THE LARGEST CHURCH IN THE WORLD St. Peter’s Basilica
The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican (long version of the name) is the largest church in the world. And for that reason alone it is an essential stop on any tour of Rome. Highlights include Michelangelo’s Pietà, Bernini’s baldachin and, of course, the spectacular view from the top of the basilica’s dome.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is in many ways the greatest church on earth. As well as being the birthplace of the Roman Catholic Church, it is also the largest church in the world – and quite simply breathtaking.
If you’re anything like me, the long queues to get in will really test your patience. Check out my top tip if you want to avoid them! Inside it’s also really crowded, so if you’re expecting reverential silence you’ll be disappointed!
Even though standard entry is free, it’s worth considering paying for a fast-track entry ticket online to avoid the queues. These cost EUR 19.50 and include an audio guide.
What does it look like in St. Peter’s Basilica – the largest church in the world?
We have prepared a small video of our visit for you!
What is there to see?
The Vatican City is many things – the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the residence of the Pope (as head of the Catholic community) and, for many, the centre of Christianity. At its heart stands Saint Peter’s Basilica – a stunning example of baroque architecture and the Vatican’s most iconic building. It is also a magnet for believers, pilgrims and art lovers alike, who every year flock to the Vatican City from all over the world to visit this magnificent building and marvel at its vast and imposing interior.
In front of the basilica lies the equally impressive St. Peter’s Square, which sits just inside the Vatican City and marks the border with Italy. This enormous piazza extends over an unbelievable 35,300 m² (approximately 8 football pitches) and measures 340 m long and 240 m wide at its largest point.
Note: Before entering Saint Peter’s Basilica, regardless of whether you have an online ticket or not, you have to go through the security checks. Bear in mind that water and sharp objects such as scissors or knives cannot be taken inside. You also need to make sure you are dressed appropriately: Shorts and skirts should come down over your knees and your shoulders must be covered.
When you finally enter the basilica, the sheer size of it will take your breath away. Standing 132 m high, 211 m long and 138 m wide along the transept, the basilica is one of the largest churches in the world. (By way of comparison, Cologne Cathedral stands 157 m tall, 144 m long and 86 m wide and the Sagrada Familia is just 90 m long and 60 m wide, although it’s tallest spire will reach 170 m once completed.) The inside of the basilica covers an enormous 15,160 m² – that’s roughly 3½ football pitches and enough space to accommodate almost 20,000 people.
Here you will also find many sculptures and paintings, as well as Bernini’s Baldacchino di San Pietro, the stunning bronze canopy (or baldachin) resting on four helical columns which stands directly above St. Peter’s tomb. You might even spot a member of the Swiss Guard, or maybe a bishop or a cardinal.
St. Peter'S Basilica A bit of History
Saint Peter’s Basilica, or San Pietro in Vaticano as it’s also known, was built between 1506 and 1626 on the site of the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. The old church was established by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 324 A.D. The site of the old basilica was chosen because it was believed to be the burial place of St. Peter, who is traditionally considered to be the first Bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope and leader of Christendom.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of the four papal basilicas and seven pilgrim churches of Rome. It is not, however, the seat of the Bishop of Rome – that title falls to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran.
In the early 16th century, Pope Julius II decided that the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica (which was 1200 years old by this time) was no longer ‘worthy’ and decreed that a new larger basilica should be built. Work on Saint Peter’s Basilica began in 1506, with only the most talented architects invited to work on the design. The first was Donato Bramante (1504–1514), who was succeeded by Raphael (1514-1520) and later by Michelangelo (1547–1564) who designed the spectacular dome, although he never lived to see it completed. The architect Carlo Maderno (1603–1629) created the wide baroque façade and also completed the nave. Gian Lorenzo Bernini took over as architect from 1629 to 1670, during which time he designed St. Peter’s Square and also the Baldacchino di San Pietro, the grandiose sculpted bronze canopy that forms the centrepiece of the basilica.
The sheer size of Saint Peter’s Basilica is overwhelming. When you set foot inside, it’s so vast you don’t know where to look first. You might have heard the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, referred to as the largest church in the world – and you’d be right, it does have the largest footprint… But Saint Peter’s Basilica is still the largest church building. In fact, when you compare the total inside space, Saint Peter’s Basilica (15,000 m2) is almost double the size of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (8000 m2).
The basilica stands 132 m tall, 211 m long (on the outside or 186.36 m on the inside) and 138 m wide along the transept. Yet, despite its size, it feels spacious and bright rather than oppressive. By way of comparison, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is just 90 m long and 60 m wide, although once completed it will have the tallest spire in the world. And while the nave of Notre-Dame in Paris is 130 m long, the cathedral itself is only 48 m wide.
As you would expect, only the very best materials were used and only the very best artists commissioned to create the basilica’s stunning interior. In fact, the grandiose dome was designed by none other than Michelangelo himself. There is also a small nod to the old basilica in the form of a red porphyry disc, transferred from the old basilica to the new one as a symbol of unity.
The dome rests on four enormous piers, making it the largest self-supporting brick dome in the world. At 42.34 m, it is a little smaller in diameter than the dome on the Pantheon (which comes in at 43.20 m), but it is still the taller of the two.
Around the inside of the dome, you can see an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew, written in 2 m high letters – a very impressive sight! The translation of the excerpt reads: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18).
Below this, there are four round panels depicting the Four Evangelists, and above the inside of the dome is decorated with the figures of Christ, various Apostles and other holy figures.
The Baldacchino di San Pietro by Bernini is the centrepiece of the basilica. This sculpted bronze canopy rests on four helical columns and stands over the Papal Altar which is directly above St. Peter’s tomb. It was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and created using bronze panels from the Pantheon.
Artwork and relics
Saint Peter’s Basilica is home to many wonderful works of art, including Michelangelo’s Pietà and the copy of ‘Transfiguration’ by Raphael. Another highlight is the bronze statue of St. Peter. It is said that touching St. Peter’s foot will bring you his blessing. Have a go yourself and you’ll see that his foot has been worn thin from centuries of foot rubs! You will find a replica of this sculpture in Sacre-Coeur, Paris.
The basilica also contains the tombs of several popes. One of the most striking is Bernini’s tomb for Pope Alexander VII (number 15 on the audio guide), which features a skeleton holding an hourglass out to the pope. Curiously, you can also see the relics of two canonised popes. Aside: I’m still not sure whether it’s really their bodies or whether parts of their bodies have been integrated into a kind of waxwork. I’ll let you decide for yourself! What is certain is that the popes in question are Pope Pius X (1835–1914) and Pope John XXIII (1881–1963).
Michelangelo’s Pietà is one of the most famous Pietàs in the world and a masterpiece of the high renaissance period. You’ll find it right at the beginning of your tour of the basilica, in the first chapel on the right-hand side. It’s easy enough to spot – just look for the crowds that gather because no one wants to miss out on seeing this wonderful sculpture. The Pietà is one of Michelangelo’s earlier pieces, dating back to 1498–1499/1500 when he was in his twenties.