Rome – The Great Altar—St. Peter’s Church

Like a burst of supernal grandeur is the scene which here greets our eyes ! The church rises about us like a glistening mountain of precious stones, its huge rectangular columns (portions of three of which can be seen to our right) covered with rare marbles. Through the numerous arches, we discern imposing chapels, each of which is large as an ordinary church. About our heads curves a glorious arch of sunken coffers, brilliant with inlaid gold; and before us, at first dimly seen through the hazy splendor of the incense-laden air, the long perspective widens and deepens, like a cloud-wrapt opening in the seventh heaven, and in our enthusiastic admiration we are prepared to accept as a matter of fact the statement that the church contains thirty altars, including the High Altar, one hundred and forty-eight columns and three hundred and ninety statues.

Now that the first feelings of rapture and surprise have passed, and we have become a little accustomed to our gorgeous and spacious surroundings, it will be wise for us to fix clearly in mind our present location. In order to do this it will be necessary for us to consult the map of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, and especially that part of it which has to do with the Basilica itself ; for if, in our rambles abroad, we feel the necessity of consulting a map whenever we visit a strange city, such a procedure is equally necessary and helpful when we enter a vast and wonderful structure like St. Peter’s, which an Italian writer aptly called The devout city.” By reference to the plan we note a circular space near the western end of the church that marks the location of the great dome, and around the space are the four massive pillars that support the dome. Our position is given by the two red lines, with the number 7 in a circle, which start from the third pillar from the entrance on the north side and extend toward the dome area or toward the west. We can now have a clear understanding of our location in the church, that we are on the northern side of the main aisle or nave, looking west.

Returning now to our position in the church, we remember, of course, that directly over this Great Al-tar is the noble dome of the vast church. Four massive pillars support this dome, portions of three of which we can see from our present position. One of these has the statue of St. Peter (seen just before us) in front of it. Beyond and over the head of the statue can be seen the flutings of the second of these great pillars, while back of the two twisted columns of the High Altar still another can be seen. The fluted face and polished pedestal of the pillar nearest us on the right, belong to one of the six pillars that support the nave.

A lady standing beside me, the first time I beheld the Great Altar exclaimed fervently, ” How grandly beautiful ! ” and I am sure as we gaze upon those four richly gilded spiral columns and that splendid canopy, we must say the same.

From the gleam of the marble floor to the summit of the cross is ninety-five feet, a greater elevation than the height of the Royal Palace. Those clustering columns and the canopy surmounted by the lofty cross are all of bronze and weigh ninety-three tons. The bronze for the columns was taken from the huge architrave of the Temple of Minerva, in the Forum of Minerva near the Roman Forum. The canopy and cross of the High Altar are formed from material plundered from the roof of the Pantheon. The gilding of this elaborate, massive structure cost one hundred thousand dollars. As Goethe said, one learns here how art, as well as nature, can set aside every standard of measurement.

Now observe that between the columns are six great candlesticks with a cross in the center, each candlestick holding a tall wax candle, and before the altar is a curving balustrade of marble on which eighty-nine golden lamps are ever burning, and which you might easily take for a mass of yellow roses.

Down beneath those lamps is the Confessio which contains the tomb of St. Peter, and on account of which this altar is considered by Roman Catholics to be one of the most sacred spots on earth. We shall look at the tomb later.

Because of the sacredness of this altar, mass is said at it only on great occasions, and by no one but the Pope, or a cardinal especially appointed by him for such service. Over the High Altar, encircling the great dome, is a gallery in which you can look down upon this canopy, and when seen from the dizzy height, it seems raised but a little above the marble pavement.

We have already referred to the bronze statue of St. Peter in a marble chair, seen directly in front of us and placed against one of the four immense pillars that support the dome, and we have also had our attention called to the two graceful bronze candlesticks holding wax candles, and suspended between them we noticed an elaborate altar lamp ; but we shall be nearer to the statue presently, and can then examine it and its surroundings to better advantage.

Just now look above the High Altar at the vaulted and coffered ceiling of the Tribune that always shines in the midday light like burnished gold. A more magnificent ceiling over a grander hall than this cannot be imagined. Sweep the eyes up to it again and again and you will find that its vastness and splendor will keep growing upon you more and more the longer you gaze upon it.

Now, if we direct our glance between the candle-sticks in front of the statue of St. Peter and the two right-hand columns of the High Altar, we see at the end of the Tribune the famous ” Cathedra Petri ” (Peter’s Chair), which is an ancient wooden chair (said to have belonged to the senator Pudens, with whom the apostle is supposed to have lodged), in-closed in bronze and supported by the gigantic figures of the four Fathers of the Church, Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom and Athanasius. These remark-able statues rest upon lofty pedestals of rich colored marble. To the right of the spiral columns we can see a portion of the front of the chair, also one leg. The right-hand statues and pedestals are partly hidden by the candlesticks and altar lamps. To the left of the columns can be seen part of one of the statues and its pedestal. A solemn festival in honor of this chair is held on the 18th of January, when it is publicly displayed. Above the Cathedra Petri is a circular window of colored glass that has the form of a clock. This window is set in a massive frame of ornamental bronze, the effect of the variegated light being to give a delicate and rosy hue to the gilded metal.

To the left of the group we may see the Tomb of Pope Paul III (number 6 in the plan of St. Peter’s), which stands under the marble arch, supported by Corinthian columns. You can detect the rich veining and almost the glow of the color in the marble. That is the finest tomb in the basilica and is said to have cost twenty-four thousand dollars. To the right of the Cathedra Petri is the Tomb of Urban VIII (number 4 in the plan). We can see the marble columns and part of the architrave, as well as the figure of Justice with one hand resting on the black marble sarcophagus.

You can almost feel the cool smoothness of those titanic marble pillars in front of us. I know my first impulse was to reach out my hand and stroke the glossy surface. I wish some person would step up to that column this side of the statue of St. Peter. You would be surprised to find that the top of the base of the pillar would be about in range with his head ; and those slender flutings in the pillars are, in reality, large enough to form niches for life-size statues, as many of them do.

Be assured of this, that the element of time must enter into the appreciation of the immensity of this structure ; only after looking at it again and again can we realize its tremendous proportions and be conscious of its immeasurable vastness ; and when we come to know more about it we are not surprised to learn that the building of this great temple extended over one hundred and seventy-six years, and up to the beginning of the eighteenth century had cost fifty million dollars. A man who continues disappointed with the size of St. Peter’s would find fault with the volume of water pouring over Niagara.

Some years since, at Easter time, according to Story, the American sculptor, there stood out on the piazza back of us, a tourist who could not conceal his intense surprise. So evident was it that a passer-by asked him ” What is the matter? ”

” What is the matter? ” echoed the man earnestly. ” Why for two hours torrents of people have poured into that church and I have just returned from looking into it, and there is no crowd in it yet. The building is too monstrous, there is no sense in it.”

” Alas ! sir’,” was the answer, ” what say you to the parsonage? ” pointing to the Vatican. ” It only contains eleven thousand halls, rooms and corridors, and two hundred flights of stairs.”

” Absurd,” was the reply, ” an unmarried priest doesn’t need such accommodations.”

” But you forget, my friend,” added his companion, ” that the church and the palace were constructed, not for the Roman parish, but for the whole Catholic world.”

We shall now go forward a few steps and stand just the other side of that farther candlestick, and in front of the southeast dome pillar and get a near view of the statue of St. Peter. The position is found on the plan of the church by the red lines connected with the number 8 in a circle.