise would have been, in order to have them all harmonize, and thus only three could be arranged on either side. These gigantic piers, more than anything else, dwarf to our view the astounding dimensions of the vast church ; for who would suppose that we would find the longest nave in the world divided into only three arches. The four great pillars that up-hold the dome are each two hundred and thirty-four feet in circumference, with niches in the lower part occupied by statues sixteen feet high.

It is only by the careful consideration of these dimensions that one at last reaches a just appreciation of this mightiest building-effort of the popes ; and where, as in Rome, so many things crowd upon one’s attention, much is often overlooked or is only partially seen; but visiting the city as we do, we need not be hurried ; we may stay as long as we will and come back again as often as we please.

Pope Gregory XVI, who was a genial old man, willingly gave audiences to strangers, and he invariably inquired of them how long they had been in Rome. When they answered, ” For three weeks,” he would smile shrewdly and say, ” Allons ! Adieu!” But if the traveler replied that he had spent three or four months in the Eternal City the Holy Father said to him, ” Au revoir ! ” for he well knew that all who had lingered long enough to become acquainted with its priceless possessions, would never rest satisfied until their feet once more stood within its walls.

While lingering before the statue of St. Peter we have been standing directly in front of the High Altar. We shall turn now and descend to St. Peter’s tomb beneath it.