On any given day at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican there is something of a circus atmosphere amid the scores of tourists. People are pointing, laughing, chatting, and even text messaging. Just walking through the expansive space requires dodging countless cameras. These are not ideal conditions for a pilgrim in search of quiet transcendence. Keith Miller, an author familiar with the chaos in the basilica, writes: “The tourists inconvenience the faithful, while the faithful baffle the tourists.” His new book, entitled simply St. Peter’s, offers an antidote to those who merely view the 16th century structure as a museum.
This is a biography of sorts, but about a building, or in this case, a church. Citing Victor Hugo, who commented that the arrival of the printing press would silence “the eloquence of architecture”, Miller sets out to prove him wrong with a fresh “reading” of this building – a place made to tell stories, the story of “the Word made flesh”.
Although not a guidebook, St. Peter’s is a most agreeable companion for anyone visiting the great basilica whether for the first time or the hundred-and-first time. It is something of a decoder ring, filling in vast amounts of rich details that make the church one of the most intriguing places on earth. It combines a brisk pace with a comprehensive description of all things connected to the basilica, weaving together history, theology, architecture and art history. The reader is taken down to the mysterious underground tombs of old and all the way up to the breathtaking dome — including the laborious climb to the top.
Miller reveals some of the more enchanting quirks, vignettes, mysteries and intrigues dotting the ancient church’s past. When the old basilica was torn down to make room for the new, so many irregularities were discovered that Bernini, one of the new basilica’s basilica’s most notable architects, referred to the “hundred errors in St. Peters”. The porous, unstable, and humid earth upon which the church was built vexed it for centuries, affecting many features of the construction. Mosaics were chosen to decorate the interior as no painted canvas would survive long in the swampy conditions.
St. Peter’s Square and colonnade, Miller explains, serve a special purpose. Either Pope Alexander VII or Bernini had in mind something “which can at once receive Catholics mother-like, with open arms, to confirm them in their belief; heretics, to reunite them with the Church; and unbelievers, to light their way to the true faith.” The mother-Church was fashioned to mimic her role — in this case, to receive in a single embrace all who come to her.
There is a rather unremarkable slab of marble in the floor near the basilica’s main entrance, stepped on unnoticed by most who visit St. Peter’s. “The base colour is a solemn, sanguinary blend of red, purple and brown, flecked with little quartz deposits like the grain and fat suspended in a slice of black pudding,” says Miller in homely English terms. This rota, or wheel, salvaged from the earlier basilica, was used for rites of oath-taking by the emperors of yore during coronations. The emperor would lie prostrate on the stone as a symbol of his fidelity to the pope. Little does the endless stream of sneakered feet know what is being trod upon.
The book draws particular attention to the glorious baldacchino, that swirling bronze canopy majestically covering the high altar under the great dome of the church. Without it, St. Peter’s would seem rather empty and much less exalted. Miller explains that the placement of this structure, made of metal stripped from the Pantheon, barely missed crushing the bones of St. Peter: “Just a few feet in any direction and the tomb discovered and hailed as Peter’s in the mid-twentieth century would have been obliterated.”
The baldacchino’s pedestals bear another interesting detail. They are adorned with a “woman’s face in different stages of grimacing labor, with a smiling baby appearing at the last.” The inspiration for these is difficult to pin down, but Miller speculates that they were carved to express the maternal nature, including the element of labour, in the Church universal.
Miller’s book does have a few weaknesses. He takes some unfair swipes at Pope Pius XII and mentions Dan Brown’s Demons and Angels. These efforts to appeal to popular culture are out of sync with the generally sturdy research of the book, but they are easily overlooked given the other delightful elements Miller brings to life in St. Peter’s.
Carrie Gress is an American doctoral candidate living in Rome.