Saturday, August 16, 2014

Surrounding St. Peter

Today's photos:


1. St. Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross.

2. The shrine erected on the spot where the stolen head of St. Andrew was found.

3. St. Andrew has again lost his head, this time the marble one!

4. St. Veronica with the veil.

5. St. Helena found the True Cross and brought it to Rome.

6. St. Longinus was the soldier who pierced the side of Christ.

7. One of the balconies above the niches, designed by Bernini.


Volumes could be written, and indeed there are scores of them, about St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. What follows are some interesting details and curiosities about a relatively small area of the basilica surrounding the main altar, beneath which is the tomb of St. Peter.


There are four colossal piers, designed by Bramante in 1506 and greatly enlarged and strengthened   by Michelangelo in 1546, which support the mighty dome that rises above the main altar. However, what we see today is not what these two architects designed and built. Their intent was more practical: to build something strong enough to support the dome. About 100 years after the piers were built, along came Gianlorenzo Bernini who was hired to decorate the interior of the basilica. Bernini must have been salivating at the thought of the possibilities offered to him by the massive piers. It was he who designed the enormous niches in each of these structures. A colossal statue of a saint was then placed in the four niches, and a decorative balcony was positioned above each niche. A relic of the saint was placed in the balcony above his/her statue.


A curiosity


Each of these balconies is adorned with two relatively small, twisting marble columns (photo 7). They are called "solomonic" columns because of the tradition which says they originally were in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. These columns are some of the very few items which survive from the old St. Peter's Basilica built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. When Bernini designed the beautiful bronze baldacchino (canopy) which rises above the main altar, he made its supporting columns twisting to match the ancient solomonic columns. (The baldacchino deserves, and will soon have, its own post on this blog).


The identity of the four saints, two male and two female, represented by the statues is easily discovered by careful attention to the attributes depicted with each one.


St. Andrew


As you face the main altar, the statue in the niche on your left represents St. Andrew the apostle, brother of St. Peter (photo 1). He is always recognized by the presence of an X shaped cross on which he was crucified by the Romans. Andrew had brought the Gospel to Greece and he was crucified there in the city of Patras, where his remains were kept for centuries. In the fifteenth century the head of the apostle was sent to Rome so that it could be preserved near the tomb of his brother, St. Peter. Andrew's skull was therefore placed in St. Peter's Basilica in the niche which holds his statue. Don't go looking for this relic, however, because it is no longer there. In 1964 Pope Paul VI, in an ecumenical gesture, sent the holy relic back to Greece where it was once again placed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Patras.


A curiosity


In the nineteenth century, thieves managed, in some way or other, to steal the skull of St. Andrew. A short time later it was recovered by the pontifical police in a secluded area on the nearby Janiculum Hill and returned to its place in the basilica. Pius IX, the Pope at the time, wanted a memorial set up on the spot where the relic had been found. The shrine, in the form of a niche, holds a statue of St. Andrew with his X shaped cross (photo 2). The following inscription appears on the base of the monument:








To Andrew the Apostle, protector of the City, Pius IX Supreme Pontiff, here where he found his head which had been carried off by theft, dedicated a monument to the most auspicious event in the year 1848.


Very few people know of the existence of this monument, and even fewer know its significance . . . unless they can read the Latin inscription. Ironically (and scandalously, I might add), some joker has stolen the marble head of St. Andrew, as you can see from the two pictures above. The one with the head intact (photo 2) was taken a few years ago. The headless version (photo 3) was taken earlier this month.


St. Veronica


Moving clockwise around the altar, you will come to the second niche which holds the statue of St. Veronica, recognized by the veil she holds in her hands (photo 4). It was she who wiped the face of Christ with her veil as he carried his cross to Golgotha. The story is that an impression of the face of the Lord was left imprinted on Veronica's veil. The artist of this statue has included the facial impression on the marble veil.


The true veil of Veronica is known to have been in St. Peter's in the year 1287. It is believed that it was stolen and sold in 1527 during the Sack of Rome.  It was recovered a century later and returned to the basilica. However, according to the art historian Enrico Bruschini in his book In the Footsteps of Popes, the veil was again stolen in modern times and has not yet been recovered.


A curiosity


Not to worry, however, because the fact is that there are several places in the world which claim to possess the true veil of Veronica. They include a church in Milan and a church in Spain. But perhaps the most interesting claim is by a church in the small Italian town of Manoppello near Chieti in the Abruzzo region. Here, what is called the Holy Face (il Volto Santo) is a veil on which is impressed a bearded, male face which is visible from both sides of the fabric.


St. Helena


The niche in the next pier contains the statue of St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine (photo 5). She is always depicted next to a large cross because, according to the tradition, she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the year 326 and found the Cross of Christ which she brought back to Rome with her. Exactly 1,300 years later, in 1626, when the statue was set up in the niche, relics of the True Cross were placed there as well.


A curiosity


These two years, 326 and 1626, have great historical and symbolic significance. The Constantinian basilica was dedicated on November 18, 326. The new basilica, although finished in 1612 as the inscription on the façade tells us, was dedicated on November 18, 1626, exactly 1,300 years to the day after the dedication of the first basilica.


St. Longinus


The fourth niche holds a statue of Longinus, a saint unknown to many people (photo 6). This is the only one of the four statues which was carved personally by Bernini. Longinus is always shown holding a lance in his hand because he was the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ to make sure that he was dead. The tip of this lance is said to have been preserved and to have come into the possession of a Turkish sultan who gave the relic to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. When the new basilica was built, the lance tip was placed in the niche along with the statue of Longinus.


A curiosity


Longinus is said to have been a middle-aged man and almost blind at the time he participated in the crucifixion of Jesus. The story is told that a drop of Christ's blood fell on the head of the soldier, dripping down onto his eyes, which brought about the immediate and miraculous recovery of his sight. Because of this, Longinus converted to Christianity and was eventually declared a saint.




Those of you who have read one or more of the four "Sights of Rome" books know that they are filled with unusual stories and interesting curiosities, like what you have just read in this post. If you have not yet seen these books, here is how they can be obtained, depending on where on Planet Earth you happen to be.


To purchase





If you are in the U.S.A.
Your local bookstore

If you are in Rome (cost: 20 euros)

The Almost Corner Book Shop, Via del Moro 45, Rome (tel. 06 58 36 942)
Open Door Book Shop, Via della Lungaretta, 23, Rome (tel. 06 58 96 478)


If you are in the U.K.

To purchase







If you are in the U.S.A.

Send a check made out to Kimberly Breaux to:

Kimberly Breaux
6709 Loreauville Rd.
New Iberia, LA 70563

1 book: $10.00 plus $2.00 shipping
2 books: $20.00 plus $3.00 shipping
3 books: $30.00 plus $4.00 shipping

N.B. A limited number of The Sights of Rome and Rome: Sights of Insights can also be purchased from Kimberly Breaux for $16.00 each, plus shipping as stated above.

If you are in Rome (Cost: 12 euros)

The Almost Corner Book Shop, Via del Moro, 45 (tel. 06 58 36 942)
The Open Door Book Shop, Via della Lungaretta, 23 (tel. 06 58 96 478)
Minimum Fax, Via della Lungaretta, 90/e (tel. 06 58 94 710)

Gift Shop in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island (Only the Tiber Island book)

Gift Shop in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (Only the Santa Maria books)


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