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Vatican City: St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum

VATICAN CITY | Wednesday, 8 February 2012 | Views [3299]

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Vatican is a nation within a city, and is a world unto itself.  It is the center of Catholicism and home to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI.  St. Peter’s Basilica is the centerpiece of the Vatican and is the largest church in Christendom.  It looks like just another government building from the outside, maybe the Hall of Justice or the Ministry of Finance.

But just step inside and “WOW!”  

I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t have been, for the size of St. Peter’s. The atrium alone is larger than most churches.  The dome towers more than 300 feet above Bernini’s main altar, itself seven storeys high.  The scale on the marble floor showing the relative sizes of other cathedrals ends halfway to the nave!  Statues and paintings abound and even the cherubs are as tall as a man.

Michelangelo had a hand in the design and Bernini created both the starburst dove alabaster window and the main altar under which St. Peter is (or maybe isn’t) buried.  Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is tiny in comparison to the church.  A youthful, serene and oversized Mary holds her life-sized Son, just removed from the cross.  Even tucked away from the center of the church, this masterpiece stands out in the vastness . . . and in my mind.

The Vatican Museum was a total surprise.  It wasn’t all papal memorabilia as I expected – most of the 40,000 pieces on display (another 50,000 are in storage) weren’t even Christian.  They are ancient Greek or Roman reproductions, pagan works of art!  Many of the nude statues have broken off penises (intentional?) while others are adorned with strategically placed fig leaves.  There are galleries filled with maps and tapestries, gold and jewelry and entire sections devoted to Egyptian and Etruscan artifacts.  There is even a collection of post-Impressionist and modern paintings.  My favorite was the former papal chambers, frescoed by Raphael, and my favorite among his works is the original “School of Athens.”  Michelangelo was added after the cartoon, which we saw in Florence, was drawn, and Raphael himself appears in one corner.




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